December 27, 2012
Mule Ears Springs Trail
Santa Elena Canyon
Another beautiful morning at Big Bend National Park. The nights are very cool but the mornings are wonderful and make you feel like walking or simply exploring. We start the morning with conversation. We got talking to our neighbors in the site opposite. Jack and Julie are from Austin, Texas (sometimes we have to remind ourselves we are still in Texas) and have been coming to Big Bend for Christmas regularly for several years. Like us, they have a quiet generator and the men swap specifications for a brief time. We purchased a generator before we left so we could have some power to cook with. Conscious of the noise, we hunted for a model specifically designed for camping. We ended up choosing a Honda which puts out enough power to run our air conditioner (important in the Texas summer). Jack was happy with the Yamaha incarnation. Andrew agrees with Jack that both models are a perfect fit when you want to keep the noise to a minimum and the reliability to a maximum. The hardest part is working out a solution to prevent someone walking off with the thing when you are away from the site. While the boys are busy comparing notes, Julie and I chat about travels around the countryside we have taken. They have been here for the past week and are heading back home today (isn’t that always the way it goes – you meet people as they are on their way out). This is actually their first stint in their new camper although looking at it casually you would think it was a 1950’s model in mint condition. They were happy to tell us that it tricks people a lot but it is a new model of the retro Shasta (hmmm… new retro – does that make sense?). It’s the perfect size for the two of them and pulls comfortably behind their small truck. If Andrew was about 6 inches shorter it would work for us too! We couldn’t help notice the tension between each other as they tried hooking up the camper to the truck. We had to laugh because we know what that is like. You know, when left ain’t left anymore and right takes on a whole new meaning when the hand gestures of the person giving directions become more pointed and aggressive. We seem to have worked out a system after all these years – don’t frustrate Andrew by doing anything wrong. Don’t do anything which tests his patience. Hey, it works! (Andrew ed: Don’t stand behind the camper giving directions unless you can see my smiling face in the side mirror.)
We did see a great 4WD conversion van which looked like it could go anywhere. It had all the things you might need including a winch to pull you out of those boggy (or icy!) patches. It was painted in a sleek matte black – didn’t catch the name. The restrictions on camper size means that most of the campers are small. Tents are the most popular habitat for sleeping, even this time of year. There’s really no good reason anyone couldn’t experience this place at least once. We have seen camping gear looking like it was purchased at the local drugstore on the way into the park and will probably be disposed of on the way out. Of course, if camping is too challenging for you then the cabins might be more appropriate for you.
After a leisurely, late breakfast we decide to head back along Ross Maxwell Road to take a hike along the Mule Ears Springs Trail while the air is still cool and afterwards make our way to Santa Elena Canyon.
At the Mule Ears Springs trail car park, there is only a lone ranger’s vehicle so it would seem we will have this trail to ourselves for at least part this morning. The hike to Mule Ears Spring is relatively flat, although there are a few sections where you have to scale some small hills. It is rated as moderate which is probably because the trail is a mix of very soft sand and small rocks giving your calf and ankle muscles quite a workout (think running on sand). The ground off the trail is much firmer but there is much small ground cacti straining to sting exposed flesh as it passes by (think ouch!) .
At the trail head, you’ll find yourself standing at the edge of a blanket of rocks woven from an explosion long ago. The hillside on both sides is littered with rocks and boulders of all sizes. It’s hard to know if they came from below or were landed there by massive forces of nature. The terrain looks more like Mars, vibrant reds and deep purples everywhere. The path is long, winding and isolated. No one in sight, anywhere. The sound is dampened by the vastness. The trail is well worn, the evidence of people is everywhere but nobody to be seen. At an elbow of the trail, there is overgrown cottonwood and willow trees. Freakish until you realize you are at the water hole. Mule Ears Spring. The spring itself is more surprising than spectacular. It is an oddity out here. So dry, it looks like trees just got up one day and said to the other trees, “I’m off to the spring”. And when they got there, they stayed finding all the nutrition they needed to thrive. They are joined by masses for cattails which have taken up residence along the water’s edge. If you were hoping for a cascading waterfall pouring into a cool lagoon you will be disappointed. If you appreciate it for what it is – you can see how the many living creatures here must look at this place as nothing short of an oasis. Shaded by the willow trees we sit and rest our bones for a few minutes. The overgrowth is so thick you cannot see the horizon on any side. The remains of a mud structure (a corral?) keep the spring company. We are mindful that we are probably not the only creatures out here which think it’s a nice place to cool off by retreating from the desert sun for a few minutes. Hidden away in the bushes, without visibility keeps us on our toes.
The trail continues further towards the base of Mule Ears but we decide to turn around and head back towards the truck. We really want to make sure we make it to Santa Elena Canyon today with time to explore it. The hike on to the base of Mule Ears would be great.
