Enjoy our blog by Administrative Assistant and Marathon resident Arlene Griffis!
When Courtney first asked me to blog about my hiking experiences in Big Bend, I was going hiking once or twice a month. Due to some life changes, I do not get that opportunity at the present time. After retiring from teaching high school math after thirty-one years in 2007, I was happily relishing the retired lifestyle. Last school year, however, I was dragged back into the classroom kicking and screaming when the math teacher at Marathon High School suddenly resigned right after Thanksgiving. I finished the year by teaching two classes and mentoring a first-year teacher as she taught the other two classes. Due to the small class size and a group of hard-working students, I enjoyed every minute of it, and decided to go back this year, teaching all four classes of high school math. I have 14 students total and I get finished at noon every day. Nice work if you can get it, right? Although the amount of time spent hiking has been drastically reduced, I am now able to focus on “quality” rather than “quantity”.
Each fall and spring I partner with Big Bend National Park’s Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services David Elkowitz in presenting a short talk on the patio of the Chisos Mountain Lodge. I give out information about Friends of Big Bend and David then presents his “Top 12 Things to Do in Big Bend.” As he lists each location, he usually asks for a show of hands to see how many among those present have been there. For several years now, I have been able to raise my hand for all except one on the list: The Marufo Vega trail. This year I decided to remedy that and add the Marufo Vega to my bucket list.
I have read about the trail in several hiking books, including my hiking “Bible”, Hiking Big Bend National Park, by Laurence Parent. Marufo Vega, described by Parent as “an up to 14-mile round-trip backpack or day hike through the Dead Horse Mountains to the rim of Boquillas Canyon or the Rio Grande”, is considered to be one of the most beautiful and secluded walks in the park. What had kept Steve and me from doing it on our own is that about ten years ago, a family got lost on the trail and had to be rescued. They, of course, made a number of mistakes, not the least of which was to hike the trail in the summer. They also did not take enough water, did not research the route beforehand, and the adults in the group allowed two thirteen-year-old boys to run ahead of the rest of the group. Even with this knowledge, we were still a bit leery because every written account of the hike did emphasize that some route-finding skills were required and there were several points along the trail at which one could easily get lost. Now, as much as I love to hike, I want to be sure of where I am going, and I do not particularly crave danger, either. For this reason, I enlisted David and his wife, Reine, to accompany us.
Ever since we moved to Marathon, it has been a family tradition for my brother Dennis and his wife Ruth to come and visit the week after Christmas, when we drive into the park and hike every day for about a week. Knowing that they had never done Marufo Vega and since winter is the perfect time of year for a desert hike such as this one, we made plans to meet David and Reine at Panther Junction and drive to the trailhead together. The hike begins at the combined Marufo Vega/Strawhouse/Old Ore Terminal trailhead, which is off the road to Rio Grande Village. One of the most desirable facets of this hike is its flexibility. David explained that it is not necessary to do the entire 14 miles in order to enjoy the scenery and the solitude. About 3.5 miles into the trek, the trail splits into north and south forks. David had decided that we would do the south fork that day (approximately 10.5 miles roundtrip) and that at some future date could put the north fork on our agenda.
To say that the Marufo Vega is spectacular seems so inadequate. In the talk David gives, he stresses that this trail will take hikers through one of the most remote areas of the park. This always appeals to me because I like to stand and gaze off into the distance and pretend that I am one of the early settlers of the region seeing this vista for the first time. Some times this takes a good deal of imagination since one has to ignore power lines, cell towers, highway noise, etc. Not so on the Marufo Vega! The view I had in December of 2011 is much the same as it would have been to the Native Americans who once dwelt there. There is no noise of machinery or humanity, and very little from wildlife. This is harsh, rugged beauty at its finest.
