August is one of my two least favorite months – right up there with February. But now the hottest month is in rear-view mirror. With the arrival of September, I feel like we can finally start dreaming about cooler weather and Autumn colors.
Despite the ominous cloud hanging over us that is 2020, the summer was still good and productive. I spent much of June and July photographing the mountains, streams, and wildflowers of Colorado. I enjoyed the 30 degree mornings and afternoons in the mid-70s, for sure. Arriving back in Texas in August, as always, was a rough transition. But I also know I’m fortunate to do what I do. And if you want to see my summer work, please feel free to jump over to my other gallery at Images from Colorado.
Back in Texas, the heat seems to have relented just a bit. We had rain yesterday at my place in Dripping for the first time since I’ve been home (about a month) and this morning I awakened to a 75 degree humid morning. The good news is that the temperature is supposed to remain in the 80s, which is a nice reprieve from the 100 degree days.
Heading into fall, I’ve already planned trips to Palo Duro Canyon to meet up with the Caprock Canyoneer, and after that I hope to make a short and first-time trek to Caprock Canyon.
Palo Duro Canyon is one of the gems of the Texas State Parks system. From the parking lot to the summit of Capitol Peak, the hike is only about .7 miles, but the last quarter mile is an 350’ uphill scramble over loose and crumbling rock. But the views are unforgettable. With layers of the canyon walls showing off their morning glow of orange, the landscape changes its tones and hues over the 30 minutes before and after sunrise. While the temperatures on this November morning were in the high 20s and the hike up in the dark was a bit sketchy, I was glad I made the journey.
This panorama is available in larger and custom sizes.
I just finished shooting a photography book for San Antonio along with a friend of mine. Glad that is done!
From the calm waters of Woodlawn Lake west of downtown San Antonio, this is the skyline at sunrise. Taken with a telelphot lens, this image is made up of several photographs stitched together to show the iconic buildings such as the Tower of the Americas, Bank of America, and the historical Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower.
Next, I’ll have to head out to Big Bend National Park (if the park is open) and finish up shooting for a book and publisher.
The Ross Maxwell Scenic Road in Big Bend National Park is one of the most beautiful drives in the United States. It winds around, curves, climbs and dips for 30 miles along the western slopes of the Chisos Mountains. Along the way, several interested locations can be enjoyed, including Santa Elena Canyon, Sam Neil Ranch, the Burro Mesa Pour-off, Tuff Canyon, and the Sotol Vista overlook.
In between those trips, I plan on following the fall colors of the Hill Country and maybe sneaking in a trip to the coast. Of course, all this depends on how the virus progresses and what my own kids are doing in school. With so many moving parts, it is hard to make any firm plans. As an example, I was supposed to travel to Iceland to shoot there this summer, but that trip was cancelled when the airlines cancelled our flight and Americans were not allowed into the country without quarantining for 14 days. That trip has been rescheduled for next summer, and a week in Ireland has been added for good measure.
That’s it for my rambling now. I’m ready to get back out to nature and find those beautiful places that are just waiting to be photographed. Until then, I hope everyone stays safe and enjoys the cooler weather!
~ Rob Images from Texas on Instagram Images from Texas on Facebook
Each trip I make to Big Bend National Park has a purpose, and my time out here always seems to pass quickly. Big Bend hides so many places to explore, experience, and photograph. The land of the Big Bend is one of my favorite places in Texas. These trips are for work, and often require the sacrifice of being away from my family. For me, this is usually the most difficult part. But this trip was planned several months ago – after the desert’s bluebonnet season was to close – and my trek out to west Texas had two specific goals. First, I wanted to hike the Mesa de Anguila and photograph an iconic bend in the Rio Grande from a vantage point that looks over the western and little-known portion of the river. Next, I wanted to shoot Hot Springs Canyon at sunset.
I had visited Big Bend only 10 days prior at the height of a once-in-a-lifetime bluebonnet bloom. I had expected the blooms to be fading or gone by the time I returned, but when my friend (we’ll call him Mike) and I drove into the park from the Study Butte side, we quickly found the Big Bend bluebonnets alive and well. So we had to adjust our plans.
We spent the first day exploring – driving Old Maverick Road, the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, and best of all, River Road West. To my surprise, the bluebonnets 8-14 miles down River Road West were spectacular. Some showed the signs of heat and age – colors fading and seed pods showing – but many were tall and deep blue. About eight miles in on this rough 4WD road, the rolling foothills of the Chisos Mountains showed waves and rivers of blue. We’d found our sunrise spot for the following morning.
After lingering too long on River Road West, we drove quickly back to Terlingua and then down to Lajitas for a hike to Mesa del Anguila. The trail starts on the south end of this little town, takes you through a wash, then three-quarters of a mile across the Chihuahuan Desert. Though it may lull a hiker into a sense of ease, the looming uphill portion of the hike to reach the saddle of the Mesa is clearly visible for the duration of this short, flat portion. At first sight, I didn’t think that winding white uphill zig-zag could be the trail – it was steep and long and rocky. As we neared, our fears were confirmed. But what was there to do? So we headed up. The trail wasn’t as bad as it first appeared, but parts were slick because of loose rock, and it was a nice grade of uphill slogging.
