The Grand Canyon : Rim-to-Rim and more!

Late August is not a highly recommended time for visiting the Grand Canyon, especially if you’re going to walk down to Phantom Ranch. But that’s when we had a cabin at Phantom Ranch, and we weren’t going to miss it! After all, I’d never been there before. And we’re from Texas, we can deal with heat.

So we flew up to Flagstaff, rented a chariot, checked into a hotel a bit south of the National Park, and drove on up for my first view of this fabled hole in the ground. How many times have you heard this: the pictures just don’t do it justice! But then, they really couldn’t. 277 miles long, an average of 10 miles wide and a mile deep, I would have needed a really wide lens to capture it all. Or a seat on the International Space Station!

Before I get too deep into this, here’s the National Park Services map page for the Grand Canyon, in case you want to see a high-level view. I have also included links to Alltrails trail maps for the trails we did.

Here’s our first view, near the Visitor’s Center (And just for reference, here are a few facts about the Grand Canyon courtesy of the NPS):

We got there fairly early in the day, so we thought we’d try a little hiking just to start getting accustomed to the altitude, so we headed over to the South Kaibab trailhead with the intention of hiking down past Ooh-Ahh Point to Cedar Ridge (following our friends at Alltrails!). But first, a precipice to sit upon! It’s only about a mile and a half down there, around 1100 feet of elevation. It seemed longer coming back up.

But the views along the way, magnificent! There’s a reason they call it Ooh-Aah Point.

We hiked on down to Cedar Ridge, took a bit of a rest, and started back up. Did I mention that it seemed (a lot!) longer going up? It was, after all, our first day at altitude. It’s difficult to train for that when you live in Dallas – altitude about 600 feet above sea level (at least where I am right now). We could get up over 700 feet in a tall building. The lowest point on this hike is just over 6000 ft! Someone should import some oxygen up there. But with regular rest stops (oh, I just wanted to take one more picture…) and plenty of water, we made it back to the top. I was glad that wasn’t the trail we were planning to use coming up from Phantom Ranch…

As an aside, I should mention the great mistake we made that day – we did not have our trekking poles with us for the hike. That was the last time we made that mistake! Both of us are in the habit of using two and we were glad to have them for the rest of our trip.

Someone we bumped into recommended going over to Yaki Point for the sunset, so we did. It was a quiet sunset, sky-color-wise, but the red/golden light on the canyon’s rock formations was beautiful.

The next morning we went to the Bright Angel Lodge and dropped of a duffel bag with some things we wanted to be waiting for us when we came up out of the canyon on Wednesday. Clean clothes to wear to dinner, for example! Then we paid a visit to the Bright Angel Trailhead where we would be arriving in a few days, and walked over and hopped on the Red Shuttle out towards Hermit’s Rest. We hopped off at a couple of stops to check out the view, did a (very) little hiking on the Rim Trail. After a brief visit to Hermit’s Rest, we went back to the village. There we hopped into our chariot for the quick, 11-mile journey to the North Rim Lodge!

Ha Ha. As you may know, in order to travel the 11 miles to the NR Lodge, you have to drive over 200 miles around the canyon, crossing it near the head (Marble Canyon, more later) where it’s only about 200 yards across. You drive past the Vermilion Cliffs, turn south into the Kaibab National Forest, and eventually reach the end of the road, where the Lodge is conveniently located. We checked in, dropped our gear in the cabin and went off to Bright Angel Point (see Alltrails!) – just a short walk from the lodge, but a marvelous view! We stayed there for sunset, then went to get a good night’s sleep.

The following morning we went back to Bright Angel Point for the sunrise. Again, the light was nice and the clouds were mostly absent. But it was that morning that I realized that the narrow canyon we could see below us was Bright Angel Canyon, the route we would be taking to get to Phantom Ranch! You can see it running lower right to upper left.

After a little breakfast (had to have my tea!) we decided to go hike the Uncle Jim Trail (on Alltrails), one that starts near the North Kaibab trailhead. The trailhead is a couple of miles up the road from the lodge, so we tossed our trekking poles into the chariot and cruised up there. Uncle Jim is about 5 miles long, you hike out to a loop, around, and back along the trail. Most of the trail is through the woods, but at the end of the loop there’s an overlook with an amazing view! Especially the view overlooking the North Kaibab Trail, which you can see zig-zagging down the side of the canyon!

It was a pleasant hike, in spite of the…high mule traffic on the trail. Not while we were hiking, they’d just left a considerable amount of evidence, especially on the early part of the trail. Once you get on the loop, it’s much better.

After Uncle Jim, we decided to hike down the North Kaibab Trail as far as Coconino Overlook (Alltrails). We thought it might be nice to go down this part of the trail while we could enjoy the view, as it would probably be dark when we next hiked that stretch! I tried to spot the Uncle Jim Overlook, but I couldn’t be sure…

After the much-longer climb back up to the trailhead we went back to the lodge and wandered around a bit, stopped in at the gift shop where we fell under the spell of the cashier talking us into joining the Grand Canyon Conservancy!

As a reward for joining the conservancy, they gave us Kai! In spite of appearances, he is not a skunk – he is a rare Kaibab Squirrel. So rare that he’s the only one we saw. In order to prevent him from becoming endangered we had to fasten his seatbelt. He was kind enough to guard our chariot while were were crossing the canyon.

Then we had a bite and waited for dark. And after dark, just for variety, we went to…Bright Angel Point! Looking south from there, we could see the lights on the South Rim – and the Milky Way. Even then the clouds wouldn’t quite leave us alone…

After sleeping in the next morning (you can only do so many sunrises) we took a fairly easy day, to rest up for the big event. We drove up to Point Imperial (Alltrails – it’s not much of a trail, but if you zoom out it gives you a nice topographic map of what we were looking at!), the highest point in the park (8803 feet, according to the sign). From there you can see where the canyon really widens out. It goes from 100 or 200 yards wide around Lee’s Ferry and Marble Canyon to about 2 miles across at a gap in the wall you can see from Point Imperial and then 5 miles and wider almost immediately. The prominent rock formation in the foreground is Mt. Hayden, according to the sign at the overlook.

