I and a visitor recently enjoyed a hike to one of my favorite places in this area of Big Bend: Cattail Falls. A relatively hidden gem in the Big Bend National Park, Cattail falls is a waterfall and stream, which supplies water to the park’s infrastructure. The canyon is also a delicate microenvironment and susceptible to damage from human impact. For these reasons, the hike and the destination is not on any of the park maps. On the other hand, it’s not a secret, either.
A rough road accesses a parking lot for the trail head that branches off to many trails. One trail goes to Oak Spring, which then extends into a long and arduous hike up the side of the western Chisos range and eventually reaches the pour-off affectionately known as the Window. The other trail heads up towards the southeast to the canyon containing the pour-off and stream of Cattail Falls.
The area first noted has natural and historical significance. At the Oak Springs and Creek one can see the old and large live oak that is bent and parallels the ground. This immediate area was also once the home site of Homer Wilson and his family. Their ranch, Blue Creek Ranch, was one of the largest in the Big Bend region from 1929-1944. The house (a Sears and Roebuck structure that was ordered by mail, shipped by rail to Marathon, then brought in by ox and mule carts to here) was here at Oak Springs. The Park protocol at that time was to bulldoze anything that was considered ‘human footprint’ to return the landscape to its ‘wild’ state. Which was naive on their part, and they now regret in hindsight.
The house was a bit further up the bank to the right of that tree. If one digs around enough in the thorny scrub brush, you can see remnants of the old rock retaining wall that was in front of the house, and remains of Mrs. Wilson’s terraced vegetable and flower gardens. Gone are the prolific fruit and nut trees, and even the old spring is now diverted into big green tanks and piped away from the creek that flowed and provided an oasis for wildlife and humans alike.
The ranch’s large rock structure that served as the ranch working headquarters and seasonal home remains in Blue Creek. A trail to this structure, now a historic land mark, can be accessed from Maxwell Scenic Drive in the Park. For those interested in early ranch life in Big Bend, and in many of the historical ranches in the National Park (Wilson’s ranch, Sam Nail ranch, etc), I recommend reading the book Beneath the Window: Early Ranch Life in the Big Bend Country by Patricia Wilson Clothier, Homer Wilson’s daughter.
Cattail Canyon and Falls.
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 into 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.
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 that is 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 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 tossed giant 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.
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 boulders you could stretch out and nap on.
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.
Someday I will spend an entire day. Watching life unfold and change in this little pocket of a sky island oasis.
(click on images to see larger files)