Big Bend Ranch State Park – The Other Side of Nowhere

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.

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Colors of the Desert – Big Bend Ranch 427 1 : Prints Available

From the interior Big Bend Ranch State Park, the sky lights up on a spring evening. Clouds had dominated the entire day, and we’d all but given up on any colors at sunset. Then, as quickly as a ghostly wind, the sky suddenlly lit up in pink and orange for about one minute, then was gone as quietly as the solitude this park offers. With yucca and ocotillo in the foreground, this image was taken west of the Sauceda Ranch house just off the main park road. This sunset was an unexpected surprise.

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.

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Moonset over Big Bend Ranch 428-1 : Prints Available

While hiking through the desert under the full moon, I decided to stop and use the light the moon to illuminate the landscape of Big Bend Ranch State Park. This area is rugged, and staying on the trail is necessary to avoid becoming lost. This image was taken on the Fresno Rim Trail facing west as the moon began its descent behind the distant mountains.

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.

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View from the Fresno Canyon Trail 1 : Prints Available

The trail to and from the Frenso Canyon Rim looks a bit different in the day. We had hiked this area in the dark, but on the return trip, the areas where water collected showed off vibrant green in an otherwise dry, rugged, arid desert landscape. The wash where these cottownwood trees thrive leads to an area known as Mexican Falls.

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.

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Big Bend Ranch Main Road from Sauceda 1 : Prints Available

The dirt road that leads to the Sauceda Ranch House rattles on for 27 miles, and further after that. Heading east, after the first 10 or so miles, the views are incredible and filled with interesting rock formations, the Bocifillas Mountains, hoodoos, and more. The vistas over each hill and around each curve make this bumpy ride a surprisingly pleasant experience.

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.

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Big Bend Ranch – Last Light of Day 428-1 : Prints Available

Big Bend Ranch State Park is an undiscovered treasure. Few folks have visited his year, instead choosing to explore Big Bend National Park just a few miles to the east. But for those who do, the views are incredible and the crowds nonexistent. This image comes from a beautiful Spring sunset from an overlook commonly known as the “Big Hill.” From here, the Rio Grande flows east (towards the camera) as it makes its way onward to Big Bend National Park. On the left (south) is Mexico; on the right (north) is Texas. This evening in BBRSP was just about perfect.

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.

I can’t wait to go back!

In the meantime, Vaya con Dios, my friends,

Rob
Images from Texas

End of the Year Thoughts

Well, here we are at the end of 2016. While I look forward to more good things in 2017, I wanted to take a minute or two and reflect on the past year.
In superficial matters, I was able to take some good trips that helped grow my business: Big Bend several times, the Guadalupe Mountains, the Texas coast, Dallas and Fort Worth, and many beautiful locations throughout the hill country. From these little treks, I’ll share my five favorite photographs in just a bit.

First, I’d like to share a few things I learned, personally, this year.

1 – I still prefer to be somewhere outdoors and mostly left alone to my thoughts rather than around a group of people (my family and a few close friends are the exception.) I’ve never been a part of a photography group or club. That just isn’t for me. I don’t like “talking shop” as some do, either. I’d rather enjoy a good hike, do my work, and hike back. If someone is with me, we can talk about other topics – just not photography.
2 – There are two kinds of people – those without kids and those with kids. If you have kids, you know what I mean.
3 – You’ll never love anything or anyone more than your own kids. It wasn’t until I had two girls that I understood how much my own parents loved me.
4 – Photographers are not good at sharing. This seems to be an unfortunate generalization. I’ve interacted with a few established photographers this year, and when it comes down to it, they were not forthcoming (actually quite evasive and selfish) in sharing any sort of locations to shoot (and one did this even after I helped him secure a great location earlier in the year through one of my contacts). I certainly won’t name them here, but I think it is sad how they behaved. Maybe they felt threatened? I know one in Austin who does, and he really shouldn’t. While I won’t put locations online, I don’t mind sharing. I figure if you help out someone, that good will eventually will circle back around.
5 – Drones are not for me – at least just yet. I bought a high end model for work, then sold it several months later. It just couldn’t produce the high quality images that can be made large that I needed. Plus, I just didn’t have enough time to do both standard landscape photography and drone work. Maybe someday… I do have a friend that is quite good at drone work, though, and produces amazing skylines of Austin. They just cannot be printed very large.
6 – Positive affirmations work; a positive attitude and mental mindset do make a difference.
7 – Sometimes people are going to do what they do, and it is fruitless to attempt to understand them. Even logic often fails.
8 – Despite the naysayers, you can support a family of four shooting landscape photography and do quite nicely. Everything you read seems to indicate this is quite difficult. And yes, it does take some perseverance and attention to tedious detail. Yes, I’ve worked hard to get where I am, especially with the behind-the-scenes portion of the business (marketing and getting my name out there). But it can be done.
9 – I have a supportive family.
10 – I really like what I do.