After enjoying that view for a while, we moved on down to Cape Royal and Angel’s Window(Alltrails). On the drive down, there’s a spot with a great view of Angel’s Window, so we stopped there briefly. The tiny people walking on top of it should give some idea of the scale of the rock formation. From the Cape Royal parking area, you walk down the trial toward the point and take a left to go out onto it. It’s fairly wide and you’re fenced in, but if you don’t like heights, maybe not…

Then we walked on out to the Royal Overlook. From the Overlook you can see Wotan’s Throne and the Vishnu Temple. Some weather was making an appearance on the South Rim, so we watched it for a while. Looking at the map, it may have been near Grand Canyon Village. I was beginning to think that the amount of cloud cover did not bode well for my night-sky-photo hopes!

We went back to the lodge for a dinner in the main dining room (the buffalo tenderloin was only fair, my wife enjoyed the trout) and an early bedtime. Our plan was to be hiking down the North Kaibab Trail by 5:00 in the morning! We packed up our luggage and our backpacks and hit the sack.

Up early Tuesday morning, I had to have my tea and a protein bar for breakfast! Took everything we had left out to the chariot and drove the two miles up to the trailhead. We could have hiked it, but why? It’s far enough to Phantom Ranch without adding miles… (Here’s the trail map)

But we did indeed start hiking about 5! Okay, maybe closer to 5:15… We had our headlamps and more flashlights than we needed, especially since we could pretty much see without them by about 5:30. Here are a few shots from the early journey down:

A little after 6 we reached the water stop at the Supai Tunnel and topped off the water bottle. Half an hour later we crossed the Redwall Bridge. Some of the trail after this point ran along a sheer cliff face, above and below! It was generally pretty wide, though, rarely less than 5 or 6 feet. About 8 o’clock we reached Roaring Springs (okay, we weren’t setting any speed records!), and just past the springs you reach Bright Angel Creek and Bright Angel Canyon.

The remainder of the hike follows the course of Bright Angel Creek as it nears the Colorado River, down at the bottom of the canyon. The trail flattens out here so the downhill is much more gentle. Our knees were grateful. From the trailhead to the Manzanita Rest Area you go down over 3800 feet in 5 miles of trail. From there to the river you drop about 2000 feet in over 8 miles of trail.

Except for a couple of places where the trail was blocked by rockfalls, the hike was uneventful. At the Cottonwood Campground we maxed out our water bottles in preparation for the longest water-free stretch of the hike (though we did have a lifestraw and water purification tablets, just in case!). It was, after all, late August, and we had been reading all the warnings about The Box and how you should try to pass it before 10 AM. It must have been noon or a little after before we got there!

So we sauntered down the trail, enjoying the rock formations, the flora and fauna, the sound of the occasional waterfall in the creek. We stopped once to wet down, well, almost everything: our clothes, our cooling towels, our hats. And then we kept on going. And then we got to Phantom Ranch, around 2 o’clock. The Box had been quite…mild, I guess, most likely due to the cloud cover preventing the sun from heating up the rocks. When we got to the Ranch I would have bet that the temperature never even passed 90, but the campground thermometer said 100 under the cloudy sky.

We didn’t see a lot of wildlife on the way down, a few lizards and the occasional caterpillar. I’m told those are “white-lined sphinx moth” caterpillars. I don’t know when the moths will be out. The large lizard looks a lot like a Chuckwalla, or at least some variety of iguana. It was very shy, moving off before we got anywhere near it. The spiny looking one with the orange splotches appears to be a Desert Spiny Lizard. And the other…

After we checked in to our cabin, we decided to go see the Kaibab Trail Suspension Bridge, the one we wouldn’t be crossing on our way up the North Rim. It’s a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, built in 1928. And a lovely bridge it is, known as the Black Bridge to distinguish it from the Silver Bridge on the Bright Angel Trail. I had plans for this bridge and the night sky but the cloud cover thwarted my intentions. 😦

We got back to the ranch in time for the 5:00 feeding, I had a steak and Leigh had the veggie stew. The steak was only fair, but I was glad of it after a long day of nuts, jerky, and protein bars! The gentleman we ate with said his was great, so don’t judge just by my experience. And if they open up for indoor dining, it will no doubt be even better.

Afterwards, as darkness encroached, I was determined to go out and shoot even if I couldn’t see the sky! I grabbed my camera and tripod and walked across Bright Angel Creek (on the bridge! It’s wider down there!) and went to the Silver Bridge. I had perhaps waited a bit too long, but I took some really long exposures just for fun. Then I went back to the cabin to get a good night’s sleep – breakfast was at 5!

And a fine breakfast it was! Eggs & sausage, some pancakes, orange juice. More carbs than I usually eat in a week, but I was getting ready to climb out of the Grand Canyon, so I didn’t mind. We ate, dumped our trash, and hit the trail. Across the creek, past the campground (temperature: 80 degrees), and over the Silver Bridge to the River Trail.

The River Trail, oddly enough, runs along the river for a while. It has a few ups and downs, just a little bit. As we approached the River Rest House, we saw a raft trip group that had been camped by the river. They appeared to be packing up the their tents and getting ready to climb into their (very large) rafts. You can see them in one of the pictures above.

