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Looking east toward the Chisos from the Burro Mesa trailhead

Looking east toward the Chisos from the Burro Mesa trailhead

Burro Mesa Trailhead
Burro Mesa Trailhead

Another beautiful sunrise over the Chisos Basin. Tab slept in, and we had a leisurely breakfast.  Today was our last full day in the park, and we wanted to explore some of the desert west of the Chisos Mountains. We targeted a hike into Burro Mesa, and left camp late morning.

Burro Mesa is a desert hike of just over 2 miles through a dry wash, winding through a slickrock canyon, and eventually finishing in a “cathedral”. This is where water has historically collected in a huge pool, before tumbling over 50 feet to the desert below.  There is a hike to the base of the “falls” that’s only a half mile, which we saved for the heat of the day. So the upstream side is on top of the mesa, while downstream is in the desert below.

Pink Prickly Pear

Pink Prickly Pear

On the first part of the journey, I was looking at all the life.
There were plants and birds and rocks and things, there was sand and hills and rings
The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz, and the sky with no clouds.
The heat was hot and the ground was dry, but the air was full of sound

Upper Burro Mesa Trail, near the trailhead

Upper Burro Mesa Trail, near the trailhead

People who don’t appreciate the beauty of a desert might assume there is no life in one, but such a theory couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Deserts are rife with life, especially after a rare rain, but even in drier years life abounds in many forms and colors. Everywhere scurry lizards and birds, though we were scanning the rocks for rattlesnakes or wild cats. Insects seemed to thrive in this unforgiving environment.

After two days in the desert sun, my skin began to turn red.
After three days in the desert fun, I was looking at a river bed
And the story it told of a river that flowed made me sad to think it was dead.

Tabitha hikes through a narrow wash that was the Burro Mesa trail

Tabitha hikes through a narrow wash that was the Burro Mesa trail

The trail wound through a rocky wash, where we were forced at times to scramble over rugged basins and drops.  After about a mile, the trail flattened out, and we found ourselves walking in a sandy river bed. Soon another channel joined us from the east; we noted it so as not to get suckered into taking it on the way out. Creosote and other desert shrubs dominated the landscape, with the occasional cactus and thirsty spring desert wildflower.  We used our walking stick to check for snakes, and kept our eyes on rocky crevices for bobcats and mountain lions.

Eventually we scrambled down several feet of slickrock into the cathedral above the “falls”. This chamber was carved out by water and sediment when this area was less arid; imagine thousands of cubic feet of water per second swirling in this collection area before tumbling over the precipice, rocks and pebbles carving away the softer stone.  It was a perfect place for lunch and to reflect on our own insignificance in time and space.

The top of the Burro Mesa pouroff; its over 50 feet to the sand and rocks below the edge.

The top of the Burro Mesa pouroff; it's over 50 feet to the sand and rocks below the edge.


Tab has lunch while contemplating the cathedral of Burro Mesa

Tab has lunch while contemplating the "cathedral" of Burro Mesa


Tabitha scrambles up the slickrock to emerge from the pouroff cathedral

Tabitha scrambles up the slickrock to emerge from the pouroff cathedral

 

I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
cause there aint no one for to give you no pain

 

Rich hikes back up the wash out of Burro Mesa

Rich hikes back up the wash out of Burro Mesa

Finally we emerged from the shade of the cathedral into the hot desert sun. The hike back was uneventful, though we did come across some kind of animal carcass, probably a jackrabbit. We were still captivated by the beauty of the desert, but were anxious to go over the pass to hike the ½ mile to the falls below.  Not a place you’d want to be in a rainstorm, any more than the cathedral above.

Dead animal carcass on the upper Burro Mesa trail

Dead animal carcass on the upper Burro Mesa trail


Rich stares up from beneath the pouroff

Rich stares up from beneath the pouroff


Burro Mesa Pouroff - We were at the top only 90 minutes earlier

Burro Mesa Pouroff - We were at the top only 90 minutes earlier

We could see the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon from the lower Burro Mesa Trail, so we continued on to Castalon for a cold drink, and then on to get a closer look at the canyon. Too tired and late to hike in, we settled for the photo ops from the parking lot before hour drive to camp.