Mostly cloudy skies hung over us with only occasional streaks of blue, and I wondered if this trek would be worth the attempt to shoot at sunset. About halfway up to the saddle, Mike gave out. He’s a great photographer, but not so much a hiker. A large boulder lay uphill, maybe a hundred yards ahead. I told him I thought the trail would flatten out some there, and I’d check it out and holler down at him. I made my way up to the large rock, only to find the rocky path kept climbing. He’d said to keep going, so I did, eventually gaining the saddle. From the top, I looked down to the Rio Grande as it flowed west to east far below. The problem was that to photograph the landscape like I wanted, I’d have to down climb off trail another quarter mile or more in order to reach a high cliff that offered the best vantage point.
I probably say this in every blog I write about Big Bend, but everything in the desert is designed to poke, stick, or sting a person. If you go off trail, you’ll find this out rather quickly. And as I veered off-trail, I was again reminded of this fact in short order. After several pokes though my jeans and a little loss of blood later (from several scratches and cuts from cacti and ocotillo), I reached the overhang that offered a magnificent view of the big bend in the river. This view has often been mistaken for Horseshoe Bend in Arizona, but it is unique in that this bend divides Texas from Mexico. From where I stood, I could peer down into the western portion of where Santa Elena Canyon begins to form. Not soon after my arrival, a faint glow on the western horizon soon turned into a bright orange glow shining through the clouds. I was pleased, and a little surprised, that the sunset brought a brief splash of color, allowing me to reel off a few images with two different lenses – one using a zoom to create a panorama and another a wide angle to capture the entire horseshoe shaped bend in the river in one image.
I wasn’t sure how they’d turn out, but my focus now turned to escaping back uphill to the saddle and down the other side to meet my friend.
Looking back up at the mesa, everything looked very nondescript. I started up the way I thought I’d come, but with light fading quickly my senses began playing tricks on me. I don’t often get spooked on evening or night hikes, but being out here near the border, in the dark, with no trail in sight made me a little nervous. Fortunately, I had my GPS. I re-calibrated my way up only to find I’d wandered too far east and found myself high on a ridge. I followed the GPS in the direction of the trail I’d come up, but ended up on a cliff overlooking the trail about 300 yards below. My fear of heights kicked in, as well as my fear of being stalked by a mountain lion at dusk. So with a tripod locked in one hand, a flashlight held in my mouth in order to free up one hand, and a GPS stuffed in my pocket, I began a precarious trip down the ledge – butt-scooting at times, holding onto small bushes with my free hand for balance at others. I don’t mind saying this was about the most freaked out I’ve been while hiking at night. (Well, maybe when returning from the South Rim in the dark a few years ago when my wife and I saw glowing orbs across a valley, that was a little more freaky…) But here, I was more worried about staying in one piece. By the time I reached the bottom about 45 minutes later, the backs of my hands were cut, I had thorns in the sides of my hiking boots, and my jeans were torn near my calves. But I found the trail, said a prayer of thanks, and scurried down to meet Mike. By this time, I think my friend was a little worried about me, as well. We made our way to the flat section on the desert floor, and an hour later we were at the Chisos Lodge – safe and sound.
The next morning, 4:30am came around pretty quickly. We were out of bed and made the long drive to River Road West. After turning from the paved road (Ross Maxwell) onto the dirt road (River Road West), eight miles and 30 minutes later, we were waiting for sunrise on the top of a bluff that overlooked the southern portion of the Chisos Mountains. Below, a sea of dark blue waited for first light. Bluebonnets ran down the slopes and into the distance – one of the most amazing sights I’ve seen in this park.
With light spilling over the distant peaks, we began photographing these amazing wildflowers. A slight breeze forced me to adapt my strategy and I began taking images with different focus depths and faster shutter speeds (I’ll refrain from the technical aspects, but it makes post-processing much more tedious). I’d stack these later to create a sharp image front to back. Now, I was just trying to capture the moment and the light. From this glorious morning, we worked our way back to the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, stopping in a few spots to photograph more bluebonnets. Eventually, we ended up back at the lodge for an early lunch.
We spent a few hours in the room looking at the previous night’s and morning’s photos, then were off to the east side of the park to scout and hike the Hot Springs Canyon trail to a spot I’d wanted to visit for sunset. Our scouting trip did not last long, and we quickly found the bluebonnets were fading on this side of the park.
After a short drive down an easy dirt road, the Hot Springs Trail greeted us. The parking lot was full of cars, most presumably had occupants visiting the Langford Hot Springs. An ominous sign greets visitors, declaring that theft occurs frequently at this sight. That’s always reassuring when you have half your business in the car. We took the high trail that bypassed the springs and revelers, and we saw nary another person for the 1.5 miles it took to reach a beautiful cliff high above the Rio Grande. In the distance to the east, through the opening of the Hot Springs Canyon, the cliffs of the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico rose into the warm desert evening. The colors of sunset stretched overhead in both directions – pastel pinks and blues in the east to brilliant oranges and vibrant blues to the west. I don’t know if photographs can do justice to the colors and landscape we enjoyed on this night.
Our last morning came early, and we had to make a decision – drive back to an area of bluebonnets with the iconic mule ears in the distance or head for home. At 5am, the clouds were thick. At 530am, a few stars could be seen. Based on hope, we packed quickly and headed southwest, racing down the Ross Maxwell Drive (slightly) above the speed limit. But we made it before the sky offered us some nice pinks and blues as sunlight underlit a low cloud bank.
