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.