Between the week’s running and yesterday’s hiking, I declared an Xterra hike today. We did the bulk of Old Ore Road after dark on the New Year’s trip in 2018, so I decided to sleep in and then visit that with a picnic at a vista pull-off.
And of course, Ernst Tinaja is at the end of that road, which I always enjoy wandering through. But one of the first pools was full. Despite trying my best to find a way around, my hike was cut short.
I will say I’m proud of that mantle, but I couldn’t repeat it wearing my backpack with water and camera, which I didn’t want to leave behind. So I moved on.
Upper Burro Mesa Pouroff
I’ve realized I have my Big Bend favorites but need to branch out slightly. An easy but dramatic looking hike I found on AllTrails was the Burro Mesa Pouroff, two hikes split at the midpoint by a 500+ foot drop where there is, presumably, a waterfall after rains. I did the upper half this time, which made for a nice canyon hike.
This was a great, and I had it all to myself. It’s a side-stop on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive that doesn’t call a lot of attention to itself. And it has just a few rock scrambles in it to keep things interesting.
The tour of big hazy skies continued just down Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive at a rest stop called the Sotol Vista.
Heavy winds in the area kicked up a lot of dust over the past few days which started to settle into the valleys below the basin, adding a bit of desolation to the view but also a feeling of floating above it.
I’ve decided that counter-clockwise is winning, which is backwards from what I did last time. That way it’s a 4 mile straight-shot from the basin out to the rim, then a stroll through the meadows and Boot Canyon, finishing high up on Emory Peak before a dramatic pile of switchbacks down to the trailhead.
And back at the trailhead, I discovered the store was still open. So I grabbed a beverage and went to the paved Window overlook for sunset.
I declare the Second Annual forced march of the South Rim a success.
With time running short in the season before scorching heat takes over Big Bend, I decided to head back that way. After all, hiking the South Rim can only be an annual tradition of mine if I’ve done it at more than once. But why spend just a weekend in Big Bend if I can spend a whole week? So I booked this place:
Cloudflare Marfa was a remarkably productive office. My backlog over the past few weeks has become well more than knee-deep, but I managed to wrap up a lot this week while squeezing in some time for side quests in the evenings and coffee shops during the days.
Point of Rocks
About ten minutes south west of Fort David is an old waystation along what was a military road from San Antonio to El Paso in the mid/late 1800s. Today, it is a picnic area at the base of a massive boulder pile. In 6th grade, my class did a West Texas field trip and came here for an afternoon of running around. The following year, somehow, my mother found the same place based on my extremely rough description, but wouldn’t let us climb too high.
But she wasn’t here to stop me this time. And Wednesdays are for climbing. 600 foot ascent in total. Lots of fun. Sixth grade me would have thought I’m so cool.
We packed up this morning, headed out by way of Antelope Valley up to Fredionia, AZ which turns out to be the nearest town to this community, despite being a couple hours down a dirt road. It was a lovely little drive back to civilization.
We spent an age re-inflating our tires and trying to mitigate some of the worst of the dust rattles before turning back onto pavement and heading east on US-89A, the Fredonia-Vermilion Cliffs Scenic Road that I found last year. I was excited to revisit that as a team.
We had two choices for today: another Grand Canyon North Rim overlook or an epic slot canyon hike that the Sundial Posse recommended to us last night. Much of Vermilion Cliffs and Paria Canyon are limited by a strict permit lottery so I wrote off the monument for this trip. But they assured us that Wire Pass to the Buckskin Gulch is day-trippable on a standard permit! So I was eager to get a hike in and to see that area because it’s been on my list for a while. (I will say, the BLM’s process for obtaining said day-trip permit leaves a lot to be desired… someone needs a UX researcher somewhere.)
On the far side of Kaibab National Forest, we turned into Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. The dirt road up the west side of the plateau had such intense washboard we all deflated again, which was annoying, but we picked a great spot to do it.
And then we hit the Wire Pass Trailhead. It’s an alternate middle entrance to the Buckskin Gulch, the longest slot canyon in the USA at a total length of over 20 miles. The canyon is narrow for 12 miles; the cliffs become steadily higher downstream, reaching a height of 500 feet above the streambed at the end, where Buckskin Gulch meets the Paria River.
