Hiking Hat Trick Completed

Tracking back through Lajitas and Terlingua into the Maverick Junction entrance of Big Bend National Park took us an hour, and put the time at 3:00 pm. Opting for a backcountry tour of the Chihuahuan Desert, we turned south onto Old Maverick Road, and turned up the dust behind our wheels on our way to scenic Santa Elena Canyon.

Two miles into our 13-mile drive, a Chevy 4X4 approached us head on. Rather than play a game of off-road chicken, I pulled over to allow him right-of-way. When the truck stopped parallel to me instead of passing, and the driver, a middle-aged graying male signed his interest in communicating, I lowered my window to satisfy my curiosity.

“I wouldn’t go down there, if I was you,” he advised.

“Is there something wrong with the road?” I asked.

“Well let’s just say that I been on this road for over an hour already, and I can’t wait for it to be over. It gets much worse down there, and I don’t know if you wanna do that to your truck. This here Chevy is for work, so I don’t give a shit what happens to it, but it’s your call,” he said.

“Thanks for the warning,” I said, and he drove away.

After the encounter, Leah and I sat in silence for a brief moment. “Wow,” I exclaimed, “Do you believe that? He thinks we should turn back.”

“I’m not gonna say,” Leah offered. “I’ll do whatever you want to do. At least we know how long it will take”

“Then fuck it! We’re moving forward,” I declared. “I’m not turning around because of him. Let’s see what this truck can do! All I ask is that you turn off the alarm (see: Ouch! and Ahhh!–Part One).”

“I can do that,” Leah promised. “But we’re on a mission and we’re running out of time, so you need to limit your stops.”

I wanted to agree in principle, but it seemed so unreasonable to pass up so many photo opportunities.

peak with cactus


cactus flower

prickley pear blossom

However, Leah had a point. We still had a canyon hike ahead of us.

The road was as pitted and rutted as expected, but not the deterrent we anticipated. The truck suspension was very forgiving, and handled the rocking and swaying without a slip. What took the Chevy over an hour to travel, took the F-150 only 45 minutes to complete. (This testimonial should in no way be considered an endorsement for Ford, unless Ford is willing to pay me. I hope you are reading this, Ford!)

We arrived at Santa Elena Canyon parking when most visitors were leaving.  A slotted boardwalk led us to the river flats where the canyon opened into an expansive arroyo,

Santa Elena Canyon opening

where only a trickle of the Rio Grande diverted around a sandbar merging with the Terlingua Creek.

canyon wall

The hike into the canyon along the northern wall follows an observation path of concrete-slab switchbacks outlined with occasional handrails. The vista at 100 feet is sufficiently rewarding to most visitors who tend to take a few snapshots before returning to their cars.

observation trail

But the true reward awaits the hiker who takes the trail deeper into the canyon for a more immersive experience,

Leah and SEC

and a greater appreciation of the scale of the 1500 feet sheer walls,


and the house-size rocks that have tumbled from the clifftops.

fallen rock

We took shade whenever we could, and drank the requisite gallon of water per day to avoid dehydration, yet we always seemed to be thirsty. By the time we reached the trailhead out of the canyon, we had drained our resources, but felt confident that the 13 miles to the store at Castolon Visitor Center—on the way to Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive—would allow us to resupply…or not.

The store was closed more than an hour before we arrived.

Disappointed and thirsty, we climbed into the truck, and drove the 22-mile route around the backside of the Chisos Basin to admire the ever-changing landscape. If we weren’t so parched, we might have lingered longer to take in the views, but I drove as fast as the hairpin turns would permit.

Not that I was completely indifferent to scenery. There were a few occasions that demanded I stop and allow the natural beauty to wash over me.

far view

mules ear

what a butte

Another 13 miles past the junction intersection, and we finally completed the western loop around the park. While Leah napped, I struggled with the final 20 miles from the park gates to Lajitas. It took every last bit of will power to make it home, knowing that a well-deserved ice-cold Dos Equis would be waiting in the fridge, demanding I “Stay Thirsty”.

It was 7:00 pm when we finally opened the Airstream door, only to collapse.

We had completed 10 hours of non-stop activity, gratified by the experience, overwhelmed by the grandeur, and elevated by the notion that two old farts could still last the whole day.

Hiking Hat Trick–First Goal

At the risk of becoming too comfortable with scheduling only two activities a day during our destination stay, our last full day before moving on from Big Bend presented an opportunity to squeeze in three. That’s right…we were going for the hiking hat-trick!

