We visited Great Smoky Mountain National Park for a few days. Stayed in a sweet cabin near Gatlinburg, hiked a few miles, touristed a bit and went to Dollywood.
We visited Great Smoky Mountain National Park for a few days. Stayed in a sweet cabin near Gatlinburg, hiked a few miles, touristed a bit and went to Dollywood.
We disappointed Abby back in 2011 when we went to New York City, so we somehow promised her we’d take her there on her 10th birthday. So that’s what we did.
I make maps for a living so I thought it would be cool to figure out how to make a web map showing geotagged photos from the trip. I had to learn a bunch of new coding stuff, but I was able to come up with a basic map and photos deal.
Abby’s 10th birthday was an Emoji extravaganza.
It rained overnight in Terlingua and we rolled out of town at dawn and shortly drove into an ice storm. It was pretty surreal to the desert coated in ice and the driving was a little nerve wracking, but it turned out that the ground was just warm enough to keep the ice from coating the highways. We finally drove out of the ice near Abilene.
Our last full day in Big Bend was mostly a leisurely ramble along the Ross Maxwell scenic drive visiting the various easily accessible sites. First up was the remnants of the Sam Nail ranch where this derelict windmill stands in a photogenic pose. Pictures of it are all over the Internets and in thousands of tourist photo albums.
The ruins of the Sam Nail adobe ranch house continue to melt back into dirt and that windmill in the background continues to operate, pulling up water to sustain an oasis.
The oasis is host to this stand of Dr. Suess looking trees.
We had planned on making the easy hike into Santa Elena canyon, which we’ve done a few times before, but the crowds chased us out about halfway into the hike. Abby got a good shot of Gina and me on the delta of Terlingua Creek at the mouth of the canyon.
We headed back north on the Ross Maxwell Drive and made a stop at the Mule Ears Peaks overlook. Can you see Abby’s mule ears?
A few miles farther we stopped to do the short hike up the canyon to Burro Mesa pouroff. The fall colors were putting on a show. By this time a cool wind was whipping down from the north, bringing low clouds and wintry weather.
There’s an area near the west entrance to Big Bend National Park that hosts a forest of ocotillo. The setting sun was peeking intermittently through the advancing clouds and lighting up the tiny yellow leaves.
One of the big highlights of our latest Big Bend trip was making the famous jaunt across the Rio Grande to Boquillas, Mexico. I made this trip way back in 1992 when all you needed was a wad of small-denomination American bills to pay the boatman and the burro keeper. The border at the river was lightly enforced and folks living along the river in both countries could travel a few miles on either side without hassle. Nowadays, post 9/11 and amid Mexican-immigrant hysteria, you have to have a passport and obey the hours of operation. If you aren’t back across the river by 5 p.m. you’re stuck in Mexico until the next day.
You meet the boatman on the river bank for quick ride.
Then you are assigned a guide and burro to ride the mile or so to the village proper. Your guide follows along behind and keeps the burros moving. Our guide was Jerry, an amiable fellow who said he also works as a firefighter in the national park. Jerry’s house is the first one you come to when you hit downtown. His wife and children have a display of home made items for sale, some of which they produce on the spot while you’re eating lunch. Abby ordered a yarn bracelet with her name on it.
The first stop was the brand new customs compound where visitors are issued a temporary visa. Then Jerry took us on a quick stroll through the dirt streets and showed us the Catholic church. (There’s also a Baptist church but it’s in the part of town near the river and apparently doesn’t cater to tourists. When you think about how elaborate most churches are (especially Catholic churches) you can see how this one is a testament to just how poor the town is.
Jerry showed us the brand new solar panel installation that provides all the electricity in town and the new Army post that is there to keep tabs on the drug-running situation. For lunch we got the choice between two restaurants, the difference between the two being that one has tamales and the other doesn’t, Jerry said. I wanted to eat at Falcon’s despite it being the tamale free joint because that’s where we ate in 1992 and I wanted to see how the place was holding up.
Falcon’s was booming. It even had a little bed and breakfast out back called the Falcon’s Nest. And it turned out they did have tamales afterall. In fact, the waitress seemed taken aback that we thought they didn’t. She needs to take that up with Jerry.
We had a scrumptious flight of salsas for an appetizer and tamales and burritos for a main course. It was all very fresh and well done, which I thought was remarkable considering the place is 200 miles from the nearest real town. I don’t how they get their restaurant supplies. Maybe they are airdropped. After 9/11 the border was completely closed and Boquillas, which relied on American tourists for virtually all its economic activity, pretty much dried up. Most people moved away. The remaining holdouts would sell their handmade wares along the riverbank where a popular hiking trail offered a stream of tourist customers. The merchants would wade across the river and leave their merchandise with a list of prices and a jar for the money. A strict honor system. The new crossing situation has only been in place for a couple of years. We chatted with the owner of the restaurant, the daughter of its founder, Jose Falcon. She said the place was shuttered for 11 years after the border closure. Jose died in 2000 and mercifully didn’t have to witness it, she said.
