Chisos Mountains Summer Rain has been kind to the Chihuahuan desert in the Big Bend region of Texas. As of this writing, the Chisos Mountains have received 20% more rainfall this year than the average annual rainfall. This life giving bounty has resulted in an explosion of green. Water is abundant in the High Chisos Mountains and the desert flora and fauna have capitalized with an explosion of life. After many years of drought in the region, this is a welcome recovery. August was an exceptional month for rainfall. Ten inches of rain fell in this month alone. Having made two previous trips this year in June and July, I was compelled to journey once again to capture the results of this event.
After making the long road trip on Labor day, the first impression of West Texas and the road into the park was wow! The desert was intensely green.
Tornillo Flat was thick with lush grasses and flowers abounded. As I arrived at an empty Chisos Basin Campground I was struck by the lush nature of the mountains and foothills. The campground was virtually empty, with only six sites occupied, according to the campground host. The Labor Day weekend had a full campground, but I planned my trip to coincide with the mass exodus on Monday. My strategy was a success. After setting up a camp for two nights in the Basin, I struck out for a short look at the transformation from this year’s Chisos Mountains Summer Rain. My plan was a slow cruise to Sotol Vista for sunset with stops along the way.
On the way to Sotol Vista I enjoyed the quiet of the mostly empty park, devoid of visitors. I stopped along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and snapped a few pictures of Purple Sage – Cenizo. The purple blooms were evident everywhere. This opportunistic desert dweller was taking advantage of the water and blooming profusely.
The sunset at Sotol Vista was not spectacular as some I have captured in past, but it was peaceful and quiet. After sunset I enjoyed the slow quiet twilight drive back to the Basin and my camp. I popped up to the Basin Lodge and did a little Wi-Fi catch up, grabbed a burger at the lodge and headed back to get a good sleep after the long day.
My plan for the following day was a day hike to Cattail Falls to see how the Chisos Mountains Summer Rain impacted the flow. After that I was going to prep my gear for a three day, two night pack trip into the High Chisos. Sometime in the middle of the night I awoke to the sound of thunder and heavy rain on my shaking tent. The wind was strong, but the storm was brief and I stayed mostly dry.
I awoke to a cool and cloudy morning, with the Chisos shrouded in mist and fog. I packed a day pack and my camera and headed to the Cattail Falls trailhead.
There was water crossing the the road just before the parking area for Cattail Falls and I arrived alone at the trail head. Wildflowers blanketed the area with a splash of color along my path. After making the short hike above the Wilson homestead, I turned toward the pouroff and could see water cascading over the falls. As I got closer I could hear water in the stream bed about 400 yds from the falls.
As I approached the narrow canyon, I could hear the sound of water, both from the falls and the wash below. It was clear that the Chisos Mountains Summer Rain had charged up Cattail Canyon.
I sat at the falls for quite some time enjoying the cool air and the sound of precious water. The wind pushed by the water was like air conditioning and after a time I got chilled and decided to move on. I headed back to Panther Junction and picked up a permit for 2 nights in the High Chisos. My plan was to leave the next morning and make the short hike to Laguna West 1 and spend the second night at SE 1 on the Rim. The permitting ranger was very forthcoming about the availability of water in Boot Canyon. After my permit was secured, I headed to Dugout Wells and then on to Rio Grande Village. I didn’t see much in the way of wildlife in RGV, but did manage to get a photo of the Common Black Hawk that nests there, but it was far away and not worthy of a post. Surprisingly there were a couple of sites occupied in RGV and a few campers at the hook-up sites. I walked the nature trail to the pond, but it was bone dry. They must not be pumping any water to it?
The air was hazy and the Carmens were shrouded but still an impressive sight as always. I really need to get up there some day!
I headed back to the Basin and prepped food and water for the next morning and relaxed with dinner an an audiobook. My plan was to take only 3 quarts of water and replenish in the Chisos. I slid off into sleep, anxious to get an early start. When I awoke the next morning it was clear and cool. I hydrated, gulped 600 mg of Ibuprofen (knees), a couple of pop tarts and parked at the store near the trailhead. I was alone this morning and I took a slow approach to the hike. I was in no hurry and wanted to enjoy the hike. The Mexican Jays scolded me almost constantly on my journey and I arrived at the top of the Laguna Meadow trail and rested for awhile before making the final mile to Laguna West 1. I threw down my tarp, shed my boots and made a cup of coffee. It was 74 deg at 11:30 and I was going to rest awhile before attacking Upper cattail canyon. The plan was to check out the availability of water as far downstream as the dam.