Distant voices can pierce the silence so acutely that it is cause for stop so you can check your ears. Eyes scan the horizon, looking for movement to match the sounds. The voices, like tremolo, are more and then less discernible. Moving towards us, we see a couple of volunteer rangers (occupants of the truck in the carp park) and stop them to have a chat in the desert. Chatting in the desert is not like chatting in the city. The husband and wife who volunteer in the winter months at the park are originally based in Missouri. They have been coming to Big Bend as volunteers for the last 5 years to escape the winter weather. They are probably in their late 60’s and put us to shame with how fit they are. They are very knowledgeable about the region and provide us with some insights about the dwindling coyote population. We have seen many jackrabbits and due to the reduced precipitation over the last few years the coyote population has shrunk which means the smaller creatures, typically pray for larger quadrupeds like foxes and coyotes, are thriving. It must be hard if you’re a large creature out here, trying to find enough food and water to survive. This is why most of the typically large creatures (like bears) are smaller. You could say smaller is better even in Texas!
As we arrive back at the entrance, another couple takes to the trail. I have to stop and watch – awestruck. I am astonished with the amount of gear they are wearing and am wondering if they plan to set out for a cross country trek. Wearing shin guards, carrying massive packs and two walking sticks each, I am amazed that they are even able to move their legs with all the gear they are wearing. All that additional weight with the sun high in the sky!
We packed a sandwich and fruit and decided to have a quick bite to eat and one last study of the horizon at Mule Ears Springs overlook. On to Santa Elena Canyon.
It is around 4 pm when we arrive. The lighting is perfect. Just high enough to keep the shadows at bay and low enough to cast some warm golden rays into the harsh rocky region. It gets pretty dark here late in the day so make sure you get here before it is too late. Ross Maxwell road blacktop ends at the canyon. You can traverse cross country along a graveled road to Santa Elena Junction but allow plenty of time as we found just driving the short distance we did on the road that it is very slow going. If you have doubts, don’t try the dirt road route if there is any chance of rain. The sand is very soft and when wet would easily bog down under the the vehicle in places. Four wheel drive territory and larger vehicles will probably handle the corrugations better.
The Rio Grande is nothing more than a trickle with only about 12 ft of water separating America from it’s Mexican neighbor. I have seen movies depicting Mexicans wading chest high to cross the river but here it is a mere running jump. Of course the most difficult aspect would be negotiating the sheer 1500ft cliffs which tower over the Rio Grande. It’s an awesome sight, the cliffs climb so high they look like they almost touch in places as you approach the canyon. How many times has the sun risen and set on these faces? If you’re canoeing the river, don’t forget your permits. Even those that come to canoe with the required day permits must ensure that they do not allow their craft to land on the wrong side as fines and imprisonment are posted on signs as deterrents at the trail entrance. Crossing the Rio Grande is a big no-no. If you’re caught by the Border Patrol crossing into the United States, you’ll be arrested. There are only a couple of official border entry points and they are a long way away. Even considering the risks, we still we see tell tale signs of international travel with footprints along the banks of the Mexican side. There is a beach of sorts along the river, but the Rio Grande isn’t exactly a wading river. It’s not particularly inviting and is an unappealing greenish-brown. It’s nice to sit on the bank of the river and in our case, stop and listen to the harmonious sounds of a flute as melodies resonate along the canyon walls. The reverberation is more like a grand concert hall than the desert. As we make our way into the canyon listening to the melody, I had the feeling that we were being placed into a hypnotic trance and coerced by the “Pied Piper of Hamelin.” There were many people visiting, like ants against the huge backdrop. We all seemed to wondering about the flute and where it was coming from. Impossible to locate we are urged to keep walking to uncover the source of the beautiful sounds emitting from the canyon. We discover a twist of irony, the source of the music is not coming from the hired “Pied Piper” to lure away the children but instead from a young girl sitting on a rock luring the adults with her flute.
After walking across a long flat section of sand from the car park, the trail leading into the canyon becomes a winding set of steps leading up the canyon wall and then back down onto a narrow sandy beach. The narrow winding path is reminiscent of M.C. Escher’s work “Ascending and Descending” and we wondered for a moment if the design of the path was not somehow influenced by the artist. If you don’t like heights and paths at altitude without a hand rail make you nervous, take your time. Most people on the trail feel the same way. If you have kids, watch them. There are many elderly folks who make the trip and although young kids may be fearless, the paths are barely wide enough for those whose equilibrium is a challenge. The absence of handrails on some parts mean that the inside edge is most popular for traffic going both ways.
You do not travel too far into the canyon to get incredible vantage points. It does get dark early. The canyon is deep. We wanted to keep going and going – the trail ends when the water meets the canyon walls. There is some climbing to do the further you enter the canyon but you don’t have to go far at all to experience what this place has to offer.
We are so happy that we finally made it here. We’ll take our memories back to camp.
We arrive in the dark – again. There were many opportunities to stop on the way back, so we did. With time for some dinner, we fire up the generator and throw together some grub. The generator is really useful when there isn’t any power and it’s dark and cold. Bon Appetit!