Our final days in Texas – the Davis Mountains

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Acorn Woodpecker

After gazing into the night sky and peering through telescopes while star-partying, it was time to come back to earth and move on.  Our home base at Davis Mountains State Park was nestled in the foothills of the beautiful Davis Mountains, with the historic town of Fort Davis only 4 miles away.  The total absence of internet and phone connectivity, along with many days of nice weather at the campground, made outdoor exploration the perfect pastime while we were here.

Davis Mountains State Park

Under those trees in the foothills is Davis Mountains State Park

Davis Mountains is a mountain range that rose from the Chihuahuan Desert floor, isolating it to form a “sky island.”  Rising above 5,000 feet to cooler and moister climates, the mountains provide area residents and visitors a retreat during the hot Texas summers.   We’re glad that Laurel (Raven and Chicadee) and DK (My Five Fs) had scouted this place out, allowing us to enjoy a wonderful time here.

Grasslands

Wide open grasslands of the Fort Davis flats

As we took hikes or drove around the mountains and the town of Fort Davis, evidence of intense volcanic activity millions of years ago could be seen.  Park brochures indicated the mountains we see now consist of layer upon layer of ash (hardened lava).  Massive eruptions built up shield volcanoes composed of rhyolite lava flows and ash-flow tuffs.  The weathered formations show a peculiar feature, more common in basaltic lava flows, called columnar jointing.  It has created “palisades” characterizing such landmarks as Sleeping Lion Mountain (the backdrop to the town of Fort Davis) and the walls of Limpia Canyon.

Sleeping Lion, Davis Mountains

Can you make out a sleeping lion in this formation?   It’s just one single lava flow!

Sleeping Lion

Homes have been built in the shadow of the Sleeping Lion formation

Limpia Canyon Davis Mountains

Limpia Canyon viewed from the park’s CCC Trail

Basaltic Lava flows- Limpia Canyons

Basaltic lava flows – we’ve seen this kind of rock in several other places during our travels

Hiking at the State Park

The excellent weather allowed us to follow every hiking trail in the state park; Skyline Trail, CCC Trail, Montezuma Trail and the Indian Lodge Trail.  We enjoyed a variety of vantage points during every trek.  The canyon walls, composed of unmistakeable igneous rock, were evident everywhere as we followed the ridge on Skyline Trail.

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Montezuma Trail

This trail provided a 221 ft. elevation gain, and it seemed like all of it was at the beginning of the hike!

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Big Horn Sheep

We spotted not one, not two, but eight Bighorn Sheep walking around and perching on the rocks at the summit

Javelina

A camera-shy Javelina runs for cover

Cow at Davis Mountains

The area surrounding the park is still owned by private ranchers

Skyline Trail

Not a bad way to spend the morning!

Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute

This institute sits on 507 acres of semi-desert grasslands, surrounded by igneous rock outcrops with a riparian canyon and spectacular views.  I arrived during their membership meeting and got a free pass to explore the botanical gardens.  Wanting to get my “money’s worth”, I also followed their hiking trails and viewed samples of historic artifacts and ore displays which highlighted 19th century mining in this area.

Chihuahuan Desert Institute

The Chihuahuan Desert Institute as seen from a nearby overlook

But my favorite activity here was hiking up to Clayton’s Overlook, where I spent time reading 10 plaques about the surrounding  dynamic landscape – its  geology , culture and history.  One explained in detail the characteristics of the Davis Mountains.  Despite their stunning beauty, they are a hard land filled with wildlife and people that have adapted to these highlands located in the heart of the Trans-Pecos part of Texas.

Geology Exhibit

My “selfie” for the day

The town of Fort Davis

Fort Davis is known as the highest town in Texas – located at a mere 5,050 ft. of elevation. Established in 1854 on the San Antonio-El Paso Road through west Texas, the town, the fort and the surrounding mountains were named after Jefferson Davis, who was the Secretary of War at the time.

Fort Davis, Texas

The town of Fort Davis at the base of the Sleeping Lion formation

It was in town at the Jeff Davis County Library that I checked email and my all-important FB account.  This historic adobe building was a store during the 1870’s, changing hands several times.  By 1891 it had grown to serve as the town’s general store, temporary jail, telephone exchange and post office.  It became a library in 1999.

Going inside and comparing the original and current pictures, nothing much has changed, especially the ceilings and floors.

Checking out the town of Marfa

On one morning we drove to the nearby small town of Marfa.  This quirky old West Texas cowtown has turned into a hip cultural mecca.  The first thing we noticed upon our arrival was the most prominent building in town, the historic Presidio County Courthouse.  Built in 1886, it is designed of brick and stone quarried right here in Marfa.

Presidio County Courthouse

Presidio County Courthouse

We went inside this beautiful building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The original pecan wood throughout the interior was gorgeous and had really withstood the test of time.

Presidio County Courthouse

Grand Jury courtroom still in use today

On our way back home, we saw what we at first thought were white-tailed deer, but after stopping for a closer look we discovered they were Pronghorns, the first we had ever seen.

Pronghorn

What the heck is that?

The Pronghorn Antelope is not really an antelope, but rather the sole descendent of an ancient deer-like animal.  It’s the second-fastest animal on land (Cheetah being the fastest), able to achieve and maintain speeds of 53 miles per hour for up to 1.5 miles.

Pronghorn

These guys were unafraid of me as I snapped away.  We saw them grazing along the highway in several spots

Can’t forget the birds!

This particular state park made it very clear that they didn’t want bird feeders in campsites. So to lure my feathered friends to our site, I “accidentally” dropped some birdseed on nearby boulders – shhh, please don’t report me, I can’t help myself!  In just a few hours the “word” had spread, and one by one they came for a free lunch at site #11.

Black Crested Titmouse

This Black-crested Titmouse was jumping for joy!

Black-throated Sparrow

A Black-throated Sparrow waited for his turn

Acorn Woodpecker

An Acorn Woodpecker just sat on a branch, watching the show below

Western Scrub-Jay

Even a Western Scrub-jay made an appearance

Sparrows

But as usual the Chipping Sparrows were the mainstays, not leaving until all of the goodies were gone

We had been in Texas for the past five long months, our longest winter in a single state, and I must say we were glad to finally be moving on!