After about an hour snooze I booted back up, grabbed my camera and headed out past LW2 and 3 and entered the uppermost part of Cattail Canyon. Water was present immediately and stayed with me all the way to the dam and beyond. This section of the canyon is heavily overgrown with lots of obstructions. There was so much water, it was difficult at times to avoiding wading through ankle deep sections. Thank you Zamberlan Gore-Tex boots! I was able to stayed dry!
After about an hour of climbing and crawling, I finally reached the giant willow tree that signalled my approach to the dam. I spooked a deer as I reached the dam, which was full and overflowing. I sat for awhile and refreshed myself, washing my face and hands in the cool overflow. Not surprisingly, the Chisos Mountains Summer Rain was impacting all of the park environment.
Reluctantly, I headed back to Laguna West 1 to get some food and a rest. I ran across this casualty on the way back. I smelled him before I saw him. There were no obvious signs of trauma, so I don’t know the cause?
I arrived back at Laguna West 1 after a 2.5 mile roundtrip. It was a cool 77 deg at 16:10. It felt hotter from the exertion of the bushwhack down Cattail canyon. I was hungry and I fired up the Jet-Boil and tried a different Mountain House. The Chicken fried rice was pretty good, but the egg was a little spongy. Freeze dried eggs just don’t do it for me. It’s the texture. I also prefer the “Pro-Pak”, but couldn’t find any on short notice. This pack says 2 1/2 servings – about 700 calories. That might be 2 1/2 servings for a kid, but I had no problem wolfing it down and some fruit as well.
After supper I made a trek to a spot where I had found some special flowers in past. To my delight, not only did I find one specimen, but found seven individuals in 4 different locations, This species of orchid Dichromanthus Cinnabarinus, is a terrestrial species of orchid. It is common across much of Mexico, the range extending south to Guatemala and north into Texas. I’m not sure, but the USDA shows only Brewster County as the range in the United States. It looks like Chisos Mountains Summer Rain popped these splendid specimens up for my enjoyment. You never know what you’ll find til you look!
It had been a long day and I slid into my bag early. I drifted off under a bright moon and slept a deep sleep in the cool night air. I awoke early, before sunrise and the sky was ablaze with stars, satellites and meteors once the moon had set. I laid and watched until the horizon brightened in the east, signalling me that it was time to crawl out of my bag. It was a clear, pleasant 62 degrees. After doing my morning water, pop-tarts and Ibuprofen, I packed up and hit the trail. Today’s plan was to cross the Colima Trail to Boot Spring. I was sure that the Chisos Mountains Summer Rain had recharged all of Boot Canyon and I needed to replenish my water supply. I was down to 1 quart and I did not filter any from Cattail Canyon.
It wasn’t long before I reached the high point on the Colima Trail and started the downhill to Boot Canyon. I think the Colima Trail is the nicest in the Chisos after the Boot Canyon Trail. The Lower section was buzzing with Hummingbirds. I saw Rufous, and Broad-tailed hummers in large numbers. A few Lucifer’s were also present. When I arrived at Boot Spring, I shed my pack and dropped down into the canyon bottom to check out the spring. There was water coming over the pouroff and the spring was pushing water out of the pipe.
I returned to the picnic table for a rest and lunch and enjoyed the activity that is common around the spring. Hummers were everywhere. A Blue-throated Hummer, the largest hummer in the US, came in to check me out. He sounded like a Huey…Acorn Woodpeckers, Band-tailed Pigeons, Colima Warblers and lots of Titmice also visited me during my stay. You gotta love Boot Canyon! It was a cool 70 degrees at 10:00 and I sat for awhile before moving on.
I was sure there would be plenty of water in the upper parts of Boot Canyon and decided to filter from the pools. I just couldn’t see any point in humping the water for an extra mile up Boot canyon. Chisos Mountains Summer Rain is a blessing in many ways! I reluctantly shouldered my pack and headed up canyon. I found water all the way from Boot Spring until the trail does the final 1/4 mile climb out of the canyon to the South Rim. I stopped at the last set of hard rock pools and filtered 4 additional quarts of water to last me the next 24 hours. Water is life.
After climbing a wet and muddy ascent to the South Rim, I dumped my pack, texted a picture to Mikala, and she was sad not to be with me. School first! I sat on the Rim with a hazy view of the Quemadas and took a few pictures. t was VERY green in the Quemadas. The Chisos Mountains Summer Rains had done their magic.