And now, as I type this wordy blog while Mike drives us home, I’m closer to relief for having finished another trip. Now I can say I had a bad feeling about Friday night, so I’m glad that trek is finished. After Friday’s attempt to reach the Mesa de Anguila, I asked Mike, who speaks some Spanish, what that name means in Spanish. He responded, “Trail of the Damned.” I just about spit out my drink when he said that (he was joking). But sometimes you get the feeling that things just are as they should be. That was one of those nights. So however it happened, I am thankful for returning safely. Whether it was luck, my experience on all sorts of trails in the day or night, or divine guidance, I am appreciative we finished that hike safely. And I doubt I’ll be going off-trail alone again for a long time. When my wife reads this, I doubt she’ll let me, either.
But I am thankful, as always, for my time in the Big Bend region and Brewster County, and for experiencing new and amazing sights – both with landscapes and bluebonnets and friends. I’ll be back, but it may not be for several months – most likely in the late fall.
Now it is time to turn my attention to the upcoming wildflower bloom around central Texas – and a new photography book about Austin that, according to my publisher, needs the photography portion finished by August. In between will be several trips to Colorado for wildflowers and Autumn colors. After the last few weeks of hiking and travel, I need some time to rest. But time waits for no one. And my wife and kids are waiting for me to be home – and that is the best.
Bluebonnets in Big Bend National Park don’t come around very often. In the last 15 years of my visiting the park in search of this west Texas version of the state wildflower, I haven’t seen too many blooms. I’m not an old-timer just yet, though I am approaching that status more quickly than I’d like. But in my time visiting this destination park, I’ve never seen a bloom that could equal the 2019 bluebonnet spring. I visited with locals, park rangers, and a few photographers I met on location and we all agreed this was potentially a once-in-a-lifetime bloom.
Big Bend has its own unique species of bluebonnet,Lupinus havardii, and it is slightly different than the more familiar blue flower known in the Hill Country and central Texas. It can grow up to three feet in height and is a bit sturdier, as well. In the past years when bluebonnets were present, I’ve found these blooms along the roadsides and occassionally in a few of the washes just off the main roads. They usually appear in mid-February in the lower desert elevations. In good years, a few weeks later the blooms often appear along the roads skirting the Chisos Mountains, higher in elevation, and sometimes linger until early March.
I was fortunate to spend several days in Big Bend during the third week of February, 2019, free to explore, scout, and photograph whatever I came across. The reports of the desert bloom appeared to be pretty positive, and when I arrived, I was really at a loss to describe the patterns of blue that stretched up the washes and tumbled down the slopes on the east and west sides of the park. Many miles down East River Road, small hillsides were full of bluebonnets. On the west side near Tuff Canyon, bluebonnets held to the edges of the canyon. Further below the iconic Cerro Castellon, desert waves of blue stretched a mile to the south.
After spending one full day scouting for sunrise and sunset locations, trekking across the desert and climbing plateaus that offered amazing views (and logging 10+ miles of off-trail hiking and exploring), opportunities for unique vantage points became apparent, and in this particular spring, bluebonnets at the peak of their bloom anchored the foreground.
My nemesis in the golden hours of my trip became the wind. In the soft light, the bluebonnet stems and petals waved gently in the breeze, but in longer exposures appeared blurry. I’ll avoid getting technical here, but the constant breeze forced me to take several layers of each image with different focal points, moving from immediate foreground to distant peaks. Sometimes, I’d shoot 6 or 7 different images in an attempt to have the entire photograph sharp from front to back. While this works, it is a long and tedious process. Still, a few beautiful sunrises and sunsets made the process worthwhile, and I’m pleased with the results. Of course, I’m always left wanting a few more days.
The bluebonnet bloom in February of 2019 in Big Bend National Park was spectacular, and I imagine (hopefully) that one day I will be an old-timer reminiscing about the waves of blue that covered the desert. I don’t know if I’ll see another spring like it in the Chihuahuan Desert surrounding the Chisos, but I can hope. And that, along with some photographs and memories, is good enough for me.
Unfortunately, this has been a less than stellar spring for our favorite Texas wildflower. The reports that I’ve received from friends putting in miles around south and central Texas show that while there are blooms along the roadsides and in some fields, the coverage is not full. I’m still hoping to find a few spots on the hill country for bluebonnets, but I don’t have high hopes. At this point, Ennis might have a decent showing. We should know more in the next few weeks. I’ve taken very few photos of bluebonnets this year, and I think this is my favorite – a white bluebonnet (or whitebonnet):
In a field of bluebonnets, one lone wildflower stood out – this white bluebonnet (or maybe a whitebonnet?). As bees buzzed all around this field, it took 23 shots to capture this image of the bee in flight as it surveyed the unique colors of this single flower in the Texas Hill Country.
It took 23 images to capture this bee in flight. I had originally hoped to photograph a bee that was sitting on a petal, but each time a bee landed, it was on the side of the bluebonnet opposite the lens. But this bee in flight turned out better than I could have hoped.
I do have a good feeling about firewheels. Again, time will tell, and future rains will dictate the fullness of the fields, but I think the Hill Country is off to a good start.