The whole place caters to the tourists from the U.S. This wheelchair-bound busker spinned a Spanish serenade while we ate.
After we finished up our lunch, I slipped away from Jerry and took a stroll around behind the restaurant where I found this antique Ford still in service.
The streets are dirt and livestock is common, but brand-new electric lines herald a modern age for the village.
Jerry did a pretty great job of showing us around. I bought a sotol stick painted as a snake from his wife before we left town. It was only 12 bucks and they acted a little embarrassed to ask so much.
We wrapped our Boquillas trip early in the afternoon, which left us a little time to amble up the Old Ore Road and visit a couple of sites out in the desert. First stop was the grave of Juan de Leon, which is literally in the middle of nowhere. The park is home to a lot of lonely grave sites like this one. On the border, people pay their respects to the dead in more elaborate fashion than you see elsewhere. Even graves way off the beaten path have coins or candles or beads added every year.
A couple miles farther is the trailhead for the trail to Ernst Tinaja, which is a large pothole depression in a narrow canyon that does a good job of holding water in an arid land. It’s a short easy hike in really cool area. The water is pretty nasty, though.
On our way back out to the main road we came upon this cool view of the Sierra del Carmen lit up by the setting sun.
We headed back to Terlingua and got in line for the popular Thanksgiving Day dinner at the Starlight Theater. The wait was only a couple of hours so we had plenty of time to hand out on the porch and people-watch.
The big souvenir shop has some interesting displays. I especially like the giant hand-drawn map of the stretch of Highway 170 from Lajitas to Study Butte. Check out those sweet insets.
We finally got called to our table in the packed dining room where we got some great entertainment and a great traditional Thanksgiving meal with a southwest twist. Green chile dressing, anyone?
After spending the night in downtown Ft. Davis, we hit the only place on in town that served breakfast, according to Google, where I had pretty authentic migas with refried beans. A solid 3 FPWs.
Then we went over to the Fort Davis National Historic Site, which is a restored frontier outpost dating back to the Indian Wars. It looks just like the set of every John Wayne-in-the-cavalry movie you’ve ever seen.
All the straight lines and open areas made it a good spot to play around with the rented fisheye lens.
Gramps channeled his inner Old West Beetle Bailey for this portrait.
As a museum, it’s a pretty immersive experience. Around noon we parted ways with Nana and Gramps, who headed back to Arkansas for more traditional Thanksgiving activities. We headed back down to the border to start the second half of the vacation, which we spent in Terlingua.
Terlingua is an isolated border town with a heavy Mexican influence and a famous Ghost Town, complete with a unique cemetery that is a tourist attraction in its own right. Skeletons and other Day of the Dead iconography are big in Terlingua. We hear it gets weird there at times.
After we got checked into our lodging, I proposed a short hike, but neither of my companions could bring themselves to leave the luxurious digs, so I headed out to an off-label site in BBNP that I had read about. This unofficial trail is reached by driving out a county road until it dead ends at the national park fence. The area is littered with prehistoric Indian artifacts, chiefly in the form of petroglyphs.
Huge boulders sloughed from a high ridge were apparently the perfect place to leave messages, histories and stories, judging from the dozens of examples along about a one-mile stretch of ridge bottom.
Although the area isn’t advertised in any park brochure, it’s a popular place. There is a clear trail along the flat below the ridge and I saw three groups of people milling about in my two hours in the area. Despite all the traffic, the petroglyphs are largely free from graffiti, this jackass from 1902 notwithstanding.
This panel is larger than the others and is on a giant curved boulder. It looks like it was so popular that the artists started carving over themselves. Anybody know what these people were saying?
As night approached, these white patches in the cracked desert soil really lit up. I don’t what the white stuff is, salt maybe.
On the way back I found these morteros, or mortar holes that the Indians created to grind grain in with wood or stone pestles.
The highlight on Day 4 was a trip to Ft. Davis, Texas, to the McDonald Observatory for a star party. Star parties happen in the pitch dark so no photos from it. On our way out of the park we stopped off at the Stilwell Store to eat lunch and check out the museum. I was last at the Stillwell Store in 1992. Nothing had changed. It’s named for the Stillwell family who lived and ranched at the site for nearly a hundred years.
The museum is pretty much a monument to Hallie Stillwell and her husband. Hallie carried on at the ranch and store after her husband died and became a West Texas legend. She died in 1997 at the age of 99.