Davis Mountains State Park

Goodbye Texas!

 

Next up:  Hello New Mexico!



 

 

 

Now showing: The Sun, Moon, and the Planets – Davis Mountains, Texas

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Leaving Big Bend behind and heading north on FM118, we continued to enjoy the beautiful scenery that far-west Texas is proud of.  So beautiful, that on this day we saw several aspiring artists facing either a mountain or a flower-covered field while capturing its beauty with strokes of their paint brushes.

wpid35648-2015-03-24-TX-1580907.jpgOur next destination was Davis Mountains State Park in Fort Davis, TX.  Armed with recommendations from Laurel and DK, we were excited to explore and see for ourselves why they liked this area.  We thought Big Bend would be a hard act to follow, but we discovered that Davis Mountains represents some of the very best Texas has to offer. Because of its remoteness, we had to be willing to “disconnect” from the world for a week, which was fine with us. ( It’s a hint as to why my posts are now a bit delayed 🙂

Hey, it was well worth it!

Fort Davis

Fort Davis is located at the foot of the Sleeping Lion rock formation

One of the highlights of our stay, and the major tourist draw in Davis Mountains, is the McDonald Observatory.  We had previously visited smaller observatories at the Sunspot Solar Observatory and the privately-owned Apache Point Observatory in Cloudcroft, NM in 2012.  After seeing those facilities, and because the timing just wasn’t right, we skipped the McDonald Observatory on our previous drive through Texas.  Fast-forward to the present, and this time we made sure to add it as a stop.

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We finally made it!

We don’t claim to be into astronomy, but who wouldn’t enjoy looking through high-powered telescopes into the heavenly skies for a closer view of the billions of objects out there?  It made us realize once again what a tiny speck we are in the universe.  But once again I’m getting ahead of myself…

McDonald Observatory

The Harlan J. Smith Telescope (left) and the Otto Struve Telescope

The winding road leading up to the observatory is the highest point on Texas highways.  Its location was selected due to its high ratio of clear nights, distance from artificial sources of light and home to some of the darkest skies to be found in North America.  McDonald Observatory, a research unit of The University of Texas at Austin, houses three huge research telescopes that are not accessible for public use; the 82″ Otto Struve, the 107″ Harlan J. Smith, and the 433″ Hobby-Eberly.  Way up there on top of the mountain, they are visible from miles away.

There are also many smaller telescopes located around the visitor center, and regular folk like us can look through them during tours for excellent views of the moon and several star constellations.

McDonald Observatory

A closer view of two of the observatory’s’ most powerful research telescopes

On our first trip “up the hill” we joined a daytime guided tour that gave us not only an up-close look at the observatory’s large research telescopes, but also some stunning (and safe) views of the sun.  After an excellent 45-minute presentation (the guides are obviously scientists), we took advantage of the clear skies to enjoy real-time views of features on the sun.

During the program, our guide discussed some interesting highlights about the history of the sun, its formation, and what we expect it to do over its remaining expected 5-6 billion year “lifetime”.  We were blown away by what we learned about our closest star, and the overwhelming stats flew through my head which made me a bit dizzy.

 Frank N. Bash Visitors Center

The Frank N. Bash Visitors Center on the right, the amphitheater on the left, and several “smaller” telescopes

After the presentation, we followed our guide on a drive up Mount Locke and entered the dome of the Harley J. Smith Telescope.  When the guide asked for a volunteer to steer the telescope around the dome, my hand was the first one up – as usual!  Tilting the huge telescope up with its remote control was very cool, but unfortunately the camera was in my pocket and Steve was unable to take advantage of a great photo op – bummer!

Harlan J Smith Telescope

The Harlan J. Smith telescope with its 107” diameter primary mirror .  It’s 32 ft. long and weighs 160 tons

After learning how the large telescopes work, we next drove to the summit of Mt. Fowlkes where the Hobby-Eberly Telescope is located.  We saw that the HET is not your typical telescope design.  It uses a segmented-mirror scheme, where 91 “small” mirrors – each one about 40″ across and weighing 250 pounds – make up one huge mirror.

We also learned from our very knowledgeable guide that this was the first telescope to use such a low cost (for a world-class telescope, at least) design, and that the HET is currently being re-fitted for some new cutting-edge research projects.

Hobby-Eberly Telescope

Hobby-Eberly Telescope

Hobby-Eberly Telescope

Not your typical telescope – that flat surface is the 91-element adjustable mirror

Viewing the sun during the day was pretty impressive, but the real thrill was yet to come a couple of nights later.  We bundled up and drove back up to join one of the observatory’s “Star Parties”.  This is one party where you definitely want to be sober so you can enjoy stunning views into the universe.  WARNING: You may have a sore neck after a couple of hours gazing into the super-dark night sky!

The party began with an informative “constellation tour” at the outdoor amphitheater, then moved to the adjacent Rebecca Gale Telescope Park.

McDonald Observatory

Rebecca Gale Telescope Park by day

At the constellation tour, the moderator pointed to various stars and constellations with an amazingly powerful laser pointer.  We could follow its beam way out into the sky, and he was careful not to point it at any overflying aircraft.  An added bonus that night was a satellite flyover which was visible to the naked eye, since it reflected sunlight as it passed hundreds of miles overhead.

We can now look up into the night sky and confidently identify some of the closest stars and planets and constellations – yay!

McDonald Observatory

Getting ready for the party as the sun goes down

Star Party

The outdoor amphitheater – this is where the party began

Next we walked to the Rebecca Gale Telescope Park, where we used the various telescopes to get a closer and more isolated look at several stars, planets and the moon. Each telescope was manned by a knowledgable and enthusiastic staff member who knew his/her astronomy.  There were nine telescopes available that night, and we waited patiently in line several times for our turn to view a young star, Jupiter and its two moons, Venus and our moon.  Steve’s favorite was Jupiter, but for me it was the dazzling Venus. Although it got a bit chilly as we waited, we had a very enjoyable night with the stars – it was awesome!

