The alarm goes off. It is 4am. Rain is falling outside and I’m nice and dry inside my sleeping bag – inside my old 4-Runner 30 miles from Presidio, Texas, in Big Bend Ranch State Park.
I had made the 8.5 hour trek to this location for two main reasons – to photograph the landscape from the highest point in the park – Oso Peak – and to make a return trip to Fresno Canyon to photograph sunrise.
But is is 4am and raining. I’m not sure I want to crawl from my warm bag and drive 20 minutes down a dirt road to the trailhead. But I do, and soon I’m bumping through the dark while trying to munch down a protein bar and sip from my small bottle of Sweat Leaf peach tea. How many people would really do this? How many people have even heard of Fresno Canyon and the Solitario?
Rain is still falling as I reach the trailhead. I put on a headlamp, calibrate the GPS, double check the tripod, camera, and lenses, gatorade, and snacks I’m bringing along, and with a flashlight in hand and headlamp on, head into the dark.
I’m torn… the clouds above show patches of light and dark, but the rain is still gently falling. This trek is all about faith.That’s a pretty good analogy. I’ll have to remember that.
I press on. The trail is relatively faint, but sporadically marked by cairns. It is an easy hike – some might even call it a walk. Every once in a while I have to turn on my hand-held flashlight and search for the next pile of rocks. This is my second attempt to reach the rim of Fresno Canyon. Last year, I lost the trail in the dark and missed sunrise at the canyom rim by about a quarter mile. I won’t make that mistake again.
The rains have mostly stopped. The air is cool and I’m still in complete darkness. Stars are visible to the west and even overhead.
After two miles of easy walking, I reach the edge of a large wash. A switchbacking trail leads down into the small valley, into some dense vegetation. Hopefully, no bears or mountain lions are hanging around. In ten seconds, I’m heading back up the trail to the top of the wash. Five more minutes of walking and I can see the faint outline of the Solitario, a circular rock formation that covers over 50 miles. The complex geologic structure rises from the Chihuahuan Desert and is flanked on its west side by Fresno Canyon.
I know I have arrived. With dark skies overhead, I see traces of light along the ridges of the Solitario. Slowly, I step the edge of the canyon rim and peer into the abyss. Still surrounded in darkness, I’m left to wonder what it will look like when daylight arrives. Splashes of red and orange begin to outline the clouds above the distant rock cliffs. This has a lot of potential.
The next 30 minutes are a blur. The sky catches fire in one of the most stunning sunrises I’ve ever experienced. The canyon seems to echo in full vibrant color. The grace and the beauty of this desolate and rugged land arise like a vast fire for a few fleeting minutes.
This panorama shows Fresno Canyon and the Solitario in Big Bend Ranch State Park. My morning to reach this amazing sight began at 4am. I was sleeping in the back of my 4Runner because of the overnight rains. When I awoke, the rains were still falling. Nevertheless, I organized my pack, drove the few miles down a relatively easy 4WD road, and started the hike around 5am. The rains were lighter, and I could even see a few stars in the west. Two and a half miles later, after an easy walk through the desert, though route-finding was a bit difficult in the dark, I found myself standing on the edge of Fresno Canyon. Few Texans have seen Fresno Canyon, and many folks don’t even know if its existence. I felt priveleged to stand there. Across the gorge, the Solitario rose from the floor. From overhead, the uplift appears like an impact zone, but it actually the remains of a laccolith (an uplift of igneous rock in a circular shape) and covers approximately 52 square miles. As light began to spread through an opening between the horizon and clouds, the sky overhead slowly turned to fire, glowing in reds, oranges, and golds. This sunrise was one of the most amazing sights I’ve had the opportunity to both experience and photograph. I hope this image in some small way conveys the beauty of that rare morning.
This is a lesson for me… Sometimes I just have to keep moving – hoping it will all be worth it – because sometimes it is. I’m glad I kept walking – even in the rain.
Vaya con Dios, my friends.
