Ninth day, Jan 8
I set out alone from our campsite in Ocotillo Grove to hike Chimneys trail, which the map shows is just a couple miles up the unpaved road from our site. I underestimated the distance from our camp to the trailhead along the road, and it took nearly two hours to get there. Along the road I saw many, many paw prints, and even caught a glimpse of a jack rabbit’s puff of a tail as it hopped away from me. A few cars passed on the road as I walked it. The first was driven by an older couple who stopped and asked me to verify on the map where they were; they did not expect their GPS would direct them to an unpaved road and thought they were lost though they were on the right route. They offered me a ride, which I refused foolishly thinking I couldn’t be *that* far from the trail. Another car stopped to talk, a border patrol officer who was checking that I was okay (I guess I didn’t look too much like a border-crosser).
Once at the trail, I learned that the highlight of the trail was 5 miles in. Determined to walk as much on the trail as on the road, I made it all the way to the Chimneys rock formation, even though this meant that I would return to the van later than I told John to expect me.
I am glad I continued the little extra distance. Since the past couple days had been cool and overcast, I forgot that I am in the shadeless desert where the sun beats down intensely, and had neglected to bring sunscreen (though I did remember a hat). The area I hiked through had more vegetation than most other places in the desert, likely due to the small stream of water I passed, but the plants are still short and offer little shade. The rock formation, however, created a nice cool shady place in which to enjoy my lunch and rejuvenate away from the heat of the sun. I am glad for this opportunity to spend time in the desert and really see the place up close and personally, but I do look forward to the day that I return to the shade and moisture of forest.
After yet another hour of road walking on the return trip, I grew bored and decided to go off trail. I stepped up onto the land and made my way through the maze of plants toward the hillside where I noted the road crossed. I walked more or less parallel to the road, about 50 feet away from it among more interesting scenery. As soon as I stepped out of the road bed I started noticing jack rabbits hopping everywhere I looked. I even chased one from bush to bush trying to get it’s picture to share with you (and John), but they are fast critters and I just couldn’t catch it. I also found a seashell on the ground – a surprise find in the desert! The only downside to walking off-road was when the ground collapsed under my feet – some little creature had dug a hole and did not leave enough roof on it to support my weight; I was quite surprised when my foot sunk into the ground! Thankfully it wasn’t too deep, only about eight inches. The impact of the misstep was enough to give me a jolt, but not enough to cause injury. I made it back to the van, happy and healthy an hour before sunset.
Tenth day, Jan 9
From the top of Emory peak a few days past, I looked at the mountainous landscape in the distance, each ridge a paler shade of blue than the one in front of it, and I noticed something odd. A very flat “ridge line”, i.e. a large plateau, had a very large notch in it. I was confused by this landform, and curious what it was. The other day when we drove to the Ocotillo Grove campsite, I was happy to realize that we were camping very near the landform I wondered about on the mountaintop.
The land around the Rio Grande at the west side of Big Bend National Park is very asymmetrical. The Texas side of the river approaches the bank smoothly, with a similar elevation to the river, and is in fact a flood plane (several signs warned us about the possibility of the road flooding). The Mexican side drops down to the river like a canyon, rising upwards of 1000 feet compared to the Texas side. I am very curious about the erosion effects that led to a one-sided canyon. The Santa Elena canyon, of which I had heard about from both rangers and fellow park visitors, turns out to be the notch I had observed from the mountain top! The river carved the Santa Elena canyon; which it turns out of the canyon and runs alongside the one-walled canyon to the east. West of the canyon, the 1000+ foot plateau continues, even without the river running alongside it. I learned all this on our final day in the park when we bicycled several miles over bumpy unpaved road on our small-wheeled folding bicycles to check out the canyon.
A short trail leads 80 feet up the canyon wall before leading into the canyon itself. Along the way, a couple informational placards offer bits of education. The most interesting placard was the one pointing out the marine fossils in the rock. Ranger Ali had mentioned the other day that if the trail went further up along the wall, we’d be able to see a progression of fossils covering the transition of the local ecosystem from marine through swamp to forest and finally desert. Sitting in the canyon contemplating the fossil record in the layers of the wall, I wondered if paleontologists repel down from above to examine the rock. Paleontology would sure be an interesting career.
My favorite aspect of canyon exploration was the echoing. I couldn’t help myself, I kept yelling into the canyon and laughing to hear my voice echoed back to me. Everyone else that came by with their cameras and binoculars, and even the flotilla of canoes that floated by had much more self control. We also tried blowing a whistle down the canyon, but that wasn’t nearly as fun…the whistle was deafening and I couldn’t even hear if it echoed back.
In the evening we went out for a short walk in hopes that John would get to see a jack rabbit, as I had the previous day. From our campsite, we walked toward the hill because I had seen the hares on the other side of that hill. On the way we found an antler, but no desert critters. We made it over the hill, then John wanted to head back because it was getting on toward sunset. We walked out toward the road to pass over a lower path, and back toward the van, resigned to the fact that we would not spot any jack rabbits on this, our last evening in the park. Very near the van, however, John spotted one! As we slowly approached trying to get its picture, it hopped closer and closer to the van. At one point I even got a clear view of it, unobstructed by bushes, but John was looking at his picture attempts and I could not get his attention silently and it hopped away again, finally losing us.
Eleventh day, Jan 10
This morning we said our goodbyes to Big Bend National Park. We had a great time over the past ten days, starting with an amazing New Year’s eve, including an adventure walking through desert hills uncertain if our destination was reachable, a mountain backpacking trip with amazing views following a terrifying rock scramble, many sightings of wild creatures including proud coyote, fearless deer, skittish jack rabbits, quick bunnies, and hairy tarantulas. Overall, a really amazing experience.