Sunday, April 28, 2024

Do Arizona Hikes Indicate Luck or Lessons Learned?

Chiricahua Mountains as approached from the east.

 Post by Eric

Am I getting old and wise or just lucky?

I’ve done some stupid things in the past on my mini-adventures. I’ve got a reputation for finding swamps, underestimating times certain adventures will take, and not recognizing soon enough when it’s time to turn back (like when I led Corrine on a dead-end bike ride into a swamp). 

All my bad decisions led to great stories afterward (like an infamous swamp-infested Tuesday Night MTB Ride), but at some point you would think I would learn from my mistakes. And maybe I have.

On a recent trip to Arizona, I calculated the odds, took some chances, and still had some fine mini-adventures without any disasters, mini or otherwise.

View from Silver Peak. Chiricahua Peak is highest peak over there.

Two Summits in Portal

After our family trip to Texas for the solar eclipse and Big Bend National Park, Corrine headed home, and I headed to Arizona to visit my mom, who lives in Sierra Vista. I love the “sky island” mountain ranges in the area and decided to explore the Chiricahuas before heading to my mom’s place. So, I first went to Portal, Arizona.

Portal is a popular birding area with a lot of interesting trails. Using Trail Forks, I picked out two strenuous hikes that seemed appealing: Silver Peak and Chiricahua Peak. The hike up Silver Peak was shorter and closer to Portal, so I pegged that for the first day, since I had a several-hour drive from El Paso, Texas, in the morning.

I needed to hike Silver Peak and get back to Portal by 6 p.m. to check into the Portal Café, Country Store and Lodge and get something to eat. I got to the trailhead a little before noon. Since I didn’t know what shape the trail was in or how long it would take me, I gave myself 2.5 hours to summit and hustled as soon as I started. The question begged: Would summit fever overtake good sense if I didn’t make the summit by my time cutoff? I really didn’t want to sleep in my rental car.

Lower part of Silver Peak Trail.

I ran when I could, but the trail was usually steep so mostly I fast-hiked. I made good time since the trail was in good shape and covered the elevation with lots of switchbacks. The trail eventually got into tall pines and, after five miles, topped out in a series of cement steps to the foundation of an old lookout hut. It took me less than two hours, so I didn’t have to struggle between summit and good sense. I’m glad I made it. The views from there were gorgeous, with almost 360-degree views. I could see Chiricahua Peak, my destination for the next day. 

Stairs to Silver Peak summit.

Lookout foundation on Silver Peak with other Chiricahua Mountains in background.

I ran down and made it back to the lodge before 4 p.m., plenty of time to check in, shower, relax, and have some dinner. The business is a hidden gem. The restaurant food was delicious and reasonably priced, the grocery store is well-stocked, and the rooms are old but well-kept. And only $99 per night. 

The next morning, I drove to the Herb Martyr Trailhead, about a half-hour drive from Portal. I had figured out an ambitious loop that would take me to Chiricahua Peak, tallest of the Chiricahua Mountains. Had I left early enough to do the loop and make it back before the Portal Café closed at 6pm?

I headed up a rocky two-track -- where I saw my first and only deer of the hike -- that soon turned into a singletrack trail, which climbed through the pine forests. 

Up higher, I lost the trail in a ravine, where the trail paralleled a babbling creek. I think the trail crossed to the other bank of the creek, but that side was still covered in snow. It looked like maybe people had scrambled up the steep, snow-free side. It looked kind of sketchy, but I pushed forward and up. I soon doubted if that was the best decision, but summitting Chiricahua and finishing the loop beckoned, so I pressed on. Early on I looked down. Damn, that slope was steep! With rocks at the bottom. I picked my steps carefully.

The trail went this way...somewhere.

So I went up here.

The bushwhacking got a little better, but what followed was a scramble across a steep ravine slope covered in loose rock and thorny brambles. I almost lost my footing a couple of times and banged up my leg a bit. Yeah, I don’t think others had gone that way, but I didn’t want to turn back. And I really didn’t want to downclimb that initial steep slope.

Fun stuff to scramble through!

I pushed on, occasionally finding short deer trails to follow, but mostly picking my way across the slope, peering down the ravine to see if the trail reappeared. Eventually it did and I slowly picked my way down. That detour was probably only a quarter mile, but it took me 30 to 40 minutes. Still, I made it and avoided any disasters. Well, at least in that part of the hike. 

Near the ridgetop, I really started hearing the wind. It had been steadily building, but now it really whooshed through the treetops. Fortunately, it stayed reasonable on the ground. But it was chilly, so I donned my windbreaker. 