By rights, we were being overly ambitious—biting off far more than we should ever chew—but as we’ve found since starting out, time is not our friend. Not to be melodramatic, but we may never pass this way again…and if we do (whether in this life or as Shirley MacLaine), it may not be with the same get-up-and-go. So, while we still can, we will continue to fool our bodies into believing we are first-round draft picks.

Typically, before dropping anchor, we’ll have researched most meaningful possibilities in our area. Then we’ll cherry pick around our common interests based on associated cost (we’re on a budget!), reasonability (is it safe and sane?), and time (is there enough of it?). By adopting this strategy, we’ve managed to stay focused and in sync.

But on this particular day, we agreed, “Who cares what it costs! This is totally insane! We’ll never have enough time! So, let’s do it!” On this day, we would canoe down the Rio Grande and hike through Slot Canyon while at Big Bend Ranch State Park, then return next door to Big Bend National Park for a backcountry drive to Santa Elena Canyon, hike the Santa Elena Canyon Trail, and return through the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.

Two days earlier, we reserved with Angell Expeditions for a Sunday float. For many, the holy grail is to raft through Santa Elena Canyon in the shadow of its 1500 feet canyon walls while attacking Class IV rapids. However, local outfitters were eschewing the Santa Elena junction put-in due to historically low water levels.

waders vertical

Instead, we agreed on a canoe trip through Dark Canyon in the State Park—not nearly as dramatic as the former—but at least we’d be floating on water, rather than pulling our boat across it.

We put in at Madera Canyon at 10:30 am.

River access

Angell ExpeditionsAnd found we had the whole river to ourselves.

3 tps in the distance w canoeIt was Mike, our river guide in one boat and us—with Leah at the bow and me at the helm—in the other.

Mike on the riverThe air temperature was equal to the water temperature at about 75°, and the wind was at our backs. It could not get any better, or be any easier…until we reached the first of three technical skill zones.

While not exactly Class IV water, the rocks and current still made the run challenging and fun. To avoid tipping the canoe, Mike had us stop each time to survey the water. We walked the shoreline, and watched how the fast-moving water was running in order to plan our route. After easily demonstrating the turns in his own canoe, Mike ceded the river to us to try for ourselves.

First time out, Leah panicked. “I’m not doing that. It’s too soon to go swimming. I’d rather walk it.”

“C’mon, Leah,” trying to encourage her. “It’ll be fun.”

“Not with you steering, it won’t!” she bellowed. “I’m not getting wet. Why don’t you do it with Mike.”

Mike agreed. With me in front, and Mike at the helm, we glided between the rocks, and sailed through the water effortlessly.

“See,” I crowed, “that wasn’t so bad.”

“Sure thing.” Leah was unimpressed. “I’ll do the next one,” she offered with uncertainty.

After 30 minutes of lazy floating, it was show-time yet again. We repeated the same set-up procedure as before, and Mike made it look just as easy as before, but these rapids were faster and rockier, and required more finesse.

fast water“With this one,” Mike warned, “it’s very easy to capsize, so if you feel the boat tipping, just step out onto the rocks.

“No problem,” I mustered.

“Yeah, right!” Leah mocked.

We valiantly headed into the white water, picking up momentum, and following all of Mike’s directions perfectly.

negotiating fast water“I don’t know about this,” Leah yelled.

“Just keep your paddle out of the water, and I’ll guide us through,” I yelled back.

Neal Leah rapidsI zigged when and where I was meant to zig, and zagged at the appropriate time and place, until…

“LOOK OUT!” Leah screamed.

…a very large boulder suddenly jumped directly in the path of the canoe, spoiling my perfect run. The boat got caught up on the rocks, turning it sideways just as Mike predicted, and the rushing water was forcing the boat over.

“DO SOMETHING!” Leah screamed.

So, I stepped out as instructed—keeping the boat steady—and pushed it through the last turn, while Leah traveled like Cleopatra.

“I’ll have you know that I had nothing to do with that. You told me to keep my oar out of the water, so it’s not my fault.” she gloated.

“It must be nice to be blameless and dry,” I said to myself.

With the wind gusting at 20 mph, we were quickly approaching the take-out area, yet it was only 12:30 pm. The tailwind had cut our expected float time in half.

Fandango location

Basking turtles“Is that it?” asked Leah.

“End of the line,” confirmed Mike. “This is where the truck is parked.”

Feeling badly, Mike added, “I know it seemed like a short trip, but if you’d like, we could head up to Slot Canyon and do a hike. It’s not like it’s out of my way.”

Leah and I exchanged glances. We had intended to hike the canyon on our own anyway.

“Absolutely,” said Leah.

So, we got in the truck and followed Mike over the mountain, on the way to our second goal.