On a Bender

Saturday, January 21, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

To Big Bend and Back, Day 17 

BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK, Texas— At long last, we entered Big Bend National Park this morning.  Big Bend refers to the great southwest dipping turn that the Rio Grande River makes in this area, defining the park boundary for 118 miles.  Covering 801,163 acres, Big Bend is one of the largest, most remote, and least visited national parks in the contiguous 48 states.  Across the river, adjacent Mexican territory enjoys a protected natural area status, forming a "sister park" with Big Bend.  And twelve miles to the west, Big Bend Ranch State Park, which enthralled us with its scenery yesterday, extends this preserve another 60 miles or so.

Our visit to the park began with a drive down Old Maverick Road, a 14-mile washboard dirt/chunky gravel track, headed toward Santa Elena Canyon, recommended as one of the most impressive areas of the park.  The landscape along Old Maverick was quite monochromatic, a warm yellowish beige, but the variety of plant materials and rocks rendered a canvas with luxurious texture.

Off Old Maverick Road (Santa Elena Canyon in distance)
Before we reached the canyon, we caught a glimpse of some type of animal scurrying across the road.  Stopping amidst the dust swirls stirred up by a half dozen motorcyclists roaring past, we were far too late to catch up with the mystery critter.  Fox?  Javelina?  We'll never know.

Approaching the floor of Santa Elena, the vegetation increased in frequency and variety thanks to the regular summer overflow of the Rio Grande at the canyon floor.  Like the other dozen or so tourists on site, we climbed the trail up the hill for a vertical view of the canyon's stunning vista.

Santa Elena Canyon (U.S. on right, Mexico across the river on left)
Near the top of our climb, we were startled when Ken's phone rang.  Cell service in this remote part of West Texas is as rare as cheap gas, and we almost fell off the side of the canyon from the shock.  It was one of our godsons, Max, whom we had tried to reach for his birthday yesterday.  As long as we stood perfectly still, we were able to sustain the signal for a brief visit with Max.  Only later did it occur to us that we might have been engaged in an inadvertent bit of international roaming off a Mexican cell tower.  We'll know the rest of the story when our next Verizon bill comes to call.

From Santa Elena, we took the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive up through Castelon to the main road. Along the way we traveled through the geologic history of Big Bend.   

Cerro Castellan
Stacked in the layers making up Cerro Castellan is evidence of millions of years of volcanic events, lava flows piled on ash deposits with layers of gravel and clay amassing in between periods of eruptions.  Farther along the road, ash deposits are much closer to the road, creating a dramatic landscape of fudge-rippled contrasting colors.

Ash deposits on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
Tuff Canyon provides more geologic history and drama.  Tuff is a sort of compressed volcanic ash laced with hot rock and other material spewed out during an eruption.  And this tuff is really tough.  It's been around more than 20 million years.

Tuff Canyon
Our final destination in the park was the Chisos Basin.  The southernmost mountain range in the U.S., the Chisos Mountains are completely contained within Big Bend National Park.  Having risen up from the desert floor as we drove toward a cooler mountain habitat, we entered the tree zone as we reached the Chisos.


At the Chisos Basin Visitor Center, we encountered one of the local paisanos, the local nickname for the roadrunner, a bird often used as a symbol of the area.  This poor guy was running around the parking lot as I stalked him for a photo op.  Posted on a map inside the center were reports of mountain lion and black bear sightings, which had been frequent.  Those I would not chase after, even for a close-up shot.

 
From an elevation of less than 2,000 feet along the Rio Grande to nearly 8,000 feet in the Chisos, Big Bend encompasses rugged deserts, rocky canyons and forested mountains.  With so many scenic vistas, we found ourselves again lamenting our failure to bring Woodie to capture worthy photos of these picturesque panoramas.  Once, just after we called out to him, a phantom motorcyclist zoomed past us and we had to wonder, was it Woodie?


ROAD NOISE:
  • While visiting Big Bend Ranch State Park yesterday, we commented that it was just a stone's throw to Mexico across the Rio Grande.  Of course, having said it we had to put that theory to the test.  Yep, it's a stone's throw away.
  • Today as we were sitting in the car picnicking at the Santa Elena Canyon overlook in the park, we had a big surprise when a couple of tourists stopped and tapped on the car window.  Our Georgia license plate informed them that we live in the same county they call home.  In fact, they live about three miles from the house where we used to reside.  (The reason we were picnicking in the car is that we forgot to bring enough food for the thousands of flies and gnats that wanted us to share.)
  • Big Bend has given us some opportunities to test the road worthiness (and off-road mettle) of our new-ish Acura.  On some of the steep inclines, Ken has found the paddle shifters that simulate manual transmission to be very effective in using the engine for braking and climbing power.  And it has handled well on some washed-out tracks we have negotiated.  (But we still miss the spaciousness of our old Odyssey.)

DAILY STATS:
  • Started in Lajitas, TX; ended in Lajitas, TX
  • Weather:  Partly Cloudy to Sunny, 43° to 75°
  • Miles driven:  132          (Trip total:  2,882)
  • States: 1 (TX)          (Trip total:  6)
  • Letterboxes found:  0         (Trip total:  74)
  • Flies and gnats in BBNP:  43,163
  • Roadrunner sightings:  2
  • Wile E. Coyote sightings:  0
  • Dusty motorcyclists in BBNP:  16
  • Fellow travelers we met from our hometown:  2
More Photos from Big Bend National Park