As far as the potential for getting lost, it could happen, but David pointed out that during the past several years the marking of the trail had been drastically improved, and I would have to agree. There were numerous rock cairns marking the way, and if you are really paying attention, the route is moderately easy to follow. One of the highlights that I particularly enjoyed was the view of Boquillas Canyon from a completely different perspective than that of someone rafting through the canyon or looking into it from the other side. David had chosen the climax of the trip to coincide with where we would stop and eat lunch before heading back. He kept tantalizing us by mentioning the view we would have, even saying that he would not have to tell us when we were “there” because we would know. I liked the sound of this because I cannot tell you how many hikes I have taken, expecting a “destination” and then wondering, “Are we there yet?” I always want to be sure that I see everything I am supposed to see! Well, there was no doubt this time. We rounded a bend and I gasped involuntarily at the breathtaking panorama that was the Sierra Del Carmen Mountains of Mexico spread out in all their russet and gold glory.
In summary, I highly recommend the Marufo Vega trail, with the following words of advice:
- Do not take this hike from April through September. Take advantage of the numerous mountain hikes in Big Bend during the summer.
- Take plenty of water. I had a 72-ounce CamelBak and I had very little left at the end of the hike.
- Wear long pants and long sleeves. There are lots of “sticky” cacti and other desert plants.
- Wear a hat with a brim for shade.
- Do not feel that you have to do the entire 14 miles to adequately experience the Marufo Vega trail. As I said, we did the south fork and plan to do the north fork next time out.
- Although the trail is now marked much more clearly than it once was, pay attention to cairns and landmarks.
- Take a buddy or go in a group. This is not a hike to take alone except for the overly-adventurous, macho, survivalist types.
- Realize that the best feature of the hike is its desolation, which is also its worst feature. Enjoy it, but respect it at all times.
Take a hike!
First of all, allow me to apologize for taking such a lengthy hiatus from my hiking blog. You see, those twelve Emory Peak climbs in 2009 took their toll on my husband with the result being that he had meniscus surgery on his left knee in April 2010.
For several months, Reine Wonite, who lives in the park, has been trying to get me to come down and go hiking with her. Finally, last Friday we were able to meet at Panther Junction. I deferred to Reine in making the decision regarding where we would go and she suggested the “LOST Lost Mine Trail”. I have hiked the Lost Mine Trail, one of the park’s more popular hikes, a number of times, but this time when we reached the peak that is generally considered to be the end of the trail, we kept going, reminiscent of the bear in the song “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” who went to the other side of the mountain to “see what she could see”.
Although those two rock formations at the terminus of the Lost Mine Trail are imposing from any angle, it was amazing to me how different they looked from the other side. An observation on the way up was that although the drought conditions in the Chisos Mountains are quite serious, there were certain points along the route in which the variations in color of the rocks were much more vivid and pronounced than in wetter periods. En route to “the other side of the mountain” we rested on a shaded ledge while eating a snack and Reine noticed in the far distance below us a grove of cottonwood trees that were a brilliant green color in stark contrast to the mostly drought-stricken vegetation. At one point we both saw what we thought to be a brilliantly-colored yellow bird (perhaps a Scott’s Oriole or some exotic species of Mexican raptor), but upon closer inspection we were surprised to find that it was a red-tailed hawk with the sunlight illuminating its wings so that they appeared golden. What a delight when the ordinary takes on the appearance of the extraordinary!
While resting in the shade, I shared with Reine that when I reach an idyllic spot such as this, I always imagine that I could live here at this very spot as long as I had books to read, food and water, and a blanket in case it got too chilly. There is something about being out in the wide open spaces that brings out the desire in me for minimalism and the basic comforts in life. After our rest we trekked over some slightly precarious terrain (note: there is no trail beyond the official Lost Mine Trail. Some route finding and a fair amount of sure-footedness are necessary for this final portion of the hike.) The end of our quest for the LOST Lost Mine Trail found us perched atop a narrow spine of rock that reminded me of the backbone of a dinosaur. It was from this vantage point that we were privileged to observe the aforementioned “back side” of the familiar rock formations which characterize the Lost Mine Trail and make it one of the most scenic venues in the park. The next time you have the opportunity to hike in Big Bend, consider going to “the other side of the mountain”. You might be surprised at what you will discover. Take a hike!
