Natural arch the Chimneys

Davis Mts., Big Bend and Seminole Canyon

December 28, 2013 – January 2, 2014

Davis Mountains State Park, Texas

The Davis Mountains lie between I-10 and Big Bend National Park and are the highest mountains in Trans-Pecos Texas besides the Guadalupe Mts. near the New Mexico border. These mountains are mostly privately owned with the exception of Davis Mountains State Park, Fort Davis Historical Site, and a Nature Conservancy preserve which includes the peaks. Unfortunately the preserve was closed but the state park had a nice lodge built by the CCC in the 1930′s. Near the park is also the MacDonald Observatory. The Davis Mountains are considered “Sky Islands” in the Chihuahuan Desert. Thus the mountains are important ecologically. The park is in oak woodlands and had been subject to a controlled burn earlier in the fall in an attempt to reintroduce fire and restore the natural landscape of the park. Cattle, sheep, goats, wild horses and burros, even exotic species brought in by the ranchers to be shot by rich people; feral pigs, these all have changed the mountains.

Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center, Texas

This is south of Fort Davis in a beautiful rugged location. A large botanical area and a greenhouse with Chihuahuan cactus. The Chihuahuan desert is the largest of the four North American deserts (Sonoran, Mojave, Great Basin, Chihuahuan) and is the only one that is currently expanding it’s range. Like all the other deserts it is about 8,000 years old. Saw many plants that I’ve never seen in Arizona and an amazing variety of cactus. And yucca, and oaks, I could go almost anywhere in the northern hemisphere and be able to study oaks.

Fort Davis, Texas

Built to protect the route between San Antonio and El Paso from raids by Apache and Comanche bands, after the Civil War was the headquarters of a group of Buffalo Soldiers.

Rim trail at Davis Mountains State Park, Texas

Terlingua Texas

Jerry Jeff Walker released an album in 1973 called Viva Terlingua! The town was a mining settlement that mined cinnabar and smelted it to get mercury. Terlingua creek runs through the mining district and continues south to empty in the Rio Grande right before Santa Elena Canyon. All the cottonwood trees in Terlingua Creek were cut down to feed the smelters. In 1995, 10,000 cottonwood trees were planted in the part of the creek where it goes through Big Bend Park. I don’t know how this project went, we were at the mouth but didn’t follow the dirt road nearer the creek. The town is now a collection of odd citizens and people who cater to the tourist industry in the park. River runners and outfitters. The ‘town’ is two buildings, a general store that caters to the tourists with a big front porch where the locals hang and drink beer and play music with their dogs, lots of dogs. Next to this is the Starlight Saloon, an old adobe building that was called such because it originally didn’t have a roof. Nice people, great music and wonderful food. My first impressions were not good but I quickly warmed to the place.

Chisos Mountains, Big Bend

Big Bend National Park is one of the largest national parks. Started in 1944, the ranchers in the park were given 2 years of free grazing by the state of Texas before they had to leave and this devastated a landscape already over grazed and logged (Wauer, Fleming, 2002). Seventy years later things are just beginning to recover. The park has the usual “sky island” life zones with the added feature of a great river. The Chisos Mountains take up the whole center of the park and a basin in the center holds a lodge and a large campground. Found many Texas madrone (Arbutus xalapensis) in these mountains. Saw much variety in this tree with the bark red, yellowish and almost white. Variety in the leaves also as some leaves have reddish edges and others are even finely toothed. I had heard that Arctostaphylos pungens occurs in this region and one of the rangers said that it was in the Chisos and “looked like madrone only smaller.” Couldn’t find  anything like this, many of the smaller madrone have more reddish bark so I think this was the case, they were clearly madrone or not like any A. pungens I’ve ever seen. Now, back home, I finally found where the population is, not in the Chisos, but in the eastern Davis Mountains (Powell, 1998), we were on the higher western side. Oh, well. Until another time.

[UPDATE] There has been bear scat found containing A. pungens seeds in the Chisos Mountains but the plants have not been found (Powell, 1998).

