It’s pitch black and quiet in the Rio Grande campground at 4:29am. A minute later, my alarm clock is rudely piercing the silence, and Millie is sleepily looking at me as if I’ve finally and forever gone completely mad. At this hour, I wonder that as well! Was the plan I had schemed up a few days before actually going to be worth it?
An hour later, my little yellow Tracker is the only car hurling down the highway in probably a 300-mile radius! Suzanne and I are headed to Santa Elena canyon on the far west corner of Big Bend National Park-- just a mere 90 miles away! The full moon is still high in the sky and illuminates the mountains in the distance, but there’s no doubt about it, it’s still a very long and very dark drive! Big Bend has the darkest skies in the US due to it’s distance from any major (or any minor) cities.
If my photo app research has been correct, on this morning of Tuesday, March 18th, the full moon will set in perfect twilight conditions shortly before sunrise. Now, that phenomenon is not so special—it happens every month on the morning after a full moon. But, according to my TPE app (The Photographer’s Ephemeris) with its sun and moon path lines overlaying Google Maps, on this particular month and morning, the moon should be setting pretty close to the mouth of Santa Elena canyon. Now, THAT might be something worth waking up and driving 90 miles to see!
As we make our way closer to the canyon, the moon begins setting more rapidly. By the time we turn into the trailhead parking lot, the moon has now just sunk down below the ridgeline. “Ut oh! Perhaps the app was wrong about the times!” Still, with mountains and canyons you just never know.
Suzanne and I quickly lace up our hiking boots, get our flashlights, and start heading to the canyon’s trailhead out at the banks of the Rio Grande. As we come out of the trees, we begin to see a reflection on the water. A few more steps and we now see that the moon is still a few minutes from setting— and it appears to be setting right into the dead-center of Santa Elena canyon!!!
I move quickly to find a spot where the reflection will show in the water. Meanwhile, Suzanne walks a bit further down the river and happens to get a few photos of me as I’m shooting (what a treat!).
Words can simply not describe this exhilarating moment…nor can these photographs. Suzanne ranked this as her #1 Big Bend adventure, and I’d go even further to say it was well within the Top 10 of my most amazing nature experiences ever!
We also could simply not believe that we were the only ones here on this perfect morning watching such a rare scene, one that would not happen again for a full year!
Try as I might, I just couldn’t stop photographing it! When my arms got tired of holding up my big Canon (I could just kill myself for forgetting my tripod back at the RV!), I started snapping a few desperation shots with my point-and-shoot. The view was still Un..be…liev...able!
With the moon show now over, we ready ourselves for the next big show— the sunrise into Santa Elena canyon!
First, the long ridgeline becomes illuminated..
and then, the canyon itself, with the river sitting still nicely to provide a perfect mirror reflection!
I suppose on any other day, I would be jumping for joy with this kind of sunrise shot, but after just witnessing such an extraordinary moonset, this sunrise feels a bit anticlimactic. We still sit and enjoy it for a bit, though, and pose for a few photos. It’s hard to put into perspective how big the 1500-foot canyon walls are, so Suzanne suggests this shot!
We follow with a few more traditional poses…
and then Lucy & Ethel each take their turns imitating the hiker sign!
After more than an hour since our arrival, we finally begin hiking into the canyon itself. The hike quickly ascends to about midway up the side of the canyon before returning back to river level again deeper within the canyon. The views (and temperature!) in the early morning light are absolutely perfect!
A few more hikers now join us on the trail— just in time to give us this nice shot of the two of us!
As we reach the end of the trail, Suzanne gets another shot of me preparing to take my next round of photos with “the big camera”!
The big camera does not disappoint!
At the end of the trail, the canyon wall overhang almost make you feel as if you’re in a cave! The rock patterns here are simply amazing!
We chat with a dad and his young son from Tennessee for awhile, laughing as we each take turns shouting and listening to our voices echo against the canyon walls. What a hoot!
Our return trip does not yield as many spectacular photos as the sun is now getting a bit too high in the sky, but we stop for the big camera to take a couple more shots of new hikers coming down the trail, and of canoes now down on the riverbank preparing to launch. If they only knew what they had just missed!!!
I don’t have many hikes under my belt yet, but this one will surely be the most memorable for quite some time-- an extraordinary, exhilarating experience!