Big Bend is calling my name again. I’m hoping to get out there again before April’s end. I hear the prickly pear cacti are blooming, and I’d like to photograph the Rio Grande at sunset. One morning for sunrise, I am planning on trekking out to Fresno Canyon in Big Bend Ranch State Park. I’ve not spent much time in the interior of BBRSP so I’m looking forward to a little adventure. For some reason, that area (the Big Bend region) appeals to me. I’m not sure if it is the isolation or the big sky landscape, but there is something there – like a distant memory of childhood that brings a peace and joy that really can’t be described adequately to someone else.
West Texas called, and when I picked up my girls from school on that Thursday afternoon and my eldest daughter decided she wanted to go with my wife and I, we hurriedly packed her bags while my folks came to watch our youngest. And we were off.
I often feel like Chevy Chase trying to keep the family happy on trips, but this would be a different dynamic with just one kiddo along. I stressed to my oldest that this was a work trip. No whining or complaining about early mornings or late evenings was allowed. So we headed out, and our first stop was Monahans Sandhills State Park, a 3,000+ acre park full of rolling sand dunes. However, this time I’d go alone at sunrise. The dunes were pristine and the sunrise beautiful. I never saw another person that morning as I slipped across the dunes, angling for the best views of sand, sun, and sky.
With soft clouds overhead, the sun shows its colors as it rises across Sandhills State Park. The sand dunes in this amazing and unique little park are fun to play on, but they have a special beautiful at sunrise and sunset when all is peaceful and quiet. Close to Monahans, Texas, and right off I-20, this makes a great side-trip if you are in the area.
The park is small in comparison to the size of the dunes. The sand stretches on and off for 70 miles. Small critters roam the dunes – rabbits and mice – and bands of Sandhills coyotes keep their numbers regulated. The image below shows the tracks of one of those critters before sunrise.
Tracks across the sand, perhaps from a Sandhills coyote, lead into the eastern sky where sunrise awaits. At times like this when all is quiet and the sun is rising, the land appears beautiful and perfect. The sand dunes in this image come from Sandhills State Park near Monahans, Texas.
Soon I was heading back to the hotel to pick up my posse and we were off to Big Bend Ranch State Park, the little brother to the national park. We wanted to drive the river road that stretches from Presidio to Lajitas. This area is remote and rugged. We made a few stops along the way – one at the Hoodoo trail and another at Closed Canyon, a small slot Canyon that rises 100 feet above the trail below. After a previous trip to slot canyons in Palo Duro Canyon, it was interesting to see the differences in rock formations and textures between the two canyons. Palo Duro’s canyons we’re smooth sandstone. The slot of Closed Canyon was formed by a stream as it cut through the Santana Tuff of the Colorado Mesa before pouring off into the Rio Grande.
Closed Canyon sits just off FM 170 in Big Bend Ranch Stare Park. The hike through this slot canyon is easy, following a sandy and sometimes rocky trail for only .7 miles. High above, the walls of this canyon in the Colorado Mesa have been cut by water into the tuff over millions of years. The sun rarely reaches the canyon floor, and even in the heat of the summer the shade of the canyon offers a respite from the west Texas sun.
Later in the afternoon we had a late lunch at the High Sierra Bar and Grill in the ghost town of Terlingua. A friend had made this recommendation but warned us the staff works at a slower pace. Sure enough, we waited a long time for our food. The waiter, a young guy recently transplanted from Alaska, apologized several times for the slow service,saying they were really busy. A quick look around showed only two of the 8 or so tables taken. One older couple offered to buy drinks for everyone – they were celebrating their first night out after selling their house, buying an RV, and hitting the open road. They were drunk and happy.
The national park was next, and for sunrise I found myself hiking up a small unmarked mesa to shoot the morning light as it backlit the Chisos Mountains directly in front of me. With a few high clouds that quickly dissipated, the morning was nice. For this image I tried to capture the rugged feel of the Chihuahuan Desert floor with the beauty of the mountains in the distance.
The rugged Chihuahuan Desert stretched across the western slopes of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park. Taken at sunrise, these mountains rise in the arid desert and contain their unique ecosystem as they reach nearly 8,000′.
Lunch at the Chisos Lodge was followed by an easy hike to Balanced Rock, then back to prepared for the evening adventure.
I wanted to go off road again, this time parking along the highway and walking out on the Tornillo Flats to some distant hoodoos. My daughter loved the adventure and rock scrambling that we did. Finding our way across the flat desert to the rock formations was exciting, and the clouds and sun did not let us down. A little after sunset, the sky lit up in reds, oranges, and blues.
The Tornillo Flats rest in the Big Bend National Park area just north of the Chisos Mountains. Off the main road, a short hike across the barren Chihuahuan Desert, several hoodoos and other unique rock formations rise from the sandy floor to create an otherworldly scene. In this image, a hoodoo is seen at sunset with the Chisos Mountains in the distance. Overhead, the sky turns pink, orange, and blue on a beautiful spring sunset.
After taking in the moment with the hoodoos in front of us and the Chisos in the distance, we headed quietly turned and made our way back to the highway. I know times like this are fleeting, and I try to savor the moments.
Next up -a return to west Texas, this time with the whole family.