Even if you aren’t really into astronomy or star-gazing, viewing the sun, moon and planets through large telescopes under cloudless night skies is a wonderful experience.  Click here to learn more about the McDonald observatory.

And that was just one of the many activities we enjoyed at Davis Mountains – there’s more to come!

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A sunset view of the Sleeping Lion rock formation from Skyline Drive near our campground, with Ft. Davis in the background

Next up:  More things to do at Davis Mountains



Driving and Flying Big Bend Ranch State Park

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Prickly Poppy

Our final fun-filled outings at Big Bend Ranch State Park put a cap on our wonderful time in the Big Bend area.

Big Bend Ranch State Park

Staying on the west side of the Big Bend area at BJ’s RV Park, we were smack between the national and state parks.  It was only about a 20-minute drive to the border of the biggest state park in Texas, Big Bend Ranch State Park.

This park occupies 300,000 largely wilderness acres bordering on the Rio Grande.  Big Bend Ranch was a working ranch for more than 100 years until its sale to the state of Texas in 1988.  The state park is managed very differently from the nearby national park in one significant way – the state park encompasses a network of cattle ranches operated according to the principles of the open range.  A herd of longhorn cattle grazes the area, and it’s host to a semi-annual longhorn roundup.

For more history of the park click here.   Much of it is very wild and rugged, and River Road (FM170) is the only paved road through it.  All interior roads must be accessed by trail or high-clearance/4×4 vehicles.

Folks seeking either high adventure or relaxation and solitude would find this park desirable.  Our plans were on the adventurous side, and called for driving the River Road and flying over the area on a guided air tour.

The River Road, FM 170

The Bluebonnets in the area were gigantic this year – some long-time guides told us they had never seen them so large and numerous

The River Road (FM170)

Just like its big sister, Big Bend NP, the state park has an extensive frontage on the Rio Grande.  For over 30 miles, the River Road twists and turns with the Rio Grande – crossing arroyos, climbing mountains and hugging canyon walls.

Each turn in the road was filled with spectacular scenery, and there were many turns!  The scenic section of FM170 runs between the towns of Lajitas and Presidio.

The River Road, FM 170

The Rio Grande as seen from Big Hill, cutting its way through the Chihuahuan Desert…

Colorado Canyon

…and cutting its way through Colorado Canyon

As mentioned in a previous post, our timing was perfect for viewing the intermingled bluebonnets and yellow flowers lining the road – a colorful carpet that took our breath away.

Tee Pee Rest Area

Teepee Rest Area just ahead – see them?

Bluebonnets

Fields of bluebonnets and Desert Marigolds

Millions of years ago, volcanic activity left a kaleidoscope of exposed geology here.  Park brochures describe the Big Bend Ranch area as being at the crossroads of geology; all four major geological events that shaped North America beginning over 500+ million years ago converged here and are represented in the park.  Click here to learn more about the fascinating geology that shaped the park.

Three Hoodos, Big Bend Ranch State Park

Hoodoos are rocks that have been carved by wind and water erosion

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wpid35494-2015-03-21-TX-1770613.jpgWe hustled home after several hours spent soaking up the scenery and looking back in geologic time.  The day’s forecast had called for thunderstorms, and amazingly the weather folks got it right this time!  The rain came down hard and fast, and we kept moving so as to avoid getting stuck at one of the washes that were quickly filling the low spots in the road.

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Rivers like these across the road occurred after only about 15 minutes of hard rain

If you happen to visit Big Bend National Park, be sure to spend a few hours driving the scenic road through Big Bend State Park.  You won’t be disappointed!

Flying over the Big Bend Ranch State Park area

We had tried to book a flight over the area well in advance of our arrival, but the spring break crowd had filled the schedule at Rio Aviation through the month of March.  The one-man, one-aircraft tour company was based right up the road from us in Terlingua, and Steve even went to the airport to beg the pilot to call us at any time if he had a cancellation and we would be there.  Well, the previous day’s thunderstorm turned out to be a blessing for us, as one of the customers was unable to re-book his tour.  Steve’s begging had paid off!

Cessna 205

Steve helping to push the Cessna 205 into position on the runway

Climbing aboard Marcos’s Cessna 205 made both of us recall our many flying adventures when Steve was actively flying.  We were interested to learn that our pilot/tour guide Marcos Paredes was a local, and a retired National Park Ranger.  Listening to him while trying to snap pictures of the things he pointed out to us became quite a challenge.

A smile from the happy co-pilot

The unobstructed view of the region’s geology was amazing.  We learned even more about the powerful processes that had created all this beauty.

Our flight took us over a lot of Big Bend Ranch State Park, the Devil’s Playground, Santa Elena Canyon, Closed Canyon, Colorado Canyon, and even a ways into Mexican airspace.  It seems the Air Traffic Control folks here all know Marcos, and told him to don’t even bother calling them if he wants to fly a little ways over the border – cool!

The first images below are views of Santa Elena and Closed canyons, which we had already hiked (click here for that posting).  Before the storm we had been able to walk across Terlingua Creek to the Santa Elena Canyon trailhead, but now we noticed that the creek had filled – shutting down that hike.

Santa Elena Canyon

Opening to Santa Elena Canyon, which stretches 8 miles along the border (Mexico is on the left) and is 1,500 ft. deep

That gouge in the mountain below is Closed Canyon, with the River Road running along this side of the mountain range and the Rio Grande on the far side.

Closed Canyon

Marcos continued our lesson by telling us that between 1900-1940 the Mercury Mines were booming in the Terlingua area.  Mercury (or quicksilver) is derived from a red-colored ore known as cinnabar, which was discovered here.  As you may recall from my story about the pictographs in Seminole Canyon, cinnabar was used by the ancient natives as a durable pigment in their drawings.

Mining Area

Mining area around Terlingua

Mercury Mining

Remnants of mercury mining operations – see that tiny brown building?

Terlingua, TX

Folks out here live off the grid, including our pilot Marcos

We also learned that the predominantly igneous rock around Big Bend Ranch tells the tale of violent volcanic activity between 15 and 30 million years ago.  It encompasses two mountain ranges containing ancient extinct volcanoes, precipitous canyons, and waterfalls.