An old steam engine against the backdrop of the rockface below Santa Elena Canyon, near Castalon

An old steam engine against the backdrop of the rockface below Santa Elena Canyon, near Castalon


So far away from Emory Peak two days ago, the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon looms large from the overlook

So far away from Emory Peak two days ago, the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon looms large from the overlook

We did stop a Mule Ears Peaks and encountered a large group preparing to backpack into the desert.  Their plan was to hike up Blue Canyon to Boot Spring where they would replenish their water supply.  The look on their face when I told them the spring was dry could have stopped a truck.  A young woman who was probably responsible for trip planning (or lack of it) informed me two weeks ago there was plenty of water.  I replied that two days ago, there was none. 

A man who appeared to be the group leader suggested they might want to check with a ranger before heading in.  I concurred that be a good idea, stifling my shock at their failure to confirm spring levels before venturing into the desert.  Five minutes on the NPS website and I knew to check on Boot Spring with Park Headquarters, who not only confirmed the only water was in stagnant pools. We had seen these pools on our hike to the South Rim, and couldn’t imagine drinking from it, filtered or not.  The ranger added the preferred what little water remained we should leave for the animals, and urged us to carry in all of our own water.  Maybe I was annoyed at the arrogance of this group that they didn’t need to suffer up the mountain trails as we had, but we did genuinely fear for their well-being. We wished them luck, and posed for a few shots before finally heading back to the Chisos Basin.

 

What is growing out of Tabithas head? Its Mule Ears Peaks!

What is growing out of Tabitha's head? It's Mule Ears Peaks!


Mule Ears Peaks looms more rugged and forbidding than when we viewed it from Emory Peak

Mule Ears Peaks looms more rugged and forbidding than when we viewed it from Emory Peak

After nine days I let the horse run free
cause the desert had turned to sea
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The ocean is a desert with its life underground
And a perfect disguise above
Under the cities lies a heart made of ground
But the humans will give no love

Our last night in Big Bend, and we knew our plan well.  Wine and another perfect sunset.

Another perfect sunset in the Chisos Basin

Another perfect sunset in the Chisos Basin

Lyrics to “A Horse With No Name” by Dewey Bunnell

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After our huge reward meal at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, we had some preparations to make in order to enjoy a relaxing last 2 days in Big Bend.  Ice and beer, number one priority, and the Chisos Basin store took care of that.  We also wanted to get a campsite, and found the friendly ranger who had promised to reserve one of the better ones for us if no one had taken it by that morning.  He was true to his word, though he did inform us he had given permission for a backpacker to store her gear in our Bear Box that morning.  Her pack was still there, so we decided to hold off on setting up camp, since technically 4pm was check-in time. Sure enough, it was the same German girl we had seen on Emory Peak; apparently she was hitchhiking across America, and had landed in as remote a place as one could ever hope to hitchhike to. We silently wished her well, though the image of an overdressed, overburdened, over exposed to the sun girl on the mountaintop stayed with us.

Our next goal was the Rio Grande Village, the only place in the entire park with running showers.  We both needed to wash off the trail dust, and we started toward the Rio Grande, with a planned stop at Boquillas Canyon.

Rich poses on the road to Rio Grande Village, Sierra del Carmen in the background

Rich poses on the road to Rio Grande Village, Sierra del Carmen in the background

The Boquillas Canyon trail is only a half mile each way, but the nearly empty lot made us instantly regret not being able to set up camp. Numerous reports of break-in’s at trailheads near the border got us a little paranoid, and we were reluctant to leave our car full of gear.  So we hiked up to the top of the ridge where we could keep watch, and enjoyed the view of the river, even spotting some of the locals on the Mexican side.

Some locals from Boquillas, Mexico

Some locals from Boquillas, Mexico

Rio Grande near Boquillas, Mexico

Rio Grande near Boquillas, Mexico

With our site-seeing cut short, we headed on to Rio Grande Village and the much-anticipated shower.  $1.50 gets you five minutes, so we got change in the store with the opportunistic purchase of a couple of cold beers.  Near the river, the temp had soared into the 90’s.  Camping here in the summer would be miserable.  We were very happy with our choice of campgrounds, and not having to listen to RV generators all night.

Tabitha is refreshed by a shower and a cold beer

Tabitha is refreshed by a shower and a cold beer

One of the locals didnt seem to mind the heat

One of the locals didn't seem to mind the heat

Tunnel on the road to Rio Grande Village

Tunnel on the road to Rio Grande Village

Refreshed from our shower and beers, we returned to the Chisos Basin, stopping at Panther Junction to share our bear stories.  We learned they had closed all Boot Canyon and Colima camp sites due to these young bears playing trampoline on the Park Service tents, pitched by the same crew we had seen coming up by mule train the day before.  I wondered if the bears were even a threat to the regular campers; it sounded like they all knew the fun was at the service cabin, which had a full kitchen.  Hmmmm…..split pea soup, or NPS bacon and eggs.  I can see the bears’ attraction.  Made us glad we kept a clean camp.