OK… with those random thoughts done, here are some of my favorite images of the year in no particular order:

1 – Amazing light from Big Bend… this has turned out to be one of my best sellers:

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Lost Mine Trail Sunset 1 : Prints Available

The first mile of the Lost Mine Hike in Big Bend National Park is a gradual uphill walk to a nice vantage point overlooking the basin below. Go another 1.5 miles up some relatively easy switchbacks and you reach this point that looks over Juniper Canyon toward the South Rim. I had hoped for a nice sunset, but the amazing light that spread forth from the western horizon suprassed my expecations. The beautiful colors did not last long, but they offered a lingering memory of a magical place amid this rugged Texas landscape.

2 – Bluebonnets at Sunset – I met a local rancher who allowed me access to his land. As I tromped across cacti-filled fields, I found this unforgettable landscape:

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Colors of a Bluebonnet Sunset 1 : Prints Available

Bluebonnets adorn the gentle slopes of the Texas Hill Country in this sunset image taken in early April. Thanks for a local rancher and land manager, I was allowed to visit a few areas of private land that were covered in these favorite wildflowers. The sunset helped the landscape come alive, as well.

3 – Bluebonnets at Sunrise – another bluebonnet image – this time taken at sunrise as the sun dissipated the fog and clouds:

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Windmill and Bluebonnets in the Morning 3 : Prints Available

When I set off from my house to photograph this windmill with a foreground of bluebonnets, the sky was overcast and fog made visibility quite limited. I arrived with the sky pretty dark but still had 15 minutes until sunrise. I had just about given up hope when I noticed a little break in some low drifting clouds. Five minutes passed, and suddenly the sky begain to light up in oranges and pinks, and I was escatic with my good fortune. I only had time to capture a few images from that morning. This is my favorite.

4 -Texas Hill Country Waterfall – You couldn’t ask for a better sunset on this perfect evening. I also appreciate a friend and fellow photographer not keeping this beautiful location a secret.

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Texas Hill Country Waterfall 1 : Prints Available

Sometimes you just get lucky. A friend had shown me this location in the Texas Hill Country, but we’d waited to visit until the flow of water was just right. After heavy rains from weeks prior, the river had risen, then dropped. On this night, all elements of the image came together – water, color, wind, and sky. With turquoise falls below me and an amazing sunset peeking through the trees and spreading light rays into the fading thunderheads, I knew this landscape of the Texas landscape of cascading water would be special.

This image is available in sizes larger than 36×24. Please contact me for more information.

5 – South Rim, Big Bend National Park – A 13 mile round trip allowed me access to this amazing view in south Texas:

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Big Bend South Rim at Sunset 2 : Prints Available

This view of the southern Chisos Mountain Range in Big Bend National Park comes from the South Rim. As one of the best hikes in Texas, the trek to reach this point is a little over 6 miles, and to capture an image at sunset or sunrise at this location means you either camp or hike in the dark. But the effort is worth it as the landscape that stretches from Texas into Mexico is well worth the effort. Here, a prickly pear blooms in late spring as clouds light up with another beautiful Texas sunset.

6 – Sunset at Port Aransas This one is special not only because of the morning light, but one of my little girls had rolled out of bed to accompany me on a pre-dawn stroll along the beach. I photographed the pier and ocean while she chased sand crabs and even found a starfish:

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October Autumn at Caldwell Pier, Port Aransas 25 : Prints Available

It was a glorious sunrise along the beach at Port Aransas. This is one of Texas’ favorite beach destinations, and this sunrise shows why. In the foreground, Caldwell Pier stretches more than 1000 feet into the warm gulf waters on this October morning. The only company I had this morning were the gulls and sand crabs and my youngest daughter (who shockingly rolled out of bed to accompany on this morning of work. Behind me, chased sand crabs and even found a star fish.) Doesn’t get much better than this!

7 – Two from the Guadalupe Mountains – The first shows the Autumn colors of McKittrick Canyon; the second shows the inconic El Capitan beneath beautiful light:

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McKittrick Canyon Glory, Guadalupe Mountains 1 : Prints Available

Following the trail through McKittrick Canyon, there are places of dense maple trees. At one point, you are nearly surrounded by the beautiful leaves, and in Autumn the forest can turn orange and red with some of the most beautiful fall colors in Texas. The main hike is around 4 miles each way, but you can continue up to ‘the Notch,” a climb of about 1500 vertical feet over another mile or so at which point you can look down into a canyon on each side of you. The hike up is a grunt, but the views are incredible. You can look back down and see the colorful maples as they follow the path of the river.

