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Big Bend 2017: No. 3 - Toll Mountain Sunrise

Updated: Dec 1, 2018

It was almost impossible for me to stay in the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag as twilight brightened the sky and the birds began to sing their morning songs in the trees above our head. The great thing about spending the night on a ridge is that you get to see the sunrise from many different angles, so disregarding the cold morning air, it was time to get dressed, grab my camera, and find the best spot to enjoy the morning.

Sunrise begins to light the valley to the South through the shallow window of Boot Canyon.

I was excited about my first morning in the high country of Big Bend, and in my desire to get a better view of the sunrise beyond the South Rim (where we would be headed later that day), I hiked back down Toll Mountain to the point where the Pinnacles Trail splits into the Emory Peak Trail, and the Boot Canyon Trail. While I was traversing the saddle, I caught a glimpse of the sunrise to the South through Boot Canyon. The cold desert landscape beyond the canyon still held onto the chill of the night, but the sun was beginning to melt the edges just along the horizon as the mountains turned from a deep blue to a soft shade of pink and purple. Ghostly forms of undulating topography began to take form in the darkness of the valley, and the first inklings of layered detail began to peak through the veil of the morning haze.

I hiked up Emory Peak Trail a short ways and watched the rest of the sunrise from the steep, dirt path. The fog in the valley was thick, and my window to the South Rim was small, so I soon abandoned that location and headed back towards Toll Mountain. At the trailhead to the Emory Peak Trail, I caught a glimpse of the morning sun through the gnarled juniper trees, and I couldn't help but notice the warm glow it gave the otherwise silhouetted branches of the trees.

I headed back up Toll Mountain, past our campsite, and climbed up to the rocky outcrop where I had photographed the Chisos Basin the day before. The TM1 campsite and my viewing spot are located on the Western saddle of Toll Mountain, so our tent and my morning outpost were still shrouded from the warm morning sun that continued to rise in the Southeast.

Short Winter Days - It's not your imagination, the days are actually shorter in the winter. During the winter months, the zenith angle of the sun reduces and the path of the sun creeps ever closer to the horizon. In addition, the locations along the horizon where the sun rises and sets, move closer to each other and compress the azimuth range in which the sun is visible. This leads to fewer hours of sunlight for the locations in the Northern Hemisphere and only adds to the cold of the winter morning.

In the basin beneath me, the warmth of the sun was held back by the tall ridge of mountains surrounding the campsites and Visitor's Center. I sat silently on the rocky outcrop, and watched the long silhouette of the southern ridge slowly concede to the warm, orange rays of the morning sun.

It is easy to get locked into a single experience in a place as expansive as Big Bend, but counter to what our self-centered ego likes to tell us, there is always something going on elsewhere that we are missing. With that in mind, I have a general rule that I should never get too focused on a single event and always maintain situational awareness of what is going on around me. This is both a function of being a better photographer, and personal safety (since you never know when a mountain lion or a bear might cross paths with you). It is true that the lighting changes quickly during the golden hour, but not so quickly that you can't look around to see what else the unique lighting conditions are affecting, and sure enough, there was an entirely separate sunrise still occurring behind me.

Earlier in the morning, the desert to the South of the rim glowed with the oranges and purples of a sun just cresting the horizon, but Toll Mountain still blocked that light from entering Boot Canyon which left the canyon cold and devoid of detail. However, as the sun crested the long, sloping hip of Toll Mountain, the valley suddenly erupted with shimmering halos of the warmest, golden light. I quickly scrambled from my rocky perch down into the trees to change the view across Boot Canyon, and allow the sun to accent the image without overloading it with too much glare.

The surrounding environment seemed to gain an inexplicable vibrance in the fresh sunlight, and the long shadows accented the depth and detail of the endless layers of rocky landscape that were often otherwise lost in the overpowering sting of the midday sunlight. It would have been so easy to just sit there all morning sipping on freshly brewed tea and soaking up the view.

The morning light engendered layers of cold shadow, bright sun-kissed rock faces, and the fading ripples of miles of desert beyond.

In time, Travis joined me on the rocky ledge and we scanned the surrounding rocks for Mountain Lions sunning themselves. Unfortunately we didn't have any luck, but there was excitement just in the possibility of seeing one. As the sun dappled the tops of the spires below, I was surprised that we hadn't seen any birds on the perches they apparently frequented. Perhaps it was still a little too cold and dark in the basin for an early morning hunt and they were out in the bright desert beyond.

It is always hard to say goodbye to an incredible view, but we had another long hike ahead of us to reach the South Rim, and we still needed to make breakfast, eat, and break down camp before heading South through Boot Canyon. The TM1 campsite was a fantastic start to our Big Bend experience and I would recommend it to anyone planning backcountry camping.

© 2017-2018 Shaun C Tarpley

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