Big Bend National Park is one of my favorite places in Texas. Just to the west of this region is the oft overlooked little brother – Big Bend Ranch State Park. I’d wanted to explore this largest state park in Texas for quite some time. My first trek to “the other side of nowhere” happened about 8 weeks ago in early February. That brief excursion left me wanting to see more. My wife and I spent some time along FM 170 between Presidio and Lajitas exploring some of the trails there, but I wanted to return and visit the interior. To accomplish this, I needed some things to fall into place. First, my wife was tired of making the long drive to the Big Bend area, so I needed to gain permission from her to head out for a 3 day trip while she took care of the home front. She agreed, mostly, I think, so she could stay home. Next, I had to find a friend who could take time off and who enjoyed exploring because when I’m camping, I’d rather have someone around to share in the discomfort. So I asked a friend of mine to come along. While he goes by a different name, we’ll call him Bob for this story. And on Friday morning we met at 7am at the Whataburger in Fredericksburg (he came from San Antonio and I departed from Dripping Springs) and were on our way.
Bob is a photographer, as well, though he doesn’t practice professionally. However, he does excellent work and knows what he’s doing, is willing to get up at 345am and stay out late to get the best shots, and likes to experience new places. I had been watching the weather for 2 weeks, even though I realize how unreliable a forecast is until you’re in the 48 hour zone. And even then the forecast looked sketchy with regards for sunrises and sunsets being colorful.
Our plan was to drive the interior of Big Bend Ranch State Park (BBRSP), check in at the Sauceda Ranger Station, then set up camp not far from our trailhead destination. Sometimes plans don’t work out even when you think they did. Everything went as accordingly as far as we knew, as we passed through Fort Stockton, Alpine (had lunch at “Come and Take It Barbecue”), then on through Presidio, then down the 27 mile dirt road to the Sauceda Ranch House. The ranger who was on duty, Kirsten, was quite helpful and full of information. Soon, we had claimed La Posta as our campsite, only about 5 miles from the Fresno Canyon Rim trailhead. The remainder of the afternoon was spent photographing some of the local cacti blooms and waiting until sunset (and hoping for good color in the sky).
On a recommendation from Kirsten, the ranger, we drove the very bumpy 4WD Osa Loop to a lofty clearing. “You’ll know it because all the grass will be flat because the cows lay down up there.” And sure enough, after bouncing and rattling up something that resembled a dirt road, we found the place where the cows lay down. The views were ok, too, but not spectacular (maybe I’d been spoiled from Big Bend National Park). As sunset approached, Bob and I found ourselves on this hill that had nice views in both directions. The sky was not offering much hope for color, so we reluctantly made the decision to drive the 4WD high clearance road back to the main dirt road, then back to camp. About 5 miles from the campsite, the sun peeked through the clouds right on the horizon, and we scrambled to capture the moment. We scurried up a small rocky slope and shot for a short time. I had decided to run back to the car to change lenses, but a rock reached out and grabbed my foot, sending me into a headfirst dive. But I saved the camera (that was the fleeting thought as I hit the ground). A quick check showed I had blood oozing out both hands, and elbow, and both legs. The sun was setting quickly, so the blood could wait. As I type, I have wound on both hands and legs from rock-puncture wounds that caused a fair amount of bleeding. Nevertheless, I still recovered in time to enjoy an unexpectedly colorful pink and blue sunset.
Back at camp, we hunkered down for a rough night. Bob retired to his tent. I chose to stretch out as best as possible in the back of my 4Runner. I feel safe saying it was one of the worst nights of sleep I’ve experienced in quite a while, so it wasn’t that difficult getting ready at 3:45am and driving out by 4am. By 4:20am we had found our trailhead, having only missed one turn. The trail to the rim of Fresno canyon is about 2.6 miles (GPS indicated we covered 2.59 miles) and was well marked – or so we thought. Hiking in the light of a full moon was a pleasure, and we even stopped to shoot the distant mountains as they glowed in the dim light.
At one point we even witnessed a meteor streak across the sky. Amazingly, the green trail it left in the night sky glowed for at least 30 seconds. It was a pretty cool thing to see, for sure. Continuing on, we arrived at the canyon rim in a little over an hour – much earlier than we’d planned. How did we get here so quickly? I guess we were fast walkers in great shape. So we waited another 45 minutes until the first glow of orange appeared in the east, then spent the next hour trying to capture those moments of beautiful light at a remote place that few Texans have ever seen – and so many more don’t even know about. It is here that I am embarrassed to say we had not reached the canyon. I admittedly was underwhelmed with the “canyon” that stretched out before us. It was on the smallish side and out of curiosity, I had walked halfway down and back up in the dark. Little did I know at the time, if we had kept going – down and back up – we would have come to an amazing sight. The realization that came a few days later still makes turns my stomach in knots. And my obsessiveness about getting the best shots takes over. And I’ve already started trying to figure out when I can return and take care of this unfinished business.