At the rest house, we turned up Garden Creek and Bright Angel Trail. Yes, that’s right: the North Kaibab Trail runs along Bright Angel Creek in Bright Angel Canyon. The Bright Angel Trail runs along Garden Creek in…well, I haven’t found a name for that canyon. And, of course, Bright Angel Point is on the North Rim.

Anyway. From the Rest House (where we didn’t) you start going up. Not all that steeply, 1300 feet in 3.3 miles up to Indian Garden. One thing about this trail, unlike coming down North Kaibab, once you start upwards you don’t find yourself going back down very much. NK had a lot of up in its down!

One tip we had heard about going uphill here was “Don’t look up at how far you have to go – look back and see how far you’ve come!” That seemed like good advice, so we did, mostly. As you can see in some of these pictures:

The first water stop you reach is Indian Garden, about 5 miles from Phantom Ranch. After hiking through scrub brush and cactus you suddenly find yourself among trees, and a few wildflowers. From above (as you can see below) it looks like an oasis in the middle of the desert. Which, I guess it is! I filled up my water bottles, anyway. We took a little rest here, chatted with the passers-by. There were a lot more people at this stop than we saw the whole way down North Kaibab the day before! I guess people hike down from the South Rim, or ride down on the mules. From this point onward, there was a lot of…evidence…of mules. Some carrying tourist, some carrying what I assume was supplies for Phantom Ranch. We had to step aside for them a couple of times.

It had been cloudy all morning and as we approached Indian Garden some rather threatening formations loomed over the rim. Finally, they decided to rain on us, just long enough for me to decide to pull out my poncho. As I put it on, the rain stopped. For a moment, I felt very powerful… 🙂 It kept looking threatening, so I kept the poncho on for a while. Eventually it got a little too warm, so I took it off. A little way up the trail, it started raining again! This time for long enough that Leigh got her poncho on too, and we were glad to have them! Fortunately, the trail never got muddy and slippery. And we did have our trekking poles.

After Indian Garden the trail gets a little steeper, about 1300 feet for 1.5 miles. And it’s about 1.5 miles between the water stops the rest of the way. From Indian Garden to 3-Mile Resthouse, then 1-1/2 Mile Resthouse, then the trailhead. We walked and chatted with our fellow hikers, stopped at the Resthouses for water and rest, and just kept climbing – and looking back, not up!

About 2:30 or so we popped up at the trailhead. We stood around a bit, took a few pictures, and then headed over to Bright Angel Lodge. Picked up the bag we had checked, got to our room and immediately went out again – to find an energy drink and some celebratory ice cream! Then we went back to the room and had a celebratory bath and cup of tea. We had a dinner reservation for later, so we rested up.

That night, we went over to the El Tovar Dining Room for a fancy(ish) dinner. It’s a very nice place and it wasn’t very crowded. Having had Buffalo Tenderloin Monday night and a steak down at Phantom Ranch, naturally I had … a steak! The peppercorn filet, quite tasty. Leigh had the tomato basil soup and a shrimp cocktail, also quite tasty. And cheesecake for dessert. And back to our room for a good night’s sleep so we could catch the 8:00 shuttle back to the North Rim to pick up the chariot – and the rest of our luggage.

We caught the Trans-Canyon Shuttle in the morning. I rode shotgun, John (the driver) and I chatted about the sights we were passing, how long he’d lived there, and the kinds of things you chat about on 4-hour rides. John dropped us off at the NK Trailhed, where the chariot and the luggage were parked. We took a quick trip down to the General Store at the campground, got some ice, drinks, and snacks. Then we headed back the way we had just come!

This time, however, we could stop wherever we wanted! For example, on 89a, north of the park, are the “Cliff Dwellers” ruins, old stone buildings built around and under the amazingly shaped boulders strewn across the area. And several Navajo selling jewelry. Of course, the Vermilion Cliffs are all around.

The next stop up the road is the Navajo Bridge(s). The original bridge was built in 1927/28 and was used up until 1995, when the new bridge opened. It was only 18 feet wide, which was then adequate for a bridge with unpaved roads on either side! When they decided it was no longer suitable, a wider but otherwise similar bridge was constructed less than 100 yards downriver. See the photos for comparison! And the “Wayside Observation Shelter” was built between 1939-41 by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Our last stop before we turned back toward the South Rim was the Cameron Suspension Bridge in Cameron. The town came after the bridge, which was named after a U.S. Senator. Though it later became part of US Route 89, it was originally out in the middle of nowhere,at the edge of Navajo and Hopi land. It provided+ a safe way to cross the Little Colorado River, especially for sheep and cattle. Having been replaced in 1959, it now carries only a gas pipeline.

A couple of miles south of Cameron is the turnoff for AZ64 back to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I wanted to be at the Desert View Watchtower for sunset, and we made it in plenty of time. The Watchtower was built in 1932, designed and supervised by Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, “The Architect of the Southwest.” It was designed to blend into its surroundings and be a place of rest – I can attest to the first but not the second, as it closed well before we got there.

So we found a nice place near the tower to watch the sunset with a couple dozen close friends! Hazy, still, but a lovely sunset nevertheless. Then we went out to a different spot to take some shots of the watchtower and the sky. The clouds were dense and moving quickly. Not as quickly as I would have liked – I had hoped to get some Milky Way shots, but well past dark it was still too cloudy. So I packed up my gear and we walked back to the car. I was feeling a bit discouraged and we sat there talking for a while. We kept looking up and finally the clouds started to break up a bit and I decided to drag the gear back down to the spot. It never did really clear up, but I got some interesting shots…

Our last day on the South Rim, we decided to sleep in a bit and then go to the El Tovar for breakfast. The Eggs Benedict was (were?) quite good. And Leigh would recommend the French Toast! Afterwards we went out to Grandview Point. The view is lovely, but we were really there for the hike!