We filled our gas tank, anticipating an early departure Friday, and returned to the Basin to set up camp.  We had picked a choice site, one that could not be reserved in advance.  Our tent pad was completely secluded in a small stand of Mexican juniper, almost invisible from the access road, and with a view of the upper Window trail.  Tonight, it was Zatarain’s Jambalaya and kielbasa for dinner, which we enjoyed with wine at the overlook.  Wine and sunset photos seemed to be the best show in town.

Casa Grande at sunset

Casa Grande at sunset

The Window at Sunset

The Window at Sunset

This view never got old, and this night some rare clouds joined the show

This view never got old, and this night some rare clouds joined the show

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Up at dawn, and we used some of our remaining water to make coffee.  Not the best way to hydrate, but we figured the caffeine withdrawl headache would be worse than being thirsty.  We broke camp quickly and by the time the sun had crept into Boot Canyon, we were on the trail.

 
We climbed up some moderate switchbacks into Colima Pass, and then down the other side, passing by a couple with backcountry gear coming from Laguna Meadow.  It was substantially cooler on the shady side of the pass, which was a relief since the day promised to be warm.  Our packs were substantially lighter with no water. Tabitha had to adjust her pack, and even that early perspiration ran down the middle of her back.

Tab adjustes her pack straps on the Colima Trail

Tab adjustes her pack straps on the Colima Trail

We had noticed different animal scat throughout the trip.  Amazing about the drought was the fact that even though different animals dropped different sized pellets, it all looked the same.  Every animal seemed to be eating nothing but forage and juniper berries, from the skunks and small rodents to the deer, to even the bears.  Surely there was some moisture content in these berries; there wasn’t much other water to be had anywhere.

 
We reached the trail junction; to the left it climbed steeply toward the Southwest Rim. We turned right toward Laguna Meadow. As the trail hugged the slope the sun finally cleared the pass.  I turned to look across a small canyon to find where the Southwest Rim trail lead, and low and behold, there was another bear.  This one was an adult, probably a boar, and it sat in a small clearing on the slope earting berries.  Through the binoculars I could see the flies buzzing around its head. I steadied my camera on my trekking pole and zoomed in as much as it would let me.  I made a noise to get his attention, confident the 150 yards and rugged terrain separating us eliminated any real threat. Bears in Texas.  So cool.

An adult black bear ferociously eats berries near the Laguna Meadow and Colima Trail junction

An adult black bear ferociously eats berries near the Laguna Meadow and Colima Trail junction

We continued on and reached the Blue Canyon overlook, also the site of a significant wildfire in the 1980’s.  The day before we had stared down this canyon from atop Emory Peak, but 1,000 feet lower we got a much different perspective. It was here that Tabitha took what I think is the iconic photo of our entire backcountry trip. A shrub blocks much of the canyon, but I think it leaves more to the imagination with me admiring the view, and I like the result. The top of the Southwest Rim is just above my head.

Rich admires the incredible view

Rich admires the incredible view

We pressed ahead, still wary of bears, but we would see no more on this trip.  We did run into the same group of students that had camped in Boot Canyon two nights ago back at the Basin.  They said they had a bear in their camp at Laguna Meadow that required scaring away.  I tried to imagine their habits; a clean camp is the best defense against bears, and somehow I suspected they may have been unaware of this.

 
This was the second time we ran into members of that group after they left Boot Canyon. They were on a 3-night loop: Boot Canyon, Southwest Rim and Laguna Meadow.  We had rationed our water and still made it out with little to spare.  They had run out of water completely the second day, forced to send 3 members of the group back down the Pinnacles Trail to the Basin to get more. That group then had to hike all the way back to the South Rim with the water to meet the group at their night two campsite.  We learned of this after we had returned from the South Rim the night before; they sent another two members back to Boot Canyon to fetch the gear they left behind; apparently the packs needed to carry it to the next camp were being used to fetch more water from the Basin.  Unbelievable. Not sure what they were thinking. Oh to be so young and full of so much energy…more energy than brains.  Weren’t these students from Rice University?  Some things you cannot learn in books.

 

At any rate, we came out of Laguna Meadow and once again saw the Chisos Basin.  This route was definitely less strenuous than the Pinnacles Trail, going up or down, but the views were no less impressive.

