December 26, 2012 – Part 2
Dust In The Wind
Sotol Vista Overlook
Lower Burro Mesa
Santa Elena Canyon Overlook
Sweeping curves on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive include the Sotol Vista Overlook. It has incredible 360 degree views reaching far south across the Rio Grande into Mexico. An elevation of around 4,500 ft allows magnificent views expanding the entire western side of Big Bend National Park. Very far off on the horizon you can just make out the silhouette of the towering cliffs of Santa Elena Canyon. The Rio Grande passes right through the Sierra Ponce cliffs but is just too far to see from here. It’s unusual but the scale of the landscape here is unusual. Things appear a long way away but it really doesn’t take too long in a car to reach destinations which were only specks on the horizon minutes before. This is true even though the speed limit in the park is 45mph – city dwellers and suburbanites full of self importance may find the reduced speed offensive to their internal clock but slowing down is important to absorb the full grandeur of this place and to keep the roads safe for all life, wild and not.
We’d like to make Santa Elena canyon our ultimate destination today but with so much to see along the way – who knows? We like to keep a loose itinerary so we don’t feel rushed and have time to explore. If you don’t want harsh shadows in your photos, noon is not the best time of the day for photography. Although, if you do want to capture the beating sun and hazy horizon then this is the perfect time of the day! We feel it would be spectacular to be here at sunset to capture the warm, soft light rolling over the western side of the park. This time of year, it is cool in the shade so expect the temperature to drop considerably at sunset. We will make sure we return closer to sunset to capture the sun setting over the cliffs. It will be interesting to see and capture these wonderful views in vastly different light.
At the Lower Burro Mesa we hike from the car park out to the water pour-off. The hike in is very short and rated as easy. We agree with the rating. Probably a good short hike if you have young children. The trail winds alongside a dry, sandy, stone river bed ending about 0.5 mile at a towering enclosed canyon. In the wet seasons the water flows from the upper mesa region down the 40 ft. pour-off to nourish the lower regions of the desert. It’s hard to imagine raging rivers here but the landscape is undeniably carved out by waters which once flowed. This is not the place to be caught in a flash flood. If you have ever seen or experienced high water in these channels, you know the rapidity and ferocity with which mother nature can turn a dusty riverbed into a potentially lethal torrent. Today, there’s nothing but a few wispy clouds in the sky so we should be okay to fearlessly, confidently press on.
The flora in this region is very different from the higher regions in the Chisos Basin and as we stroll along the empty river bed trail Andrew captures a sample of the local brew, the vibrant desert contrasts of the flora against the dryness of the underbelly adds to the richness of this landscape. A splash of color here and there breaking the monotones of sandy earth and with syncopated precision. Nobody could choose to space like this but nature herself. Just the right amount in the right places. This is the perfection of evolution which maintains the visual integrity of this region. There’s not a better gardener anywhere.
After experiencing the pleasure of a gentle prod from nature in the form of a cactus spine I am astonished when I see people exit their vehicles wearing nothing but flip flops or sandals. Most people would rather forgo the pincushion treatment but to those who learn a little harder than the rest, please wear protective footwear. If just looking at a cactus spine feels painful to you, having one lodged under several layers of skin feels exactly how you imagine it might be – take my word for it. Unpleasant.
The path is wide enough and open enough to avoid most of the prickly stuff but loose ground makes you feel like you are hiking and not strolling in the mall.
Thrusting upward from the riverbed are the exposed canyon walls in brilliant hues of pink, grey and yellow, capped with dark volcanic rock. Camel packs, hats and sun protection are a great idea. The openness of the trail means shade is scarce in the midday hours and the infrequent overhang provides the cool shade to slow down and experience the diversity in the plant life and geology of the canyon floor found within it’s rock walls.
At the end of the trail, the smoothly polished pour-off confirms to the power of water that floods this canyon during summer rains. Looking up at the cylindrical shape, it reminds me of the ice samples that are drilled in the Antarctic and studied for their inner secrets, but this is on a much larger scale. What stories could this fall tell if it could speak. Or perhaps it is speaking, each level of erosion scraping it’s way up the sides describes the events which transpired, day after day, year after year. Andrew could very well represent any of the tiny micro organisms found in the cavities of an air pocket. It feels good to be subjugated by nature every now and then. You must get out into nature to realize we are just one of natures amazing creatures and share the planet with so many other species just trying to survive. I imagine some people feel lonely in the solitude provided by places such as these but you can rest assured you are not the only creature out here even if you brains tells you differently. Besides, exposing yourself to some level of solitude every now and then only enriches your appreciation for the moments shared with others. Get back to nature whenever you can.
