Sixth day, Jan 5

I awoke when the sky was still dark and went outside after breakfast to watch the sunrise. Even with my down sleeping bag, it was too cold to sit still and enjoy the morning, so I decided to go for a bike ride as soon as it was light enough. I made it out the unpaved road without incident; I am getting more comfortable riding on loose surfaces. It took two hours to ride fourteen miles to an exhibit on fossils found in the park because I was slowed down by strong head winds and mountainous roads. I learned that the desert area was a swamp in the Eocene epoch (56 to 34 million years ago), but there were no helpful hints about spotting fossils like I had hoped. Several of the parks we’ve stayed at have trails with rocks that one can supposedly see fossils in, but I can never see them. I had hoped that the exhibit would teach me what to look for, but the display was focused on what has been found the the park.

The view from the short trail at the fossil exhibit.

The view from the short trail at the fossil exhibit.

I returned to the site to have lunch with John, and after lunch we set out for a walk. Our campsite is near the entrance to an unpaved road, so we walked to the end to see where it goes. After a mile or so the improved dirt road turns into a “high clearance” road, the uneven and rocky surface passible only to the most rugged of vehicles. Past the last of four campsites on the road, the map showed a spring. We continued to the end and found the ruins of an old ranch, but no water. Some structures showed where the spring was, it was tapped to provide water to the livestock, and an empty stream bed was carved out below, full of dried and dead trees. Altogether a fun exploration – we even saw a tarantula on the road!

Tarantula on the trail. It must be a male, because the [larger] females don’t leave their burrows, but the males come by to mate.

Tarantula on the trail. It must be a male, because the [larger] females don’t leave their burrows, but the males come by to mate.

Several butterflies fluttered about us on the trail. They are fast, but John managed to capture a photo of one.

Several butterflies fluttered about us on the trail. They are fast, but John managed to capture a photo of one.

Soft leaves on a desert plant! These fuzzy leaves are very petable, this bush is out of place.

Soft leaves on a desert plant! These fuzzy leaves are very petable, this bush is out of place.

The soft leaf bush; I am standing with it for scale.

The soft leaf bush; I am standing with it for scale.

Fuzzy berries of the common creosote bush - another desert plant that is not out to hurt you.

Fuzzy berries of the common creosote bush – another desert plant that is not out to hurt you.

Not all plants are so nice.

Not all plants are so nice.

This cactus has some of the longest spines we have seen.

This cactus has some of the longest spines we have seen.

This cactus looks like a pile of hay. Very, very sharp hay.

This cactus looks like a pile of hay. Very, very sharp hay.

A close-in view of the previous cactus.

A close-in view of the previous cactus.

Pretty flowers among the mean thorns.

Pretty flowers among the mean thorns.

This is what the inside of a prickly pear cactus looks like. Very interesting structure, and surprisingly hard.

This is what the inside of a prickly pear cactus looks like. Very interesting structure, and surprisingly hard.

This structure appears to be over what used to be the spring.

This structure appears to be over what used to be the spring.

Bones! We suspect from cattle from when this used to be ranch land.

Bones! We suspect from cattle from when this used to be ranch land.

Seventh day, Jan 6

And on the seventh day, we rested. At least we rested from adventuring, and spent the day on more menial tasks. We needed to fill propane, dump the tanks and fill up on water. The place to do all that, Rio Grande Village link, also offers wifi, so we spent the day doing internet stuff as well as all those above-listed RV tasks. I woke up with a really unusual case of vertigo, so the timing of a rest day worked out great for me. After spending the day on the internet, we did need a little walk, so we headed back to hot springs and walked a short loop trail nearby. It was too cold for me to go in, and John didn’t want to join the three guys in the tub if I wasn’t with him.

The hot springs tube from an overlook above. The tub is near the lower right corner of the picture.

The hot springs tube from an overlook above. The tub is near the lower right corner of the picture.

John jumping for joy.

John jumping for joy.

Heidi hopping, hurray.

Heidi hopping, hurray.

Texas rainbow cactus (I think).

Texas rainbow cactus (I think).

The road into the hot springs. No RVs or trailers allowed. Good thing we drive a van! (It was still a little scary, riding in a large vehicle on a narrow dirt road with a steep drop-off to the side.)

The road into the hot springs. No RVs or trailers allowed. Good thing we drive a van! (It was still a little scary, riding in a large vehicle on a narrow dirt road with a steep drop-off to the side.)