But the signature feature of the state park is El Solitario.  It’s a large collapsed and eroded volcanic dome about 10 miles across.  A closer look at it can be had from the Solitario overlook, if you have a high-clearance vehicle to get there. Check my header  for a wider view.

El Solitario, Big Bend State Park

Big Bebd Ranch State Park

Fields of blooming yellow wildflowers from a couple thousand feet up

We flew over the Devils Playground, a secluded natural wonder.  Marcos told us this is a research site for the University of Texas, no public access allowed.  I was wishing he’d fly a bit lower over it, but I got the best shots I could.  It kind of has an other-worldly look, doesn’t it?

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Zooming over another area, we were amazed to see these red hoodoos, razor blade dikes, mesas and red canyons with enigmatic shapes.

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Having a local to show us around gave us yet another perspective on the area, and Marcos provided plenty of details about the geology and local history during our one-hour flight. We highly recommend this trip, but reserve early!

BJs RV Park, Terlingua, TX

Our home base at BJ’s RV Park, that dark RV in the middle is Betsy

The flight was a great ending to our fantastic week in the Big Bend area.  There were no relaxing days here, but we loved every minute of exploring and learning, and we didn’t want to miss a thing.

A bit remote?  Yes.  Worth the trip?  No doubt about it!

Lowes RV Adventures

Is Steve smiling because he’s next to me?  No, it’s the airplane!

 

 

Next up:  Now showing – The sun, the moon and the planets!



 

Paddling the Rio Grande at Big Bend NP

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Hot Spring Canyon

Having driven and hiked around Big Bend NP,  we added another layer of adventure – floating down the Rio Grande.  This was a full day canyon float with Big Bend River Tours, and we had to make reservations well in advance since spring break was underway during our visit.

The route and type of vessel (canoe or raft) used each day is dependent on the water level of the river.  On the day of our trip, the water was coming up due to recent rains, and we took rafts – which was fine with us.  The guides had also decided our route would be down Hot Springs Canyon.  We were excited about that, as we had not explored Hot Springs Canyon at all so far.

Floating the river, Rio Grande

All ready to go in our snazzy new red vests

The Rio Grande (Spanish for “Big River”) flows south and east for 1,885 miles from its origin in Colorado, eventually passing through the park before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.  At Big Bend, the river forms the 118 mile-long southern boundary of the park, coursing through three major canyons – Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas – before heading into the Texas desert.  A huge left turn in the river here gave the park its name – Big Bend.

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The weather was perfect for our journey – no blinding or burning sun

We floated leisurely down the river during the first half of our trip, admiring the beautiful scenic canyon.  We saw many areas of exposed limestone and layers of rock carved by the river and wind.  We finally landed on a beach for lunch, and were given an hour to explore the Hot Springs Historic District while the crew prepared the goodies.

Most folks went straight to a small naturally-flowing 105°F hot springs on the banks of the Rio Grande for a soak.  Steve and I checked it out, but we decided to explore what remained of a high-end resort that was built here in the 1930’s.  We can boil ourselves in hot water with complete strangers another time!

Hot Springs at Big Bend NP

Hot Springs right next to the Rio Grande, it was full of people a few minutes after this shot

In 1909, J.O. Langford came to this very remote part of west Texas after hearing about a healing hot spring.  He bought a homestead here and when he was cured of his ailment after a 21-day treatment, his entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and made this place a health spa centered around the hot springs.  He built an adobe house, a stone bathhouse, and brushwood bathing shelters.  There was also a store and motor court, consisting of seven attached cabins.

Hot Spring Historic District

Stratified limestone hills provide a scenic backdrop to the the store and post office

Today, the remains of what is left of a tourist site in the early 20th century are being preserved to demonstrate a rich history of human occupation in this remote place.  Even now it’s hard to imagine living and thriving in this harsh environment.

We walked along stratified limestone and Steve noticed some layers sticking out.

Stratified Limestone Rock

Steve couldn’t help himself, playing Jenga and wondering if the whole mountain would collapse if he removed a piece.

Limestone rock layers

Hmmm, will the mountain  topple?

We really came at the right time – wildflowers were making me smile, stop and snap their blooming beauty!

With the hour of exploration over, we enjoyed a pretty good spread for lunch.  It was very relaxing taking in the various rock formations on both sides of the river as we munched.wpid35381-2015-03-20-TX-1770112.jpg

Heading back out onto the river, we discovered a pretty good headwind had developed, and Steve lent a hand in paddling.  We floated past the hot spring and noticed that the crowd had grown even larger:

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Hey, is that guy in the glasses peeing in the tub?

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Steve assisting in the effort

Here’s what we saw during our second stretch on the river:

Hot Springs Canyon

Looking back at Hot Springs Canyon and another raft from our group

Hot Springs Canyon

As we entered a bend, the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico came into view, topped with clouds

By the time  we unloaded from the raft, the wind had really picked up and it began raining a bit.  Perfect timing – and another fantastic day at Big Bend!

Sierra del Carmen

And That concluded our river trip, then  just another 45-minute drive out of the park to home!

 

Next up:  An awesome flight over Big Bend Ranch State Park



 

 

Hitting the trails at Big Bend NP

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Chisos Prickly Pear

Seeing Big Bend National Park by car gave us some broad impressions, but it wasn’t until we pulled on our hiking boots and followed some trails that we could really let the beautiful surroundings engulf us.  Hiking is always our favorite way to experience places up close, and with hundreds of miles of opportunities to choose from, we couldn’t wait to get out there.

As usual, we tried to be among the first to get onto our selected trails each day, to beat the spring break crowds and the afternoon heat.  But it turned out there were so many trails that we often walked for an hour or more without seeing another person.  Now, that’s our kind of hiking!

Santa Elena Canyon

The rising sun glistening off Santa Elena Canyon

We managed to work in at least one trail from each of the park’s environments – desert, mountain, river and canyon – to get the full scope of what we could experience here.  We also walked some short trails along the routes of our scenic drives.  Most trails offered minimal to no shade, so we dressed in layers and brought plenty of H2O, along with our favorite snacks.

