Our van in the Ocotillo Grove campsite.

Our van in the Ocotillo Grove campsite.

Front view of the van in the Ocotillo Grove campsite.

Front view of the van in the Ocotillo Grove campsite.

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).

The picture does not quite capture it, but these hills glitter in the sun.

The picture does not quite capture it, but these roadside hills glitter in the sun.

A close-up of one of the crystals on the hill that create the glittery effect. I am not sure what the mineral is.

A close-up of one of the crystals on the hill that create the glittery effect. I am not sure what the mineral is.

Luna’s Jacal, a small hut along the road built by a man named Luna, who raised a large family in this very short structure. The stone walls help to keep the interior cool in the desert heat.

Luna’s Jacal, a small hut along the road built by a man named Luna, who raised a large family in this very short structure. The stone walls help to keep the interior cool in the desert heat.

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.

Finally on the trail.

Finally on the trail after two hours of road-walking.

Water in the desert! I followed this shallow stream for about a half-mile along the trail.

Water in the desert! I followed this shallow stream for about a half-mile along the trail.

These hills have a different soil/mineral composition than the surrounding land, and are very white in color.

These hills are very white in color due to a different soil/mineral composition than the surrounding land.

The Chimney Rock formation comes into view just under two hours on the trail.

The Chimney Rock formation comes into view just under two hours on the trail.

Getting closer to the Chimneys.

Getting closer to the Chimneys.

A view of the solo chimney through a window in long formation. I sat under this window for lunch, relaxing in the cool shade the stone provided.

A view of the solo chimney through a window in long formation. I sat under this window for lunch, relaxing in the cool shade the stone provided.

Ocotillo stem at the Chimneys.

Ocotillo stem at the Chimneys.

View south from Chimneys toward the cliff on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.

View south from Chimneys toward the cliff on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.

Interesting holes carved into the Chimneys stone.

Interesting holes carved into the Chimneys stone.

Blind prickly pear cactus - just because you don’t see spines, doesn’t mean they are not there!

Blind prickly pear cactus – just because you don’t see spines, doesn’t mean they are not there!

This chimney appears to have broken into two.

This chimney appears to have broken into two.

The mountain formation in the middle are named “Mule Ears”. A few days ago we saw these from the other side, up on Emory Peak.

The mountain formation in the middle are named “Mule Ears”. A few days ago we saw these from the other side, up on Emory Peak.

Really long spines on this cactus, but they’re pink, which makes them soft and dainty, right?

Really long spines on this cactus, but they’re pink, which makes them pretty and dainty, right?

Every time I think I’ve seen the longest spines possible, another cactus proves me wrong.

Every time I think I’ve seen the longest spines possible, another cactus proves me wrong.

On my walk away from the Chimneys, I noticed several pairs of prickly pear cactus and creosote bush growing on top of each other. I wondered which came first and which was the oppressor…From this pair, I think the cactus was there first and the creosote is growing over it, to eventually shade it and kill it.

On my walk away from the Chimneys, I noticed several pairs of prickly pear cactus and creosote bush growing on top of each other. I wondered which came first and which was the attacker…From this pair, I think the cactus was there first and the creosote is growing over it, to eventually shade it and kill it.

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.

An unexpected seashell on the desert floor.

An unexpected seashell on the desert floor.

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.

Cycling down the unpaved road.

Cycling down the unpaved road.

John takes a break in front of the canyon when we reach the paved portion of the road.

John takes a break in front of the canyon when we reach the paved portion of the road.

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.

The Rio Grande makes a sharp turn after exiting Santa Elena Canyon.

The Rio Grande makes a sharp turn after exiting Santa Elena Canyon.

Entrance into Santa Elena Canyon.

Entrance into Santa Elena Canyon.

A fossil sea shell, evidence that the desert used to be a sea.

A fossil sea shell, evidence that the desert used to be a sea.

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.

Looking deeper into Santa Elena Canyon from the end of the short trail.

Looking deeper into Santa Elena Canyon from the end of the short trail.

I am enjoying the canyon view.

I am enjoying the canyon view.

John climbed on this boulder and proceeded to be his usual ridiculous self.

John climbed on this boulder and proceeded to be his usual ridiculous self.

The last two of a flotilla of canoes that paddled by us in the canyon.

The last two of a flotilla of canoes that paddled by us in the canyon.

What a cute little cactus on the trail. It looks so fuzzy and small, I want to cuddle with it (not recommended).

What a cute little cactus on the trail. It looks so fuzzy and small, I want to cuddle with it (not recommended).

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.

On top of the hill by our campsite, searching for jack rabbits.

On top of the hill by our campsite, searching for jack rabbits.

The antler looks good on my head, no? (After examining the antler and taking pictures, we left it where we found it. We do not collect objects from National Parks, because we are good law-abiding citizens. :) )

The antler looks good on my head, no? (After examining the antler and taking pictures, we left it where we found it. We do not collect objects from National Parks, because we are good law-abiding citizens. 🙂 )

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.

Ocotillo Grove the morning we left Big Bend. It was an unusually overcast day in the desert.

Ocotillo Grove the morning we left Big Bend. It was an unusually overcast day in the desert.

4 Thoughts on “Big Bend Part 5: Ocotillo Grove

  1. Patricia Lehne on January 18, 2014 at 7:23 pm said:

    Thanks for sharing your Big Ben experiences. Your blogs are great and well written and your scenery pictures are BEAUTIFUL. The ones of John being his usual ridiculous self are clever……. gotta have fun, be safe. Love Ya

  2. There are some amazing things in this episode. FYI I could easily see the glittering rocks. I can’t imagine how beautiful that must have been in person, and how it changed while walking. I zoomed in on that Ocotillo stem and found it fascinating. Looks like a group of separate stems clinging together. I wonder how many people get stuck by that blind prickly pear cactus. The spines look like little fuzzy dots on a chenille bedspread. Oh, and have John make more of those “ridiculous” shots. He’s good at them! And they give scale. The seashell looks too new to be indigenous. I might guess that someone dropped it there as a ruse. Looking forward to the next installment.

  3. I am so glad that Rita mentioned she could see the glittering rocks because I had not zoomed in on that picture. After reading her comment though, I went back and clicked on it. Yes, you can see it especially more at ground level. Very nice. I also looked at and zoomed in to various sections of that Ocotillo stem because the coloring on the stem is so pretty and different.

    • I recently learned about the ocotillo stems – they have green stripes to do photosynthesis! The bigger stems are grey and green striped, which is less beautiful but probably more functional. I think the stem in the picture is a recent growth, and as they get bigger the white with black stripes ages to grey with green stripes.

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