There’s a trail from Grandview Point down to Horseshoe Mesa(Alltrails). It’s a great trail – if you’re good with heights! we only went down a little more than a mile, but that was 1200 feet in elevation. And some sections of the trail are…very narrow. And some of the slopes alongside the trail are pretty much straight drops. So, don’t look down! It was a fun hike going down and a challenging hike coming back up. Next visit, we’re going to do the whole thing…

After the hike, we kept moving along the rim, first to Moran Point, then to Lipan Point. From Lipan point we watched the sunset and the changing light on the Watchtower, which was visible across the way. Another hazy sunset, but still lovely. the clouds behind the Watchtower didn’t catch much color, alas! After sunset, the sky clouded up more and we went back to the lodge and prepared for the journey home.

And so we bid a reluctant farewell ( as the old travelogues said) to the Grand Canyon. Our route back to Flagstaff took us past the San Francisco Peaks, that show up in the (distant) background of some of my shots from the north rim. Then we dropped the chariot at the (small) rental lot at the (not large) airport (Flagstaff was definitely the way to go) and jetted our way home.

Saguaro, Saguaros, and More!

Saguaro National Park. Just saying it brings to mind that majestic cactus, standing tall and proud, branches reaching to the sky! And rightly so, everywhere you look, even places where you’d think nothing could grow, there they are. Such a ubiquitous symbol of the west, you see their profile everywhere, even here in Texas. Unfortunately, you won’t see any real Saguaros in Texas! They’re strictly in the Sonoran Desert: Arizona, California, and down into Mexico.

Rather on the spur of the moment, we decided to go hiking in Saguaro! With just a few days planning, we flew into Tucson, picked up the rental car (it was supposed to be an SUV, but you know those rentacar companies), and checked into our AirBNB. After a little grocery shopping, we settled in to make the important decision for tomorrow – West or East!

Saguaro has two sections (and two Visitor Centers), one on each side of Tucson, with slightly different personalities. The West side has lower mountains, scrub and grasslands, and more and younger Saguaros. The East is higher, the Saguaros are older, and the altitude allows some woodland along with the desert scrub. We decided to go west, in part to be closer to Gates Pass – a good place to be for sunset.

We got up bright and early for our first day of hiking… well, early enough for a cup of tea and a protein bar for breakfast! We had decided to go to Wasson Peak via King Canyon and Hugh Norris trail (again, from our friends at Alltrails!). Wasson peak is the highest point in the West section of the park, at 4687 feet. The trail has a mere 1863 feet of elevation change so we figured we could handle it even though we hadn’t trained.

The trail head is actually in the next park over, Tucson Mountain State Park, but you cross into the national park almost immediately. We began our hike on a parallel path, walking though a dry streambed while the trail was on the ridge above us. This had the advantage of taking us directly to some of the petroglyphs!

Cool petroglyphs, indeed, about 800 years old by the Hohokam, they say. Though one of them does look like an early Texas A&M! We climbed around on the rocks for a while and then went on our way. From there all the way up to the peak it was a delightful hike among a variety of cacti and other desert flora. Not so much of the fauna – I think we caught a glimpse of a lizard, the occasional bird. Lots of Saguaros, lots of (very happy looking) Ocotillos. A fair amount of Prickly Pear of different varieties.

The above cacti include Saguaro (naturally), a staghorn cholla, a silken pincushion. And some others… 🙂 I haven’t even learned my Chihuahuan Desert cacti yet, I should add the Sonoran Desert? I think the purplish one may be a young Saguaro.

Do you ever get the feeling you’re being watched?

You have to cross a little saddle to get to the peak, you can see the trail running around the side on the picture below. Lovely view of the Santa Clarita Mountains and Mt. Lemmon with its snow. We went to visit that later in our visit!

We took a different route down. The scenery was beautiful, and there were a multitude of cacti and other desert plants around.

On the way back down, Leigh stopped to cuddle with some Teddy Bear Cholla!

When we got back to the bottom it wasn’t long before sunset, so we headed over Gates Pass (back in the state park).

And thus ended our first day hiking in Saguaro.

The next day, we decided to head east! We had chosen the “Douglas Spring, Bridal Wreath Falls, Three Tank, Garwood Loop.” It sounds like a lot of trails, but it’s only a 7.1 mile loop. Less elevation than the previous day as well.

The trailhead is right at the end of Speedway Boulevard. There’s a small parking lot and some parking on the road. We got there just as someone was pulling out of the parking lot, which probably indicates that we didn’t get there very early! The weather was cool, though, as we started out.

The trail begins fairly flat, winding through the Saguaro Forest with a lot of ocotillo and other cacti mixed in, not to mention creosote and other scrub plants.

After a little while, you begin climbing uphill – generally at a moderate rate but it occasionally gets steep. We saw some delightful flowers, including some of the tiniest I’ve seen (earbud included for scale…). And while we heard some birds, the only flying thing I got close to was that butterfly!

At the top of the loop, you take a turn up to Bridal Wreath Falls. You cross (at this time of year, anyway!) a dry streambed a couple of times, then you head up a rock-strewn path into a small canyon where the full majesty of the waterfall awaits you:

If you look closely, you can see several drops of water falling off of the rocks! And you can see that the water flows a full three or four feet after it lands on the rock below! Okay, I suspect it’s more impressive during one of those summer storms that would wash you away if you stood where I was.

From there, we went back to the loop and continued (counter-clockwise) toward the trailhead. As we went up and down the trail, we did notice some changes in the frequency of the different plants. At one point there were very few Saguaro in view, and on one stretch of trail there were a bunch of agave.

I like this picture because it seems like most of the non-saguaro desert plants all growing on top of one another! We have an Ocotillo, a sotol, a prickly pear, a staghorn cholla, and the bones of at least two bushes that will no doubt come back with the next rain:

It was a really nice hike that I quite enjoyed, and would be tempted to do again at a different time of year just to see the seasonal changes.