Chisos Basin

Chisos Basin – at 5,400 ft. it’s like a bowl surrounded by tall peaks

Be forewarned that this post is long, as I combined all of the hikes we took during our weeklong stay 🙂

So grab your favorite drink and enjoy the hikes and views with us.

Mountain Hikes

Our destination for these two hikes were at the Chisos Mountains, the heart of Big Bend National Park.  The Chisos Basin is the hub for an extensive network of hiking trails, and here we chose the Window Trail and the Lost Mine Trail.  Looking around the basin we saw spires, cliffs and great views of the entire erosion-formed area.

Our first hike was on the Window Trail, a 4.4mi. RT trek.  It descends to the basin’s pour-off, the point where water drains out of the “bowl”, and into the desert far below.

The Window

The Window is the canyon’s main drainage from the high Chisos Basin

As this was an early morning hike, the Cactus Wrens were there to welcome us before it got busy.  Abundant plant life could be seen along the way, and up on the hills the Prickly Pear and Havard Agave were growing out of the rocks.

No question about where this trail ends – right at the very bottom of The Window, where an exquisitely carved water pour-off freefalls hundreds of feet to the desert below.  We had our snack here to fortify ourselves for the 980 ft. elevation rise on the way back.

The Window, Chisos Basin

Steve snacks on the edge of the beautiful water-carved pour-off

After a short break from completing the Window Trail, our second target for the day was the Lost Mine Trail.  The 4.8 mi. RT hike gained 1,100 ft., climbing along ridges and switchbacks part-way up Lost Mine Peak.  We enjoyed spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, canyons, and desert along the way.

The first 1/3 of this hike was a bit grueling, then the trail became a bit rockier about halfway through.  We were huffin’ and puffin’ on this one, as it was one of our first serious efforts after months in the flatlands.  It was also getting a bit warm out with no shade in sight, as we wrapped up our explorations for the day.

Casa Grande

Casa Grande in the background  is the remnant of a large igneous formation on the east side of the basin

Looking closely at exposed rock outcroppings and escarpments, we noticed many surfaces covered with yellow, pink or black minerals that created a beautiful palette all around us.

The Lost Mine Trail ended at a dramatic rocky ridge at 6,850 ft., and after almost 2 1/2 miles of grunting and sweating our reward was stunning views in every direction.

Lost Trail Mine Park

Steve resting on the pink granite ridge at the end of the trail

Lost Mine Trail

View of a volcanic pinnacle at the end of the trail.  The Elephant Tusk and the valley of the Rio Grande are in the distance

Juniper Canyon

Juniper Canyon was our background for this shot

River Hikes

The Santa Elena Canyon Trail is probably the most popular hike in the park, and a must-do if you visit here.  This moderately-strenuous 1.7 mi. RT trail is located at the end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic drive.  The ascent began with a climb up several paved and stepped switchbacks, passing a sheer cliff at the opening of the gorge.  That was followed by a more gradual descent back to water level, where the trail eventually ended a ways up the towering canyon.

Santa Elena Canyon Trail

Santa Elena Canyon Trail

All of that green told us there was water nearby

At the beginning/end of this hike, a flat section of several hundred yards leads between the parking lot and the gorge, traversing a beach and leading onto a path through some greenery.  Unfortunately, recent rains in the area can swell Terlingua Creek and cover the beach, making it – and the canyon trail – impassable.

On the day we went there were no problems, but two days later a rain had shut this hike down.  A total bummer for a lot of people wanting to see the canyon!

Santa Elena Canyon

The water is always muddy and gritty because of all the rock it is constantly eroding away

Santa Elena Canyon

Folks rafting and canoeing through the canyon looked like ants against the 1,500 ft. cliffs

The Boquillas Canyon Trail is an easy 1.4 mi. RT hike that goes into the mouth of Boquillas Canyon.  We walked up a small hill and then descended toward the river and the canyon, over sand and rocky pathways.

Boquillas Canyon Trail

The approach was quite dramatic – the high, layered cliffs around the river are topped by huge, angular mountains on the Mexican side of the river.  Although impressive, it’s not as wow-inducing as the more popular Santa Elena Canyon.  But it is a ways off the beaten path and therefore less crowded.

Boquillas Canyon

Yet another walk into a huge canyon

We learned that throughout much of the Rio Grande’s history, the border along the river here has been fluid, allowing people of both countries to come and go as desired.  But with all of the social and political pressures over the years, border restrictions have been affected and the legal crossings in this area are allowed only 5 days per week.

Loss of income on the Mexican side has led shrewd hawkers to leave small souvenir stands along the trail on the U.S. side.  The mexican “salesmen” sit along the bank across the river, and if a hiker wants to make a purchase the salesman quickly paddles across the river in a small rowboat to make the transaction.

Boquillas Canyon Mexican side

Looking across to the Mexican side where a few entrepreneurs were waiting and singing in the shade.  See the little blue rowboat at the shoreline?

Although the practice is illegal, they are probably harmless and just trying to make a few bucks from the hikers.

Desert Hikes

The Mule Ears Spring Trail is a moderate 3.8 mi. RT that meanders along the Chihuahuan desert.  So named because the twin pillars of black igneous rock towering above the desert resemble a mule’s ears, it was once part of a volcano’s core.

The trail winds through dry washes and across rolling Chihuahuan desert terrain.  We were glad to be there on a cloudy day, as we could have received a pretty good roasting from the sun during this hike.

Mule Ears Trail

Mule Ears in the background to the right, can you spot Steve?

Mules Ears

We noticed the Mule Ears took on various different shapes as we hiked around them

Being springtime, various cacti like the Torrey Yucca, Ocotillo, Sotol and Prickly Pear were in full bloom.

Mules Ears Trail

Torrey Yuccas as well as the Ocotillo were blooming on the desert floor

This was one of my favorite trails, as wildflowers painted the desert floor and the timing of our visit was just perfect to gush over the flowers.

Our final desert hike was on the Burro Spring Trail.  We decided to follow this 1.5 mi. RT trek on a spur of a moment at the end of the day.  We convinced ourselves we could do one last quick hike, so we followed a dry wash that ended at the bottom of the dramatic Burro Mesa pour-off.