Chisos Basin from the top of the Laguna Meadow Trail

Chisos Basin from the top of the Laguna Meadow Trail

Emory Peak looking back up the Laguna Meadow Trail.  The pass into Laguna Meadow is just to the left of the little hump on the right.

Emory Peak looking back up the Laguna Meadow Trail. The pass into Laguna Meadow is just to the left of the little hump on the right.

Tabitha with the Window, as seen from the lower Laguna Meadow Trail

Tabitha with the Window, as seen from the lower Laguna Meadow Trail

Before we knew it, we were back in the parking lot, our adventure completed with just under a liter of water remaining.  After 3 days of water rationing, bear spotting and eating backpacker food, we had only one thing in mind.  The rite of passage for anyone coming out of a long trip to the high Chisos is a burger and a beer at the Chisos Mountain Lodge.   Nothing ever tasted so good.

Mission Accomplished! Note the dry grass and dusty boots.

Mission Accomplished! Note the dry grass and dusty boots.

Rich enjoys a fitting reward after the High Chisos adventure

Rich enjoys a fitting reward after the High Chisos adventure

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Rich and Tab pose in front of the precipice at the South Rim

Rich and Tab pose in front of the precipice at the South Rim

 
So there we were at Boot Canyon, and facing a water shortage.
 
It really boiled down to simple mathematics.  We would need two liters of water for the round trip hike to the South Rim, just under 4 miles.  We would need 3 cups to make dinner.  Another two liters to drink before bed.  A liter for coffee in the morning; absolutely no way were we sacrificing our caffeine fix).  And 3-4 liters for the hike down.
 
We had the water, barely, we just had to be careful how we used it.  Once we had gone through the figuring, and developed a plan for what remained, we felt we could execute it without packing up our gear and hiking back out that afternoon.  We would stick to our plan and hike down the following morning.
 
That decided, we refilled our bottles and started up the spur trail.  Tab was about to turn south up the main trail when I stopped her.  Soon she heard it, too.  Horses were coming up the trail from the Pinnacles. I knew you are supposed to stand on the downhill side when you encounter horses on a mountain trail, so we stayed right where we were.
 
It turned out to be burros, not horses. A mounted park ranger led a train of a ½ dozen animals, fully loaded with packs and trail maintenance tools like picks and shovels.  Their hooves kicked up a huge cloud of dust, which covered another crew member with a full pack, following on foot. This train had come up the switchbacks and rocky footings of the Pinnacles Trail.  Amazing. Mule train is the only way to resupply the trail maintenance crew, gearing up for the multitudes expected the following week.
 
I remembered seeing on the map something simply referred to as a “corral” near the Colima Junction. Sure enough, we only walked a few hundred yards, and more trail crew members were busy disburdening the mules. Across from the Corral was a cabin, complete with bunks and a full kitchen. More tents were pitched behind the cabin.  An entire crew of park rangers and staff were sleeping less than a quarter mile from our tent.  I would sleep better that night knowing these folks were so close.  Little did I know… 
 
Rich in Upper Boot Canyon

Rich in Upper Boot Canyon

We passed where I expected to see Boot Spring, but we only saw ugly, stagnant water in some of the deeper pools. No spring. Dry. At least we could justify our ordeal the previous day, and the current rationing strategy; there was no water at Boot Spring. We crossed the stream bed, passed the Juniper Canyon and Northeast Rim trail junctions, and pressed up toward the South Rim.
 
Upper Boot Canyon was already shaded in the late afternoon by its steep walls.  The dark gray rocks seemed like perfect mountain lion habitat, and the pools we saw might be the only water around for miles. I was wary of seeing one, and way too close.  But they remained hidden.
Rich hikes through upper Boot Canyon

Rich hikes through upper Boot Canyon

 
Finally the walls gave way to a broader meadow, and finally the trail left the creekbed through an oak and prairie grass savannah. Back in the sun, we climbed up a gentle slope, until there it was.  The South Rim, and the amazing view of the desert below.
Tabitha gazes from the shade at the spetacular view

Tabitha gazes from the shade at the spectacular view

 
Tabitha poses with the desert expanse behind her

Tabitha poses with the desert expanse behind her

Shutter clicking, we snapped several shots using the tripod.  We could see the Outer Mountain Loop trail, and the easily recognized shape of Elephant Tusk directly below us. Further on, we could see the Rio Grande, and the flats between Mariscal and Boquillas Canyons. And beyond that, Mexico and the Sierra del Carmen. 
Sierra del Carmen from the South Rim