It was pretty hazy so I made my way the short distance to SE1 campsite. I hoped that the haze would burn off later in the day and provide a better view for me and my camera. I set up my meager campsite and did a mileage and weather check. I was 10.5 miles into my journey and it was a cool 73 degrees at 13:00. Not too bad!
I shucked my boots and took a little power nap before heading back the 2 minute walk back to the Rim. I shot a series of hazy photos and watched groups of Red-tailed Hawks, Ravens and Vultures whirl in the thermals. A few small showers popped up in the desert to the east and the clouds were building all day,
I headed back to camp for another Mountain House dinner and lazed til about 18:00 before headed back to the Rim. My site was visited by scolding jays and many hummingbirds while I rested after dinner.
The clouds began to build around this time and I was captivated by the dynamic mountain weather. Look for yourself.
As the sun dropped to the West, the magic of the South Rim at sunset began to show itself. I have typed a lot of words in this post so far, but the next section will speak for itself…No words are required here except that it was a spiritual experience and humbling to be there alone.
As the light dimmed, I made my way back to my camp. The serenity I felt was difficult to describe as I crawled into my bag a drifted off to sleep under a bright moon, with the sound of a Common Poorwill echoing through the forest….
I awoke before sunrise and the sky was again ablaze with stars satellites and meteors. I did a weather check and it was a brisk 58 degrees. I was warm and comfortable in my bag and thought about going back to sleep! Instead I climbed out and had a good drink of water and my daily Ibuprofen and grabbed my camera and headed to the Rim. Sunrise warmed me and reminded me that I would be heading back to the Basin this morning.
With the sun rapidly climbing I headed back to SE1 to pack up my simple camp. As I shouldered my bag, I bade farewell to the omnipresent scolding jays and headed out. With one last look at the Rim, I headed down the Boot Spring trail on my way to the Pinnacles and ultimately the Basin. I stopped briefly in Boot Canyon and had a snack and then made the climb out to the Pinnacles. The slopes were covered with flowers and alive with hummingbirds. Reaching Pinnacle pass, I stopped for a few photos and a rest before the 4 mile downhill trek to the Basin.
After a short rest I headed down the steep section of the Pinnacles trail towards the Basin. That section is hard on my knees, so I took it slow and enjoyed the scenery, the cool air and the sounds of birds calling in the trees. Before I knew it, I was passing the park water tank and slipping in behind the cottages and to my truck, parked near the Basin store. I shucked my pack, did a mileage check and bought a bottle of Topo Chico and a bag of ice.
After a hike I always fulfill needs in a specific order. 1) Cold drink, 2)Shower, 3)Cheeseburger. There was no change in this routine. I headed to Study Butte and pushed 16 quarters into the shower and had 16 minutes of bliss! I grabbed a bag of salty chips at the store, caught a little fuel and headed back to the Basin for # 3 on my list. I caught up on some Wi-Fi and headed back to camp to prep for a next morning departure. The afternoon was a bit warm and I thought my chances for catching any more photos had ended. However Big Bend never fails to surprise and amaze me. The clouds started to build over Casa Grande and a violent thunderstorm ensued. I captured these photos before I ran for cover.
In this video there is a lightning strike at 24 seconds that causes a sound anomaly in my camera.
Just after this I ran for cover and the downpour ensued. We had heavy rain, marble sized hail (very little) and strong winds. The rain continued for 30 minutes or so and the skies remained cloudy for the next couple of hours. Just after the rain quit, I saw a single Least Sandpiper land on the road next to my campsite. This is a uncommon bird in Big Bend and is really only found by the river during migration and winter. I think this one must have been pushed to ground by this storm. Not a good day to fly!!
With all of the rain finished I slipped into my tent for a good sleep in preparation for the long way home. I woke early and packed out by 06:30. As I headed north toward Marathon the sky became increasingly interesting. I did see a Prairie falcon in the Marathon Basin, but he did not cooperate for a photo. Good to see them there anyway. I pulled over between Marathon and Sanderson for a parting shot of Big Bend Country Magic.
Except for the drive home, my Chisos Mountains Summer Rain trip was over, but not forgotten. I trust you enjoyed your read. Leave comments if you feel so inclined.
For those interested in these things:
Gas was $1.95 in Fort Stockton
$2.67 in Marathon
$2.60 in RGV
$2.40 in Study Butte
$1.89 in Uvalde
Total Mileage Hiked – 16.30 mi.
Minimum Elevation 5345′
Maximum Elevation 7302′
Total elevation change 6616′