Sunset from Rio Grande Village.

Sunset from Rio Grande Village.

Eighth day, Jan 7

Many of you may recognize this date as the day that arctic air froze much of the US (aka the Polar Vortex). The cold snap hit us, too, though not nearly as hard as our northerly friends. The low was 17 degrees, by far the lowest temperature we have experienced in the van, and our water system froze. Thankfully, as far as we can tell, nothing is damaged and the water flow resumed later in the day when the sun warmed the van.

John got up early (an unusual act) with me to make it to the Chisos Basin for a ranger-guided tour of a two-mile loop trail. We were the only two in attendance, so we got a personal tour of the plants and lessons about the local animals. The walk was super informative and we had a great time.

Sunrise.

Sunrise on a very cold morning.

Chisos mountains as sunrise as we drive up for the ranger program.

Chisos mountains as sunrise as we drive up for the ranger program.

Our guide, Ranger Ali.

Our guide, Ranger Ali.

A Carmen whitetail buck came to say hi to us on the ranger walk. Ranger Ali explained that people feed them, hence they learn to approach people. As long as the animals that learn this behavior stay within the park they will be fine, but ones that leave the park meet an unfortunate end when the approach hunters thinking the gun is a camera.

A Carmen whitetail buck came to say hi to us on the ranger walk. Ranger Ali explained that people feed them, hence they learn to approach people. As long as the animals that learn this behavior stay within the park they will be fine, but ones that leave the park meet an unfortunate end when the approach hunters thinking the gun is a camera.

A dove also flew in to say hello.

A dove also flew in to say hello.

Ranger Ali taught us that the yellow spines are the distinguishing characteristic of the Chisos Prickly Pear Cactus, a variety unique to the Chisos mountains area.

Ranger Ali taught us that the yellow spines are the distinguishing characteristic of the Chisos Prickly Pear Cactus, a variety unique to the Chisos mountains area.

The purple spines identify the Engelmann’s Prickly Pear. The varieties can also cross-breed, making hybrids and confusing attempts to identify them. Ali told of of a ranger who wrote a master’s thesis on cacti of Big Bend State park and still has trouble distinguishing the different cacti varieties.

The purple spines identify the Engelmann’s Prickly Pear. The varieties can also cross-breed, making hybrids and confusing attempts to identify them. Ali told of of a ranger who wrote a master’s thesis on cacti of Big Bend State park and still has trouble distinguishing the different cacti varieties.

From the Chisos Basin we drove to Grapevine Hills Road, home of the Government Spring campsite about which John had read  great things. We drove over six miles on the unpaved road to get to a trailhead for a one mile trail leading to an amazing rock formation, called “Balanced Rock”.

ign pointing along the trail.

Sign pointing along the trail.

Where’s Superwoman Waldo? We are dressed [inadvertently] to camouflage with the desert, but there is a superwoman in there.

Where’s Superwoman Waldo? We are dressed [inadvertently] to camouflage with the desert, but there is a superwoman in there.

Quarter-mile left to Balanced Rock.

Quarter-mile left to Balanced Rock.

John hiking up to see Balanced Rock.

John hiking up to see Balanced Rock.

John found a balanced rock!

John found a balanced rock!

Oh! Here is the real Balanced Rock.

Oh! Here is the real Balanced Rock.

Backside of BalancedRock.

Backside of BalancedRock.

A close-up of the support point for Balanced Rock.

A close-up of the support point for Balanced Rock.

Proof that we were under Balanced Rock.

Proof that we were under Balanced Rock.

Using Balanced Rock, aka "Window Rock", as a window frame, viewing the scene behind it.

Using Balanced Rock as a window frame, viewing the scene behind it.

John clambered up to see the support points of Balanced Rock. I had to talk him out of climbing on top of the meta-stable boulder.

John clambered up to see the support points of Balanced Rock. I had to talk him out of climbing on top of the meta-stable boulder.

Bees came buzzing by the rocks, but I don’t thing they found anything tasty in the boulder field.

Bees came buzzing by the rocks, but I don’t thing they found anything tasty in the boulder field.

John wanted to create his own “balanced rock” on the trail. He unearthed this creature with the first stone he picked up. He returned it so the bug could have its home back.

John wanted to create his own “balanced rock” on the trail. He unearthed this creature with the first stone he picked up. He returned it so the bug could have its home back.