I intersected the Crest Trail, which wound along a sidehill toward Chiricahua Peak, but I could see it was covered in snow. I figured I would have to turn around, since I’m used to punchy post-holing Fairbanks snow, but this snow was much more compacted and there were footprints to follow. 

Crest Trail 

However, compacted snow on a sidehill can be dangerous. And I didn’t have micro-spikes. In an exposed area, one slip can send you sliding out of control. I kept expecting to run into some sketchy part. Would I have the smarts to turn back with the summit so close? But I never got to a sketchy point like that, and I made it to the base of Chiricahua Peak.

Some dry Crest Trail before Chiricahua Peak (background).

But the challenges weren’t over. The short side trail to the top of the peak was less traveled and covered in snow. It started on a sidehill. Again, I kept waiting for a sketchy part to challenge my good sense, even more challenging with each step closer to the summit. But again, I never felt in danger, so I pressed on. 

But much of the snow-covered trail had no footprints and the snow was inconsistent. Each step might be solid, or my foot might sink. I couldn’t really predict what was going to happen. The inconsistent snow made for slow going and I worried that my snail’s pace would mean I wouldn’t make it back to the café in time for dinner. I could turn back to the more predictable Crest Trail, but I was so close! Less than a half-mile from the peak! I pressed on.

More snow on way to Chiricahua Peak.

Eventually, I made the top, which was a bit anticlimactic. Covered in forest, it has no grand vistas, just some nice views peeking through the trees. Still, I was happy I had made it. But I didn’t linger. I had to make up time for all the slow going earlier, and I had never been on the trails on my planned loop. Would they be smooth sailing, or would I run into more challenges?

Atop Chiricahua.

More challenges, of course. These Forest Service trails were in rougher shape than others in the area. Trail intersections usually lacked signs and the tread was often more of a narrow goat trail, choked in many places with thorny brambles. I wanted to run but ended up mostly fast-hiking until I got onto better trails lower down. 

This is a trail intersection. Except for lacking a sign, isn't it obvious?

Yep, the trail goes through there.

Despite all those obstacles, I managed to get back with plenty of time for dinner. The hike had taken almost 7.5 hours, so leaving early had been a good choice. Was that a sign of wisdom?

I saw little wildlife besides birds on the trail, but on the drive back a coati ran across the road in front of me! I had never seen one before, so I was excited. It even stopped and looked me over, so I was able to check it out for a bit. 


Sierra Vista Scrambling

After Portal, I headed over to Sierra Vista to visit my mom. I’ve been to SV several times, so I’ve done the most interesting trails in the Huachuca Mountains (another sky island) a few times. There was some snow on the peaks, so I first did the south-facing Arizona Crest Trail to Miller Peak, figuring it would be mostly clear of snow. 

I ran/hiked the trail, making it the five miles to the peak in about two hours. On the way I ran into only two other hikers (backpackers), but I saw a bit of junk, most likely dumped border crossers. This trail connects to another that goes all the way to the border, but it would be a tough way to sneak into Arizona. 

View on the way up to Miller Peak. The Arizona-Mexico border is down there.

Junk along the trail. On the way down, I bagged up some of this and carried it back.

The weather was wonderful, so the views from the top of Miller Peak were great. And it had only a bit of snow. From there you can easily see neighboring Carr Peak and I longed to climb it, but the next day I needed to be back for a 2:30 p.m. bank appointment with my mom. Climbing Carr would be tight time-wise – and I knew summit fever would make me push the limits – so I instead decided to do the Pomona Mine Trail. A trail that ended at a mine. No summit, no summit fever, right? 

Carr Peak (to the right) from Miller Peak.

I had been partway up Pomona once before, but I had never been to the mine. I wasn’t too excited about the hike/run, but it surprised me, though not for the usual reasons.

The mine trail is rocky, steep, and dry. And I had a drop-dead turnaround time of two hours. Despite the tough trail, I made good time and got to the mine shaft in less than two hours.

Typical section of Pomona Mine Trail.

Mine shaft

But the shaft is a bit below the ridge, and it looked like others had scrambled up. And while a ridge top is not exactly a summit, it kinda is, so I scrambled up where others had gone. Some of it was pretty sketchy – loose rock and rock wall climbing. Once again, I was moving at a snail’s pace. Would I have time to get to the summit, er, ridgetop, and get back for the appointment? More concerning: would I make it safely back down? But too late! I was already climbing! 

