Monday, December 31, 2018

A Six-Day Mule Trip to the World Heritage Cave Paintings in the Sierra San Francisco, Baja California, Mexico - Day 3

It was now time to move on to another arroyo. Our vaqueros told us that we would undertake an eight-hour day in the saddle as we climbed out of Arroyo San Gregorio and traversed the upper plateau, before descending into Arroyo Santa Teresa. All of us shuttered at the thought of an eight-hour ride. Although there seemed to be no long-term aches and pains from riding the mules, it certainly was not a Sunday drive either. When first dismounting, we all would wobble a bit and move around bow-legged. And this was only after rides of one hour, two hours or five hours. It would take all day in the saddle today to arrive our destination.

You can see our pack animals in the background getting ready to leave. In the foreground is the remains of the old tanning vats where leather used to be tanned. A large cowhide held the liquids and was tied to the wooden frame. We heard from our guides that they tanned their own leather until about 20 years ago and what you see here is the vats crumbling away. They now obtain their leather from Sonora across the Gulf. Things are changing here in the modern world.

The exposures of volcanic rock in the walls of the arroyos was impressive and represent the debris that was blasted out of the central vent in huge, Plinian eruptions (also called Vesuvian eruptions). These are the most powerful kinds of eruptions, sending rocky material into the stratosphere. Look at the size of the rock in this wall near Rancho San Gregorio. Imagine the force needed to blast a rock this size miles away from the central vent. This was once a very dangerous place.

This is the slope we needed to climb to reach the upper plateau. The cactus forest was beautiful along the way.

Looking back down into Arroyo San Gregorio after making the climb out. Our initial ride in can be seen on the skyline to the far right, just right of the flat-topped mesa.

The last pull to the top. The Tress Virgenes volcanoes can be seen in the far distance.

The upper plateau is a surface of volcanic rock with nearly no soil at all.

Riding across the plateau.

About half-way through the day's ride, we came to a tiny rancho called San Pablo. The scene was  like something out of the old west and the only clue to suggest that it was not from that time period was the rooftop solar panel. This had been installed just two years prior and now the residents have a small freezer to keep goat meat and goat cheese from spoiling. There are no roads into this remote dwelling of five people and it is a tough all-day ride to the nearest road.

Our guides had been busy making burritos for lunch during our breakfast and they were delicious with the fresh brewed coffee.

Our group is enjoying burritos and coffee at Rancho San Pablo.

And then we were off again across the high plateau. This was wonderful riding and as you can see the weather was perfect. Note how green everything is on this high plateau.

A couple of lone boojums appeared on the west edge of the upper plateau. This view is to the northwest.

After many hours in the saddle we finally reached the edge of Arroyo Santa Teresa. It appeared to be as deep as San Gregorio but the appearance was deceiving as we peered down into the afternoon sun.

The trail dropped off steeply and never let up. When riding down such steep slopes, we needed to lay back in the saddle to change our center of gravity. If one was not paying attention, you could topple forward over the head of the mule. The brush grew close to the trail and we often had our legs pulled backwards as the mules scuttled down the slope.

Did I mention the rocks? Look at the bed of the trail - it is nothing but angular volcanic boulders! Yet somehow, these little mules knew where to put their hooves so as to make the journey downward safely without an incident. I came away from this trip with an entirely new appreciation for mules. I have spent the last 43 years of my life hearing from mule riders in the Grand Canyon how scary the trip down to Phantom Ranch was. Those trails are groomed, maintained and five feet wide! Those mules are twice the weight of these Mexican mules. Yet I never felt as if I was in danger here, even though if the mule did fall at any point in this descent the outcome could only be imagined as terminal! The mules seemed to take the entire journey in stride. Looking back, this descent was a highlight for the sheer danger and exposure and the beauty off it all!

Christine and Orlando lay back in the saddle on an especially steep grade. This part of the trip took about 45 minutes before it began to become only a normal slope. The plateau edge can be seen on the skyline in the back.

George poses with his mule as we take a short break from the perilous descent. We had all signed on for a trip to see the cave paintings by mule support. And what we got was a fantastic mule trip - and oh yeah, there were some cave paintings along the way.

An organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi) frames the view down to a thick layer of volcanic debris. The afternoon light was brilliant.

We finally arrived at our camp for the next three nights, next to Santa Teresa Creek. What a day in the saddle it was! Now we could relax a bit and clean off in a pool of water. We would have two full days to explore the alcoves near this spot.

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