This trailhead is actually in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, checking off another park on the Backtrack. The trail itself crosses through Paria Canyon – Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area too.
Wire Pass opens into wide section of Buckskin Gulch with more petroglyphs and what may have been a decent campground before narrowing back down in both directions.
We stayed in the gulch a while until we realized it was starting to get late and that we wanted dinner, which meant finishing the drive to Page. But since this was our last adventure stop on the trip, I wish we could have stayed all night.
Past due for starvation prevention, we arrived into Page and hit up a local burger joint called Slackers. It was great. Our AirBnB for the evening is much more spacious than the bunkhouse, but I already miss my ranch on the rim.
Our gratitude to the Sundialers for the recommendation. I’m so glad they told us to check this one out.
We’ve each wanted to return to the Grand Canyon since that first trip. A lot of this “backtrack” trip was shaped around spending a couple days there and going back to defeat one obstacle in particular. And this post should definitely have been split into three pieces, but here it is in its long-form.
Day 1: Mesquite to Bar10 Ranch
Andrew and I missed each other in the parking lot this morning. As he heads back to Palo Alto by way of the fast chargers, we set off southeast through Lime Kiln Canyon Road into the Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument. Lime Kiln is apparently a limestone sport climbing area, so I’ve marked that for investigation later because that would be awesome.
The Parashant National Monument sits northeast of the Grand Canyon National Park and is larger than the state of Rhode Island. The name comes from the Paiute phrase Pawteh ‘ee oasoasant, meaning “tanned elk hide,” or “softening of the elk hide.” It was established by Presidential Proclamation in January, 2000.
There are no paved roads or services in the Monument, save ranches around its fringes — like Bar10 Ranch which we returned to this evening. Getting there proved as difficult in 2021 as it was in 2017 because of what video games would refer to as “progressive difficulty.” But the view was entirely worth the trek. And unlike last time, we’d checked a multitude of different maps to avoid entanglements with disputed ranch borders and the Bundys.
So we meandered our way through the Parashant and lined up with our route from four years ago. Views, not obstacles, provided the drama. Early on at least.
And then we got to “The Spot” on Nutter Twists Road — yes, that is its actual name. We wanted to hit that section again because it was a challenge last time, but we’re more experienced now. At the time, it had a few big rocks and a small step in it, and scared the hell outta me. But with what we’ve done since? Come’on.
As punishment for our hubris, recent flash flooding has relieved this ledge of all the dirt covering those rocks and gluing them together.
Usually when we take pictures or video of overlanding shenanigans, they’re disappointingly danger-free. But we have evidence in hand showing that this may be one of the trickier things we’ve attempted. There were four separate obstacles with very little runway between them to stop and re-plan. Lots of steps, specific placements, and shifting surface.
Well, if we’re fung shui-ing this shit, I don’t really like where this rock is either.
We did some rearranging of rocks to mitigate some of the gaps, then walked it a few times to be sure. We also opted to forego recreating that photo of all three 2017 cars on the ledge and focus on just making it happen. So just picture the Disco leading the Renegade and Xterra the Younger up a rock soup with this view:
And then Evan went for it. All in one go.
Evan, over the radio: I’m gonna marry this car!
Me, aside to George: I hate him so hard right now.
Then George went for it and made it, making a few adjustments along the way. Feeling a little better — and having had the opportunity to cheat off their papers — I gave it a go.
We defeated Nutter Twists! And felt good about it even! That horrible scraping sound, turns out, was just a mudflap which bent itself back into place after having been almost snapped in half.
I don’t like driving on things that I can’t walk on without falling over.
After we split a “closer beer,” we moved on because we were tracking toward being late for ranch dinner, which we wanted to avoid, if possible.
Then George drove off a small cliff into a wash. To his credit, it wouldn’t have been so bad had the riverbank not given out under him. He was held up not only by his rock rails but his subframe and gas tank which meant we couldn’t pull him forward without risking serious damage.
A combination of multiple strategies ended with me turning some clutch plate into a foul smell to pull him out of his ditch.