After all that, we still had a nice sunrise… just not the dramatic views we had expected. But at the time, we didn’t realize our failure, so we were content.
Fresno Canyon cuts through the desert in this remote region of BBRSP, and from our ravine only a quarter mile from the canyon, we got a taste – a partial view – of the Solitario and flatirons. When I visit places like this, I’m always interested in hearing stories about the first settlers. I really can’t imagine attempting to forge out a life in this arid south Texas place. Water is scarce, vegetation is angry and always ready to prick you with tiny spears, and food sources are not abundant. One of the only graces about this harsh environment is that it rests at over 4,000 feet in elevation so the temperatures are often cooler than those along the Rio Grande only miles away.
So with work finished for the morning, we departed. It is always fun to hike in the daylight after the original hike takes place in the dark. The landscape is no longer hidden and mysterious, and the colors, textures, and formations become reality. Everything looks different when you add a little light.
Back at the car, we inched our way back to the main dirt road, stopped to buy a few stuffed animals for my daughters at the ranch house, and took our time to stop and photograph various places on the way back to FM 170.
Once our tires hit pavement again (really an underappreciated part of driving), we drove to Presidio, had lunch at the Oasis restaurant (serves a pretty good cheeseburger), then checked into our hotel (the Riata – which despite outward appearance was actually a pretty nice place for cheap – clean rooms and a clean bathroom). For an hour, we rested, then again headed out, this time to photograph probably the most well-known hike in the park, Closed Canyon. I had shot here before, but Bob hadn’t seen it. We met some nice folks from California and Marble Falls along the path, and slowly explored the area between the high rising rock walls that cut through this Colorado Mesa.
Finishing at Closed Canyon, we made the decision to head to our final destination of the evening – the Big Hill. This location appears on some maps, but not others. It is a simple pull-out along FM 170 that offers spectacular views of the Rio Grande looking west. About 100 yards east from this pull-out is another pull-out – this one leading to the Dom Rock. Both of these places are easy access, but if you are willing to put in a bit more effort, even better views can be had.
We knew the full moon would be rising at sunset, so the plan was to shoot both directions and go back and forth – full moon to the east and setting sun to the west. The sunset turned out to be all we could have hoped for – a sky full of pink, red, orange, and blue pastels.
Beneath this colorful palette, the green strip of the Rio Grande wandered west towards the setting sun. More astounding was the fact that we didn’t see another person – or even a car – the entire time we were working. This place really is off the beaten path. I’ll not belabor how beautiful this landscape is, so I’ll just leave this image to show what we experienced.
After wrapping up the evening, we made our way back to the hotel (took about 55 minutes), then returned to this spot the next morning for sunrise. Again, colors greeted us with reds and pinks in the sky, but after a colorful sky, eastern clouds soon took over. To the west, the sky was soft blue and white and pink. The contrast in colors between sunrise and sunset always catches my attention, especially when comparing images from relatively the same locations.
From here, the photography part of our trip came to an end, and it was hometime. But not before one more adventure. As we left Terlingua and drove in the direction of Alpine, we made the required stop at Checkpoint Charlie – the area where the border patrol checks cars traveling north. Somehow, their dog make a “hit” on my car, so we were tagged and pulled over. The officers had Bob and I wait in a detention area while they emptied our car. I asked Bob, “Is there anything you want to tell me now?” He said nope, and carried on a lively conversation with the guard who was making sure we didn’t make a run for the… empty, barren landscape that stretched out a hundred miles. We sat there maybe 20-30 minutes while the dog was allowed to sniff around inside our car (all our belongings for the trip had been thrown on the ground). Not surprisingly, the dog found nothing, and avoided the clink. On our way again, made our way through Alpine before stopping at the Dickeys Bbcue in Fort Stockton for an early lunch. After that, it was hometime and hugs for my girls and wife. Yes, it was quite a 3 day tour.