Sierra del Carmen from the South Rim

Elephant Tusk from the South Rim

Elephant Tusk from the South Rim

From the South Rim, looking toward the Southeast Rim

From the South Rim, looking toward the Southeast Rim

Clear skies, tremendous views that seemed to reach the horizon, and the warm setting sun.  The South Rim has it all.  The trail to the Southeast and Northeast Rim was closed to protect nesting peregrine falcons. And I did not want to hike back through Mountain Lion Avenue after sunset.  So we reluctantly took one last look, and headed back to camp.
So two unique hikes, including summiting the 2nd highest peak in Texas, and multitudes of spectacular views.  In spite of our water situation, we ate a spicy Jose’s Mole for dinner, one of the more underated Backpackers Pantry entrees. Another perfect day in the books.

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 After the bear scare, our night in the tent proved uneventful. We slept well in spite of the spiked rocks protruding through the tent footprint, and I arose at dawn to start coffee.  Even with the ultralight gear, we still packed up an actual coffee percolator, and it worked great with the MSR Dragonfly Stove.  Some luxuries cannot be ignored.

We ate oatmeal as the sun crept deeper into Boot Canyon, and soon the local deer were back again.  They had no problem ignoring us, so we started returning the favor, and got ready to do some exploring sans gear.  First up: Emory Peak.

Tabitha enjoys breakfast with one of the locals

Tabitha enjoys breakfast with one of the locals

When I hiked the high Chisos as a teen, we skipped the Emory Peak spur. By the time we reached it, we had 9 rugged miles behind us, and the descent down the Pinnacles yet to go.  Going down is not much easier than going up, so I had to postpone Emory Peak until another day.  24 years later that day had arrived.

It was less than a mile to the junction, and this time we only carried water, lunch, and the camera tripod. Nevertheless, the ascent up the Emory Peak spur trail started out as steep switchbacks, steeper than the Pinnacles, and we were soon winded in the thin air at over 7,000 feet.  It climbs a gulley and levels out near the campsite trail; there’s only one Emory peak site.  We turned right and continued up to the summit.

Now the trail was out of the gulley and an amazing view of the valleys of the high Chisos came into view.  We could even see Boot Canyon, and what looked to be the composting toilet near our campsite. Colima Pass spread out below us; we studied it knowing that was our intended route out the following day. The trail through upper Boot Canyon to the South Rim was easy to spot, and the desert beyond continued for miles.

Rich scans Colima Pass en route to the summit

Rich scans Colima Pass en route to the summit

Upper Boot Canyon extends through the middle to the South Rim. Colima Pass extend to the right in the foreground.

Upper Boot Canyon extends through the middle to the South Rim. Colima Pass extend to the right in the foreground.

The Emory Peak trail covers a little over a mile, but the steep grade more than compensates for the lack of distance.  And it was pushing 80 degrees, which we hadn’t felt since last September in Minnesota. We trudged on along south of the ridgeline, finding shade in an oak grove in exchange for more switchbacks. Finally we reached the top, or at least the top of the trail.  Lunch and time for some pictures of the fantastic views.

Near the summit, with Casa Grande (left) and Toll Mountain (center foreground) behind

Near the summit, with Casa Grande (left) and Toll Mountain (center foreground) behind

We met a nice older couple who arrived about 15 minutes later. The woman was German, and had a remarkable scar on her knee from some kind of drastic, ancient surgery. This apparently didn’t stop her from climbing all the way up from the Basin that morning.  Impressive.

A pleasant German woman braved the climb, bad knee and all.

A pleasant German woman braved the climb, bad knee and all.

Meanwhile, Tabitha found her way to the final ascent. If you want to actually summit Emory Peak, and stand atop the world with the radio towers and solar panels, you have to free clinb the last 75 vertical feet or so.  I was skeptical, not too worried about getting up, but getting back down. One look at my wife upstaging me on the rocks was all it took.  The views made me wonder why I ever doubted making the attempt.

Tabitha scramples to the Summit

Tabitha scrambles to the Summit

Tabitha at the summit, with Blue Canyon behind her

Tabitha at the summit, with Blue Canyon behind her

Rich is not entirely comfortable on the summit

Rich is not entirely comfortable on the summit

You can see the entire park from the top, all the way from Santa Elena Canyon to Boquillas Canyon, and the Sierral Del Carmen in Mexico beyond. Casa Grande and Vernon Bailey Peaks, once towering over us in the Basin, now stood well beneath our feet. Especially impressive from this vantage was a unique rock formation aptly named Mule Ears Peaks, to our west in the desert below Blue Canyon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Santa Elena Canyon, nearly 20 miles away

Santa Elena Canyon, nearly 20 miles away

 

 

 

 

The summit offers a spectacular view of Mule Ears Peaks

The summit offers a spectacular view of Mule Ears Peaks

 We scrambled back down the rocks; it was easier than it looked, and soon we were back on the switchbacks. Just before reaching the shade of the gulley that marked the home stretch down, we discovered there were as many German women in these mountains as there were bears.