The Chimneys, Big Bend

The Chimneys are a rock formation in the lower desert inside Big Bend, about three miles from the road. One rock spire has petroglyphs on both sides. Petroglyphs are rock art made by chipping the rock away while pictographs are created by painting on the rock.

Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend

The canyon forms just west of where Terlingua Creek enters the Rio Grande and at a distance looks like a notch in the massive wall of mountain. The Rio Grande has all the problems of any western river, very little water flows from the river west of Presidio, Texas due to agricultural usage, most of the water flowing through Big Bend comes from the Rio Conchos, a Mexican river. Dams on the Rio Conchos have tamed the flow and changed erosion patterns on the river. Invasive species, especially Tamarisk trees and giant cane choke out the cottonwoods. Native species of fish are indangered or extinct. This plus an international border.

Hot Springs, Big Bend

Petroglyphs and pictographs near the hot springs, this region had enough plant material to create paints.

Boquillas Canyon, Big Bend

At the tiny Mexican town of Boquillas is the only border crossing in Big Bend. After 9/1/1 the border was closed for over a decade which devastated the town’s economy. It has reopened but was closed the day we were there. Also, Americans now need a passport to return from Mexico and we didn’t have ours. People from the town cross over to sell trinkets and even to sing to hikers at the mouth of the canyon.

Study Butte, Big Bend

Study Butte is just a few miles east of Terlingua, a few stores and gas stations. A dirt road runs further east to the boundary of the park. An opening in the fence leads to a trail that winds around a small mountain. The area is dominated by large hills of tuff, volcanic ash that has formed a soft rock. In this area the tuff is grey but in other parts of the park it is snow white. There are petroglyphs everywhere and a couple large panels. Beyond this is a spring that forms a steep cut into the tuff. There the trail gets very dangerous because if you slid down into the small canyon it would be very difficult to get out.

Marfa, Texas

An odd town, sort of abandoned until 1971 when the New York artist Donald Judd moved there. Now there is a Prada store and guys walking around with man purses. Also, the Marfa lights, lights seen in the plains outside of town since ancient times and documented for over a century. What they are is still unknown and the explanations go from scientific to extreme woo. The Texas Department of Transportation has even built a viewing platform just outside of town (SMITH, 2010). We stopped there to check it out. It was just getting really dark and cars were pouring into the parking lot. A pickup with a long trailer pulled up next to us. On the trailer was a helicopter! In the distance on the horizon a light did appear. White dot that didn’t move. Could be a flashlight for all I know. The helicopter and standing around in the pitch dark with possibly strange people at the viewing platform spooked us so we left.

Seminole Canyon State Park, Texas

Some 120 miles east of Big Bend, we heard about the place from some folks we met and decided to take an extra day to visit it. Right where the Pecos River goes into the Rio Grande the canyon contains some spectacular pictographs. There was a guided tour, our guide was great, very knowledgeable. Hunter-gatherers living here some 4,000 years ago made this art. An interesting thing I learned is that the art in all cultures goes from a depiction of realism to that of abstraction so western ‘modern’ art was a natural human progression. Our guide had a great deal of information about different uses of plants by the peoples, especially yuccas. Also, a great story about a possible connection to the Huichol Indians of Mexico. Seminole Canyon got it’s name because it was a camp area of a group of Army scouts, black slaves who had escaped in the 1820s and went to Florida and had intermarried with the Seminole tribes. During the Trail of Tears they were deported to Oklahoma and after the Civil War moved west. In the 1930s an artist moved to the region and painted accurate copies of all the pictographs. The rock art has deteriorated badly in the last 80 years because a huge reservoir on the Rio Grande has raised the humidity levels. In a few more decades the paintings may be all that is left.

Wauer, R.H. & Fleming, C.M., 2002. Naturalist’s Big Bend, Texas A&M Press.
Powell, A.M., 1998. Trees & Shrubs of the Trans-Pecos and Adjacent Areas, University of Texas Press.
SMITH, J.C., 2010. MARFA LIGHTS. Available at: http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/lxm01 [Accessed January 9, 2014].

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