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El Capitan Sunrise, Guadalupe Mountains 2 : Prints Available

On the road to Williams Ranch in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the views of El Capitan are stunning. As Texas’ 8th tallest peak at 8,064 feet, the rocky cliffs were once underwater – part of the Delaware Sea from the Permian Period. About 30 million years ago, the Guadalupe fault block was thrust upwards over 2 miles from where it sat on the ocean floor. Now, made up of Capitan limestone, it is one of the best cross-sections of fossil records showing what life was like in that time period. At the edge of the Western Escarpment – in relatively modern times – El Capitan has long served as a landmark for travelers.

The morning view of El Capitan in this photograph shows the landscape from the 4WD road that winds its way to Williams Ranch. While this road normally serves as a day-use only road, the park service was kind enough to accommodate me – allowing me to enter early and photograph this massive limestone peak in the predawn hours of the morning.

If you actually read this, thanks! I’d love it if you left a message just to say hi and share any thoughts you might have. The year 2016 was a good one for my family and my business. I look forward to growing even more in 2017. Thanks for your support, Texas!

~ Rob
www.ImagesfromTexas.com

Texas Sunrise along the River

About 25 minutes before sunrise, if high clouds linger across the sky and an unfettered path for sunlight appears in the east, colors of red, pink, orange and blue can fill the sky. And just after that is about a 10 to 15 minute period when the once vibrant sky’s colors fade and it appears almost washed out until the sun finally rises over the horizon. It is during this fleeting time of quiet that my mind is set free from my daily obligations that often clutter my thoughts.

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Magical Light over the Pedernales River 1 : Prints Available

Sometimes you just get lucky. On this February morning along the Pedernales River in the Texas Hill Country, the light was magical and lit up the flowing water a little before sunrise. I had to wade through the cold water to reach this point, but it was well worth it. At one point, I just had to step back and take it all in… one of the most beautiful mornings I’ve experienced in many years of working at photography. I didn’t notice my feet were absolutely freezing until the walk back along the trail! Sometimes you just get lucky. On this February morning along the Pedernales River in the Texas Hill Country, the light was magical and lit up the flowing water a little before sunrise. I had to wade through the cold water to reach this point, but it was well worth it. At one point, I just had to step back and take it all in… one of the most beautiful mornings I’ve experienced in many years of working at photography. I didn’t notice my feet were absolutely freezing until the walk back along the trail!

Moments like this are special. In much of my adult life some of my fondest memories are times spent outdoors. Looking back at the days of my youth, I would spent all the daylight hours playing outside – searching for craw-dads, playing sports, and walking creekbeds. I never noticed how hot it got in Texas in the summer. After college in Austin, I worked a summer job in a Colorado mountain town, escaping every afternoon with my best friends to explore rivers and fly fish high, remote streams in search of cutthroat and rainbow trout. One of those friends is no longer around, though I do miss him. Another has remained and we still spend some time each summer hiking our own bucket list of Rocky peaks, though other duties – my work and family responsibilities in Texas – have cut down that free time considerably.

So in mornings like this when my photographic treks find me alone along these scenic rivers that wind through the Texas Hill Country – in between the early morning colors and the sunrise – the sounds of water bring back memories of my life’s time. The words and conversations of those bygone days – and those times with friends – have faded. But sometimes I can hear the laughter. With a soft gurgling the swirls of the river flow around and over the rocks, and in those sounds I can almost follow behind the laughter and slide into the past. And just as quickly the light, the colors, and the faint emotions slip past my sitting spot and flow with the waters downstream and disappear.

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February Sunrise on the Pedernales River 2 : Prints Available

The waters of the Pedernales River turned gold and orange on this crisp February morning in the Texas Hill Country. The sun had just peeked over the distant ridge, finally bringing warmth to a beautiful beginning of the day. I think there must have been some moisture in the air, as well, because the area seemed to take on a golden hue right after the sun made an appearance.

In those quickly passing moments that seem to last both a few seconds and an hour, I’m reminded of the precious moments we share. But the river brings me round again and soon the brilliant glow on the horizon gives way to a light so bright I can’t look at it directly. After seven clicks of my camera’s shutter and with sunlight spreading across the canyon floor, I know my time in this moment is done and it is time to return home. This beautiful morning I’ll remember, though, and I’ve still a long way to go.

~ Rob