This should be easy to come down, right?

After a bit, I found another trail, steep but hike-able, that led to an upper mine shaft. Interesting, but still not the top of the ridge. And others had obviously scrambled higher. I checked my watch. Despite the slow scramble, I was still under two hours, so I climbed upward. Fortunately, this scrambling wasn’t nearly as sketchy.  

Finally! A good trail! 

I made the ridgetop with about 10 minutes to spare! It wasn’t spectacular up there, but on the flat ridgetop I found some old debris, including some perforated steel planking (Marston mats) that looked like they formed a helicopter pad. That was kind of a fun find. 

A helicopter pad?

View of Sierra Vista from along the Pomona Mine Trail.

Others had obviously bushwhacked to high points on either side of the flat spot. Should I follow? I really wanted to explore more. But I resisted. I knew if I pressed forward, I’d be tempted to push past my time cut-off. And I had that sketchy downclimb ahead of me. I took one last glance at the higher points and made the wise decision to start down. 

Heading down was quite a bit easier. The steep trail I had found that led to the upper mine shaft descended all the way to the main trail that led to the lower mine shaft. No need for a dangerous down-scramble. The trail was steep in places, but not nearly as sketchy as the downclimb. I had earlier seen where that trail intersected the main trail, but it has no signs, so I didn’t realize what it was.

Where the upper mine trail splits from the lower mine trail. Obvious, right?

Since my descent was quicker than I had anticipated, I decided to explore a singletrack trail that diverged off the Pomona Mine Trail lower down. I guessed that it hooked back to the main trail that ran through Brown Canyon, so I took a chance and followed it. It kept heading away from the main trail. Was this a mistake? I was thinking about turning around when the trail ended at a barbed wire fence and gate signed as military land with big “No Trespassing” words. Now what? Heading back seemed the smart decision. 

Not going there!

But I still had some time, and I saw a faint track and some flagging. It looked like someone was planning a singletrack trail. I figured it would probably connect with the main trail. Probably. I headed down it. 

Obvious trail, right?

Unfortunately, the flagging was sparse, and I soon lost the faint track. Now what? I could backtrack, or I could bushwhack down to the main trail. Bushwhacking seemed a bit risky to do in an area I hardly knew, but the understory was sparse and how lost could I get in a canyon? And I was pretty sure the main trail wasn’t far away. Those seem like famous last words, but this time it all worked out. I found the main trail. 

As I ran back to the car, I saw several other singletrack trails taking off from the main trail. I wanted to head off on them, but good sense overrode my impulse to explore. And I made it back for the appointment.

So tempted to explore that trail off to the left.

Am I Learning or Lucky?

So, while I had some fun mini-adventures in Arizona, I didn’t have any epic tales as the result of bad decisions on my part. I took some chances with some off-trail scrambling and pushing time limits, but I also leavened them with good sense. 

Am I getting wiser? Did I get lucky? Maybe a bit of both. 

Sierra Vista and the Huachuca Mountains from Foothills Loop Trail in
Kartchner Caverns State Park, which I ran on my drive to Tucson.

Silver Peak Strava map

Chiricahua Peak loop from Strava

Miller Peak hike Strava map

Pomona Mine Trail and more - Strava

Foothills Loop Trail - Strava

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Deep In the Heart of Texas

Post by Corrine

Unfortunately, the weather forecasters had been right.

Eric and I had traveled for two days to get to Del Rio, Texas, to see the total eclipse of the sun and the forecast for every day of our vacation had been for sunny skies…except the day of the eclipse. And they were right. We woke to cloudy skies and mist.

Was the big event going to be a bust?

But at least it was warm. And we were having a mini family reunion no matter the weather. And there was still more of Texas to see.

Total Eclipse

Earlier last fall, our son Riley and his wife Sam, now living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, had had front row seats for the October annular solar eclipse. They are total science nerds and decided they wanted to see the total solar eclipse next. The path of totality for this one was within driving range for them. And southern Texas seemed the most likely place in the United States along the path to have clear skies in April. Also, Big Bend National Park was nearby, a park Eric and I still hadn’t seen. I started making plans, even convincing our daughter Montana to come join us. 

Del Rio, Texas, was the first U.S. town in the path of totality. I found an AirBnB next to Amistad National Recreation Area, a few miles outside of Del Rio. We wanted to watch the eclipse in a natural surrounding and this was a perfect location, as the reservoir is the focus of the recreation area. We arrived a couple of days before the eclipse and spent time relaxing, catching up, playing games, hiking, and picking out a great eclipse viewing location on some rocks above the shore of the reservoir.

