Saturday, March 3, 2018

Big Bend National Park ~~ Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive & Santa Elena Canyon

Since our days were numbered in Big Bend, we had to get in as much sight seeing as possible, so the next day we took off again, this time driving the 30 mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to Santa Elena Canyon. Our first stop was Homer Wilson Ranch. It's a long way down to the actual ranch, and I did not walk down there. The ranch was abandoned in 1945. There is a foreman's house, bunkhouse, corral, and a dipping vat for sheep and goats.

Our second stop on this drive was the Burro Mesa Pouroff. There are two ways to access this area - one is a long hike that would take me to the top of the mesa, and the top of the waterfall. This is only when there is water, which I don't think there has been any in a long, long time. I took the lower hike, which was through the river bed, ending at the base of the dry waterfall.  Flash flood waters from the Javelina drainage come funneling down the pouroff, a dry fall hidden from view in a narrow box canyon. The last few hundred yards of the trail follow a dry wash full of flood debris. The gully's steep banks and the sand and cobbles are evidence of the torrents that carve the high pouroff.

The next stop on our drive was Mule Ears View Point. The Mule Ears are dikes that were once enclosed in volcanic ash. Consider the extent of the erosion: to expose these igneous rocks, all the softer surrounding rock had to be stripped away.  Big Bend country is filled with such contradictions: features that seem modest from a distance but show nature's awesome power when confronted directly.

The Rio Grande River through Santa Elena Canyon is quiet at this time of year. During flood season, these quiet waters churn and rush through the canyon, carving out the canyon walls. Jim standing next to the Rio Grande (that's Mexico on the other bank).

Rafters come down the Rio Grande from upstream, and exit here before going into the Canyon. 

The trail to the Canyon

Unable to scout the canyon, the 1852 Boundary Survey launched an empty wooden boat at the canyon entrance. Only splinters and broken planks emerged at the canyon mouth. In 1882 a team of surveyors and Texas Rangers made the first documented journey through Santa Elena Canyon, though they portaged around the Rock Slide. Once they entered the sheer-walled gorge there was no escape, no place to climb out.

Down near the end of the trail, there was shade and the vegetation grows lush and green. It was cool in the shade and there was bamboo and grass growing all over the place.

That little spot you see in the middle of the Rio Grande is a person crossing back over to the U.S. side. If he had gotten caught, he could have been put in jail, but he walked across the river to the Mexico side and then came back. 

On our way back from the canyon we stopped at the Sotol Vista. From here we looked over the prairie toward Santa Elena Canyon. The Sotol are actually spear-like plants that surround this overlook, which is a member of the lily family. Sotol thrives on cooler, north-facing terrain, midway between desert and mountains. For thousands of years Big Bend's early inhabitants roasted the heart of sotol for food and used the leaf fibers for rope and sandals.

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