We had one pretty epic hike planned. A seven miler up into the high Chisos Mountains to Laguna Meadow. We woke up early to freezing temps. The leaky ice maker outside our cottage had created a slick spot of ice on the sidewalk. Gramps made the half mile walk from his accommodations to meet us and we headed out. Around 1,600 feet of elevation gain awaited us.
Although it was late November, the leaf change had just gotten going in earnest. The mountains are an interesting mix of desert and forest. Among the cactus and agave are ponderosa pine and oak trees and other plants commonly found farther north in the West. Although we didn’t get to them on this hike, the Chisos Mountains are home to southernmost stand of aspen in the U.S.
A couple hours in we stopped for a longish break for a midmorning snack. Gina, being some kind of bird whisperer, started throwing bits of peanut butter crackers on the ground and small flock of Mexican jays swooped out of the mountains and started chowing down. They nearly ate out of our hands.
We lined up for a group photo after our snack. We should’ve stood closer to the camera.
Gramps recommends climbing trees whenever possible. Especially when you’re 4 miles up a mountain in one of the most remote areas of the country with no real hope of timely medical intervention should you fall and crack open your skull.
We did a lot of lolly gagging so it took us about 4 hours to get to Laguna Meadow. We thought it was pretty funny that there was a weird pit toilet up there. The trail gets a lot of traffic. Many, many groups of hikers passed us on the way up. Most were headed to the South Rim of the Chisos to camp for the night. Some groups planned to make a day trip out of the 13 mile round trip South Rim hike. We saw a man and woman in basically street clothes who said they were doing that. The woman had one of those mesh backpack purse things with the strings for straps with 2 bottles of water in it. I imagine they wanted to kill each other when they got finished.
On the way back, just as the trail started downhill, Gramps broke off and scrambled up the southern peak of Ward Mountain. I soon followed him up there and got what must be the second best view of the Basin.
Views of Casa Grande from Ward Mountain. The top of Casa Grande is the best view of the Basin.
We paused in the howling wind atop the mountain to take a bunch of photos.
Gramps, ala Vanna White, pointing out Emory Peak, the highest point in the Chisos.
Gramps isn’t afraid to do what it takes to get the shot.
One of my favorite things to do in Big Bend NP is to hit the visitor center in the Basin and check out the map of recent bear and mountain lion sightings. It’s hard to make out in the photo, but there were two sightings of a group of three mighty pumas at Laguna Meadow the week before our hike.
The hike took way longer than any of us expected. Gramps thought we’d be back around noon. It was closer to 4 p.m. We were starving and looking forward to eating at the Starlight Theater outside the park in Terlingua Ghost Town. The ghost town is small area of ruins from the area’s mining days with a big gift shop, bed and breakfast accommodations and a few restaurants. It’s always packed with tourists and locals having a big time. The waits are long for the restaurant but there’s enough to do that you don’t really notice.
Day of the Dead items are a big component of the souvenirs at the gift shop.
We kicked off our first full day in glorious Big Bend by taking a drive down the River Road, a Texas-famous stretch of highway along the Rio Grande. It starts in Terlingua and runs 60 miles or so to Presido. Our first stop was the tiny berg of Lajitas to visit the town’s mayor, Clay Henry. Clay is a goat. Several Clay Henrys have held the mayoralty. The folks in Lajita have many colorful stories about Clay’s hard-drinking ways.
We stopped for lunch at the general store in Lajitas and I had the best sandwich I’ve ever had anywhere anytime. Pastrami on sourdough. It was decadent offering.
A few miles up the road we stopped to check out the river and see the remains of the movie set Contrabando. Only one building remains out of the six or seven built 20 years ago. Just facades and shells with nothing on the inside, they were apparently flood damaged and falling in and were destroyed for safety reasons. I got a good photo of the church the last time we visited.
Not a lot to see so we just took some pictures of each other and moved up the road.
We stopped at the rim of Colorado Canyon just as a guided group of young people rolled up. The spot was featured in the movie “Fandango” in the scene where Kevin Costner digs up a bottle of champagne from under a rock with D-O-M scratched into it. The rock and the inscription are still there. The guide was super enthusiastic about showing his group the rock. They were many and loud and climbing all over the place.
The River Road twisting away across the desert.
We eventually stopped at Closed Canyon in Big Bend Ranch State Park for a short late-afternoon hike. Closed Canyon is a classic slot canyon affair that is quite quite a bit narrower than it is deep.
The canyon acts as an open-air drain to the Rio Grande for a closed in valley separated from the river by a high ridge. The water must really roar through there when it rains in the right spot.
Like the slots in Arizona, the canyon features a series of progressively higher pour overs. Gina and I hung back while Abby and I continued down as far as we dared. We finally got to a drop that we thought would be hard for Abby to ascend, so we turned around.
I got her to make a rare pose for me at the top of the pour over.