After we finished the loop, we went over to the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center for a passport stamp and to look around. That’s also where the Cactus Forest Loop Drive starts and ends, a scenic loop through the terrain where we’d been hiking. Well, the flat part – you don’t go up in the mountains! We did the scenic drive and stopped a few times to check things out. This was where we found my personal favorite Saguaro:

As you can see, it’s about 5 or 6 times taller than Leigh. It’s probably not the tallest Saguaro we saw, but I think it was the coolest… 🙂

Here are a few more shots from along the drive:

The bird appears to be a Phainopepla nitens. I’m told… 🙂 A member of the silky flycatchers family, we saw a couple of them around Saguaro.

Towards the end of the drive you come to the Javelina Rocks and the Javelina Picnic Area. This was a spot recommended to me for a sunset, so we stopped and scrambled around on the rocks and strolled into the desert until the sun went down. Also I took a photo or two:

And home to a big salad and a good night’s sleep!

Saturday we had decided to check out the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, West of Tucson in the state park. This turned out to be a fine idea! They have an aquarium, a “zoo,” a natural history museum, and more. The part we liked best (and spent the most time wandering) was the Botanical Garden. They have an endlessly amazing, frequently amusing collection of desert plants that I just loved. I had never seen a “woolly jacket” prickly pear or a “cowboy whiskers” prickly pear before, and so many other things.

They also have hummingbirds, some in an aviary and some just wandering free. Have you ever tried to take a picture of a hummingbird? They are most uncooperative models! And my reflexes were a little slow…

After the museum, we were looking around and we saw Mount Lemmon! It’s the tallest peak in the Santa Clarita Mountains north of Tucson and there’s a lovely scenic drive up to (almost) the top. With many scenic pullouts! And Hoodoos! And a fun precipice for Leigh to approach…

We stopped a few times on the way to the top, then we got up to the village with the ski lifts and the hotel and restaurants and such. And we got there…right after everything closed down! Fortunately, we were (as usual) carrying protein bars and sparkling water so we were okay with that. And worse than that, the road to the very top was blocked! We saw this sign:

It was March 27th. So I was bitter and resentful. And we decided to walk the rest of the way! It’s about a mile and a half up the road to the observatory and other stuff on the top. The sun was getting a bit low on the horizon and the temperature up at 9000 feet was around 40 degrees. But we had our jackets and walking shoes on, so up we went. Past several areas that were burned in the fire last year 😦 .

At the top we found snow, an observatory behind a locked gate (and barbed wire!), a heavily locked gate standing wide open, and more snow! The snow was of a texture I had not seen before. And I loved the way the evening sun glistened on the radome… 🙂

And then on the way back down, we watched the sun set and the moon rise…

And back to the old homestead.

Sunday was the most difficult hike we had planned: Blackett’s Ridge up in the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. AllTrails rates it “hard,” though it’s a mere 6 miles. It’s about 1765 feet of elevation in a relatively short hike. We parked at the Sabino Canyon Visitor Center and headed out on the trail!

It starts flat, as most of the trails going into the mountains do. About a mile in you start uphill, than at about 1.5 it gets pretty steep. In the next 1.2 miles or so, you go up 1200-1300 feet! Much of it is up rocky trails or just a slope made of rock, as you can see here:

It was a bit challenging, but we’re in pretty good shape so it wasn’t too bad. We probably stopped to catch a breath more often than we had on other hikes! Since we hadn’t started until well past noon, we didn’t get to the top until after 6pm and the light was becoming wonderfully warm and reddish-gold…

We relaxed at the top for a while, helping out the people around us by taking their pictures with their phones. Then we headed back down the hill, so we’d at least be part way down before the it was completely dark! We passed some of our furry friends on the way down.

So you can see once more that I’m not a wildlife photographer! But I have fun…

There was a full moon that night, with the moonrise a few minutes after sunset. Once it got up, the moonlight was almost bright enough to walk down the trail without a flashlight. Almost. Not on this trail! I tried to get a good moonrise shot as we were heading down the mountain, but it didn’t work out. I blame the equipment! 🙂

But here’s what I did get:

For our last hike, we went back to a place we’d been a couple of times before: Seven Falls, also in the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area. We parked over off Bear Canyon Road so we wouldn’t start out over the same trail as yesterday. Of course, the scenery was pretty much the same:

Let’s see, we’ve got Saguaro, we’ve got cholla, we’ve got prickly pear…

You go back and forth across the stream a few times, slowly going upstream and uphill. Until you finally come to Seven Falls:

As we climbed up to the top, we tried to count the falls and there seemed to be more than seven. We kept passing more. It’s a fun and occasionally challenging climb, certain sections were not for the faint of heart. There’s probably an easier way up, sometimes we take the most direct route rather than scouting around!

On the way up, you pass through layers of geology and it’s fascinating to see. Not to mention the tiniest little cactus I’ve ever seen! That’s my little pinkie finger in the picture with that little sphere of thorns. It may be a silken pincushion cactus, but don’t quote me on that…

On the way back to the car, we passed the second of two of our reptilian friends, the only non-avian creatures we saw that day. Unless you count people, I guess we saw a few of those. Here are the two:

I’m not even going to hazard a guess as to varieties! Okay, maybe I will. The lighter one seems like a greater earless lizard and the dark one appears to be a desert spiny lizard. Again, don’t quote me!

So, that was our last day hiking in the Tucson area. The next morning we stopped at the Pima Air and Space Museum on the way to the airport. It’s a great place if you like airplanes, but I won’t overload you with pictures since it doesn’t relate to hiking! I will put one picture here:

That’s a B-36J “Peacemaker.” Early models only had the 6 turboprop engines, then they added on the 4 jet engines!