Amistad National Recreation Area - a perfect place to watch the sunset and to see the solar eclipse

Hiking in Seminole Canyon State Park

Unfortunately, April 8, the day of the eclipse, dawned cloudy for most of Texas. The total eclipse wasn’t until 1:30 PM, so we waited. Eric went for a run and, Riley and I went for a bike ride. A couple of hours before totality, we headed over to the spot we had picked out earlier. Even though we were several miles outside of Del Rio, the spot we had chosen was already starting to get crowded. We got set up and then waited nervously. 

Luckily the clouds started thinning. The skies never cleared, but as the eclipse started, we kept getting occasional glimpses. That made things more dramatic. We were treated to amazing views through openings in the clouds. Most of the time, we didn’t even need to wear our eclipse glasses, since the cloud cover provided a natural filter. But we kept wondering – what would happen with the clouds during totality?

Partial eclipse.  Almost time for totality

Totality came and the clouds thinned enough for us to get a great view! And the time of totality was just as cool and awe-inspiring as predicted. It was eerie to have it get dark and see some stars, and then have the light come back again. It was such a special moment to share with the family. I’ve seen a few partial eclipses, which were wonderful, but this was even more special. It was worth the travel.

Total Eclipse

Big Bend National Park

Montana and Sam had to head back to work but Riley, Eric, and I headed west to spend three days at Big Bend National Park. 

Tuesday morning, we left early for the four-hour drive from Del Rio to the Panther Junction Visitor Center. After getting a park map, we headed down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, the first item on the ambitious itinerary I had devised for the park. 

Along the drive, we first stopped at the Upper Burro Mesa Pour Off Trail. I thought the hike was two miles roundtrip, but it ended up being two miles one way. That wasn’t a big deal, but it did get us a little behind schedule. The hike was relatively easy, except for lots of soft sand and some rock scrambling at the far end. The trail follows a drainage to a small canyon that ends at the top of a cliff. When water is running, it pours over the cliff edge and falls 100 feet to the bottom, which is accessible via another trail. Just as we got to the pour off, we saw a couple who had hiked in on the lower trail. That trail was already on my itinerary. 

Lots of soft sand to hike through

Looking down over the pour off at the hikers below

A little scrambling was involved

After getting back to our car, we drove to the Lower Burro Mesa Pour Off Trail and hiked a mile back to the bottom of the pour off and looked up where we had been just an hour or so earlier. It seemed even more impressive from the bottom. We then got back to our car and kept driving, stopping at all the scenic pullouts.

At the bottom of the pour off

Looking up at the pour off

We headed toward Santa Elena Canyon, stopping at Castolon to get something cold to drink and then at a boat put-in/take-out for the Rio Grande River. We were surprised at how small the river was there. One spot was only a couple of feet across, and we jumped over into Mexico and then back. How strange! The river really varied in width, probably because a lot of it seeps into the dry porous riverbed. But we also found out that due to water diversions and irrigation along the river only about 25 percent of its natural flow reaches the Gulf of Mexico.

I jump across the Rio Grande 

Riley prepares to leap back over the mighty Rio Grande

We finally arrived at the Santa Elena Canyon about 5:30 PM. The canyon has a popular hiking trail. It was busy but not horrible. Getting there late in the day made for some wonderful light. It was my favorite place in Big Bend. The park service says the hike is 1.7 miles roundtrip, but our GPS units got very confused in the deep rock-walled canyon. They showed us doing double that distance with a lot more elevation gain. Our GPS tracks showed us scaling the vertical canyon walls! One of Riley’s friends, who is going to Big Bend soon, almost decided not to do the hike after seeing Riley’s Strava!

After the hike, my itinerary had Riley and I biking the gravel 14-mile Old Maverick Road to the highway and then several more paved miles to our accommodations for the night. But Riley and I had already decided against that because 1) it was getting late and we didn’t want to bike in the dark, 2) we didn’t know exactly where the place we were staying that night was located, and 3) we would have had to battle a 20-mph headwind. Yes, we wimped out, but it was a smart decision! Besides, we had to save our energy for the next two days of my packed itinerary.

Instead, we drove the “improved” gravel road, which was NOT improved. It was doable but slow. The drive allowed us to make a loop but there wasn’t a whole lot to see. Once we were back on pavement, we headed to Terlingua, a small town to the west of the park, just as the sun was setting. 