Clouds of dust billow from our wakes. It’s dry, dusty, magnificent. Careful where you walk. Each step is a moment stomped in time. Respect the small, delicate roots of grasses and plants. Not all of them have threatening spines to remind us to watch where we step. You cannot see everything from the trails so getting off them is compulsory for those seeking high definition. Just be careful.
Tuff Canyon is a relatively small canyon carved out by Blue Creek as it drains from the Chisos Mountains into the Rio Grande. At only about 100 ft down Tuff is a fairly small canyon and encourages great exploration for the price of a short walk. If an amusement park ever decided to replicate a canyon, this would probably be it. Right by the side of the road and cleared from all obstacles. All they need here is a toll booth – thankfully this isn’t the reality. Tuff is predominantly composed of ash from a volcanic eruption so violent that it pulverized the molten rock and lava into a fine ash. The heat in conjunction with the additional layers of rock compress the ash into a soft rock called “tuff” that is easily eroded by even a small creek. Hence the name. However, the sides of the canyon are much harder and more durable so the canyon continues to grow deeper but with very little change in width. Many opportunities to capture pictures while snaking your way along the canyon floor. Don’t try this when it’s wet, there really isn’t any high ground to avoid raging floods when exploring the canyon floor.
Some people are attracted to shiny things, Andrew seems to be attracted to sharp, pointy things. He has tried for days to capture the clenched fist of the local plants. Get too close and they will let you have it. He has scampered up and down the rocky slopes many times today trying to capture “the perfect shot.” On our way into the canyon several Ocotillos strategically space themselves across the sloping bank meeting the sky with an unobstructed horizon – so off he goes, clambering up the rocky bank once again. The ground is hard, sharp and unfriendly. Like putting his hand on hot embers, his efforts are rewarded with a nasty little surprise as one of the spines finds its way into the palm of his hand. And not into like, here’s a $20 bill finding its way into your hand!
Sometimes you just have to get your hands, cut, bloody and mangled – in order to get the perfect shot! We decided to collect this little spine as a reminder of what happens when you put your hands somewhere where they shouldn’t be. Imagine an acid sharpened fishing hook about four inches long and you have one of these spines. UPDATE: It made it’s way home with us and was sitting on Andrew’s desk when we were cleaning one weekend. We were worried for a while when we couldn’t find the spine but were lucky enough to find it again (on the floor) – really have to be more careful with these things as they are potentially very dangerous especially with bare feet.
Entering the canyon we find ourselves in the accompany of a couple (or maybe it was a staged model shoot) using the tranquil backdrops of the desert and rock, the flowing fabric of the model’s Indian Salwar in the breeze combined with some graceful yoga movements to capture some stunning photographic shots. She seemed in harmony with her surroundings and I was tempted to take a few shots of her myself but thought it might be a bit intrusive and bordering on “stalking” to do so.
The canyon floor is arid with contrasting areas of light and shade which, like the moon, creates temperature differences that vary drastically. With a little editing to this picture (above), okay lots of editing (kidding), it seems to evoke the feeling of the Tuff Canyon best.
The opposite side Tuff Canyon rewards us with a different view of the mesa. The dark shadows are now replaced with colorful bands of moments in time. At the base of the mesa a ranch blooms in the desert. With limited time before sunset we decide to admire the view from a distance although there is a trail which winds it’s way around the lookout. We want to get back to Sotol Vista overlook before sundown.
Santa Elena Canyon stares at us across from a brief stretch of land. As the suns begins retiring for the day, the rock faces take on a beautiful purplish glow while in harsh desert glare is transformed into a warm, golden glow. The late afternoon sun releases the golden treasure of the desert. These precious moments at the end of a dying day are so precious. If you have the opportunity to bear witness, stop the car and stop. Don’t leave until the sun says goodbye.
The sun making it’s final curtain call makes the canyon dark in the shadows. We’ll be back, best to visit another day when there is plenty of light to explore the canyon. Heading back east and north, to base camp, we hope to capture some of the beauty of the golden, setting sun as it closes down the day.