My first trip to Big Bend Country was over 20 years ago, in 1997, having spent just a month as a Texan. We went in August, and it was hot. Hot, intimidating, and seemingly inhospitable – at least in the surface. But despite all of this I quickly fell in love with the land. We watched a curious Gray Fox from the balcony of our room at the Chisos Mountain Lodge. I chased Tarantula Hawks, velvet ants, and Horse Lubbers; and I found the glittering remains of a departed Glorious Jewel Beetle. I marveled at the significant respite from the heat that the mountains provided, and the monsoonal rains that seemed so out of place in this arid landscape.
Since that day I have returned many times, and have been rewarded with incredible discoveries and remarkable experiences. Yet in all these years I had never visited in the spring, one of the most spectacular times to be immersed in the Chihuahuan Desert. I have long wanted to, but have always been somewhat intimidated by the crowds. One thing I love about Big Bend is its remoteness, and the feeling of isolation and insignificance that comes with it. During spring break, which generally coincides with the peak wildflower bloom, the park is flooded with visitors from all around the Lonestar State and beyond.
This year, however, I could not resist. I began seeing reports that Big Bend was experiencing one of the most spectacular Big Bend Bluebonnet (Lupinus havardii) blooms in recent memory. After a short conversation, Carolina and I made the decision to make the trek. I consulted my friend Michael Eason, author of Wildflowers of Texas, and resident of the region. He recommended that we spend a day in Black Gap Wildlife Management Area. Black Gap is just northeast of the park, and we would come to find that it sports a diversity of life and quality of scenery on par with that of the park.
Though I highly recommend exploring Black Gap, I will add a word of caution. At just over 100,000 acres, it is huge and it is very remote. Access to the interior is via high clearance gravel and rock roads, and there are no services and very few visitors. Despite being at the peak time for visitation to the region, we only saw one other vehicle all day. There is no cell phone service, and it would be easy to become stranded, so visitors should come prepared.
Fortunately our visit went smoothly. We arrived mid afternoon to the Stillwell Store. Stillwell’s boasts a large camping area with well-spaced sites that offer a truly isolated feel, despite the large number of spring breakers. They say that they never fill, and will accommodate all campers by opening additional property if necessary. While the store and showers were packed every evening, from our campsite we could barely hear another soul. Stillwell’s is directly adjacent to Black Gap and only 8 miles from the north entrance to Big Bend National Park, and provided the perfect base for our adventures.
We quickly made camp, and ventured into Black Gap. Bicolored Mustard lined the roads and filled the desert air with their sweet aroma. It wasn’t long until we began seeing our first Big Bend Bluebonnets roadside. Once in Black Gap we began exploring desert washes painted by the blooms of millions of wildflowers. The highlights were two species endemic to the Big Bend region of Texas and adjacent Mexico: Phacelia infundibuliformis and Streptanthus cutleri.
There were many more blooms to be seen, but it was growing dark. We returned to the truck and continued on to the river. I had to drive slow, as Collared Peccaries and Mule Deer crossed the road before us, and our headlights reflected in the eyes of countless Common Poorwills sitting in the roadway.
Tired from a long day, we returned to camp where we took advantage of the Stillwell Store’s showers and I boiled hot dogs for dinner. As I was cleaning after dinner I heard Caro call out to me. I knew from the sense of urgency in her tone that she had found something interesting, and she had! In the light of her flashlight I could see a kangaroo rat casually foraging on the desert floor. It was not concerned in the least as I approached with my camera. Unfortunately just after I captured this image it made its way beneath a massive Tasajillo, so close but out of reach of my lens.
I believe it to be a Merriam’s Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys merriami). This species is very similar to the Ord’s Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys ordii), and both species occur in this region. Morphologically they are quite similar and are most easily separated by counting toes – Merriam’s have four toes on their hind feet while Ord’s have five. I did not have the luxury of counting its toes, unfortunately, however it is also reported that the two species have slightly different habitat preferences, with Merriam’s occuring on rocky, gravelly soils and Ord’s occurring in areas of loose sand.
