Cliffs of Burro Mesa
The desert in Big Bend National Park is part of the Chihuahuan Desert, which occupies an area larger than Germany in the southwestern US and northern Mexico. At least in Big Bend, this desert is not bare sand and stones, not stereotypical desert in other words. Even in February, toward the end of the very driest months, it was patchily dressed in brush, cacti, brown grasses, and even flowers here and there.
I will cover in this post my Big Bend hikes that were neither right beside the Rio Grande nor up in the more abundantly vegetated Chisos Mountains. And I’ll concentrate on a trek that took me—rather indirectly—to Slickrock Canyon, providing just brief descriptions of shorter outings near Burro Mesa and in the Grapevine Hills.
By Creek Bed to Slickrock Canyon
(February 24th; 11.8 miles in 5 hours; sunny, 70s)
I discovered this hike in Hiking Big Bend National Park, a guidebook. The hike does not follow marked trails and Slickrock Canyon was not shown on my map. The hike is not publicized by the Park Service either. Given this need for self-navigation, I inexplicably left my guidebook in the car. I did carry a map and compass, food, and several liters of water. I made note too that I was setting out from a place near to a small, distinctive butte.
At first, I looked for passage along the bank of Oak Creek. This proved unrewarding and I was soon pricked and scraped by Big Bend’s sharp-edged flora. I took then to the dry bed of the creek and was soon making rapid and scrape-free progress northwest—toward the barren Christmas Mountains.
I remembered from the guidebook that, to reach Slickrock Canyon, I’d need to turn off Oak Creek onto another wash after about an hour of walking. And as I looked at the land ahead of me, I formed my opinion of where the Canyon would lie—a totally erroneous opinion it turned out. Finally, after following Oak Creek for two hours, I conceded that I had not found the creek bed turn-off. Still, it had been a fine walk and I was reasonably happy to call it a day and mosey back to my car near the little butte. I’d keep an eye out for that wash coming in from the northeast—just to see where I’d gone wrong, you understand.
A little way back up the creek bed, I saw a groove entering from the left that obviously channeled water when there was any to channel. I followed this wash a while but was rewarded only with more prickly caresses from desert vegetation. Defeated and back in the main creek, I ate my lunch on ledges formed and scrubbed by absent torrents.
Back on my feet, I soon came to two small human-made piles of pebbles. I had seen them on my way in too but had not realized then that they marked a creek-junction. I entered the side-creek to see where it would lead and saw boot-prints in its sandy bed. This looked like a route! And soon, away in the northeast, appeared a fissure in the dry cliffs—the Canyon, surely. It was far off and I’d already walked plenty, but I couldn’t resist the lure of doing what I’d set out to do.
Slickrock Canyon is not the Grand Canyon but, like all today’s hike, I had it all to myself. It offered shade too. I wanted to sit down in this shade, but judged that looking small and tired in mountain lion territory might not be the best idea. So I walked the Canyon looking, I hoped, like something that would fight back. In truth, cougars were only on the fringe of my thoughts. Mainly, I was just pleased to be in a still, wild place of simple beauty—sky, rock, wind, a few puddles of stagnant water.
Hiking toward the Christmas Mountains
Prickly desert flora
Creek bed art
The entrance to Slickrock Canyon
In Slickrock Canyon
Oak Creek bed and Chisos Mountains
Burro Mesa: Two walks. The longer (3.6 miles roundtrip) ends at the top of Burro Mesa “pour-off”—perhaps best described as a usually dry waterfall. I remember this hike for sotol (see photo), a holed rock wall, and the canyon ending at a sort of half-open cave. The shorter walk (1 mile) approached the pour-off from the opposite direction, ending at the foot of the “waterfall”.
Top of Burro Mesa pour-off
Hole in the wall
Grapevine Hills: This is a short (2 miles roundtrip) walk on marked trail to a natural arch. The arch was fine but what I really liked was the walk through a shallow, rocky valley in the company of mule deer as the sun was lowering.
Look carefully and you’ll see mule deer