Thursday, February 23, 2017

Solo River Trip down Boquillas Canyon, Big Bend National Park

A return to a favorite wilderness

Normally I'm not much for repeat adventures. With the opportunities I have to take a week away from work, I'm much more apt to make a headstrong foray into some new wilderness I've never been to. But Boquillas Canyon had been such a captivating trip last year that I just couldn't stay away. The perfectly sunny and warm West Texas skies were beckoning once again. 

Big Bend National Park and the Rio Grand Wild and Scenic River are not exactly unknown to the world though their visitorship pales in comparison to similar national parks. This is likely due to their remoteness- 4 hours from Midland-Odessa, 5 hours from El Paso and about 6 hours from San Antonio. You don't just stumble upon these national parks, you make a destination out of them. Anyone who has been would confirm that its worth the laborious drive!

Map of my adventure down the Rio Grand

Depending on the year, the Rio Grand Wild and Scenic River can be the least visited national park unit in the entire system (including Alaska!). Snaking north of the boundary of the national park, this pristine river has almost no connection with civilization save for a few primitive campsites and some abandoned mining camps. There is absolutely no cell phone reception, no visitor centers and no way out except down the river- that's the draw for me.

With all the talk and politics of the southern border, one might mistake this area as a dangerous place. Nothing could be further from the truth. In this vast, unpopulated corner of North America, the border is as insignificant as a line on a board game. There are no walls, no signs and nothing other than a river that divides the two countries. Livestock, feral horses and bears frequently hop back and forth across the border when the river runs low. As the international boundary is technically only at the deepest point in the river, the paddler floats back and forth across the boundary as well. 
The tower and mesa in the distance rise about 1 mile above the Rio Grand in about 2 miles
Without a doubt, Boquillas Canyon is a Grand Canyon. Its about 20 miles in length and anywhere from 800 to several thousand feet deep. Unlike the grand canyon, there are no official hiking trails from the rim to the river. A few primitive herd paths exist though they are difficult to get to, involving at least a 14 mile round trip from the nearest road. In both my trips down the canyon, I saw no people for 3 days. 

The most traditional way of canoeing Boquillas Canyon is putting in at Rio Grand Village and taking out at Heath Canyon. This is a 33 mile trip that is typically done in 3-4 days depending on the comfort of the paddlers. There are two rapids that range anywhere from class 2-3 and numerous other smaller ripples that still require a little skill to navigate. The water levels of the river entirely depend upon the Rio Conchos, a major tributary entirely in Mexico. Irrigation and dams have made the river more of a creek North of Presido, Texas-Ojinaga, Mexico. Though the Rio Conchos is also extensively developed, it releases far more water. March is considered the high season for paddling though many wilderness seekers try to avoid the spring break season when the swell of tourists creates a veritable metropolis. January and February can result in lower water and lining the river at times though I did not find this oppressive. 
One of the rapids, created in the past 6-7 years by an unwitnessed rock slide from the Mexican side of the river
My favorite section off the river about 5 miles past the entrance 

It was funny how similarly this trip was to my former adventure. I camped at the same sites and made about the same progress. In spite of the repetition, I was no less enthralled. I could go on and on about the scenery though that's obvious. The parts that aren't communicated in pictures are the silence and serenity of being totally alone along a desert river. Ripples broke the silence occasionally though it was hauntingly quiet for the most part. At several sections, I simply landed on a sandy spit and allowed myself to be enveloped by the tranquility. 

At night, I simply relaxed by a campfire and gazed up at the trillions of stars. There are few places I've traveled that have a clearer night sky. Being 4-5 hours from anything considered a city sure has its advantages. The Milky Way was like a big silver ribbon crossing the sky and it seemed like constellations I've never seen were etched with perfect visibility. The canyon walls themselves looked like jaws though I didn't feel enclosed. Shadows and dim evening light did create an ethereal sight-

Time seemed to ebb and flow with as much variability as the river itself. There were really only two important events in the day- sunrise and sunset. In my world as a healthcare provider, time is far more regimented and counted. How pleasant it was to have a far more indefinite way to pass the day. 