After that visit we went on to the airport, and, with a special assist from American Airlines, we got home a mere 28 hours later! Life is good.

Big Bend Country, Part 2

Just to remind you where we left off after the Emory Peak Trail! In Part 1, that is…

For our last hike in the National Park, we decided to do the Lost Mine Trail. Many people say that this is the one to do if you only have time for one hike in Big Bend. I might agree that it’s the best short (just over 4 miles) hike we did, and the view from the top is almost as spectacular as you get from Emory Peak. But make sure you get there early, there are only 11 parking spaces at the trailhead!

Again, a lot of snow and ice at the beginning of the trail. After the first mile or so the snow faded away and the trail was mostly dirt with occasional icy stretches. This continued until the last little rise up to the top, where there was some pretty deep snow, as some people found out. I loved the morning sun on Casa Grande.

Sadly, my family suffered a loss on this hike:

If you look really closely at the bottom of this cliff, you may be able to see my wife’s cell phone. I’ve circled it for your convenience. It didn’t look good, but there was really not a convenient way to actually get down and retrieve it. So make sure you zip (or velcro) your pockets! Around cliffs, anyway…

That was our last hike in Big Bend National Park. We had left our hotel in Terlingua and were moving over to a place in Lajitas. But we did stop by the Inn & RV park so I could get one picture of the landmark we used to find it:

We left Terlingua heading west, and drove all the way to…Lajitas! Okay, it’s not far, less than 15 miles. We were staying at the Lajitas Golf Resort for a couple of nights in order to be a little closer to Big Bend Ranch State Park. I didn’t bring my golf clubs, so we just had to go hiking! I had never been to the state park before and I was looking forward to checking it out. Here are a few shots from that journey:

You really don’t expect to see a submarine conning tower in the middle of the desert. Or a two-masted sailing ship, even with the sails furled!

The next morning we went over to the Barton Warnock Visitors Center for the state park, got our day pass, and drove up to our first stop – Closed Canyon. As you pull up to the parking area, you see one of those delightful long cliffs they keep around there. That little gap you can see in picture is the canyon. If the skies look a little odd, there was a little operator error involved, so I’ve played a little bit…

It was an easy walk, mostly (again!) down a dry streambed. A short walk to the gap in the cliff, then into the canyon! The walls are about 150 feet high, and in some places the canyon narrows down to 15 or 20 feet. Some of the walls looked pretty climbable, but we decided against on this trip. And before we got to the Rio Grande, we passed…I mean ran across a sign that said “End of Trail – Do not proceed past this point.” So we didn’t get to the river.

I had also never heard of the Far West Texas Wildlife Trial. It turns out, there are wildlife trails all over Texas! They are subdivided into “loops,” which are groups of loosely connected sites in a particular region. It turns out that I live close to the Prairies and Pineywoods West Wildlife Trail, and I regularly stroll in one of the sites! Who knew?

From there we went up the road to The Hoodoos. We like hoodoos, having spent a lot of time with them in Bryce Canyon. These weren’t quite the same, but it was a nice little spot. It appeared at least one of the local felines agreed, there were a lot of tracks down by the river! On the other side of the river was another of those cliffs. Of course, Leigh got busy climbing on top of one of the hoodoos.

In spite of a route marked on Alltrails, it’s not exactly a trail across the rock. We wandered and climbed and scrambled around for a while. The Rio Grande splits in two just northwest of the site, surrounds an island, then rejoins itself to run along the base of the cliff.

Our last stop of the day was Rancherias Canyon. Instead of going to the Rio Grande, this trail goes north into the park. Most of the trail seemed to be along (surprise!) a dry streambed. The rainy season is May-September, I may have to come back and check out these trails! It was mostly flat, though we crossed a low ridge or two.

The canyon wound through some low rocky terrain, with higher peaks farther in the distance. Lots of ocotillo and cacti around along with the grasses and brush we sometimes had to wade through. It was getting late, so we didn’t plan to do the full 11-mile out & back. Then we ran into Bob from Montana and had a nice chat standing around in the canyon. We got back to the trailhead as the sun was setting. This was from a somewhat higher point on the way back to the hotel:

Alas, that was our last hike for this trip. Here are a few shots from the journey home. We had some lovely clouds and sunshine when we started out, but as we got farther north the clouds got serious. It was grey and rainy by the time we got to Fort Stockton to pay a visit to my old buddy Pecos Pete (that’s the big roadrunner, for those who don’t know). Last time I saw Pete he was wearing a mask! Then as we got farther east, the rain turned into snow. The roads were wet but clear and we got home with no trouble at all. Except a little fatigue…

Now that I’ve reached the end of the trip, I’m sure many of you are asking, “Hey, where’s the night sky?” Okay, maybe a few of you. Or maybe just my wife, who knows? Anyway, we did go out several times to do night sky photography. Results are somewhat limited by experimentation I was doing and a rented camera I was trying out – along with a little operator error! But here are some shots I thought were worth sharing:

Orion shows up nicely in the January sky, doesn’t he?

All-in-all, it was a fabulous trip. I can’t wait to go back, there’s so much more to do. We didn’t even get over to Rio Grande Village and the hot springs! And the South Rim still awaits. And thousands of acres of the State Park to be explored as well!

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to growing my skill with an educational outing out to a little place in California you may have heard of – Death Valley!

If you haven’t seen the episode of the PBS series Nature about Big Bend, you should check it out. I don’t think they were there in January… 🙂

– ESS

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Big Bend Country – Part 1

A trip to West Texas is always a joy for me and I was really looking forward to hiking in Big Bend National Park. We hadn’t been there for over a decade and that trip had included a recalcitrant youngster so we didn’t do as much hiking as we might have liked. We were excited!