With the added time for Nutter Twists: Next Level, George’s Wash, and the 90+ offroad miles we had to cover — we were quite late into the ranch. But two gracious team members emerged from the staff quarters and heated some fantastic chili for us. Instead of covered wagons, we were put in a room in the bunkhouse — not sure why, but it was a good setup. And we passed out.
Day 2: Toroweap, Nampaweap, and the Sundial
In 2017, we settled on Bar10 as a compromise because of the warnings that the NPS slaps on the webpage that describes the road to the Tuweep Campground and Toroweap Overlook. For this trip, I couldn’t imagine staying anywhere else. So we considered a day-trip over to Toroweap today, but weren’t ready for another 100+ mile off-road day with the shame of being late for dinner again. Scott, the ranch hand who helped us refuel, said that yesterday’s conquests far exceeded Toroweap. He urged us to head that way and hit up the petroglyphs of Nampaweap on the way back.
Tuweep? That’s 30 miles of county road, you can go 40 on it. Then there’s just that last 3 to 4 miles in the National Park because the Parks Service likes you think you’ve had a little adventure. You’ll be fine, and you could even be back by lunchtime! Go for it.
The drive over Mt. Trumbull was beautiful. It weaved between several ranches and cut through a pine forest before reaching the Toroweap Valley on the far side. A volunteer park ranger talked to us about the area and what to expect and sent us on our way. He also stamped George’s National Parks Passport book. I’m so glad Scott offered this tip.
“Toroweap, a Paiute word for ‘dry or barren valley,’ refers to local features, including the valley and the overlook. Tuweep came into use to describe the local settlement and later the park area. Tuweep in Paiute (pronounced Tu-VEEP) refers to ‘the earth.'” Which, from this vantage point, you can see all of.
For all the build-up, the drive to the overlook was gorgeous but not hard. Maybe the warnings keep the crowds down a bit. There were a lot of Jeeps around, but nothing like what I’ve heard the main South Rim overlooks look like. It was stunning.
We had a picnic as far out on the ledge as I could convince them to join me. Then we headed over to Nampaweap, which Scott described as the largest collection of petroglyphs in the Parashant. Unlike some of the big walls where I’ve seen petroglyphs before, Nampaweap is a shallow ravine lined with volcanic boulders covered with petroglyphs from the Southern Paiute. It’s a surprisingly subtle scene which left an air of mystery.
The last stop for the day was the Mt. Trumbull Schoolhouse. We stopped there before, but last time I hadn’t realized that the Bundy family — of Bunkerville and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge stand-off fame — made up several generations of students and later played a leading role in renovation and reconstruction of the building.
And yet again, we failed to recreate what would have been a great photo with a rusted out truck melting into the dusty parking area.
The schoolhouse opened in 1922 as a replacement for a the school that the town outgrew. It served not only as the school, but a townhall, church, and occasional dance hall. Ultimately the school closed in 1968. It was renovated in 1994, torched by arson in 2000, and then rebuilt in 2001. Many displays inside credit the descendants of the original town and the Bundy family in particular with these efforts. The playground and picnic area were added as a Bundy-descendant Eagle Scout projects years later.
The town Mt. Trumbull itself was founded in 1916 and even had its own post office from 1919 to 1950. The population reached 300 at its height, but the last full-time resident left in the mid-80s. Several legacy family ranches remain in the area.
After recess, we headed back to the ranch, not just victoriously early for dinner but with the chance to chat with a few of the other guests.
The Sundial Builders
While we were out exploring, a grand reunion was unfolding a few miles away. A group of ten were getting their roadtrip crew back together. They made many “Desert Expeditions,” as they called them, back in the day. On Desert Expedition #11 (I think) in 1981, they sought to build a giant sundial on the north rim of the Grand Canyon — somewhere in what is now the Parashant.
They went as far as they could in an old truck deep into the wilderness, set up camp outside of an old unoccupied cabin and built the sundial nearby. The installation was huge, with a gnoman about ten feet long and a noon stone with markings to determine the date. Inside the cabin, they left a bottle of Jack Daniels with a letter explaining how to read the sundial.