Though I'm sure I would have loved to spend weeks going up and down the river, it had to end eventually. The finish of Boquillas Canyon is fairly anticlimactic. After leaving the walls behind, the landscape becomes flat though not uninteresting. It offers some panoramas of distant desert mountains and the river teams with noisy life. Note that campsites are few once leaving the boundary of the National Park and both sides of the river are privately owned. Thankfully there are a few large islands in the river that offer respite. 

Finishing near the abandoned mining town of La Linda, the takeout is at the end of a paved road. A bridge marks the end though this boarder crossing has been closed for 20 years. It almost looks like the infamous "Bridge of No Return" between South and North Korea. Its a ghostly site though without any sort of danger.

So once again I had an unceremonious end to another grand adventure. My driver picked me up right on time and I was back to Big Bend for some more land-based adventures. I'm sure I'll make a habit out of returning to this river! 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Hiking the Marufo Vega Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

A wilderness trail in the Big Bend backcountry
The Marufo Vega trail near its highest altitude
I think I'll try to make a habit of this; coming to Big Bend National Park in February and escaping the north country winter blues. I was here last year under similar circumstances and had such a wonderful time that I returned on almost the same exact dates. Big Bend is a well-known though not very well visited park who's remoteness is the greatest asset. It is anywhere from a 4-7 hour drive from the nearest major airports or cities and there's not a lot of civilization nearby. Even in February, when the weather is a balmy 80 degrees most days, I hardly ever run into other hikers or paddlers. To me, its a dream.

The Marufo Vega Trail is a new one to me- this 14 mile trail is mostly a loop and cuts deep into the heart of the Boquillas Canyon backcountry. I was headed out here for perspective; having paddled Boquillas Canyon two times, I wanted to see what it looked like from above. This trail is extremely remote with absolutely no services. Water could be filtered from the river itself but that is about 7 miles into the trip  and after hiking up and down a mountain range:

The trail starts right off of a gravel turnout on the road to the Boquillas Canyon Overlook and hiking trail near Rio Grand Village. It is not very well marked though easy to spot if you are looking  for it. It remains mostly flat as it winds its way up an arroyo marked with cairns. There are remains of an old aerial tramway from the mining era that has been long abandoned. The trail reaches a fork at about a mile and the Marufo Trail goes off to the right. 
The blind enterance to Boquillas Canyon
Earlier on in the trail, its fairly flat

The trail gets steep after leaving the aerial tramway 
The trail begins a steadier climb to a small coulior in the Sierra del Caballo Muerto (Dead Horse Mountains). Another fork in the trail appears; going left (North) takes you on the Strawhouse Trail while the Marufo Vega trail stays right (East). Almost immediately, it makes a very steep ascent up a sharp ridgeline. At the top, the trail winds around the top of the ridgeline and comes to a magnificent view of the Sierra del Carmen and Schotts Tower
The obvious tower in the distance is Schotts Tower on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. At about 7,000ft of elevation, it rises about a vertical mile above the river in less than two miles. 
The higher elevations of the trail

The trail heads in a mostly northern direction through a pleasantly undulating section with panoramic views. Desert life appears slightly more lush at the higher elevations. I hardly took more than a few steps without feeling compelled to snap a few photos. Without any cell phone reception and no signs of civilization, the solitude is very real. I love trips like these.

I encountered two other well marked turnoff for the Strawhouse Trail though kept on the Marufo Vega trail by bearing right (Northeast) at both junctions. From a topographic map, the changes in elevation aren't that obvious but when I was hiking, I found there were an abundance of narrow canyons and gorgeous vistas that made the trail very diverse and delightful.

Without a doubt, the most remarkable section of the trail is the loop it makes around the tall vista above the Rio Grand. This begins at the final fork in the trail and one can hike in either direction. The river creates such a sharp contrast in the surrounding arid mountains. It seems to slide through the ridgelines with ease. When I paddled the Rio Grand, I noticed the verdant banks with abundant evidence of desert fauna which dependent upon the river. From elevation, the divergent environments of the mountains and the river was even more apparent. 