First, I have to say it is kind of cool when you visit a national park and one of your books is on display. I had no idea my publisher placed the Texas wildflower book in the Chisos Lodge Visitor Center at Big Bend National Park. I’m humbled and surprised.
Next, it looks like we are in the doldrums of winter. Everything is brown and the weather has been generally gray. So on a whim over the holidays I studied and last week took a test that allows me to legally fly a drone for commercial purposes. I owned a drone several years ago but sold it because I did not want to mess with all the legal aspects nor the certification process. On top of that, I don’t want to hear drones overhead when I am hiking or “zenning out”in nature. I do not want to be one of “those guys.” I fully support the banning of drones in state and national parks.
All that said, I’d been asked about obtaining various aerial images of Austin by potential clients over the past year. So, what the heck. I’d read how hard the test was, so a friend and photographer advised me to use the ASA Test Prep study guide. I ended up cramming over about 10 days, then took the test last Thursday. I have to admit that when I started studying, most of the material was foreign – 3D classes of air space on a 2d chart, airport systems, military operations, FAA regulations, etc. However, I finished the test in 37 minutes (you get 2 hours to answer 60 questions.) My proctor told me it was the fastest finish of anyone she’d tested. I figure you know it or you don’t. I made a 93, which means I got 56 out of 60 questions correct. I know one of the questions I just bubbled in the wrong answer. The other three I missed I have no idea what they were asking! Nevertheless, I can legally fly a drone and get paid for it. I suppose one of these days I’ll look into buying a drone ?
That’s about all for now. I hope everyone has a good start to the new year. As for me, I’m looking forward to wildflower season, multiple trips to Big Bend National Park and west Texas, and some summer fun in the Colorado Mountains.
Over the years, and as my photography business has grown, I’ve had opportunities to photograph unique landscapes across the Lone Star State. And as the years have passed, I find myself returning again and again to one of my favorites – Big Bend National Park. So while I’m stuck inside on what looks like several days of gray, rainy, and gloomy winter weather, I decided to take some time and reflect on my trips to this unique and remote area of Texas. In no particular order, the hikes and locations below are some of my favorite places to explore along the Big Bend. Also, this blog is not meant to be a detailed description of each hike, nor act as a guide. I just want to share some of my favorite places.
Mariscal Canyon – Where to even start with Mariscal Canyon? I wrote a recent blog about this trip. While researching and preparing for the hike out to this remote canyon, information was difficult to come by, and the canyon proved to be as beautiful as it is unknown. This hike is not for the casual hiker. The road to the trailhead is 30 miles of an unforgiving 4WD grind. I’ll just say it sucked – and took almost 2 hours to cover that 30 miles. Starting the hike (about 7 miles round trip), the heat became a factor. I’ve only done this trip one time (at sunset, though I do want to return for sunrise), and I had planned it for the month of November to avoid high temperatures. When we arrived at the trailhead, it was 95 degrees! And then there was the matter of the trail – there isn’t one! You’ll need a reliable GPS and good vision as you follow cairns (stacks of rocks) every 20-50 feet to guide your way. At times, the rock piles were easy enough to follow; other times not so much. The first portion of the hike was relatively flat – up and down some small washes and along a few ridges, but nothing difficult. The last mile was uphill as the trail gained about 1000 feet (well, there was no trail, but we nevertheless switchbacked up the ridge anyway!). At the top, and to the left, we made our way to the rim of the canyon. Following the rim eastward, we found a place to rest and enjoy the view and sunset. The views were unparalleled, and we never saw another soul during the entire trip. If you want adventure, this is a great hike… but it does require some preparation. The return hike to the rented jeep (in the dark) was a challenge, especially in finding the cairns. More than a few times, we had to backtrack, stop, and search for our next target. All that while avoiding the packs of Javilinas.
South Rim- The South Rim is arguably the classic hike of Texas. The trek from the Chisos Lodge Visitor Center covers around 13 miles round trip and can be done as a day trip (very long) or an overnight adventure. Along the way, the hike affords views of the Chisos Mountains that create lifetime memories. While not difficult, the trail is long and gains about 2000 vertical feet, and being in good shape is a necessity. The route via the Laguna Meadows trail is the easiest, while another path (the Pinnacles and Boot Canyon Trail) that takes you by Emory Peak is also an option. The trek to the South Rim can be done in a loop, as well, though portions of the trail are closed in the spring to accommodate peregrine falcon nesting, so be mindful of that when you are making plans. There are few scenes in Texas I’ve enjoyed more than sitting on the edge of the rim as the sun fell in the western sky. Before me, the Rio Grande curved through the Chihuahuan Desert, dividing Texas from Mexico. As we lingered there several more hours, the Milky Way made an appearance – so clear and crisp it seemed every star in the sky was at our fingertips.
Lost Mine Trail – I read on another website/blog that the author of that blog thought the Lost Mine Trail was not worth the time. I’ve hiked quite a bit in the Big Bend, and I can say with certainty I whole-heartedly disagree. I’ve stood on the edge and end of the Lost Mine rim three times, each at sunset, and this short trail (~ 5 miles round trip) packs more bang for your buck than any other in the park. The views of Juniper Canyon are stunning, and the sunsets can provide an amazing light show as evening falls across the Chisos. The trailhead begins only a few miles from the Chisos Lodge, but arrive early – the tiny parking lot will fill up quickly. If you hike in the evening, parking should be fine. Just bring a flashlight or two for the return trip! The hike up is not difficult, though you will gain about 1100 feet in elevation. And don’t be fooled by the false peak when you think you are at the top. Keep going across a ridge until you cannot travel further. You’ll know it when you arrive. The views are amazing.