At the trailhead we thought this was just an easy walk so we didn’t bring water.  Big mistake, at 4pm the sun was still blazingly hot and there was no cover from the heat.  By the time we got back to our car both of us were gulping cold water as fast as we could.

Burro Spring Trail

At the trailhead we saw views of the expansive Chihuahuan Desert

Burro Mesa Pour Off Trail

There were amazing rock formations and blooming wildflowers around every turn

Burro Mesa Springs Trail

More rock formations

Because the mesa above where we followed the trail was capped by hard lava, the runoff sculpted a sheer chute instead of a leisurely stream canyon.  At the end of the trail we were looking down an impressive 3-part 80 ft. waterfall that was dry at the time.

Burro Mesa Pour off

End of the trail at the Burro Mesa Pour-off

At Big Bend Ranch State Park

Although the Closed Canyon Trail was actually located at nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park, I decided to include the hike in this post.  We originally wanted to tackle this one on the day we drove through the state park, but an incoming thunderstorm stopped us cold. Flash floods can be dangerous here, and we drove through several small streams already crossing the roads as we hurried out of the park and back home in heavy rain.

But we had heard so many good things about this canyon that we got up before dawn on the day we had to leave and made a special trip back out just to see it.  An easy walk with increasingly difficult obstacles (ie. large boulders) along the way, we walked as far into the canyon as we could, completing the 1.7 mi. RT exploration.  We’re really glad we did!

Closed Canyon

Approach to Closed Canyon, that narrow gorge in the background

Closed Canyon is a deep, narrow cut through Colorado Mesa to the Rio Grande.  It’s the result of seasonal stream flows from the desert that have continued to deepen it.  Less than 10 ft. across in some places, the 150 ft. deep canyon is one of the state park’s most impressive features.

Closed Canyon

Closed CanyonClosed Canyon gets its name from its narrow width; in some places we could span the entire “gorge” by just holding out our arms.

Closed Canyon

It seems from this post that we covered a lot of ground in a week, and we did, but the reality is we barely scratched the surface of this vast park.  And another thing to note is that since our home base was outside the park, each hike included a substantial drive to its starting point.  My only beef was that the brochure boxes at the trailheads were always empty, and we could not figure out what a lot of the numbered posts along the way were meant to explain.

But the adventure continues…

 

Next up:  Paddling  down the Rio Grande 



 

Remote, Rugged and Wild – Big Bend National Park

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Big Bend National ParkI can see now why Big Bend National Park is the least-visited national park. Coming here is not just a casual stop along the route to lots of other places; it’s remote location makes it a destination that requires driving more than two hours south of the nearest interstate highway.  That’s a good thing, and a bad thing, at the same time.

The good is that fewer people (even during spring break) makes it less trampled, and we were able to take excellent hikes without seeing another human for hours. But if there’s a bad, it’s that this gem’s unbelievable beauty is not appreciated by more travelers.  Regardless, we’re very happy that we decided to make it our destination!

Just a tad bigger than Yosemite National Park (and the state of Rhode Island), at 801,163 acres this park has been described as “three parks in one”.  At an elevation of less than 1,800 feet along the Rio Grande, to nearly 8,000 ft. in the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend includes massive canyons, vast desert expanses, forested areas and an ever-changing river. Because of these factors, it’s considered the most ecologically diverse park in the entire national park system.

Chihuahuan Desert

Looking across the Chihuahuan desert toward Mexico’s Sierra del Carmen

Although it’s said that everything in Texas is big, Texans can definitely claim that the Chisos Mountain range is the only mountain range to be contained within a national park’s boundaries.  It’s also the southernmost mountain range in the United States.  Emory Peak, the highest in Big Bend National Park, is a rocky promontory that stands at 7,825 ft.

Chisos Mountains

Chisos Mountains at sunset – it was once volcanic molten rock

Big Bend became a national park in 1944 and is listed as the 15th largest in the national park system.  It’s nestled at a bend of the Rio Grande and gets its name from the sharp 118-mile-long northeastern arc taken by the river that forms an 889-mile border separating Texas and Mexico.

Big Bend National Park

From here, the Rio Grande separates Texas on the left from Mexico on the right.  In the distance are the Chisos Mountains

Every day brought us new sights and varied perspectives.  The park constantly amazed us with its vastness, geological marvels, contrasting ecology and diversity.  We spent a week trying to experience as much of it as we could, and there are so many ways.  For us, it was driving, hiking, floating and flying.

Painted Hills

Painted Hills – if you’ve been to Death Valley you will recognize the similarities

The west side of the park

For now let’s take a drive along the 31-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which is on the west side of the park. This route diplays all the geologic wonders that the park is famous for.  It was an all-day drive for us, as there were a number of pullouts with interpretive signs that allowed us to read and learn, trailheads to follow for short and long walks, and scenic vistas.  We didn’t want to miss any of them!  I took so many pictures that it was difficult to choose which to post so I could best capture the experience.  Here are my highlights of our drives through the park:

Big Bend National Park

Mountain Bluebonnets were in full force along the road and hillsides

Tuff Canyon (below) was carved out of soft volcanic tuff or compressed ash.

Tuff Canyon

Steve is just a speck at the top of Tuff Canyon

The Chihuahuan desert floor was painted with various species of blooming Prickly Pears.

Blooming Prickly Pears

Prickly Pear blooms

Prickly Pear

The layers we saw on the Cerro Castellan formation revealed millions of years of volcanic activity.  Stacked in this tower were several lava flows and volcanic tuffs, or ash deposits.

Cerro Castellan

Cerro Castellan

Volcanic ash at Big Bend National Park

Some areas were covered with ancient volcanic ash

At the very end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive was the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon, one of Big Bend’s most scenic spots.  The view from within the canyon is grand indeed.  Half of the canyon is on the U.S. side, and its other 1,500 ft. south wall towers over the Mexican side of the border.

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon is that cut in the rock up ahead

When we arrived there we were in awe, surrounded by the towering vertical cliffs of solid limestone.  On the left of the canyon below is Mexico, and on the right is the U.S. side.

Santa Elena Canyon

The Rio Grande cuts through the Santa Elena canyon

If you could visit only one section of the park, the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive would be your best bet to see most of the famous, expansive vistas that mix scenery located in both Mexico and the U.S.