Rounding the lower rim of the Rio Grand, the trail continues with its glorious views until meeting the fork. From here, it is a fairly straightforward return the way it came. Afternoon shadows and sunlight made the views even more ethereal. 

At about 14 miles total, it is certainly an all day affair to hike this trail. Again, there are no services on the entire trail and absolutely no cell phone reception. I recommend carrying at least a 3 liters, if not a gallon of water for the day and plenty of supplies in case the worst should happen. Definitely let somebody know of your expected return time and who to contact if you miss it. Though it is an arduous hike in some ways, the reward is perfect solitude and desert views. I highly recommend this one if you're in the Big Bend area.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Cozy Winter Weekend in Galena

First time spending time in Galena in the Winter!
Galena embodies the timelessness of Midwestern Americana
In somewhat of a departure from my usual bouts of intense outdoor adventures, we decided to take a pleasant weekend in Galena for the holidays. We've been several times during the summer months and spend nearly the entire vacation outside. For this visit, we wanted to do everything we could to enjoy the winter in a relaxing way. So we both took three days off and drove out to our favorite Midwestern small town.

In the past we've stayed at the The Irish Cottage Boutique Hotel and Queen Anne Guest House, both of which are fine choices. We have been curious about the Galena Territory in the past and decided on renting a townhome through VRBO in the Territory. If you don't know, the Galena Territory is about 10 miles or roughly 20 minutes from downtown Galena. Its resort-like in nature though also with a quaint neighborhood mingled with farms and several golf courses. What we really loved however was an opportunity to find a hideaway in the remarkably picturesque rolling hills of Northwestern Illinois. 

Our brief residence was deep in the heart of the territory. In a different season, our place would have been bustling with golfers though in the winter we were the only ones around. It was a welcome respite to be in such a secluded and quiet place for three days. Time flowed at a leisurely pace though we never felt bored or pent up. In the mornings, we enjoys nippy walks with views of the countryside then quickly retreated back to coffee and hot chocolate. Dee spent some time reading and writing while I did mostly writing. Given the time of year, we enjoyed generous helpings of Christmas specials and classics as well. Its funny how such things can be so memorable on a small vacation.

Though we would have loved to have continued simply idling away in our little retreat, we did go to downtown Galena in the afternoons. The town was no less gorgeous in the winter season. Light snowfall made the place feel like we were in a time capsule or snow-globe from a Norman Rockwell painting. The town was gracefully decorated for the season- the luminaries added splendor to nighttime walking. Properly bundled and armed with large coffee/tea we didn't feel at all oppressed walking around in the winter cold. When we needed to warm up, we ducked in to Galena Brewing Company, a place we've unfortunately missed in the past. It was actually packed on a weekday at 11AM! Surely we weren't the only ones enjoying the winter weekend.

It was a fantastic and surprisingly inexpensive weekend. Dee does such a better job of creating holiday spirit and I was glad we were able to appreciate the winter cheer in our little Midwestern hamlet. Now we want to come back for Christmas... or New Years!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Peak Fall Foliage Hiking at Matthiessen State Park, Illinois

Hiking one of the best kept secrets of Illinois

I suppose those years of living in New England really honed my taste for fall hikes. When I left, I though I was leaving all those glorious colors behind. Sure, I knew that New England is not the only place with deciduous trees but I figured everything would pale in comparison to Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Thankfully, I recently discovered Matthiessen State Park in North-Central Illinois which stands up to what I was previously used to hiking. This gem of a park receives 1/6th of the visitors that nearby Starved Rock receives though is every bit as magnificent. Even on a peak-color day in October, I was mostly alone.

