April 3, 2011

Guadalupe Mountains National Park & New Mexico

TUMBLEWEED!  Yes, it does exist and we were excited to see it.  Until it continued for hours and hours and the tumbles got bigger and bigger.  Almost immediately the initial excitement wore off as dodging the tumbleweed became more difficult with huge tumbles skirting across the highway.

For miles and miles there was nothing but then.. we saw this huge blimp.  Or at least it looks like a blimp.  Not sure what purpose this thing serves or who operates it.  Another random activity in the desert that no one really knows about.

Immediately to the right of the blimp was a double decker train.  When you drive for hours without seeing anything, even trains become a source of entertainment.  Wowwww.

Almost all of the ranches in Texas have these old iron windmills.  This picture is a nice representation of ranches in the Southwest.  Rolling hills speckled with sand, thorny vegetation and a few metal structures and no people.

If I had to choose a place to represent the beautiful colors of the Southwest I would chose la casa diablo.  The mountains had a rich red hue to them.  This particular area was called house of the devil because of the red color permeates through the mountain like blood or fire.  No matter what you call it, it was a beautiful display of reds, blues, greens, yellows, and brown.

Hotel El Capitan!  Perfect for any romantic rendezvous.. you hear that Hank?

On the way to the Texas and New Mexico border we transitioned from Central Time to Mountain Time.  Lisa stood between the two signs and claimed she was not in a time zone.  As she started dancing in her own timeless world, I considered reporting her to Border Patrol.   

Five miles later we ran straight into the Guadalupe Mountain Range.  The Jeep had to climb up a couple thousand feet to reach the National Park.  The wind was so forceful we could barely open the doors.  

Beautiful lenticular clouds hovered above the entrance.  A peaceful welcome that would change dramatically during our stay at Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

After another long day of driving we were ready to lace up the hiking shoes.  There were a couple of options and they all lead up into the sky with huge elevation gains.  Note, this is prime mountain lion territory.  Knife, bearspray - check.

Option 1 was El Capitan, a sheer rock face protruding from the Guadalupe Range.  It was not quite as big as the El Capitan of Yosemite but still impressive.  Lisa was not particularly interested in rock climbing so we went for option 2.

Which was the Guadalupe Peak trail.  At 8,795 feet, Guadalupe Peak is the highest point in Texas.  This picture was taken on the GP trail looking West at Hunter Peak (8,365 ft).

The views on the ascent were amazing with lone trees sticking out against the mountains and sage brush.

Because we started the hike in the afternoon we were unable to reach the peak.  Lisa toughed out the difficult climb and the unnerving drop offs and posed in front of the granite peak just beyond our reach.

With little vegetation the peaks and terrain were well defined.  You could see every ridge and every rock of the surrounding mountains.  

Then the weather changed.  Almost immediately were were engulfed in clouds.  With the clouds came  violent wind gusts.  We passed some hikers on the way up who said the winds were blowing over 100 mph on top of the peak and they had to turn around.  Luckily we had no problems descending to our camp.

All of the vegetation was thorny or sharp.  Everything had a wonderfully defined texture.

I think we were most surprised by the diversity and abundance of vegetation.  And the colors were so rich.  Never would have guessed that in the desert.

Welcome to the Hotel Jeep.  A park ranger came by and told us not to sleep in our tent overnight.  The weather report called for 80 mph winds that night.  He was right.  Our tent poles would have bent in half if we would have set them up.  Plus they were already bent from the wild boar that ran into the tent the previous night!  As the night progressed the wind picked up.  I had to turn my car into the wind to stop it from rocking back and forth.  We set up our luxury beds, listened to the wind howl, and played some Uno by lantern.  

Again, we were treated to a spectacular sunrise in Texas.  Like the sun we rose in search of darkness.  Except our darkness was underground and involved bats. 

Big Bend National Park & Rio Grande River

As I rested my battle weary legs in the passenger seat, Lisa directed us Southwest to Big Bend National Park.  On the way we drove past the Amistad National Recreation Area, a large reservoir created by the Amistad Dam just North of the border.

Surprisingly, Texas is very mountainous as you head further West.  These mountain ranges are the Southern most tip of the Rocky Mountain chain in the United States.  

Along the way we were stopped by border patrol every so often.  Each time we were greeted by three patrol officers and a K-9.  Considering the Jeep was packed with stuff we must have looked suspicious.  My Montana hat may have been conspicuous too.  After an intense scan of the Jeep, the officers let us continue on our voyage.  The placement of the border stops were different than I had imagined.  The stations were twenty to thirty miles North of the border.

For the most part Texas is very arid.  However, we did see some huge gorges and rivers.  Below is a picture of the Devils River.

After 34 miles of racing and 350 miles of driving we finally arrived at Big Bend National Park.  Definitely one of the most remote national parks in the United States. Big Bend is known for its three ecological regions: montane, river, and desert.  As we arrived the sun was setting in the West. 