The board of Friends of Big Bend meets three times per year, with two of those taking place in the park, while the third rotates among the major cities in Texas. For each of the two meetings which take place in Big Bend, a ranger-guided hike is offered free of charge, and all FBBNP members are invited to participate. On February 21 of this year, members had a choice of two awesome hikes: an easier hike to Indian Head in Study Butte or a more challenging one to Mesa de Anguila on the west side of the park near Lajitas. I was one of approximately twenty-five people who chose the Mesa hike, which was led by David Elkowitz, Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services.
After parking at the trailhead directly behind the Lajitas golf course, David described the topography, geology, and history of the region, including the fact that the name “Mesa de Anguila” is Spanish for “Mesa of the Eel”. I found this to be a bit strange since we were nowhere near any natural habitat for these wriggly ocean-dwelling creatures. Perhaps anticipating a question regarding this anomaly, David explained that it is thought that some early explorers of the mesa thought that the Rio Grande, whose numerous twists and turns are visible from the top of the mesa, resembled eels in appearance. Another possible explanation is that the maze of trails on the mesa appears similar to eels when viewed from the air or on a topographic map. For those who don’t buy into the eel thing, the Handbook of Texas Online offers several alternative explanations: “The name may have come from a Spanish ángel (“angel”) or águila (“eagle”). Yet another possibility occurs in a folk tale that claims the name referred to a Comanche, Angulo, who was allegedly the last of his people in the region. According to the tale, Angulo lived in caves on the mesa and in Santa Elena Canyon, which were known as las cuevas de Angulo.”
Mesa de Anguila is one of the least visited areas in the park, largely due to the scarcity of water, the confusing labyrinth of trails, and the fact that the trails in the area are not routinely maintained. While more adventurous and experienced hikers may choose to make the Mesa de Anguila hike a 7.5 one-way hike to Tinaja Lujan (a natural rock pool which holds water during parts of the year) and perhaps camp overnight, many other hikes of various lengths and difficulties are also possible. Our group climbed to the saddle on top of the mesa where we were able to enjoy breathtaking views of the mesa, the Rio Grande, and the mountains across the river in Mexico. David expressed his continuing amazement at the vastness of the mesa itself, which offers 360 degree views almost as far as the eye can see. I have been on a number of hikes with David, and although he has been at Big Bend for many years and has hiked most the trails dozens of times, it is obvious that he approaches each hike with the expectation of seeing something new and different each time. His enthusiasm is contagious, to be sure, making those he guides share his reverence and appreciation of these natural wonders we are privileged to experience.
For those wishing to hike the Mesa de Anguila, be aware that even if you choose one of the shorter hikes available, the terrain is extremely rocky and many of the rocks are loose. Also, the majority of the elevation gain is in the first 1.5 miles, over 1000 feet from the trailhead to the top of the mesa. Although the hike we took was not one of great length, it was nonetheless quite strenuous. This is not a hike for novices, nor is it one that you would want to take in warm weather. Although we hiked this trail in February, it was probably around 80 degrees during the hottest part of the day.
It is a constant source of amusement within my family that I know the words to so many songs, many of which are quite obscure and that I will often break into song spontaneously without warning. On this hike, for some reason as we rounded a bend and I saw all the members our group spread out and winding up the trail, I was suddenly moved to begin singing the song “The Happy Wanderer” which begins,
“I love to go a-wandering along the mountain track
And as I go, I love to sing, my knapsack on my back
Val-da-ree, val-da-rah ha-ha-ha-ha-ha
My knapsack on my back.
Well, imagine my surprise and delight when a voice directly behind me joined in, also knowing all the words, and singing harmony, no less! It was none other than Reine Wonite, wife of David Elkowitz. It is so nice to have a kindred spirit on a glorious day under the blue skies of Big Bend!
Take a hike!
Take a Hike: December 2009
For the past several years it has been a tradition for my husband Steve and me to hike in Big Bend on New Year’s Day. My brother Dennis and his wife Ruth like to join us whenever possible. After having hiked the South Rim of the Chisos several times, we decided that on January 1, 2009 we would hike to the top of Emory Peak, the highest point in the Chisos Mountains (elevation 7825 feet). Steve and I had done it the previous October and we knew that Ruth and Dennis would love it as much as we did, so on a gloriously sunny New Year’s morning we left Marathon for the drive down Highway 385 to the park, a scenic trek which still takes my breath away despite the fact that we have made it more times than I can remember.