Hiking through this park involves two different locations. The first is the "Dells" area which is where deep canyons carve their way through preconceived notions that Illinois is nothing but flatness and prairies. Certainly this is the highlight of the park but the other "River Area" is special in its own right. Hugging the Vermillion River, these trails are far less visited and tend to be more serene. I loved both areas for their uniqueness. 

The Dells are is becoming my new favorite place to hike in the state. Its only about 80 miles from where I live in Chicago and I've returned a few times now only to be as facicated with it as the first visit. The landscape does not evoke the idea that the Midwest is flat and full of cornfields (though that can be beautiful too). Instead, it follows the patterns of many riverside parks where steep bluffs and cliffs give way to waterfalls and streams below. Many of the trails in the Dells area follow along the canyon rim or they wind through the bottom of the canyon.

I'd highly suggest wearing a very sturdy pair of waterproof boots due to these trails. Sturdy books allowed me to keep my focus on the abundant scenery rather than be preoccupied with not getting my feet wet.

Another serendipitous part of my trip was going after a thunderstorm. Some of the leaves had been picked off by the high winds but the waterfalls were running with terrific force. Others are only seasonal or flow after heavy rains- it was a treat to observe those elusive falls. All in all, I saw at least seven waterfalls on my trip. 

The Dells area has less than five miles of hiking trails but I spent over 6 hours wandering about. Autumn is a season that seems to pass more quickly than others and I couldn't miss a single moment in this lovely place.

Moving on to the River Area, I found this part of the part to be abundant in solitude and hardly saw any other hikers. Naturally, most are drawn to this park because of the waterfalls. My preference is always to have some peace and quiet all to myself and the river area satisfied this desire perfectly. 

As the river area receives a fraction of the visitors that the Dells area receives, the trails are less maintained and tend to be a bit ambiguous. I was turned around when hiking them the first time. This was not unpleasant, however. I find the Vermillion River of Illinois to be one of the most underrated adventure destinations and I did not mind being a bit lost in this serene place. Meandering along the riverbank allowed for quiet reflection.

Though less dramatic than the cliffs of the Dells, the Vermillion river creates many impressive bluffs itself. They precipitously towered over that was running in full force after some heavier storms. I wished I could have taken a run down it in a raft- something that I've done before in the summer. 

Back towards the parking lot, I noted a number of trees in full autumn display. Funny to think that the most pedestrian part of the area had the best colors- 

Same place, 2 weeks later

Same tree, two weeks later
So there you have it- my new favorite hiking destination in the state. This isn't my only treasured hiking destination in Illinois but the proximity to Chicago makes it enticing. Starved Rock is gorgeous, to be sure, but I love the solitude that Matthiessen State Park offers. I'll be returning soon in the winter!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Lessons From Our First Time Abroad in Madrid, Spain (And Europe)

First Time Traveling Abroad!

For somebody who considers themselves such an experienced traveler, It wasn't until my late twenties that I actually went abroad for the first time. Like many Americans, I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico and Canada which are underrated international travel destinations in themselves. However most “real travelers” would say you have to get off the continent across an ocean to really experience international travel. I've been to all 50 states in the United States, so I think of myself adept. But I was actually quite intimidated at the thought of going to Europe. There are many variables that I have not faced that are integral to international travel. So going to Spain would be a grand adventure though one with a steep learning curve.  I'd like to share some of the victories and lessons that I learned with my first time abroad.


Where do I start? Why don't we talk about what I was looking forward to the most. There’s the usual standbys-  food, dance, culture, museums, new environments, ect. However, one of the odd things that really excited me on this trip was the knowledge that every inch traveled would bring me further East than I've ever been in my life. Also, growing up in California, I'm far from used to being around entire cities and landscapes that are 500 to thousands of years old. The civilization in North America dates back far beyond what we normally consider, though preservation has never been a priority like it is in Europe. Timelessness is a foreign concept to most of us Americans.

What I was most nervous about was the language barrier and the knowledge that I'm really the outsider.  Even with the most intensely local-centric places I've been in the United States I felt like I had a knack for blending in with the background and hence getting a very genuine experience. That would simply be impossible for me to do in Spain and I knew that going into it. What would surprise me was how welcoming the people and culture are to travelers.