Our first camp site was in the Chisos Basin at 5300 ft.  It was very remote.  No lights or sounds, just bears and mountain lions.   With no artificial light, the stars put on an impressive display.  Texas has beautiful, clear night skies.  The Chisos basin is known for its stunning sunsets.  Particularly "the window" (la vintura) is a famous sunrise location where the mountains open up.  The contrast of the dark mountains with the bright hues of the departing sun is surreal. 

On Sunday morning the sun steadily rose and lit the tips of the surrounding Chisos Mountains.  No better way to enjoy your morning cup of coffee.  

The Chisos basin is known for its stunning sunsets.  Particularly "the window" (la vintura) is a famous sunrise location where the mountains open up.  The contrast of the dark mountains with the bright hues of the departing sun is surreal. 

Lisa awoke to the smell of pancakes and coffee... finally.  Big Bend is enormous with over 800,000 acres of land.  Our first stop of the day was at the Lost Mine Trail.  We climbed (in my case hobbled) up to 8,000 ft and took in the vast beauty of Texas.

Begin transition from the Chisos mountains to the Chihuahuan desert.  The desert is relatively young, 8000 years old and has lush vegetation.  To reach the desert we descended from the Chisos Mountains and drove down the bumpy, windy, seven mile Grapevine Hills dirt / primitive road.  The scenery was unbelievable.  Huge boulders were precariously strewn all over the desert.  At one point we disturbed a coyote but never got a good look at him.

From the parking lot we hiked through the hot desert for 2000 meters to the Balancing Rock.  I'll be honest I was a little nervous posing for my picture under the rock.  Lisa forbid me from climbing on top!

I never knew that cacti ranged in color.  We saw the traditional green but also pink, red, purple and yellow too.  Many of them were rotten.

Despite the short hike Lisa and I were still dying of thirst.  We hurried back to the dusty car and took in some much needed fluids.  Before we left the campground that morning we made sure to fill all eight of our water bottles.  Thank God we did because we emptied them all.

While on the West side of the park we made a quick stop over at Homer Wilson's ranch.  This ranch was very remote - Homer liked his peace and quiet.  

After a long day of exploring we set up camp at the Rio Grand Village.  A Road Runner welcomed us to the camp site.  Lisa was surprised and disturbed that it didn't look the cartoon character.  Either way he was fun to watch.

Once camp was set and paid for (the NPS ranger pestered us minutes after we arrived) we headed to the famed Rio Grande River.  I was amazed at how small it was for being such a significant land mark.  The Rio Grande River forms a 1000 mile border between the US and Mexico.  Its many turns, twists, and bends inspired the name of the park.  

The presence of Mexico was felt everywhere from the border patrol to the little Mexican towns off in the distance.  Lisa and I drove to the Boquillas Canyon and were greeted by an Mexican man on a horse.  He had illegally crossed the border / river to sell odds and ends for the town.  I took a picture of the cardboard signs below.  Lisa and I donated a couple bucks and reflected about how fortunate we are in the US.  It was a very humbling experience.  We would find out later that the NPS strictly forbids the purchasing of items or donations to the people of Boquillas.  Which leads to the question - who is telling the truth?

When on a trip I feel the need to immerse myself in the experience.  For example I had to jump in the Rio Grande river.  How else would you know if it exists?  If it does exist then how cold is the water, how deep, how quick is the current, are there fish?  These types of questions are always brewing in my mind.  So I feel obligated to find out.  I am looking forward to immersing myself in the Arctic Ocean when I finally travel back to Alaska again.  That will be interesting...

On the Mexican side of the Rio Grande there were cows, goats, and donkeys (el burro).  The cows had bells around their neck and we heard their every move.  Lisa zoomed in to capture these two donkeys way off into the Boquillas Canyon.  Later that night we would hear these donkey's hee-hawing from our campsite. 

This particular night will always stand out in my camping experiences.   The Rio Grande Village  campground turns wild at night.  Noises and movement surrounded the tent all night.   Every hour a wild howling sound would erupt throughout the campground.  Was it dogs, coyotes, javelinas (wild boars)?  I have no idea.  At one point something ran straight into the tent and hit me in the head.  None of this bothered Lisa who slept right on through.   

Southwest Texas and the Rio Grande were stunning.  Everyone needs to visit this area and take in the mountains, desert and river.  The awe inspiring sunrises, sunsets and bright star displays cannot be captured by words... although I do have some great pictures!

The setting sun over the Rio Grande displays brillant colors and reflections.  Slowly our trip to Big Bend and the Rio Grande River faded with the sun over the horizon.  

Tomorrow we travel deeper West into Texas and New Mexico!

Originally from Strongsville, OH, I spent 8 years in Raleigh, North Carolina and have since recently moved to Missoula, MT. I have been a runner all my life and have recently started pursuing ultra marathons. Any excuse to be outside and on the trails.