She was much younger than Fraulein Knee Surgery, and much less prepared for this territory.  She had carried a full pack up this far, deciding not to stash it in the bear box.  It was hot, and she wore dark clothes and pants.  Her lower lip was sunburned to the point of blistering into a bloody mess.  I tried to tell her she could leave her pack back at the trail junction, but I can barely say “Good Afternoon” in German, much less “Bear Box”. It turned out we had not seen the last of her.

Down the gulley switchbacks, past the bear boxes, and back on the main trail. After I climbed up on a rock for a nice photo at the turn into boot canyon, we ran into more day hikers, this time two middle aged couples. Then men were ambitious if not rugged, while the women looked as if anyplace would have been better than there.  I tried to picture them hiking up the Pinnacles trail, and immediately felt sorry for them.  Surely the men wanted to make it to the South Rim.  That meant they still had nearly 3 miles to go…and then would have to hike back down again.  I know people who have divorced for much lesser trials. 

Rich poses at Boot Canyon

Rich poses at Boot Canyon

But rookies would learn, and we forged on past them to our campsite.  And we were reminded that we were also rookies in our own right, this being our first backcountry trip in this territory.  Arriving at camp, we started planning our afternoon hike up to the South Rim.  We looked at our water supply.  We did the math.  And we didn’t like the result.  Welcome to the desert.  Time to ration our water supply.

Our dwindling water supply forced rationing

Our dwindling water supply forced rationing

By the way, you can follow the entire path of our hikes and adventures using this map:

http://www.nps.gov/bibe/planyourvisit/upload/HighChisos-Trails.pdf

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For anyone who has never completed a marathon or other endurance event, there is a physical and emotional release throughout the body and mind when the finish line is finally crossed. The body has been taxed beyond acceptable thresholds, and the mind equally taxed as it wills the body well beyond its limits.

Reaching the top of the Pinnacles Trail, we found ourselves both experiencing this release. We grinned in admiration of the tremendous view. We felt the endorphine rush as the climbing ceased. We knew we had accomplished something few others could, and we were ready to bask in the glory of it all.

The problem was we weren’t finished yet. We still had at least a mile before we reached Boot Canyon. So we willed ourselves forward in spite of our temporary state of relaxation, and happy that at least the trail was mostly downhill from here.

Heading down from the pass, we were shaded from the late afternoon sun by oak trees, pinyon pine and the occassional Arizona Juniper. Soon two large bear boxes came into view, made available to any backpacker who wanted to stash their gear and hike to the summit of Emory Peak, the second highest point in Texas. We glanced up the trail to Emory Peak to make a quick mental note of the steep ascent, and pushed on to camp. Better to summit Emory the following morning with no gear at all.

The trail soon came out of the oak savannah and hugged a steep slope along a side canyon. We were now going down the hill deeper into the high Chisos, and started seeing amazing views into the Chihuahuan desert over 2,000 vertical feet below and several miles distant. And more than 20 miles away the Sierra del Carmen mountains of Mexico were clearly visible. These were the vistas we sought, and and what dragged us up here hauling 40 extra pounds of water amidst bears and mountain lions. But we only stopped to take a few photos; we were anxious to set up camp and rest.

Looking down Boot Canyon toward the desert below; the rock formation that gives the canyon its name is clearly visible to the right.

Looking down Boot Canyon toward the desert below

The Sierra del Carmen near Boquillas Canyon, as seen from the Boot Canyon Trail

The Sierra del Carmen near Boquillas Canyon, as seen from the Boot Canyon Trail

Tabitha admires the view from the Boot Canyon Trail

Tabitha admires the view from the Boot Canyon Trail; ; the rock formation that gives the canyon its name is clearly visible to the left.

We rounded a corner and headed West again into Boot Canyon proper. I examined the terrain as we hiked, and with a mental picture of the map I had studied, started indicating to Tabitha we were nearly there. My project management experience should have warned me this was a bad idea.