40 years later, in planning their reunion, two of them were out trying to find the sundial. They met a local rancher and showed him some pictures of the sundial. To their surprise, the rancher was able to identify the location of the sundial. It turns out that the land had later been gifted to the National Parks Service and a survey from a few years later described a sundial although it had since been overgrown.
So while we were rocking down the road to Toroweap, this group was closing in on the Sundial. They found it! They cleaned it up. We’re not sure if we’ll ever know who got that bottle of Jack. But I love knowing that the League of Extraordinary Sundial Builders reunited after all these years and found their creation, then shared their story with us over a campfire.
In the coffee line the next morning, one of them recommended that I keep a record of our adventures to keep the memories alive. They had a Scribe, and so should we. We even got to see one of the giant binders of notes he had compiled about #11 and the reunion. Given what they did over the years and how long the reunion was in the making, I enjoyed hearing that bit of wisdom. Their story is one of my favorite parts of this adventure, so I scribbled the URL for this site on a dusty scrap of paper, with an open invitation to correct the record. Then we all wished each other the best and departed in different directions.
Today was a bit of a relocation cruise. After packing out of the resort, we headed down to the Badwater Basin salt flats, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level.
Then we said goodbye — or at least, “until next time,” — to Death Valley and made our way up to a fast charger at Amargosa Valley. I’ll admit I was sad to leave the park on a paved road. Or at all. We got gas and electrons over a hood-lunch and map planning.
The plan was to head to Las Vegas, top-off gas and batteries north of town, then hit the Nellis Dunes in Las Vegas Dunes Recreation Lands — what looked like an off-highway-vehicle park in the sand dunes northwest of town. Once we arrived, we realized this was probably only used for ATVs and that regular vehicles may be either against the rules. Or at least sufficiently against local customs to create a scene. So we moved on, but not before Andrew did some donuts in the Rivian. We’ve been asked to keep those sights to ourselves for the time being, but I offer this instead:
That is a happy driver. In a dust cloud of his own making. He and that vehicle have done well by each other these past few days. I’m glad he came along.
We didn’t have much time left before the sun went down, so we decided to swap Valley of Fire State Park for a road over Mormon Mesa instead. The mesa sits at the confluence of the Muddy River and Virgin River at a height of almost 1900 feet and is a lot more fun than taking I-15 through the Virgin River Gorge, which I did last year. The road connects two large electrical substations and snakes between power poles over the mesa and through several washes.
The start was a rousing game of Mariokart beneath the power poles. We weaved through sandy banks trying to kick traction out of control while heckling each other. It was great times. And then George made a discovery:
Yes, that was the moon.
The top of the mesa was a cobblestone catastrophone, bouncing us around on unforgiving surface. I was starting to worry the rest of the road would be like that until we had a dramatic downhill back into the wash . The rest of the road was fun, though I wish we’d been able to see it in daylight.
The road met up with the substation on the far end and dumped us out onto Riverside Drive in Bunkerville, a few miles down from Mesquite and our lovely CasaBlanca Resort and Casino.
This was Andrew’s final day with us. In the morning, he’ll head back west to Palo Alto. Upon his return, he’s expecting the team at Rivian to do some inspections while he has a few more days of well-earned vacation. George, Evan, and I will be heading back down into Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument and Bar 10 Ranch for some new road and some favorites.
This might also be the last internet access I have for a few days. I’ll post a couple check-ins along the way so you know we didn’t fall in the big ditch though.
It was good fun to have Andrew along, and it was fascinating to bring an EV along on this trip. This is probably the first time an electric vehicle has done at least some of this.
Evan maintains that the EV is “the LaserDisc of Cars” — a short-lived video format of the late 90s with VHS-ish-quality stored on an optical disk the size of a vinyl EP. But it took LaserDiscs to get us off magnetic-tape cassettes and into to DVDs and Blu-Ray.
Evan thinks that the ethical, environmental, and logistical issues with batteries will send us looking elsewhere for the future of cars — that the EV is a step on the path of “we have to try something new.” But when I look at the progress of batteries over even the last 5 years, I think, “well, if we get a car running well on electrons, then we can swap out the generation and storage mechanisms as we learn more.” Could go either way, I suppose, but this is definitely a huge shift. And this shake-down of the R1T went pretty well overall.