Where there are rodents, invariably there are things that eat rodents. This large Kansas Glossy Snake (Arizona elegans elegans) had extensive scarring on its head and appeared to be blind in one eye. In spite of all this, it seemed very healthy. It would be the only live snake we would see this trip, though we found a freshly hit Western Diamondback Rattlesnake and Western Coachwhip nearby.
That night a few raindrops fell – just enough to draw the smell of earth from the desert and serenade us with a gentle pattering on the rainfly. We woke early the next morning, and made our way into Black Gap. We opted to spend the morning exploring along the paved FM road down to La Linda. There is an old closed bridge across the Rio Grande there, a sign of more prosperous times when it served to transport flourite into the U.S. from mines in Coahuila. Today the bridge is in ruins and La Linda is a ghost town.
While the evening before we had seen a few Big Bend Bluebonnets lining the roadside, today we saw them sprawling across the hillsides in a carpet of blue. It was a sight to behold, and though I knew they could never do this view justice, I couldn’t resist taking a few pictures.
A short hike from the road provided a spectacular view of the lower canyons of the Rio Grande. Here we found Yellow Rocknettle (Eucnide bartonioides) clinging to the cliffs above the river. Below I watched a group of Cinnamon Teal floating lazily downstream. Taken in by the grandeur of it all, I paused a moment to lose myself in contemplation – a pastime that I find trips to wide open places greatly enhance.
To capture the image below I had to lie precariously on my stomach on a narrow ledge and lower my camera a few feet. I relied on the LCD screen to compose the shot. It may not have been the golden hour for photography, but I was not willing to pass up the opportunity to capture such an incredible moment in time.
The Yellow Rocknettle was incredible! We found several large groups blooming on sheer cliff faces. While most were high on canyon walls, well out of reach, a few were low and safe enough to approach. The large, showy flowers may appear virtually any time of year when there is sufficient rainfall.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, cactus blooms began to open to the world. We would end up finding 9 species in flower over the course of the trip. In Black Gap, however, we only observed one species blooming – the Lacespine Nipple Cactus (Mammillaria lasiacantha). Like the Big Bend Bluebonnet and Yellow Rocknettle, this was one of the biodiversity goals on my list when I first started this blog. Though I was able to photograph this species sans flowers in October 2017, this was my first time seeing the spectacular, albeit miniature, blooms.
As late morning turned to early afternoon, a thin veil of clouds began passing in front of the sun, creating one of my favorite qualities of light. I took the opportunity to photograph more Big Bend Bluebonnets, whose cobalt hues mirrored the sky.
Michael had suggested that we drive into the interior of Black Gap to experience Maravillas Canyon, and I’m glad he did. In my opinion, the scenery here was on par with that in the National Park. We left the pavement mid afternoon and ventured down the 4X4 road that led into the canyon. It is 18 miles one way to the river, and though we found the road to be easily passable in my truck, it was rough. I never put it into four-wheel drive, however high clearance was a must.
The road was lined with botanical wonders that only became more interesting and more numerous as we approached the river. Here we found more proliferations of Big Bend Bluebonnet blooming among Lechuguilla, Candelilla, and Creosote.
As the sun vanished down behind the distant canyon walls, we made the long trek back to the pavement in the dark. It was a somewhat eerie feeling being out in the night in the middle of so much nothingness, but I welcomed it. It may seem counter intuitive, but I never feel more alive than those times when I’m reminded just how fragile and insignificant my life is, in the grand scheme of things.
Exploring Black Gap was an experience I will never forget, and one I hope to repeat. It really is the perfect playground for one who loves biodiversity, dramatic landscapes and solitude. That night we arrived to our campsite late and completely drained, but we took in the moonless night sky where the brilliance of countless stars cast shadows across the desert floor. It was another in a long list of humbling experience that the day offered. The next morning we would venture into the park to experience a wildflower bloom, the abundance and diversity of which hardly seemed possible in such an unforgiving landscape.