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Big Bend

Pine Canyon Trail

Photograph by Aaron Bates

The tick-tick sound of moisture I’d been hiding from in my tent turned out to be an unexpectedly beautiful surprise: frozen flurries, falling onto my nylon tarp. I unzipped the flap to find a ghostly dusting of snow on the tawny grasses, sotol, and prickly pear. I shrugged off my warm sleeping bag to take advantage of this meteorological gift. 

I’d camped near the trailhead for Pine Canyon Trail, a lonely path that enters the outer Chisos from the east and skirts the base of Crown Mountain, eventually arriving at a waterfall. Filled with ponderosa pine and home to rare birds such as the flame-colored tanager and the Colima warbler, these canyon woodlands have remained unchanged for so long that they are considered a relic from the last ice age. Designated a research natural area, Pine Canyon has been the subject of watershed studies and wildlife surveys, offering clues to how human presence has altered the rest of the region. As I walked, my own steps felt like an exercise in time travel, the snowy present offering a glimpse of the icy past. I marveled at the powder-crusted madrone, their branches dangling with red berries; when the canyon revealed its famous falls, the pour-off appeared lacquered in crystal. Icicles snapped and shattered overhead, an unsteady rhythm joined by the rude cry of scrub jays in the pines. Leaves and their stems in the out-running stream sparkled like Bulgari jewelry, each bit of debris encased in ice. 


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