Next we headed to the western part of the park, which so far we had not seen. On the way to our next campsite we stopped at another short trail to a “pour-off”, which I take to be a term meaning sometimes-waterfall. The rock walls were phenomenal.

The circularly indented column in this cliff was apparently carved by a waterfall present in the rainy season.

The circularly indented column in this cliff was apparently carved by a waterfall present in the rainy season.

I am standing at the bottom of the Burro Mesa Pour-off for scale.

I am standing at the bottom of the Burro Mesa Pour-off for scale.

John climbing the Burro Mesa Pour-off wall. I couldn’t even get started in my sneakers.

John climbing the Burro Mesa Pour-off wall. I couldn’t even get started in my sneakers.

Looking up the Burro Mesa Pour-Off.

Looking up the Burro Mesa Pour-Off.

A tree growing in the wash on the trail toward the Burro Mesa Pour-off sports these interesting looking seed pods.

A tree growing in the wash on the trail toward the Burro Mesa Pour-off sports these interesting looking seed pods.

Further down the road toward our campsite we made one more stop when John spotted yet another impressive canyon, Tuff Canyon. John calls this the “bonus canyon” because when I am trying to convince him to take side trails to fun sites/views while hiking I call them “bonus trails”.

Tuff Canyon, aka “Bonus Canyon”. There is a short trail leading to the bottom, but we didn’t have time to take it because we wanted to get to our campsite by dark.

Tuff Canyon, aka “Bonus Canyon”. There is a short trail leading to the bottom, but we didn’t have time to take it because we wanted to get to our campsite by dark.

Everywhere we go, the spines on the cacti seem to get longer.

Everywhere we go, the spines on the cacti seem to get longer.

These spines are longer than my fingers!

These spines are longer than my fingers!

Van on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, as seen from Tuff Canyon overlook trail.

Van on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, as seen from Tuff Canyon overlook trail.

Sunset near our last campsite.

Sunset near our last campsite.

It’s amazing how bright the moon has gotten just in the time since we’ve been here. It is now at about the half phase, and it is bright enough to cast shadows. We went for an after-dinner walk in the moonlight. I have excellent night vision and my eyes are very sensitive to light. I am engaged in an ongoing (and losing) battle against bright lights and love the opportunity to enjoy a stroll in the low light of the moon. I managed to convince John to not turn on the headlamp for the first half of the walk in order to enjoy the moonlight and increase the chance that nocturnal creatures would come within sight, but he insisted that he wanted to see on the way back.

5 Thoughts on “Big Bend Part 4: Paint Gap

  1. As for spotting fossils, it’s a snap: Just go to Shoney’s around 5 PM, you’ll find lots of us old folks lined up for the evening feeding. And speaking of old folks, this one grows more grateful with every new post on your marvelous adventure.

  2. It was with great delight that I opened and made these photos the size of my monitor. The pour-off scale photos were especially entertaining. I really appreciate those shots because they make me feel like I am there! I read your blogs now more than I play video games. Thank you!

  3. Faedra on February 1, 2014 at 8:30 am said:

    Wow, beautiful pictures. As Rita had mentioned, the pour-off scale photo is great. I like when you do that from time to time. It really puts the size of things into perspective. Also done with that soft leafed plant. When I first saw the picture of the leaves I had imagined it a much larger bush, but with the scale of you standing next to it, it really was a smaller size and the leaves were a lot smaller than my first thought.
    Question: Is the hot springs tube hot (or warm) too? -My thought is that it would be, but then thought maybe it’s just called that being that it runs past the hot spring tub.
    And lastly – you guys crack me up…my laugh-out-loud picture: John’s finding of a balanced rock (the one of him pointing to the little balanced rock). Oh my! Jim even laughed when he saw that one.
    I was showing Jim the pictures in this blog, he asks, “Where is this?”, I tell him, he says, “We need to go there, we need to go to Texas, soon.” lol

    • The tub is HOT. I read that is is 105 degrees. The tub is built to contain the hot water, separate from the ice-cold river. So when you get hot, you just need to sit on the edge and dangle your legs off the back into the Rio Grande, which is COLD, but the water was too swift to jump into (at least for us).

      Big Bend was amazing, as was Carlsbad Caverns and Whitesands National Park (post coming soon). If you can, I definitely recommend taking a trip to any/all of those national parks. And plan to hit Big Bend on a new moon for optimal stargazing opportunity.

      We are happy to make you laugh 🙂 John is a silly one!

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