Sunday Hikes: Ernst Tinaja

Big Bend National Park is a wonderful place! Collectively I have spent over a month exploring the park’s near 1,300 square miles (that’s 10x the size of Atlanta). Each new visit brings new places I had never even heard of to explore. One could spend a lifetime in the Big Bend country and still have more to explore. On our last trip one of these places was Ernst Tinaja.

Ernst Tinaja is by no means a secret but it is tucked away in the less visited eastern side of Big Bend National Park. The trailhead is located off the Old Ore Road about 5 miles from the south entrance near Rio Grande Village. Old Ore Road is considered a 4×4 high clearance only road but as long as it is dry most vehicles can make it to Ernst Tinaja driving carefully (if it has been rainy I would not attempt it, visit Panther Junction visitor center for road info). Along the way are beautiful views of the desert and Chisos Mountains.

Chisos from Old Ore Road

Along the road are a few landmarks starting with Candelilla campsite (one of my favorites), then Camp De Leon campsite and the nearby grave of Juan De Leon (a mysteriously murdered mexican man from the area’s more lawless times). Soon after Camp De Leon is Ernst Tinaja campsite and trailhead marked by a small stone sign. If you hit the La Noria campsites you’ve gone too far.

Grave of Juan de Leon

The trailhead is marked by a small metal sign like most others in Big Bend.

The trail starts in open desert and moves into a valley that then narrows into a canyon. In the valley are large stone ridges running across the trail with small pools of water (after rains anyways). Like many places in Big Bend the past is evident in the geology of the area and it is very clear a river flowed through this area creating the valley and canyon.

As the valley narrows into a rocky canyon there is a relief of shade created by one of the canyon’s walls during most of the day. When the temperatures can regularly reach the 90s even in the winter, any respite from the sun is welcome. The ground is loose and gravely like most dried up desert creek beds until quickly and suddenly turning to smooth pinkish brown limestone with a slight climb up.

Inside the limestone are three ‘Tinajas’, pockets of water collected from past rains (Tinaja literally means Jar in spanish).

I had fun playing with the tinaja reflections

The climb up and around the tinajas is fun and can feel a little sketchy (especially when you’ve heard accounts of mountain lions drowning in the very tinaja you are scrambling by).

Just past the Tinajas on the left side of the canyon is a fascinating force of nature captured in rock where presumably whatever water once flowed through distorted and twisted the limestone wall into a small cave (another place to hide from the sun).

At this point there are two options: turn back or carry on. The canyon continues for miles eventually hitting Ernst Valley (or at least the hills before Ernst Valley, I have not explored this far). With what seems like endless desert to explore turning back wouldn’t be a bad option either.

PSA: Anyone hiking here should know their limits and pack accordingly to their trip. Over 400 people die in National Parks every year with a majority of these deaths being because of drowning or heat exhaustion (both very possible in Big Bend). Visit the Panther Junction visitor center to get info from rangers on how to explore Big Bend safely.

To sum it all up: Ernst Tinaja is incredible and is a highlight of that trip for us now. If you have the ability to hike there, you should. Be careful and have fun! 🙂

Thanks!

– Josh

Friday Favorites: Black Gap Road in Big Bend National Park

Much of Big Bend National Park is primitive roads requiring high clearance and off road tires. 4 wheel drive is a plus! Since Josh has popped several tires in the Park before, this time he decided to bring me (and my Jeep).

My favorite section was Black Gap Road. This area required 4 wheel drive to navigate and since we backcountry camped nearby, we had the road to ourselves. Black Gap Road traverses a rock canyon and we had a blast.

In the video below, you can hear me worrying about splashing Josh, and Josh worrying that I’m going to leave him behind. In any case, off-roading and exploring the backcountry and ruins was my favorite part of Big Bend National Park. rk

Friday Favorites: Roosevelt Elk and Other National Park Wildlife

One of my favorite parts about visiting National Parks is the opportunity to see wildlife up close in its natural habitat.

This video is of a Roosevelt Elk that blocked my path in Olympic National Park. It came right down the trail towards me and then stopped to munch right off the trail.

Probably my favorite wildlife experience was in El Malpais National Monument in New Mexico where I was driving my Jeep down a dirt road while a herd of Pronghorn Antelope ran alongside me at 40ish mph for several minutes. It was exhilarating. rk

Primitive Roads and Lava Tubes in New Mexico

Josh and I woke up refreshed at the Joe Skeen Campground in El Malpais National Monument.   It had been a long day of hiking and driving the day before.   We decided that we would like to go down to see the La Ventana Natural Arch then follow the Chain of Craters National Backcountry Byway and hike in and around the lava tubes.

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La Ventana Natural Arch – the largest in New Mexico

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About to head down the Chain of Craters National Backcountry Byway

The Chain of Craters National Backcountry Byway, also known as CR-42, runs through the southern portion of El Malpais past a series of extinct cinder cone volcanoes, and leads to the Big Tubes Area where we wanted to hike.   I was a little disappointed in that the road was not as rough as the signs indicated.   I suppose after a good rain it may have been more difficult to traverse.   The highlight of this drive was a herd of pronghorn antelope that ran parallel to us for several minutes down the bumpy dirt road.

After we arrived at the turnoff to go to the Big Tubes Area, the road (Big Tubes Road) did get much more rough and would not be passable without a 4 wheel drive (which we enjoyed immensely).   After parking at the Big Tubes trailhead.   We followed the rock cairns for a 1/3 mile or so and came upon the collapsed lava tubes.   These were much larger than I anticipated.    During one stretch, the “trail” goes over a small arch (called Lava Bridge) with collapsed tube on either side which was disconcerting to cross.

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The “trail” to the Big Tubes Area

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Big Skylight Cave

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Big Skylight Cave (closer up)

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Lava Bridge

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Our shadows reflected in the opening of Surface Tube

The series of trails seemed difficult to follow in this area, so we ended up just exploring and climbing the lava rocks.   This was as fun as it sounds.   After we got back to the jeep and headed back towards CR-42, we realized that the other side of the Big Tubes Road was much more passable.   Despite the signage we determined that as long as the weather was dry, a 2 wheel drive car could probably get back here safely.   I would recommend coming from the north off of Hwy 53 to get here though.

El Malpais is one of our favorite places in New Mexico.   If you are in the area, make time to visit and enjoy this area.   rk

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You can tell the sun was bright when this picture was taken

 

Driving through Great Smoky Mountains National Park

About this time last spring, I took some of the kids and drove through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.   I thought it would be a fun day trip in my jeep as it was a perfect spring day.   My plan was to enter the southern entrance on US 441 near Cherokee NC and come out the northern entrance near Gatlinburg TN.   This is only about a 35 mile distance, but takes about an hour normally because of all the switchbacks and overlooks.

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Surprisingly, after entering the park we had to wait as trucks scraped ice and snow off of the roads.   We took advantage of the delay to do a quick hike right near the road barricade.   We were able to get going again after about an hour.

The Great Smoky Mountains are, of course, gorgeous with amazing overlook views of wooded valleys and mountain tops in every direction.   We stopped at several of these during the drive.   Once arriving in Gatlinburg, we visited the local Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and rode the Gatlinburg Sky Lift before heading back home.   Gatlinburg is a great place to base when visiting treat Smoky Mountains.   Think of it as the east coast version of Moab UT with an overabundance of tourist trap attractions and pancake houses thrown in for good measure.

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The Great Smoky Mountains NP is a great park for enjoying beautiful scenery, seeing wildlife including black bears, and hiking.   There is a reason it is the most visited National Park.   I hope you can take advantage of this amazing National Park the next time you are in eastern TN or western NC.

rk