The east side of the park

On another day we drove to the east side of the park.  Here we viewed the Rio Grande flood plains looking towards Sierra del Carmen in Mexico.  That rig in the picture below is on its way to Rio Grande Village RV park, the only campground in the park with full hook ups.  When we saw that the campground was basically just a very small paved parking lot we were glad that it was full when we tried to make reservations.  We were very happy with our spot at BJ’s RV Park in Terlingua.  It was outside of Big Bend Park, but a much nicer place with access to stores and other places we wanted to visit.

Rio Grande Overlook

View from the Rio Grande overlook – the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico towers over the flood plain.

The east side of the park also had river access from the U.S. to the mexican town of Boquillas.  We didn’t have our passports with us, but we weren’t impressed by what we saw of the town from across the river anyway.  For folks who do want to cross into Mexico for lunch, you can do so on a rowboat on Wednesdays through Sundays to visit “The Most Remote Town in Mexico”.  Woohoo.

Boquillas Border Crossing

Boquillas Border Crossing

Instead, we drove a bit farther to hike into Boquillas Canyon, and we enjoyed the scenery there.  The Rio Grande on the easternmost side of Big Bend National Park cuts through the Sierra del Carmen Mountains of Mexico, creating this beautiful canyon.  It’s about 20 miles long, and not as deep or sheer as Santa Elena, nor as rugged as Mariscal. But it is still impressive, and worth the drive to get there.

Boquillas Canyon

That big hole in the middle of the mountain is Boquillas Canyon

When we got close to the entry of the canyon, we saw what we thought was a sentinel of the river.  He turned out to be a mexican entrepreneur illegally selling goods across the river from his country.  We heard that when the border patrol shows up, he simply gallops across the shallow river on his horse and he’s safely back in his own country!

Boquillas Canyon

“The Sentinel” watching over his goods, and the border patrol

Our final stop of the day was at Dugout Wells, where we followed the Chihuahuan Nature trail.  Here I learned that it is only in the Chihuahuan desert that the Blind Prickly Pear species thrive.

Blind Prickly Pear

Blind Prickly Pears have no spikes for protection

This post details only our driving tours.  We should mention that folks with 4-wheel drive or high-clearance vehicles can also follow the many miles of gravel roads throughout the park, to undoubtedly see many additional gorgeous sights that we couldn’t.  But we did about all we could from the paved roads, and there are many more adventures from this stop that we’ll be detailing soon!

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OK, that’s it by car – let’s get our hiking boots on!

 

Next up:  Hitting the trails of Big Bend National Park.



 

 

 

A Sneak Preview of Big Bend National Park

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Big Bend National Park

Leaving the Texas Canyons Behind

Before exiting Seminole Canyon State Park, we made a quick stop just up the road at awe-inspiring Pecos Canyon.  This canyon was formed by the Pecos River, which flows from the mountains of New Mexico for almost 1,000 miles through West Texas before dumping into the Rio Grande.   Folklore has it that the river is where the mythic wild west began, and was the stomping grounds of the legendary Judge Roy Bean – a Texas justice of the peace known as “The Law West of the Pecos”. 

Pecos Canyon

High canyon walls dominate the final miles of the Pecos River before it enters the Rio Grande

The Pecos River High Bridge was completed in 1957.  Previous to this structure, several low-water bridges had been built between 1923 and 1954, only to be destroyed by floodwaters.  The new 1,310 ft. long Pecos River High Bridge towers 273 ft. above the river, making it the highest bridge in Texas.

Pecos River High Bridge

Pecos River High Bridge

Leaving Seminole Canyon SP, our 80-mile drive along US-90 to Marathon followed Texas flatlands void of trees, vegetation, mountains, people and pretty much everything else.  I was getting a bit bored, then started seeing mesa-topped mountain grasslands in the distance as we ascended some hills.  Topping a final crest, we both got excited as we saw real mountain ranges come into view – yay!

US 90S towards Marathon

Oh look, mountains ahead!

Pardon my exuberance, but we’ve had “mountain withdrawal” since before our arrival in Texas last November.  I could hardly contain myself as these beauties came into view. Beginning now, I can finally resume posting about new mountain adventures, and show the west Texas range in its various shapes and forms.

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Discovering Big Bend

Marathon is considered the Gateway to Big Bend, and along with the rest of the region, it guarantees some of the darkest night skies in the continental U.S.  We made a quick stop at Marathon with the intention of seeing those dark skies.  Because of its remoteness, low population density (430 full-time residents), geographic location, and being surrounded by multiple mountains, Marathon has been blessed with the darkest skies in the lower 48 states.

Unfortunately, with a storm forecast to come through during our 2-night stay we knew we’d be disappointed.  At least we were able to drive into town to enjoy an excellent dinner at the historic Gage Hotel.  A bit pricey, but it was fun to check out such an interesting place in the middle of nowhere.

Gage Hotel

Getting Betsy back on the road, we were eager to begin our drive into Big Bend National Park.  Cruising along scenic HW-385, I snapped away at every mountain I saw – and there were a lot of them.  One of the most spectacular were the flatirons along East Bourland Mountain.  I learned that a flatiron is a short, triangular hogback which forms a ridge or spur on the flank of a mountain that looks like a flatiron.

Flat Iron Mountains

Our new home base was beyond the southwest side of Big Bend National Park, so we traversed through the park, entering via the north entrance and exiting out the west gate for our destination at the little town of Terlingua.  And it was quite a drive; Big Bend National Park encompasses over 800,000 acres, and we racked up almost 100 miles going through it just to get to our next stop!

Persimmon Gap

Persimmon Gap

Big Bend National Park

Mountain Bluebonnets in full bloom lined miles of the park’s road, the best bloom in many years according to the rangers

From here on I will let the pictures I snapped from Betsy’s passenger seat as we drove along speak for themselves.

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Panther Junction

Our first stop in the park was at the Panther Junction visitor’s center

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Chihuahuan Desert

Chihuahuan Desert scenery

Chisos Mountain

The Chisos Mountains were covered in fog the day we arrived

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The variety of geology here continued to amaze us, and reminded us a lot of Death Valley

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We finally arrived at our home base at BJ’s RV Park, which was located 20 miles outside the park’s west entrance.