On the way down (it’s a long way from Dallas!) we spent the night in Sanderson at my favorite classic motel -the Desert Air Motel! We got up early the next day and drove down U.S. highway 385 to the park. It’s a fairly large park (800,000 acres), so when we passed the sign, we could only see the mountains off in the distance. But as we got closer, we saw this:

A snow-covered mountain range in the middle of the desert! Cool, eh?

We took a quick swing by the Panther Junction Visitor’s Center. They weren’t letting people inside, but they had brought a selection of souvenirs & such outside, including the all-important stamp for our passport! Well, pre-stamped pieces of paper without a date on them. You take what you can get in these hard times…

Then we drove on up to the Chisos Basin, where the main lodge is, along with another visitor’s center and a general store. It’s also the starting point for a dozen or more trails that are listed on Alltrails. We strolled around a little bit, chatted with the Park Rangers about trail conditions (answer: icy). But the Window Trail was in pretty good shape, ice & snow on the early part, then clear. So we went thataway!

The Window Trail is unusual for a mountain trail – you go downhill on the way out and uphill on the way back! Most trails it’s the other way around.

The beginning of the trail is a long staircase, covered with snow and ice but the individual steps were flat enough that it wasn’t too difficult. There was a lot of snow still on the trail early on, then we got to a stretch where it looked like we were walking between winter and spring, with snow only on one side! After a while we found ourselves walking along what seemed to be a dry streambed (not for the last time). It was a fairly easy trail most of the way, but toward the end we found ourselves scrambling around boulders. There were also Mexican Jays here and there in the trees. Rather noisy creatures. When you get to the end, there’s a…well, a window. Surprise! In the gallery above, you see a shot of my wife sitting on the slippery rock right at the end of the chute where the water runs out in the rainy season. The panorama in the gallery is the view out the window from slightly higher up.

Instead of hiking straight back to the trailhead, we took a turn up the trail toward Cattail Falls. We went far enough to look down on the Window, see the great view that was behind us, and find a nice precipice for Leigh…

So we retraced our steps back (up!) to the Chisos Basin. Going back up the steps did remind us that we were more than a mile high in the Basin, but we stay in pretty good shape…mostly.

We did have a little visitor outside the Visitor’s Center (of course!). I’m not sure what he was looking for and he would have needed a mask to get into the General Store…

From there we went in the general direction of Terlingua. On the way, we took a left turn onto the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. This is a beautiful drive through the (western) desert part of the park. There are great views of the mountains, like this:

The drive takes you past Burro Mesa (more on that later) and a number of other interesting peaks and sights as you slowly descend down to the Rio Grande. We stopped at Castolon, but both the Visitor’s Center and the store were closed by then. It was getting a bit late, but we went on up to Santa Elena Canyon.

At this point along the river, there’s about a 1000 -1500 foot cliff that runs southeast from around Lajitas in the U.S., across the river, and down into Mexico. Right in the middle of this, the Rio Grande has carved a narrow canyon with walls as high as 1500 feet. The trail starts out at a parking area and is flat until you cross Terlingua Creek (sometimes a muddy crossing, I’m told – not this time). A series of switchbacks take you up maybe a hundred feet, giving you a nice view downriver (as you can see in the gallery). They also give you a glimpse of the geologic history of the region (note the seashells embedded in the cliff face!).

After that, the trail and the river come together and you pass by a variety of cacti and river plants, including what looked to me like bamboo. There’s also a plant that shows up around Big Bend called a “resurrection plant” or “flower of stone” (see the photo above). In hot, dry weather it curls up tightly into a ball, looking brown, leathery, and dead. Then when it gets exposed to moisture, it opens back up! There were many along this trail, and we saw them elsewhere in the park as well.

After we got back from this trail, we drove on to the Paisano Village RV Park & Inn in Terlingua. Or is it Study Butte? And why is Study pronounced “stoody?” I am uncertain of the geography down there. The route we took was the Old Maverick Road, unpaved but in pretty good shape. Alas, it was dark so we really couldn’t enjoy much scenery!

So, the next morning we were planning to hike Emory Peak, the highest point in the Chisos Mountains. We drove in to the park, and turned up the road to the Basin… and stopped! Due to road construction, the road is closed from 8-11 (and 1-3pm). It was about 8:10. Oops! Check that before you go in the next few months!

So we went back down to the Scenic Drive. Checking Alltrails (of course!) for the best trails off the Scenic Drive, we decided to start with The Chimneys Trail. It’s only (only!) rated 4 stars on Alltrails, but it has petroglyphs!

The walk out to the Chimneys is not all that exciting, unless you trip on the rocky trail. Watch your step! You walk past a lot of desert plants, like my favorite Ocotillo (see the one in the gallery that towers over Leigh) and the Purple Prickly Pear. We heard occasional birds, but only saw a few. And there’s no shade, which is less of a problem in January than at other times of the year.

The Chimneys themselves were pretty cool. We clambered around the base of the lonely one, where the petroglyphs are, and then climbed up on top of some others (see the picture of Leigh taking a picture of me!). It wasn’t crowded (on a weekday in January) but we did pass a few hikers on the way back to the road.

A little farther down the road is (are?) The Mule’s Ears. We only stopped at the overlook, though there is a trail going out to a spring near the base of the formation.

Leaving the Mule’s Ears, we went back north a ways, up to the Upper Burro Mesa Pouroff trail. Burro Mesa is a large formation west of the Scenic Drive and this trail leads from the road down a dry (when we did it) streambed and finally…well, as the guy we passed who was coming back said, “When you get to the 100-foot dropoff, stop!”