We arrived at the Chisos Basin, where we parked our van and embarked on the hike at 9:35 AM. The first part of the trail is fairly easy, with the terrain being crushed rock, which provides a comfortable walking surface. The incline is at first gradual, giving hikers a chance to adjust hiking gait and breathing patterns. When we had hiked the trail in October, Steve and I did not see another single person, neither going up nor coming down. In contrast, on New Year’s Day, with more tourists in the park, the traffic was moderately heavy, while the mood was light, with frequent greetings of “Happy New Year” being heard throughout the day as hikers met each other on the trail or as faster groups overtook those who did not make the ascent as rapidly.
There are a number of primitive campsites along the length of the entire trail, and some of the more adventurous prefer to make the summiting of Emory Peak an overnight affair. Campsites are labeled according to the portion of the trail on which they are located and as we approached the area known as the Pinnacles, and passed campsite P1,
Dennis, who was in the lead of our foursome, suddenly turned around to the rest of us with a look on his face that I had never seen in the almost forty-nine years he has been my brother. He pointed around the bend to an area on the trail that Ruth, Steve and I could not yet see, and quietly intoned, “There is a bear right in the middle of the trail.” Now although all of us knew that black bears had returned to the Chisos Basin back in the late 1980’s after an absence of nearly fifty years, none of us had ever seen one in all of our trips to the park. On this day, however, we were treated to the sight of four of the magnificent creatures feasting on the numerous berries which lay along the path. Knowing that black bears are omnivores (eaters of both meat and vegetation), I was relieved to find that at this particular time we observed them eating berries instead of gnawing on the leg bone of some fellow hiker.
As a frequent visitor and a fan of all things relating to Big Bend National Park, I have heard all the warnings, especially the admonitions regarding proper storage of food items and disposal of food scraps. What park rangers warn us about is that if humans feed the bears, whether intentionally or not, the bears will lose their natural fear of humans and make aggressive attempts to get more “people food”, possibly resulting in a horrific, unthinkable scenario which would involve park rangers having to kill bears who have lost their fear of humans.
This bear sighting really brought home this fact because these four bears were not afraid of us in the least; in fact, we had quite a bit of trouble shooing them off the foot path. Ruth had a whistle that she blew and while one of the bears did not like this at all and ran away, the other three seemed to be fazed not at all by the shrill sound. Steve tried clicking his aluminum hiking poles against each other and waving them in the air, which spooked one of the young cubs, but there were still two more who continued to follow the trail ahead of us, calmly eating berries. Just as we were about to decide that we should abandon the Emory Peak experience for the time being, all four of the bears disappeared into the bushes, allowing us to continue our ascent unmolested.
It was such a perfect day…perfect weather…wildlife sighting…awesome visibility from the top…endorphins flowing freely…that Steve and I got caught up in it all and decided right then and there that we would make the Emory Peak ascent once a month during the year 2009. Although we experienced extreme cold, extreme heat, and even a July thunderstorm, I am proud to say that on Christmas Day we made our twelfth Emory Peak climb of the year!
This year our New Year’s resolution is to NOT hike Emory Peak (or any other) twelve times! In 2010 we are going more for variety. We have already hiked Pine Canyon and Croton Springs together and I hiked Mesa de Anguila with the Friends group in February. It is my plan to write about each of these as well as others we choose to do.
For those of you who have never attempted Emory Peak, it will be of note that BBNP’s trail crew is in the process of rerouting the final portion of the Emory Peak trail, making it more accessible to all hikers. According to “The Paisano”, the park’s official newsletter, the present trail traverses grades of up to 40%, making it prone to erosion, difficult for hikers to navigate, and impractical to maintain. Park sources claim that “the rerouted trail will be one mile longer than the existing nine-mile round trip, but will be an easier, more rewarding experience, and a sustainable trail for future visitors climbing to Big Bend’s highest point”.
Take a hike!