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Not much more than a parking lot, but we’ll explain why we liked it so much in our review

Considering that  Big Bend National Park is so massive, these photos are just a teaser of what’s to come…

 

Next up:  Remote, rugged and wild – Big Bend National Park. 



 

A journey back in time – Seminole Canyon SP, Comstock, TX

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What we saw while driving northwest along US-90 towards Seminole Canyon State Historical Park was flat wilderness – all the way to the horizon in every direction.  I’ve heard a lot about boring drives through Texas, and I believe this is one of those parts of the state that people refer to.

Maybe a bit boring, but we found it beautiful in its own desert-kind of way

Seminole Canyon State Historical Park is located just off US-90, at the junction of the Pecos and Rio Grande rivers.  So of course that puts it right on the border with Mexico.  The rugged 2,172-acre park features some impressive deep canyons with rocky terrain and sparse desert vegetation.  And hey, there are lots of birds here, too 🙂

The Maker of Peace by Bill Worrel

The Maker of Peace, built by artist Bill Worrel.  It overlooks Presa Canyon

With a week to explore under sunny skies, we were both pumped up and ready to go exploring every morning.  During our stay we racked up 29 miles of walking and hiking throughout the park, completing every trail – and some of them several times.  We finally got our leg muscles back in shape!

The trails here were rocky but not difficult, with only a 210-ft maximum elevation gain.  We found that the trail listed as “strenuous” was really only “moderate” by our standards, but perhaps they were considering the condition of parts of the trail more than physical difficulty.

Parts of some trails were a bit boring, but coming upon the rim of the deep canyons and the river that ran through parts of them took our breath away.  Fortunately, it was springtime and some sparse wildflowers could be seen blooming along the trails.  That stopped me in my tracks for a few shots of the beauties.

We were excited to see a couple of Javelinas walk across a trail in front of us!  They were too quick for us to get a picture, so Steve ran through the scrub brush with the camera to pursue them.  He finally gave up, with nothing to show for his efforts but a bunch of cactus scratches on his legs that are still healing.

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We saw this critter and didn’t know what it was – maybe some kind of beetle?

A point of interest along one of the trails was the Panther Cave Overlook.  It lies at the confluence of Seminole Canyon and the Rio Grande.  Panther Cave is a rock shelter used by the Desert Archaic culture between about 1,300-8,900 years ago.  Visible across the canyon from the cave was an immense pictograph panel that spanned the back wall of the rock shelter, and it included a panther image nine feet long.  Access to this cave shelter is by private boat only, and tours had been canceled due to shallow waters.

Panther Cave

The Border Patrol folks were taking a lunch break on their little boat

I zoomed into the cave from across the canyon, and the Panther was visible on the right side of the wall.  The plaque at the overlook indicated that some archeologists believe the Desert Archaic people were depicting the shaman’s journey to the spirit world.  Caves and rock shelters like this one served as sacred portals or passageways for the shamans, and the panther represented an animal tutelary or guardian that protected them.

Panther Cave pictograph

Panther Cave pictograph

We were interested in viewing some of the ancient rock art, and this park’s focus is on the Fate Bell Shelter, the largest rock shelter in the region.  In many of the canyons, erosion over millions of years has carved massive rock overhangs that were used by prehistoric Indians for shelter.  Hiking in the canyons and viewing rock pictographs can only be done on guided tours.  We joined two of the tours to see some prehistoric rock art, and to walk on the floor of the canyons.

Fate Bell Shelter

The Visitor Center is the building to the right above the canyon

 

The Fate Bell Tour involved a fairly rugged walk to the bottom of the canyon, then over to the huge cliff overhang containing many good examples of Pecos river style pictographs.

Fate Bell Shelter

These protective mats made the walk into the overhang much easier

Radiocarbon dating suggests these pictographs were created between 2,950 and 4,200 years ago.  Because they are so old, experts know very little about the people who created them.  The walls were once densely painted, but only isolated panels have been able to resist the effects of time and indiscriminant looting of the site before its acquisition by the state.

Fate Bell Shelter Rock Art

There are suppose to be four human beings facing the four corners.

 

Our tour guide explained that colors were made with pigments from local stones such as hematite (red ochre) for red, limonite (yellow ochre) for yellow, manganese oxide for black and calcite (or gypsum) for white.  These rocks were ground into a fine powder and mixed with a binder (probably animal fat) to make the pigment stick together and to the wall. The soapy juice of the yucca plant root, mixed with water, may have been used to thin the pigment and fat mixture into a smooth paint that has held up for thousands of years.  Is that amazing or what?

Fate Bell Shelter Rock Art

A panel of rock art

 

One of the guided tours we joined was the Upper Canyon backcountry hike, which included visits to a variety of sites that had prehistoric and historic rock art styles.  The latter of these were created by folks who built the railroad in the 1880’s that ran through this area.

Upper Canyon Hike

The rock art here was created in the 1880’s by railroad engineers working in the area

Upper Canyon Trail

Scrambling along the canyon trail

Seminole Canyon Rock Shelter

The pictographs in this huge overhang have faded severely due to water erosion

Did I forget to mention that this park is also another Texas birding trail?  The Pyrrhuloxias shown below, along with many Cactus Wrens, alternately sang to us during our walks.  And the Canyon Towhees and Black-throated Sparrows helped the beautiful Cardinals empty our feeder every day.

The birdies all knew there was free food at site #1, and we spent many hours sitting by our campfire and watching the excellent variety of birds competing for the goodies.

Male Pyrrhuloxia

Male Pyrrhuloxia

Pyrrhuloxia

Female Pyrrhuloxia

A sunset with bird silhouettes capped a wonderful week full of outdoor fun.  The sun was finally shining on us!

All of the outdoor activities made me forget my strange medical issue.  I want to express my appreciation to everyone for sending me your warm thoughts and messages of concern. Just the thought that all of you are thinking of me makes me feel better.  I will soon find out what my new doctor has to say!

 

Next up:  Visiting FABULOUS Big Bend National Park!