Big Bend National Park: Burro Mesa

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Monday, November 11, Sean and I had the morning to spend exploring the southwestern portion of Big Bend before we broke camp at Cottonwood and hiked into the Chisos in the afternoon. There were still many things to see in this part of the park, but it was time to pick just one or two.

We grabbed our day packs, water, and snacks and headed toward Burro Mesa.

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Mule Ears Peaks

We left the car at the parking area for Burro Mesa Pour-off and started the flat, half-mile hike up a wash.

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As we walked further into a box canyon, Burro Mesa began to envelop us. Looking down, we noticed a fair amount of wildflowers blooming after the recent rains.

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Creosote Bush blossom

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Dogweed

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Darkling Beetle

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The trail (wash) turned right, and the cliffs and formations grew higher.

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Purple-Tinged Prickly Pear

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Desert Marigold

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On the mesa’s face, we saw several pour-offs of various sizes, where occasional waterfalls carved into the soft rock. But none was as dramatic as the one we were headed for at the end of the trail.

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The view behind us, back down the wash.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Mistletoe

The trail dead-ended at sheer cliffs and the dramatic pour-off where Javelina Wash drains from the top of Burro Mesa.

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Burro Mesa Pour-off. The smooth, dark stone is Burro Mesa rhyolite. The softer, lighter rock is Wasp Spring breccia.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Cairns alert hikers to places where the trail disappears across washes or rock. Image: Sean M. Santos

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After visiting the bottom of the pour-off, we returned to the car, which was a lone dot in the vastness of a quiet desert morning. We had time for one more adventure before returning to our campsite to strike camp before the 12 noon deadline. Originally, I’d intended for us to do a quiet stroll on Burro Spring Trail, a loop that began not too far from where we stood. But having seen the bottom of the pour-off, the temptation to make the longer, more rugged hike to the top of the pour-off was too much. Plus we were running just a bit ahead of schedule.

We climbed into the car and twisted up the road to the top of Burro Mesa, as we reached the top and saw our first glimpse that morning of the depression between the Chisos Mountains and the mesa, we were startled to see clouds lying on the desert floor beneath us. They seemed to be spilling out of the Chisos like some immense dry ice fog machine. Although we’d noticed some low clouds in the generally partly cloudy skies on the other side of the mesa, we were wholly unprepared to see this.

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Not far from the vista, we parked at the turnout for Upper Burro Mesa Trail, a 1.8-mile trek down a series of washes that tighten into what is essentially a slot canyon just before the top of the pour-off.

The top of Burro Mesa is a day use only portion of the park. Camping and backpacking are not allowed in order to protect the fragile Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem. It was also quite a bit greener than the desert we had just been walking in. This was the landscape that provided the delicious green fragrance we’d enjoyed as we drove into the park two days earlier.

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Desert Marigold with a plant bug (Oncerometopus nigriclavus)

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Throughout the hike, we drew closer to the western edge of Burro Mesa.

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Sotol

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Much of the hike led us through pebbly washes of various width and steepness, which occasionally made for somewhat rough going.

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Snapdragon Vine

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Sometimes water’s work was more dramatic, and we had to scramble down small chutes of water-smoothed rock.

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For a period, the sides of the wash grew steeper as we descended from the wide, green valley toward a lower section of the mesa.

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As in Tuff Canyon, the recent precipitation was still in evidence.

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A leaf-covered Ocotillo dominates the landscape.

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Hedge Bindweed

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Rock Wren

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Eventually the wash we were following met up with broader Javelina Wash, which would eventually dead-end at the top of the pour-off. We were careful to note which wash would lead back to the car.

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Northern Mockingbird

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The sides of Javelina Wash grew steadily higher, although the gravelly ground of the wash was still quite wide.

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Pulverized gravel both helps erode and scour the sides of the canyon and provides evidence of the tremendous power of the water, which rushes down Javelina Wash during storms.

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Desert Tarantula

Video: Brandon Hayes

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We continued on, and the walls became narrower. It was easy to follow the trail now since there was only one way to go.

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The effects of raging water became more pronounced, including arches carved in the rock and uprooted trees.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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As we approached the end of pour-off, the drops became longer and steeper…

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…until finally we reached the final drop into a water-carved slot canyon above the pour-off.

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The footing to get down was tricky, but soon we were in the chamber.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

We were surprised that the water actually makes a sharp left turn and then a right turn before dropping into space.

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At the lip of the pour-off, the stone is polished smooth.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

Video: Brandon Hayes

It was already almost 11am by the time we were ready to head back up the trail. It had taken us a little over an hour to reach the pour-off, but we made it back to the car in 45 minutes, stopping only occasionally to snap a photo or watch the same tarantula cross the trail that we’d seen on the way down.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Virgin’s Bower

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As we hiked, gorgeous views of the Chisos beckoned us. In only a few hours, we’d be hiking into them.

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We arrived back in Cottonwood Campground with just enough time to strike camp and throw everything into the car. After clearing our site, we drove to the campground’s day-use picnic tables to eat some lunch and resort our gear for backpacking. Then it was time to say a last goodbye to Cottonwood, Cerro Castellan, and the southwestern part of Big Bend.

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Northern Walkingstick

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