A Sky Island Oasis

13 Jan

Maidenhair fern

Many canyons lay hidden within the sky island that is the Chisos Mountains. Streaking the slopes in and out of the Basin, these canyons vary from narrow winding slots to wide gulleys with towering cliffs. Because most of the steep canyons are inaccessible, except for experienced canyoneers, some of these canyons may have had barely a dozen human footprints in all their history. Others are visited more frequently because of developed and primitive trails traversing them, such as those on the Window Trail in the Basin.

One canyon scraped along the western slope of the Chisos group is Cattail Canyon. Only those people with experience in canyon climbing and with rock climbing gear can traverse most of the canyon, for it winds along and down with slots and loose screed. As with most canyons, water is an integral part of its formation and continued geological change. The entire length is dotted with pour-offs, water falls and tinajas.

Some sources, including an older topo map, claim that water runs year-round down this canyon. But, of course, that claim can’t be static or accepted without consideration of the local climatic conditions. After all, historical records testify that 50 years ago the Rio del Norte and Terlingua Creek had running water (and plenty of fish) year round. But, despite our own mortal timelines, the climate is changing and the aridity of the Chihuahuan Desert increases and expands its boundaries northward.

Pour-off of Cattail Falls

Referring to a topo map, you will find Cattail Canyon between Ward Mnt and the ridge west of Oak Canyon, almost N-S along the western slope of the Chisos Mnts. The canyon runs about 5-6K feet in elevation and ends with a pour-off at the northern-most bend west at ~4,200 feet.

This pour-off, the only portion of Cattail Canyon easily accessible, is Cattail Falls (despite that many waterfalls are part and parcel of this canyon). However, you won’t find the trail on any maps and in any guides, except on an old topo map. Because the waterfalls and tinajas are fragile ecosystems, the park attempts to reduce human traffic and consequent environmental damage often associated with heavy use. Their methods for reducing human visitation to sensitive areas are by physically prohibiting access or by removing references to these area from guides and maps. However, some signage remains with limited directions for the trail, and the trail is maintained in primitive condition.

The trail from the split off the Oak Canyon/Spring trail (near the location of the Homer Wilson homestead) climbs a few hundred feet with an easy one mile walk. Entering the pour-off area is like emerging through a door into a magical wonderland. The trail ends at giant tossed bounders which require scrambling over, carpets of moss and ferns, and small pools of water that trickles over miniature falls. The most magnificent feature is a vertical concave wall of multicolored and striped rock. During our visit, water was trickling down from a V-notch 45′ up and dripping over a black stone surface where small groups of ferns and other plants found foothold to root and bathe in moisture.

Striated and colored cliff walls and tinaja.

A large pool of water lies at the base of this cliff, its edges damp and rich with thick carpets of black organic matter where grasses and ferns grow. This desert oasis is a unique and fragile ecosystem. Here grow abundant trees, ferns, cattails and flowers. Along with this moist environment are a variety of birds and butterflies. Not only is the organic life attractive, but also the varying shapes, colors and sizes of rocks. From yellow, pink and rosy, to angular and polished smooth, stones small enough to pick up to builders you could stretch out and nap on.

The day Rachel and I hiked in began as cold and overcast. I wore several layers and shed many of them as we hiked the trail while the sun began to warm our backs. After spending perhaps an hour lounging on a large boulder and taking photos from various contorted positions (hanging off the edge of the boulder, laying sideways bending over one side, straight up, etc), I ventured down to the expansive tinaja at the bottom of the falls and was delighted to find different delights and angles.

I was especially delighted to find small areas blanketed with an old companion from the north country (New England and Pacific Northwest): maindenhair ferns. A genus –Adiantum– with at least 200 species, only four or five are indigenous to the North American continent, one of which is found only in the western states. These plants prefer a humus-rich and moist soil, but can be found growing in crevices and small pockets on the surface of rock walls and, especially, near and in waterfalls. They are most plentiful along stream banks.

Although they are typically evergreen, meaning that they do not lose their leaves in winter and can even be found under several feet of snow, they thrive best in areas sheltered from harsh winds and hot sun. Despite that one would not expect to find ferns growing in a desert environment, remember that that the falls and canyons are part of a sky island; a gignatic land formation jutting up out of the desert floor over a thousand feet, where a variety of ecosystems overlap. Sky islands are oases unto themselves, even creating their own weather because of the geographic interruptions in the lower atmosphere.

This is the magic of these sky islands, and the uniqueness of their associated biology: the juxtapositions of plant and animal life that live here. Thus, I was delighted to find an old friend in a tiny pocket of wonderland. And enjoying the magic world so different than half a mile away.

I told Rachel that I will be back there to spend an entire day. Watching life unfold and change in this little pocket of a sky island oasis.

An agave hidden in the shade alongside the stream.

Link to SmugMug Slide show:

Cattail Falls, Big Bend National Park


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