Dome Glamping

I had wanted to camp in Big Bend but was unable to get any campsites. April is a popular time of year for Big Bend and the eclipse may have increased the crowds even more. I had to search hard to find us any place to stay. Big Bend is extremely remote for the Lower 48. The nearest big town with chain hotels is a two-hour drive away. 

But small Terlingua offered accommodations. As I perused the internet, I came across the website for “Summit at Big Bend,” which had availability for our dates. This funky little place has 34 geodesic domes out in the middle of nowhere. Each dome has a bed, a couch, a sink with running water, and a small fridge. Communal showers and bathrooms are in separate buildings. And it’s only 30 minutes away from Big Bend! It was quiet with great views of the night sky as there was minimal light pollution. If you don’t need a lot of amenities, this is the place to stay. Glamping at its best!

Morning view from our dome

Several other businesses in the Terlingua area offered similar clustered accommodations. We saw another with domes, two with small A-frames, and one with small adobe buildings. The town also has several restaurants, a grocery store, and a gas station.

More Biking and Hiking

The second day, we drove back in the park toward Rio Grande Village on the east side of the park. Eric dropped Riley and me off at Glen Spring Road. Riley and I biked 25 miles on the rugged gravel road and then a few more on the paved highway to Rio Grande Village. The gravel road was rough and chunky in spots. It was do-able on our gravel bikes, but I was often wishing I had my mountain bike with front suspension. I would have been faster, especially on the downhills. Riley was nice enough to wait for me at all the intersections. We saw almost nobody for the three-and-a-half hours we were out there. It was a great way to explore the park. We did find Glen Spring and decided if we wanted to backcountry camp, that would be the place to do it.

Should have brought my mountain bike with front suspension!

Glen Springs - a little oasis in the desert

Meanwhile, Eric had his own adventure, running and hiking the Ernst Ridge Trail. He got some nice views of the Rio Grande River and reached Hot Springs at the far end of the trail. He wasn’t tempted to soak in the springs since the temps were in the upper 80s. Plus, the hot springs, which are also accessible by a short hike via a different trail, were crowded. 

The Rio Grande from the Ernst Ridge Trail

Hot Springs was a little crowded - Eric skipped soaking

After we met back up, we hiked into Boquillas Canyon, another short hike into a pretty river canyon where Riley and I went wading – Riley all the way across to Mexico again. Then we headed back to Terlingua for dinner and bed. 

Boquillas Canyon

Riley wades to Mexico and back while I only go a little ways.  

Hiking and Biking to Summits

Our third day in the park, we headed to Chisos Basin in the center of the park and did a 10.5-mile hike up to Emory Peak, the highest point in the park. We started early to beat the crowds and to hike uphill when it was cooler. The trails were in great shape with nice grades but there was a bit of scrambling to reach the very top. Only a few other people were on top. 

A little scrambling to get to the top

On top of Mt. Emory

We had considered doing a longer loop but instead chose to head back the way we had come so we could enjoy a little down time at our geodome.

After dinner, we decided to head up a two-mile gravel road behind our place that led up to a ridge, where we could watch the sunset. Riley and I biked, and it was steep – between 8 and 16% grades for most of the way. Eric drove up and did some hiking while waiting for us. He found an old hard-rock mine shaft that we all ended up exploring. The views from on top were expansive and we saw another incredible sunset. Afterward, Riley and I got to bomb back down the hill back to our place.

An old quicksilver mine

El Paso and Beyond

The next morning, we drove back to El Paso. From there I was catching a plane home, Riley was renting a car to drive the four hours back to Albuquerque, and Eric was going on to Arizona to spend a few days with his mom. But since my plane wasn’t leaving until the afternoon, Eric and I had time for one more hike before my flight left. We did a loop in the Franklin Mountains State Park, a huge recreation area smack dab in the middle of the El Paso city limits. We checked out the Aztec Caves (which weren’t really inhabited by the Aztecs) and headed to Mundy’s Gap. This was a nice area with lots of hiking trails right in the city. We might have gone further and summited North Franklin Peak, the highest peak in the park, but Riley had some problems getting his rental car, so we cut our hike short and headed back down to help him. 

Aztec Caves

We made it to the saddle below the peak but not to North Franklin Peak itself in the distance

We packed a lot into one week in Texas:  a total eclipse, time with our kids, several incredible sunsets, lots of desert wildflowers and birds, and a trip into Big Bend National Park with lots of hiking and biking. We probably won’t be heading back to Texas anytime soon, so we were glad to have done so much in a relatively short amount of time.