Santa Elena Canyon – This hike is quite short – only about .8 miles each way. The trail gains nearly 1000 feet in elevation, but the path up is made of easy switchbacks. Near the highest portion of the path, be mindful of your steps. A slip at this height would end your trip in a few seconds. Because of the ease and brevity of this hike, it is one of the most popular and crowded in the park. The views are stunning in both directions – east towards the Chisos and west into the canyon. I prefer hiking (and shooting) here at sunrise when the sun first lights up the clouds above the mountains. I’ve rarely seen anyone here in the early morning hours. You can also stand below the mouth of the canyon and watch the light turn the cliffs a brilliant orange as it illuminates the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon.
Boquillas Canyon – This easy hike runs about 1.5 miles round trip and leads to the mouth of Boquillas Canyon before petering out at the end of high rocky cliffs. Mexico is just across the clear flowing water, and It makes for a pleasant few hours. It is easy enough for children, too, though the trail can become crowded. This area also has temperatures in the warmer months exceeding 100 degrees on a regular basis.
Emory Peak – The trailhead for Emory Peak starts at the Chisos Lodge and is the same as one of the South Rim options. Follow the Pinnacles Trail for ~ 3.5 miles until the Emory Peak Spur is reached. Another 1.2 miles leads to the base of the highest point in Big Bend. The last portion is a bit of a scramble, and sheer cliffs fall away on each side, so use caution. The view from the summit provides 360 degree views in all directions. I’ve never reached the summit when it wasn’t cloudy or foggy, but this hike is still one of my favorites. I’ll be back for better sunrises and sunsets, too!
The Chimneys – These rock outcroppings have served as a waypoint for hundreds of years. On one of the walls, Indian petroglyphs remind the hiker of a distant past. This hike covers 7.6 miles one way from the trailhead to Old Maverick Road. The trailhead starts on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Road about 1.3 miles southwest of the turnoff for Burro Mesa Pouroff. There is a trailhead marker on the road. The hike can also be done as an out-and-back walk to the Chimneys. This option would cover just under 5 miles round trip. The walk, in all honesty, is uneventful. After undertaking many of the other hikes mentioned here, it was disappointing. It was flat, it didn’t offer any outstanding views, and it was hot even in March. The Chimneys themselves were mildly interesting. For this short hike, I’d even taken my two young girls. They made it easily out and back (though they were hot) but were less than enthused with the surrounding environment. I’ve heard the bluebonnets along this trail are nice in the spring, but I saw no signs of that during this particular outing.
The Window – This trail begins at the Chisos Lodge, as do many of the best hikes, and offers what could be considered the iconic view of Big Bend National Park – a distant “V” in the cliffs that offers a view west into the distant Chihuahuan Desert. The hike can be done as a very short loop (about .25 miles – all paved) or as a longer hike down into the heart of the Window (just under 3 miles one-way). Both hikes provide amazing views. The longer hike travels down, so upon reaching the dropoff and turn-around spot, the return trip is all uphill. It is a beautiful walk, and the path can be fairly crowded as this is one of the most popular destinations in Big Bend.
Rio Grande Village Nature Trail – One last hike I’d like to mention briefly is the Rigo Grande Village Trail. This shot path (.75 miles) is a loop that allows you to reach the top of a small ridge. From this vantage point, the Rio Grande and distant Chisos Mountains rise in the distance, and the sunsets from here can be pretty amazing. The trail is easy and a good place for families wishing to end the day with a beautiful sunset.
Big Bend National Park has so much to offer in terms of hiking. Each time I visit, I feel I’m only scratching the surface, and park still holds so many hidden gems. But I’ll be back soon, and can hopefully add to my favorite hikes with new experiences and images.
As 2017 prepares to make its exit deep in December, the photography opportunities around central Texas take a bit of a hiatus. On these cold rainy days, I’m left to take inventory of the year, clean up some files, and reflect on where I’ve been. This past year has been a good one, photographically speaking, and I’ve seen some beautiful places and made new friends along the way. Of course, there are always more locations I’d like to shoot, but for now I’ll focus on where I’ve been and appreciate those moments. So in no particular order, here are my favorite images of the past year.
Probably the most unique location I visited, thanks to my new friends – Barry and Todd – were some slot canyons hidden deep in Pal Duro Canyon State Park. A long hike without a hint of a trail, up a canyon rim and across a vast, featureless mesa, down into a box canyon, and into a sliver of a crack in the rock lead us to Upper Central Utah Slot Canyon, one of the most amazing slot canyons in Texas
This canyon is remote and pristine, and thankfully not many folks know its location. Along the hike, Todd and Barry shared a few locations closer to the road that were defaced with graffiti, carvings, and other shameful acts from people with no regard to the landscape or its history.