Rule #1 in project management – Always manage your client expectations. In other words, under-promise and over-deliver. Especially when you don’t know what you are talking about. Sure, I hiked this trail before…24 years before…in November…going the opposite direction.

Truth was I had no idea where the spur trail to our camp would appear, but the map showed it was a mile from the top of the Pinnacles. And despite the trail flattening out, it was still tough going over rough rocks with a full pack. So it was a mistake to say we were nearly there; Tabitha’s release after hitting the pass was wearing off (mine was too), and I knew she was nearing her limit.

So after crossing yet another wash from yet another side canyon, and telling her a 3rd time we were nearly there, I could sense the hostility walking 15 paces behind me. I picked up my own pace, hoping if I could put some more distance between us, she would be less likely to hit me with a rock. Fortunately, 3rd time was a charm, and I soon spotted the sign indicating the spur trail to Boot Canyon Campsites 1-4.

We chose the first campsite based on our group size, its location on a map, and our gut. Under the circumstances, the fact this site was the closest to the main trail was really all that mattered. Its proximity to the composting toilet (which carried its aroma straight to our tent with a southwest wind straight down the canyon), or its lack of a decent tent pad were irrelevant. What mattered most was how soon we could take off our packs, drink a liter of lemonade, and set up camp. We soon recovered from our ordeal and started enjoying the experience again.

Dinner soon followed: split pea soup with summer sausage and graded Parmesan cheese. Believe me, it tasted like filet mignon. We decided to hike down the spur trail after dinner to see the other campsites. It was obvious we had the worst of the lot, but we didn’t care. Another hundred yards would have ended in a trial separation, and Tab was willing to ignore the smell and lack of privacy to be close to the john, while other campers would have to hike back up the spur several hundred yards to use it. We left the nicer sites and hiked back up as the sun set, only to find a visitor at our camp.

This deer was checking out our camp, and didnt seem to mind our presence at all.

This deer was checking out our camp, and didn't seem to mind our presence at all.

This Carmen Whitetail deer was not afraid of us, so we went about our business making a cheesecake desert. Backpacking food has its ups and downs, usually dependent on the sheer hunger and exhaustion of those consuming it to mask its lack of flavor. But Backpacker’s Pantry cheesecakes are actually tasty at any time, and we eagerly started eating it.

We hardly noticed the deer as it continue to graze, and it was soon joined by others. After a while the novelty of seeing a deer so close wears off, and our campsite seemed to have some of the better local pickings in the midst of the severe drought. So we were quite surprised by what happened next.

We were eating desert when I heard a loud rustle in the leaves below. Boot Canyon 1 sits on the spine of a ridge; the spur trail follows this ridge beyond the campsite leading toward BC 2-4, where we had just hiked. To the south is Boot Creek, which was totally dry (which meant Boot Spring ¼ mile away was also likely dry, as reported the previous day). We were facing North, where a small ravine made up the other side of the ridge. I turned toward the noise, expecting to see another deer. But the deer were gone, and the rustle got louder.

Suddenly a yearling bear cup sprinted up the ravine at full speed, not more than 50 yards away. We started at seeing a bear so close, but he paid no attention to us. He continued at full gallop up the ravine and eventually disappeared into the trees. Just like that, it was gone. All I could think about was, “Where’s Momma Bear?”

Mother bears are protective of their cubs to the point of attacking humans, and we figured she had to be close by. But she never appeared. We retreated toward the tent, and our walking poles and a huge buck knife I carried, but there were no more bears that night.

We later learned there are currently two sets of cubs in the high Chisos, both born last year. At this age, they are basically behaving like teenagers, and Mom is trying to teach them to be more independent. Tab remarked the bear behaved like a kid who knows he’s been someplace he wasn’t supposed to be. It made sense; he ran like he was late for curfew, and knew he was in big trouble, his only hope to limit the damage was getting back to Mom as soon as possible.

So we busted out the whiskey flask and toasted to an experience most people never get to enjoy. An up-close, bear cub sighting without being spotted or smelled by Momma Bear is a rare and fortunate event indeed.

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 Up at dawn again and made coffee while watching the light grow on the Window and Casa Grande. I hiked up the hill towards the other campsites and met the man who had been camping solo across the road from us. This guy had a big truck and every outdoor toy imaginable, most notably two large kayaks on the roof. He’s a retired Navy officer who just paddled the entire length of the Rio Grande as it borders the park, about 185 miles. He did it in 8 days. Solo. Rapids flipped his boat and all his gear twice. I didn’t ask about running into any Mexican drug runners, and somehow I suspected he wasn’t scared of anything. He was huge; tall and muscular, no fat I could see, and probably in his early 50’s, and with a booming laugh that echoed across the campground in the morning light. He told me the wind on Saturday was gusting to 60 mph, and at least a ½ dozen tents were tossed into the campground dumpsters. We apparently had arrived less than an hour after the wind had finally subsided. Maybe those mule deer were telling us something.

