Winter 2016 Adventure – Big Bend National Park or Bust Part Seven

Westside of Big Bend National Park

For more information about this section of the park, see the Big Bend National Park overview in Part Five.

As we enter the Santa Elena Canyon where the Rio Grande meanders through high cliffs, I wonder how such a calm flow of water had carved out the space between the blocks of rock that rise 1,500 feet overhead.

Birdseye view of Rio Grande River and people on the shore
Yoga anyone?

It is the sand and salt in the water that has filed away the limestone, cutting deeper and deeper over millions of years, leaving the ancient limestone formations exposed.

Man standing along the Rio Grande River in the Santa Elena Canyon
Steep rock cliffs along Santa Elena Canyon trail

Of course, I’m sure thunderstorms and flash floods, which can occur any time beginning in May and running through September, sped up the carving process. Visitors should monitor weather forecasts during those months so they can avoid any danger. The water may look calm now, but I understand the weather can turn in a matter of minutes in Texas.

Canoes on river in Santa Elena Canyon
Floatin’ down the lazy river

Sign up for a half day or multi-day rafting tour on the river with one of the several tour groups. I knew there was another reason we need to travel back to Big Bend.

River and cliffs in Santa Elena Canyon
Rio Grande River reflection

Cerro Castellan contains several layers of lava flows and volcanic tuff, or ash deposits, with layers of gravel and clay. The same lava flow that created Cerro Castellan also created the south rim of the Chisos Mountains.

Cerro Castellan Peak
Cerro Castellan

We had seen plenty of places throughout the park where white rock was piled up and couldn’t tell whether it was something natural or something built up from the mining operations.

Road with desert with white mounds Tuff Canyon
Mounds of tuff along the road

We found our answer at Tuff Canyon when we read the information signs. The white stuff is tuff, which formed when a volcanic eruption forced ash through a vent and eventually consolidated into solid rock. The soft rock has been used since ancient times for construction. Some of the Moai statues on Easter Island are constructed from tuff. Visitors will find a couple trails that lead to overlooks of the canyon.

Tuff canyon from rim
Tuff Canyon

Mule Ears Peaks top out at 3,881 feet above sea level in the Chisos Mountains.

Man sitting on bench and Mule Ears Peaks
Mule Ears Peak. Are we having fun yet?
Woman sitting on bench and Mule Ears Peaks
Ha, ha, Jon.

Goat Mountain is one of many volcanic domes formed during Big Ben’s ancient geological history. The top portion is composed of silica-rich lava, the band of yellow is pyroclastic flow deposits, and the bottom portion is older volcanic rock.

Goat Mountain and desert
Goat Mountain

We stretched our legs on the Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail, which follows a dry wash full of flood debris, sand, and cobbles.

Yucca plant in bloom
Yucca in bloom

The hard lava that caps the mesa top prevented the torrents of water from carving out a stream here. Instead, the floodwaters from Javelina Wash rushed over the side, carving out the cliff.

Man at Burro Mesa Pour Off
Pour Off

The dark-rock Fins of Fire are called dikes and are found throughout the park for miles. They provide evidence of the molten rock that lies quiet under the desert surface. When they are all lined up in a row, they remind of spikes on a dinosaur back.

Fins of fire or dikes
Fins of Fire

The Chisos Mountains were also formed through a series of volcanic activity that shaped the peaks.

Chisos Mountain Range
Chisos Mountain Range

Next week’s post will feature the Chisos Mountains and Basin. Until then, stay safe.

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