This past spring offered the promise of a good wildflower season, but a lack of rain for 60 straight days ended those hopes. Still, there were a few locations where our favorite Texas wildflower, the bluebonnet, made an appearance. The photograph below was taken one evening in a location that had not yet been discovered by photo enthusiasts. (How did I know this? – The bluebonnets had not yet been trampled by folks plopping down their kids in the middle of the wildflowers). I liked this little scene because a single red firewheel (a red wildflower) stood alone in a sea of blue on a perfect evening.
In early January, I received a call from Westcave Preserve. I live only about 5 miles from this relatively unknown sanctuary, and they said we would be experiencing a deep freeze and wanted to know if I’d be willing to shoot the icicles hanging from the grotto the next morning. Usually this area is off limits unless you are on a guided tour, but I was allowed to visit this area and shoot and rare winter Texas scene.
One of my favorite adventures this year was a trip out to Big Bend to photograph Mariscal Canyon. I wrote a blog about this trip a while back. Feel free to read my Mariscal Canyon trek. This drive and hike weekend provided a chance to visit one of the most remote and beautiful places in Texas – Big Bend National Park’s Mariscal Canyon.
We encountered aoudad sheep, javilinas, tarantulas, and endured 95 degree heat (in November!) to reach this canyon rim. The view was worth it.
One of my new toys I bought this year was an underwater case for my camera (a Canon 5DSr). This contraption isn’t easy to work with, and getting a decent shot underwater is a matter of trial and error. Still, with persistence, a good image can be had. Here, after laying still on a rock as I held my camera partially submerged beneath the surface, a few fish wandered in to the scene and I let it roll… Fifty or so shots later, I had a few I could work with. This photograph showing sunrise as well as the clear water of the Pedernales River was the end result.
Back in June, we made a quick trip out to the Davis Mountains. I’d never been to this part of Texas, and it turned out to be a lot of fun. The weather cooperated, offering nice skies and sunrise and sunset. This image was taken at sunrise from one of the highest point in Davis Mountains State Park and looks down at the CCC as it traverses these ancient mountains.
This past spring, I started a new website for Colorado images. While photographer in the Rockies this summer, a friend of mine and I hiked 15 miles to reach Lone Eagle Peak. This location isolated and beautiful, and I was pleased we made it out and back in one piece! So I’ll include this last image as one of my favorites, even though it is not from Texas.
Thanks for looking and reading. I hope 2018 will be even more productive than 2017. For now, have a good end of the year, safe travels during the holidays, and a smooth start to the near year!
Via con Dios, my friends.
Standing on the edge of Mariscal Canyon at sunset, the skies colored with pastels of pink and blue, I found myself in the middle of one of my more memorable trips to the Big Bend area. But sometimes the journey is just as important. And the effort to reach the Canyon rim of this grand and rugged landscape made the view that much more satisfying.
Rewind about 24 hours… we had arrived at the Chisos Lodge with a full agenda of locations to photograph at both sunrise and sunset. My wife joined me on this 3 getaway and had agreed to some more, ahem, adventurous hikes if we had a room (as opposed to a tent or back of my 4-Runner). So when an opening at the Chisos Lodge came up, I booked it and plans were made.
We were supposed to arrive in the early afternoon on a Friday after a seven hour drive from our home in the hill country. We arrived later than expected, thanks in part to a mysterious illness that had sapped my strength. Our plans to ascend Emory Peak, the highest point in the National Park, were laid to rest, and I could barely make it around the Window View loop… truly disheartening.
Determined not to let this trip be a failure, I rolled us out of bed the next morning and we drove an hour to Santa Elena Canyon. I’ve shot here several times, but I thought by climbing the few hundred feet of easy switchbacks to shoot sunrise as daylight lit up the Rio Grande valley, it might be a little test for my legs to see how I’d feel for something much more taxing. I should note here that I work out most days and longer hikes of 10+ miles are something I really enjoy.
I made it a half mile and felt about 60% normal, so I was willing to attempt the next part of our plan – and the real reason we drove this far.
Several years prior to this excursion. I’d read trip reports about Mariscal Canyon, a remote rock Canyon 1200 feet above the river. Since then, this had been one of my goals. But timing was important. In the spring, the trail is closed because of peregrine falcon nesting. In the summer months, the temperatures are too hot, staying over 100 degrees most of the day. So here we were, ready to take on this next adventure in early November.
The hike itself is not that difficult on paper, requiring a 1200 feet ascent over 3.5 miles. However, the trail is faint, and in many places marked only by cairns every 20-50 yards. The first 2 miles you gain virtually no vertical feet as the trail crosses several washes, taking you up and down, though mesquite trees, scrub and cacti, and across large areas of nothing. And then you start climbing.
But I am getting ahead of myself. After shooting what turned out to be a rather amazing sunrise at Santa Elena Canyon, we took Old Maverick Road to Terlingua and Far Flung Adventures. From this local establishment, we rented the only available Jeep in town. From all my research, this is literally the only Jeep one could rent – anytime -for at least 100 miles. Kudos to the staff who were friendly and helpful, but I had to laugh when Austin, one of the workers and an experienced hiker, warned that even he would not hike our intended trail at night… just too steep and too much loose rock to be safe. My wife was not pleased.
