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Big Bend '17: No. 14 - Balanced Rock

The Chisos Basin is a fantastic place to camp, but it's not the only thing that Big Bend has to offer. In order to expand our experience of the park, we decided to spend a night out in the desert scrub and see what it had in store for us.

The Grapevine Hills area had an otherworldly quality to it that made me feel as though I was looking across a Martian landscape.

Our final night in the Chisos Basin had been fantastic, but all good things must come to an end. The experience inside the Basin was beautiful and unique, but we had yet to experience the desert scrub that surrounded the Chisos Mountain Range. We started the morning by eating a good breakfast, and then packed up our campsite and loaded the gear into the truck.

We weaved through the switchbacks of Maple Canyon until we converged with Gano Springs Rd and headed West. We were only on Gano Springs for a moment before taking a right turn off of the nice pavement onto the first intersecting dirt road to the North, Grapevine Spring. A small cloud of dust billowed behind the truck as we headed towards Grapevine Hills and the famous Balanced Rock.

The sun was bright and hot and it punished our already sun-burned skin. I kept a long sleeve shirt on and wore a thin cloth around my neck to try and block the sun's rays, but the extra layers made me hotter than I would have preferred. It was strange to spend so much time protecting myself from the sun and heat so late in winter. I can't imagine how intense it must be in the middle of a hot, Texas summer. We grabbed just enough water for a short hike, I grabbed my camera, and we headed down the dusty Grapevine Hills Trail.

While heading down the exposed dirt trail that weaved through jagged and imposing groves of mesquite and cactus, numerous small birds danced across the tree tops. Travis is an avid bird watcher, and he slowly brought me into the fold the longer we spent in the avian-rich environment of Big Bend. I was determined to get photographs of each species that we saw, but unfortunately it wasn't as easy to photograph them as to spot them. This small flight of Black-Throated Swallows were very wary of our presence, and they always stayed well out of the range of my 300mm lens.

Along the pathway, the remains of a long-dead cactus lay sprawled across the desert floor. While I knew it was just the internals of the cactus, the web-like tendrils of the capillary structure seemed to spill out of the rotting carcass of the cactus as if was reaching out for new prey.

There was an inescapable sense of isolation on the trail. The towering igneous formations flanked the the valley that the trail weaved through and created an almost trapped feeling that was a stark contrast to the incredible openness of the desert surrounding this area.

The flat, sandy trail soon started moving upwards into the bulbous rock formations and followed a series of stacked, rock stairs, and broad slopes of coarse rock. The climb up is not difficult, but I would recommend a good pair of boots for traction and ankle support, and a walking stick if you have any balance issues.

The trail suddenly ended as the balanced rock came into view. The strange layers of once-molten rock hinted at the history of their creation millions of years ago. While many rocky spires must have fallen for millennia and tumbled onto the ground to create the labyrinthian environment, causality and chance finally intersected to create this rare and seemingly tenuous formation of enormous rocks resting gently upon each other.

Travis and I have rock climbed for years, so even though we didn't bring any climbing gear for this trip, the sticky, coarse rock needed to be climbed. It was an easy scramble up to the top, and while the rocks may seem unstable, our body weight had absolutely no effect on the massive structure. The rocks were as solid and stable as the ones on the ground. As is my way, I had to sit on the top of the highest point and gaze across the wide scenery.

(Use the arrow on the right to scroll through photos)

While sitting on the rock, I had a more expansive view of the Grapevine Hills area. It is a unique formation that has a very different geological history than the Chisos Mountains just to the South.

Grapevine Hills - This area has a unique geological history that is likely millions of years old. Volcanic activity was sporadic in this area, and sometimes the billowing magma churning up from deep underground would fail to breach the surface, trapping it in the layers of rock. The shape and structure of the resulting igneous rock is a good indication of how the magma interacted with the surrounding strata. Unlike the limestone of the Chisos Mountains, the crystalized magma formed a strong, erosion-resistant rock, such that the structures remained even after the surrounding strata had been washed away. The intrusive magma chambers that broke through the layers of earth were not always structurally sound, and as the supporting soil around the structures eroded away, many crashed to the ground creating a veritable graveyard below the towering spires of superior chambers.

Finding people in this environment can be challenging, even if they are wearing bright clothing.

We found a moment of respite from the sun's violent rays in the shade beneath the balanced rock. There was a small inkling of fear standing under such a massive boulder, but we knew full well that it was incredibly unlikely that it would fall in the brief moment we were there.

I would have liked to return to Balanced Rock at night to take a photo of the stars, but the night had already been claimed by the Super Moon that was destined to rise in a direction that was not advantageous for this location. Hopefully I can get that shot on my next Big Bend Trip.

We headed back down the maze of rocks, and returned to the truck. The afternoon was still wide open, so we decided to head to the Eastern-most corner of the park were Texas and Mexico once again met in the small town of Boquillas.

© 2017-2019 Shaun C Tarpley


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