Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park in Texas is in the middle of nowhere. If you want to go to Big Bend, you have to go to Big Bend. It is not like “Oh I have to go to Denver; I think I’ll go to Rocky Mountain National Park while I’m there.” The closest real city to Big Bend is El Paso, a six-hour drive. Long drive or not, I only had two parks left to complete every National Park in the lower 48 states, so I was going. Plus, I have rarely been disappointed by a National Park. Big Bend sure did not disappoint. It was well worth the trip, especially because I combined it with repeat visits to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas and Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. I will talk about them in my next posting.

Big Bend National Park got its name from the big bend that the Rio Grande River takes there. As you will recall from your elementary school geography lessons, the Rio Grande separates the United States and Mexico. The river passes through three canyons at the edge of the park, with two of them being accessible by paved road. Santa Elena Canyon is spectacular, cutting through the face of a large cliff. The cleft is visible for miles. There is a trail that goes about a mile into the canyon until is stopped by the sheer cliffs. The hike is good. I did not hike into Boquillas Canyon, mainly because it was getting late when I was there. The trail goes along the river for a while, and the opening is not as obvious as Santa Elena. The most spectacular thing about that section of the park is the huge cliffs of the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico.

One of the things people used to love doing at the park is buying craft items from Mexicans living across the river in Boquillas del Carmen. The main items are painted walking sticks and wire scorpions. Crossing the border is now illegal there and any Mexicans found over here will be escorted to a town 100 miles away to cross back. Of course, this does not stop them from crossing over to sell things. In the Boquillas Canyon Overlook parking lot, there are several rocks with handcrafted items on them and a money jar next to them. It is a constant back-and-forth between the merchants trying to sell something before the rangers see it and the rangers confiscating what they see.

As nice as the canyons are, the highlight of the park is the Chisos Mountains. The mountains rise pretty much from the middle of the desert. They are roughly circular in layout with the Chisos Basin in the middle. The park lodge is in the basin, and there are some fine hiking trails starting there. A curvy paved road takes you up to the basin. One of the first things you see when you get up there is the Window. The Window is a notch in the mountains from which the basin drains. Of course, I had heard about the Window from my reading, but I was not prepared for the huge size of it. The Window View Trail is a short paved trail that is a great place for sunset pictures. There is also a hiking trail that leads to the Window itself, but I did not take it.

The morning after I arrived in the park, I took the long hike to the South Rim. This is a 12.6-mile round trip that I expected to be very good. It was. The coolest thing about it is that the trailhead is right by the lodge. Usually I have to drive to the trailhead, put on my boots and daypack, hike, and then drive back all grungy. At Big Bend, I put everything on in my room, hiked the trail, and then had an immediate shower at the end. If this is not luxury, then I don’t what is. You can take the loop either clockwise, starting with the Pinnacles Trail, or counter-clockwise, starting with the Laguna Meadows Trail. I chose the latter. For the first part of the trail, I had good views of the Window, and then I plunged into the forest. I could see mountains above me, but the trail is relatively level. The trail is far enough from the edge that I did not see much of the terrain below until I got closer to the South Rim. I would not exactly call Laguna Meadows a meadow, but there is some grass among the trees. The hike is quite pleasant. At about the 6-mile point I got to a sign that said “South Rim.” “What South Rim?” I said to myself. There was a short trail that headed uphill, so I took it. Wow! The desert spread out before me from high atop a cliff. It was one of the most spectacular vistas I have ever seen. It would have been better if the weather weren’t a bit on the rainy side, but still it was great. On a clear day, you should be able to see the Santa Elena Canyon and well into Mexico. After taking in the view and having a snack, I headed back on the Pinnacles Trail. It was a bit rougher than the Laguna Meadows Trail. I stopped to eat lunch on the steps up to Emory Peak. It was starting to rain by then, so I skipped the peak. After a while I got back to the trailhead and took that luxurious shower I was talking about earlier.

Later that day, I drove over to the Boquillas Canyon, and the next day I drove to Santa Elena Canyon via the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. There was a great view of the other side of the Window from the road. I made several stops on the way to and back from the Canyon. My first stop was the Upper Burro Mesa Pour-Off, a 3.6-mile hike that goes to the top of a dry waterfall. Just before the end, I had to climb down a fairly slick 12-foot drop and hope that I could get back up. Since you are reading this, you know that my boots had enough traction for the job. Next I took a 0.8-mile hike into Tuff Canyon. Tuff is a light volcanic breccia. After my hike in Santa Elena Canyon, I took the 1-mile Burro Mesa Pour-Off Trail. This trail ends at the bottom of the dry waterfall that I was at earlier in the day. Other sites along then road that I saw were the Sam Nail Ranch, the Homer Wilson Ranch, the Mule Ears Viewpoint, and the Sotol Vista Overlook.

The next day, I left the park to return to El Paso. I entered the park from the north, so I exited from the west to get a different view. Far-away Santa Elena Canyon dominated my view as I left the park, with the Window in my rear-view mirror. It was a beautiful end to a fantastic visit. I went to Big Bend chiefly because I needed to visit it to be one park closer to fulfilling my quest, but I left it wanting to come back. For more pictures, with captions, see my Flickr page.

My visit: May 2009

1 comment:

  1. Excellent description SLM! I totally agree, and am jealous of the hike you did that I didn't do while there. I did the window hike, and it was spectacular made better by seeing one of the 30 or less black bears. I didn't stay in the lodge, I tented, so I came out did it better. After I camp out, all i want to do is find a hotel the next night to get cleaned up in. Cheers to you on your great trips! RT