Inspired after meeting such an adventurer, I returned to get Tab going on breaking camp and getting our backcountry gear ready. Our inexperience showed itself in how long it took us. Or maybe it was just nerves, but nothing we were planning seemed to rival an 8-day solo paddle on the Mexican border. We didn’t make it to the trailhead until noon, but we were finally ready.

Rich and Tab with full compliment of backcountry gear

Rich and Tab with full compliment of backcountry gear


Tabitha starts out on the Pinnacles Trail

Tabitha starts out on the Pinnacles Trail, our destination is directly above her head

Our route would take us up the Pinnacles Trail, the most direct route into the high Chisos from the Basin. It’s also the steepest and most rugged. I hiked this trail as a teenager at the end of a 12-mile loop; it was very strenuous, and that was going downhill. How would we fare with full packs and 40 pounds of water between us? In the first half mile the trail climbs steeply toward the pass ahead. We struggled adjusting to the weight on our backs and the strain on our legs and lungs. We could train for the climb back in Minnesota, but not the altitude. We rested after about 30 minutes, and agreed to rest as often as we needed to. This was no place for heroics, at least not yet.

Tabitha rests on the Pinnacles Trail near Juniper Flats

Tabitha rests on the Pinnacles Trail near Juniper Flats

The trail flattens out a little as it enters a grassy meadow full of cedars called Juniper Flats. We ran into a couple who said they had met some other backpackers who had seen a bear near the high country campsites, exactly where we were headed. Bears and mountain lions were a concern up here; nothing too dangerous if you were careful, but wild animals in a drought are unpredictable. We kept our eyes open. My thoughts drifted to the 2X trophy of a mountain lion in the Chisos Visitor Center, wondering how we would handle a close encounter. Suddenly I heard a loud SNORT! I nearly jumped out of my boots it was so close and loud. I turned to my left and saw a whitetail doe not 20 feet away in the brush. She was telling me to stay back, and I obliged, grinning to myself at how jumpy I had become at the thought of a cougar at a similar distance.

 Juniper Flats ended all too soon, and we found ourselves on the switchbacks that marked the steepest part of the trail. For the next 2 miles it cut directly into the steep slope, blasted out by the CCC long ago. We each carried a single trekking pole; we originally thought to use them to check questionable steps for snakes, but they came in very handy negotiating the steep climb. The trail was rocky too, and it wasn’t long before each of us knew this would test our endurance. While I had a brief passing thought in the first ½ mile this whole thing was a terrible mistake, now it was a challenge to get to camp, like an endurance race. I knew Tabitha was taking the same perspective just by the look of determination on her face.

We started well below the green water tower, visible on the right.

We started well below the green water tower, visible on the right.

 We broke on a hairpin switchback for lunch. Food and water in our bellies lightened the load in our packs a little, and we were better able to take in the spectacular views behind us of the Basin and the desert beyond. Finally some reward for our ordeal, but the steepest part was yet to come. Back to work.

Vernon Bailey Peak and the desert beyond from Pinnacles Trail

Vernon Bailey Peak and the desert beyond from Pinnacles Trail


Nearing Pinnacles Pass, the trail cuts behind rock formations

Nearing Pinnacles Pass, the trail cuts behind rock formations

 The last ½ mile the trail continues to ascend up a steep rock face, until it finally blasts through behind rocky points that give the trail its name. People with a fear of heights need not attempt this trail, nor anyone not in the best of condition. We saw many people heading down after their earlier hike up, and it’s not any easier going the other way. Most faces were not smiling so much, but focused on the cautious route down, and on the pain in their feet and legs. Tabitha and I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. We’d been climbing nearly 3 hours now, and we knew we were close. Finally the trail flattened out, and the slope was no longer steep to the side. Instead we could see into a small valley filed with oak trees. Toll Mountain was to our left, and the spur trail to the lone campsite followed the ridge line. To our right, Emory Peak. Ahead was the trail down the valley to the Emory Peak trail spur. Uphill to our right and left, downhill behind us and ahead. We had reached the pass.

Nearing the pass, Rich labors on.

Nearing the pass, Rich labors on.

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