Monday, February 18, 2013

Dry, Prickly, and Cold

We paused our railroad journey to do some hiking in Big Bend National Park in Texas. In three words - dry, prickly, and cold.

Dry - The park is desert. We saw water in a few places (e.g. Panther Springs and Boot Canyon) but none of the water sources in the park are dependable. Even the Rio Grande has stopped flowing on occasion. (The Rio Grande marks the border with Mexico in this area and Big Bend gets its name from a bend in the river.)

Prickly - Just about every piece of vegetation here has thorns or needles. At home you get accustomed to just pushing your way through the bush, with the worst you might encounter being a wild rose bush. Here that would be a serious mistake, you'd be scratched, impaled, and bleeding before you got two steps. Within the first ten minutes of our hike Shelley brushed against a branch of a bush and ripped a hole in her pants. (Much to her annoyance) Later she bumped a cactus and ended up picking 30 or 40 needles out of her leg. And then there was the Agave that drew impressive amounts of blood from her shin. I got off lightly - my arms just looked like I'd been fighting with a cat.

One of the worst bushes was called "catclaw" and that's exactly what its thorns looked like. They are amazingly sharp and snag skin as easily as cloth. If you walk into one by mistake it's a slow process to extract the thorns one at a time, often with the help of your partner.

Experienced hikers in this kind of area wear heavy duty pants and shirts, and leather gloves. We're in lightweight travel clothes. The trick is not to touch anything - hard when you're bushwhacking!

Of course, if we'd stuck to the established trails we wouldn't have had any of these issues, but what would be the fun in that! Seriously, I wanted to get off the beaten path to get a better feel for the countryside. Despite the scratches and punctures, I'm glad we did, partly because we hiked through quite different country. Our cross country adventure was lower down where it's just cactus and low bushes, whereas the other hiking we did was up higher in the mountains where it's more treed.

We didn't see a lot of wildlife - a few deer, a few birds (including colourful but noisy Mexican Jays). No lizards or snakes - presumably still too cool. Lots of signs warning about mountain lions but we didn't see any. The closest we came to seeing javelinas (collared peccaries)  was some chewed prickly pear cactus, which is a sign of them.

Cold - Although it was quite pleasant during the day, around +15c, it dropped well below freezing at night. That wouldn't have been so bad except that we only had our summer sleeping bags rated (optimistically) at 0c. We slept in all our clothes, jackets, and toques and it wasn't too bad. However, with the sun going down behind the mountains around 6pm and not coming back till 9am, we spent an inordinate amount of time ensconced.

Although Big Bend is quite far south (about the same as New Orleans), it's also at a higher altitude - we were between 5000 and 7000 feet. It was warmer in Alpine.

If you didn't want to camp, the Chisos Mountain Lodge seemed quite nice and many of the trails start right from the lodge (next door to the visitor center).

We didn't see too many other people until the end of our visit, when it was a long weekend and lots of people arrived. Of course, there was no one around on our cross-country adventure.

(click to view photos)
View from the South Rim

See also: all the posts from this trip and all the photos from this trip

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