As we were walking down the streambed from the road, the walls got higher and higher. Then we started hearing rocks fall down, so we looked up! And there were a bunch of Bighorn Sheep roaming around the sides of the canyon. And knocking down rocks. I asked them to be more careful but they just kind of looked at me, then went back to eating the grasses or the prickly pear cactus they had been chomping. We watched for a while and saw that there were a couple of dozen wandering around up there.

Eventually we started moving again, finally coming to a narrow crack through the mesa with a slick rock ramp going down into a chamber (you can see Leigh at the top or me at the bottom of it in the gallery). It was a bit slippery, but not too hard to get down safely. A little more difficult to get back up, but everybody we saw made it pretty well. At the other end of the chamber was the aforementioned 100-foot (or more!) drop. If you look closely at the picture that looks down over a rock ledge, you can see two people standing at the bottom.

And on the walk back, I finally got one of the Bighorns to pose where I wanted them – profiled against the beautiful blue sky!

The next day we got up a little bit earlier. This time we made it to the road in time to get up into the mountains! As we parked in Chisos Basin the sun was making a silhouette of Casa Grande on a nearby mountain. You can see them both here – Casa Grande and its shadow:

As the day before, our plan was to hike Emory Peak. It’s about 5 miles from the trailhead up to the peak – and 2500 feet of uphill! You start above a mile in elevation and climb up to 7825 feet, according to the US Geological Survey. Our friends at Alltrails rate the trail as “Hard,” and they’re not entirely wrong! It’s pretty much 5 miles of uphill and if you’re not in good shape you might find it tough going – especially in all the ice and snow!

The trail started pretty icy and snowy (and it was pretty chilly that morning!), and it continued that way off & on all the way up. Much of the time we were either walking on ice or on frozen mud. Fortunately we had our trusty trekking poles. If we hadn’t I’d have ended up on my backside a lot more than I did! Periodically we’d break out into an area that got a little more sun and the trail would be mud or packed dirt. Sometimes we got a nice view out toward the next mountains over, as you can see.

Finally we got to the place where you turn off of the main loop trail to head up to the peak. The relatively dense woods we’d been traversing gave way to rocky ground, more succulents, and fewer trees. Then we came around a corner and finally saw our destination – with the moon guiding our way!

The last bit of climb to get atop Emory Peak is described in many reviews as “scary” or “vertigo-inducing” so I was a little nervous. Until we got there – this picture makes it look steeper than it really is, and the rocks were quite solid so I never felt at risk. Of course, some people might not like to turn around and see a long drop from the 3-foot-wide ledge they’re standing on…

So we scrambled up to the top, and there was only one other person there when we arrived – a young lady who was taking lots of selfies! I took a picture of her (with her phone) after she had walked out to a particularly scary-looking spot. Then Leigh went out there! Of course she did… 🙂 It’s not the one where you can see the solar panels, it’s the other one – the one showing how windy it was. And she forced me (against my will!) to pose for her…

Getting back down off the peak was a little bit more of an adventure than going up, but we made it. On the way back down to the main trail we ran across some white-tailed deer. Alas, they were less cooperative than the bighorns & wouldn’t come out to pose!

When we got back to the main trail we decided not to take the short route retracing our steps to the trailhead. We knew how much ice was waiting there for us! Instead, we turned south toward the South Rim. We took a shortcut across the loop, though, instead of doing the full South Rim trail. It had taken a surprisingly long time to get up top and I did not relish the thought of finishing an icy trail in the dark.

It turned out there was a fair amount of ice on the southern route as well! But once we got to the south side of the mountain we had a long stretch that was actually on a packed dirt trail! It made for a nice change. The views south & southwest, down into Mexico, were fabulous! Then we went around to the north side of the mountain again and found ourselves back in snow and ice.

When we got back to the car, the sun was almost gone!

I thought this post was getting a bit long, so I’ll pick it up in Part 2 in a few days.

Catch you later

– ESS

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The Great Smoky Mountains – And More

It’s January now (and we’re back from our January trip), so here’s the November trip! We drove out to Atlanta to see the folks, and we went on from there to some of the nearby parks.

On the way to Georgia we stopped in Tuscaloosa so Leigh could show me around the places she used to go when she spent a summer semester at Alabama (the university, that is). This is a spot on Lake Nicol where they used to go. We got lost in the dark on the way back to the car…

After spending some time with the parents, we went north. Our first stop was a Georgia state park called Tallulah Gorge. There’s a loop trail that follows the North and South rims – and the suspension bridge betwixt them. It’s a beautiful area, though we were too late for the good north Georgia color.

Tallulah Falls used to be a fashionable resort and honeymoon destination, and sometimes people would name their daughters after it. Those of us who favor old movies will remember the actress Tallulah Bankhead, whose grandparents are said to have honeymooned there! If you haven’t seen Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, check it out!

We did a loop that included both rims and a trip down into the gorge. You start near the Visitors Center on the North Rim and head along a well-trodden trail to the top of the stairs. And then you go down the stairs! And there are a lot of stairs. To get down to the bridge there are (I’m told) 310 steps. I didn’t count. It’s a nice suspension bridge across the gorge (as you can see from the pix below).

After you cross the bridge you have two options – up the other (south) side or down to the river. Naturally, we went down 200+ more stairs! The actual bottom of the gorge is closed, so we stopped at the platform at the bottom of the stairs and enjoyed “Hurricane Falls” (see the pic above – the one that’s not coming from the dam).

Then we climbed up the 500 steps to the top. We turned left instead of right at the top and went to see one of the towers used by Karl Wallenda when he tightrope walked across the gorge (I’ve put a couple of old newspaper photos in the gallery above). That’s the metal structure with Leigh perched on top. The tower on the other side is the one lying on its side amidst the trees, also in the pix.

After that we strolled back along the rim, stopping at several overlooks along the way. A couple of the pix are in the gallery above. The trail take