When I’m out searching for the best fall colors in Texas, I often have time to contemplate life while driving and exploring. One of my favorite writers is Robert Frost, and when I hike in the among the changing leaves of Autumn I am sometimes reminded of his poem, Nothing Gold Can Stay. In the Hill Country where I reside, green leaves and long summer days are passed, and the memories of hot afternoons and warm evening walks with my girls are quickly fading.
On one of my November treks for Autumn color a few weeks ago, I drove to the Utopia and Vanderpool areas and spent a few days at Lost Maples State Natural Area. I remember visiting this little state park many years ago and enjoyed the solitude, but in more recent years, the rest of Texas has discovered what a gem this place is, as well. These days, I only visit during the week, and even then the trails are filled with leaf-peepers. This influx of folks strolling the paths can be pretty frustrating for a photographer, I assure you.
I arrived in the morning after a short drive from Garner State Park – after a lousy night of sleep in the back of my 4Runner. I had waited around that morning at Garner for low clouds and fog to clear, but I finally gave up and made the hour drive to Lost Maples. There, I had hopes the sun would burn off the clouds and blue skies would again appear. Normally, I prefer to shoot at sunrise or sunset, but for the reds and oranges of maples and cypress, my personal preference these days is for blue skies dotted with nice white clouds. I find the contrast between red and orange and blue and white to be like Nature’s gold in Autumn. And I know the brilliant colors won’t last long, and in some years don’t appear at all.
If you’ve ever hiked at Lost Maples, you probably know it isn’t that big. The main loop takes you north from the big parking lot, through the short Maple Trail, then up along the East-West Trail, then back down a steep rocky path, by the ponds area, then back to the parking lot (sort of). The loop is about 5 miles long and offers some pretty decent views from up high. However, ironically, the overlook listed on the trail map has probably the poorest view of anywhere on the rim of that walk. Don’t waste your time on the 1/3 mile trek to the scenic overlook (labeled #3 on the state park map). And as you head west on the trail, you reach another overlook on the map. It, too, is pretty poor. However, if you continue west and are willing to cut over to the edge of the cliff – maybe a 50-100 foot walk, you’ll continue to see better and better vistas.
From high up on the edge of the East Trail in Lost Maples, this view shows the the colorful trees lining the lower portion of the trail as it winds its way back to the Sabinal River.
OK… back to my morning. I arrived under overcast, spitting gray skies. As I started north on the Maple Trail, usually the highlight of the fall trip, I discovered I was sharing the path with a group of perhaps 25 middle school students on a field trip. I have to admit, I grew frustrated waiting for views to open up without kids hanging from branches or climbing on rocks. But I tried to choose a different response and reminded myself they had as much right to enjoy this area as I did. So I talked myself from a “Get off my lawn” old man attitude to an “everybody have fun” perspective. I even chatted up some of the kids, heard how they found a tarantula, and how they were excited to find Monkey Rock. Eventually, I pulled ahead of them when the steeper portion of the hike slowed them down, and thought to myself “this old father of two girls still has it!” HeHe.
Along the trail, I met several nice folks – a couple from Houston; a family from Kerrville, and a couple from just up the road from me in Austin. As I arrived at the previously mentioned overlooks, the clouds final began to break up, showing patches of beautiful blue sky. So I lingered here for a while, enjoyed a caffeine-laden Cliff protein bar and some lime Gatorade, and waited for a better sky. It finally arrive.
From high up on a trail, this view looks down at a small pond surrounding by the changing leaves of Autumn. This area in Lost Maples State Natural Area is one of my favorites to photograph, and the fall of 2020 was one of the best in many years.
Down the steep rocky path and back to the ponds area, I took in the views and appreciated the smaller crowds.
One of my favorite places to photograph the Autumn colors at Lost Maples State Natural Area is this little pond with a backdrop of red and orange maples reflecting in the water. This image was taken on a cool mid-November afternoon.
Along the flat east trail I watched a mother taking pictures of her little girl playing in the leaves. Before arriving back in the parking lot, I paused in several areas to photograph the red maple trees.
The red leaves of Lost Maples State Park Autumn show turn the path into a carpet of crunchy color. This path is along the East-West Trail and, each fall, it winds through groves of glorious maples trees with leaves of red and orange.
Eventually, I arrived back at the car, but realized I needed to walk a portion of the loop again and photograph the maples and red oak under better sky conditions. It is rare when a landscape photographer gets a redo! So on I went, revisiting the same areas I’d walked a few hours earlier.
A small bridge along a path in Lost Maples is surrounded by Autumn colors on a cool November afternoon.
Walking back to the car for a second time, I reminisced on Robert Frost’s poem. It seemed appropriate on this late afternoon. The words he wrote go much deeper than just a fading of reds and golds into winter. I suppose like these rolling hill country views and the changing of the seasons, there are layers of life waiting to be experienced, then contemplated on some future walk in the woods.
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
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.
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.
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.