My partner in crime

Traveling with my spouse, Dee, is also an adventure in itself.  We have such starkly different preferences and travel. Dee  appreciates culture history art and relaxation. her trips tend to be carefully planned and executed with precision. I, on the other hand, appreciate nature remoteness, and experiences that may not go up and guidebooks. Hence, I tend to be more capricious and impulsive, ready to take something new on at the drop of a hat. Buying the two preferences ends up being unique as well as challenging.

Arrival and first look

Despite being intensely jet-lagged and sleep deprived once we got in the taxi and rode through downtown Madrid,  all of that didn't matter. I wonder if this is a  Collective experience of Americans abroad-  to be totally enthralled By architecture that is as ancient as it is enduring. The streets were so narrow, I assume because they were not originally meant for cars. people raised by on Vespas and bikes creating a bustling but not overcrowded feel. I could not stop taking pictures.

Dee was the one that chose our hotel in Madrid  which was just to her liking. She chose Hotel Catalonia Atocha. What a perfect choice that was! It was very elegant and modern though set in a neighborhood that seemed like a time capsule from another era.  We were very happy with  our posh 7th floor room right next to the terrace and bar that overlooks the city. We had a lot to see in our 4 days in Madrid so I would have been just as content to spend them in the hotel.

Very impressed with our hotel!
Four Days in Madrid

Madrid was a perfect place for me to get my first experience of Europe. Though it is difficult to fully navigate the city and sights without a basic understanding of Spanish, we stumbled our way around and had fun doing it. One of the first things we discovered was the Mercado de San Miguel. Naturally, everyone who comes to Spain wants to experience tapas. Perhaps this market is a good place to start where all the staples of the Spanish diet can be sampled at once. It gave us an excellent feel for what to expect later in our journey.

Plaza Mayor needs no introduction from me but I will say that it was worth paying a visit as well. There were dozens of tapas restaurants that lined this historic city center which we wished we could have eaten at every one. Puerta del Sol is equally well known though no less magnificent. Shopping abounds in this busier plaza.

Careless wandering continued to fill us with wonder. Naturally the Catedral de la Almudena (national cathedral) and the Royal Palace were glorious sights. Ancient royalty is another new concept we were immersed in around this part of Madrid. I would say the royal gardens or Jardines De Sabatini were actually the highlights of this part.

With respect to food, we had some excellent experiences though the most noteworthy were-

  • Bar Benteveo: Inexpensive though very authentic corner breakfast place. Tosta portion sizes were quite large!
  • La Infinito: Bohemian and hipster-ish coffee shop and cafe in the Atocha District which we found our favorite spot for café and té
  • Taberna El Sur: Generous and accommodating staff, very fluent in English and friendly to us. We wished we had eaten there daily!
  • Restaurante Triciclo: Upscale tapas dining with dishes that we hadn't experienced elsewhere. 

Dee appreciated the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía which is the modern art museum of Spain. This museum is analagous to MOMA in New York in stature and collections. Every appetite for modern art could be satiated here, from the unusual to the absurd. Dee was in heaven. Guernica is the most famous painting of the museum though it is littered with other instantly recognizable works of Picasso and Salvador Dalí.

Overall Impressions

Honestly, it was a bit of an intriguing risk to travel abroad. This isn't due to any safety risks- after all, any place in Spain is safer than every place in Chicago. However there was risk that our lack of understanding of language and culture would lead to some embarrassing faux pas. Additionally, we're just not as familiar with how time and travel work in far away places and intangibles such as these can lead us to a great expense of mental energy. As it turns out, there were times when that happened such as when we wandered into an extra-local bar and we felt the coldness of the crowd. However these experiences were few and far between. On the contrary, most places in Madrid were genuinely hospital and eager to share their love for the city to we humble Chicagoians. I'm glad we picked Madrid as our first destination abroad.