The Jeep and 4-wheel drive would be necessary for where we were going. My 4-Runner could potentially make it, but I also want my 4-Runner to last several more years. We drove the Jeep back to the Chisos Lodge for an early lunch, bought some gifts for our young daughters, then departed for River Road East around 1:45pm. Turning onto the dirt road after 30 minutes of smooth driving, we began a brutal 90 minute grating and grinding crawl along what I’d call one of the longest sustained %$*#iest roads I’ve ever driven. My wife, who had been been rear ended by stupid/careless drivers several years prior and is sensitive to jerky movements now, held her neck as best she could to mitigate the jarring. I don’t think it helped. My hands hurt from gripping the steering wheel; my back hurt from the constant jarring. And after 30 long miles along River Road East, Black Gap Road, and Talley Road, we arrived at the trailhead.
Opening the Jeep door, we were met with unusually high temps for November – 95 degrees and no shade in sight. I soaked my hat in cold water, started tracking with 2 GPS units, loaded the backpacks with a camera, two lenses, tripod, flashlights, lots of water and Gatorade, and we were off.
The trail starts off by following cairns through a wash of mesquite, then rises 300 yards later on the other side. The first two miles is uneventful, taking you through barren landscape where only tarantulas seemed to live. After one mile and baking in the full force of the sun, we were able to take refuge in the small shadow of a tall yucca. It wasn’t much, but that shade made a huge difference as we guzzled water for a few minutes. We stopped to drink whenever shade presented itself, which wasn’t much.
After two miles, we started the ascent, and the cairns led us up to a flat area about 800 feet above the Rio Grande. Looking back from where we came, we could see the winding green swath the river cut through the dry and scorched Chuhuahuan Desert.
My wife was suffering at this point, and I was worried she was overheating. We paused in the shade of a large rock outcropping, rehydrated, and rested. As for me, I felt fortunate to be in a place like this, and I was getting stronger by the hour, feeling more and more in my comfort zone. Five minutes later we continued upward, covering the final 500 vertical feet over about a third of a mile. The rocks were loose and the trail wandered higher through cacti and sharp rocks. Finally, after plodding for 30 more minutes, we arrived on the plain of the plateau and worked our way to the Canyon rim. Exploring the edge of the abyss, I settled on what was my favorite view of the Canyon walls and Rio Grande far below.
After shooting until nearly dark, we started our descent in the dark, but not before one final shot of an amazing sunset:
Using a powerful flashlight and headlamps, we methodically followed the cairns, picking our way through dark terrain. At one point, we even surprised a family of Javilinas which was a little unnerving. Nearly two hours later we arrived back at the Jeep. Next came that horrid road, then paved road back to Terlingua to drop off the Jeep, pick up my car, then drive back to the Lodge… all in all more than 3 hours of driving before arriving at our room just before midnight.
The next morning, I coerced my wife from her slumber in an attempt to leave early in hopes of finding a good sunrise. On the eastern slope of the park, I was rewarded (and lucky). As my wife slept in the car, the sky above turned orange and purple before we started home:
If you are ever at Big Bend and have the desire to see one of the most amazing and remote parts of Texas, I highly recommend Mariscal Canyon. Otherwise, I hope you can enjoy the images I captured that memorable evening in early November.
Vaya con Dios, my friends,
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A few weekends ago, I was invited to participate in the Enchanted Rock Star Festival where I gave a talk and showed images about photographing the night sky. I don’t make too many public appearances, and I prefer no crowds and being out in nature to a crowded room. Still, I appreciate the folks at Enchanted Rock thinking enough of my work to invite me to share my craft.
I’ve already written a blog about how I go about shooting at night, the setup I use, and the self-taught methods I use. I also admit I still get a little creeped out at night, too. Whether shooting in Big Bend National Park or the Texas Hill Country, dark is still dark, and things always seem different without sunlight. All that said, I still shoot 98% of my work in the light – with most of that coming at sunrise or sunset (or in those general hours).
Also, a few weeks ago I attempted to photograph the eclipse here in Texas. I did not want the standard shots – those just showing the sun and moon. I wanted a foreground, as well. I’m still working on the images and haven’t come to terms yet whether I like the almost-finished product. We’ll see. But I did gain some experience and will be more prepared for the total eclipse we’ll see in April, 2024!
After shooting in Colorado for 6 weeks this past summer, returning to Texas in August isn’t much fun. I get used to the 70 degree afternoons of the Rocky Mountains. On my last day there, I was shooting at 530am at Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, adding images to my Colorado website, and the temperature was in the 40s. I left from there and headed back through New Mexico and down through the Texas panhandle. By the time I passed through Childress, it was 108 degrees. Just yuk!
In the month I’ve been back, I’ve only been out a few times to shoot – Pennybacker Bridge and the Oasis Restaurant in Austin – and all of those except the eclipse outing were paid jobs.
Sunset at The Oasis in Austin, Texas, is a ritual for many locals, as well as a popular place for tourists to visit and eat. The restaurant offers decent Tex-Mex food but stunning sunsets of Lake Travis and the distant Hill Country. This panorama of The Oasis at Sunset was taken on a late July evening.
This panorama from the Oasis in Austin, Texas, is available in larger and custom sizes.
Now, with the temperatures cooling off, I hope to start exploring more. This fall I have trips planned for Big Bend, Lost Maples, and several unique areas around the Texas Hill Country.