Big Bend Still Breathtaking After All These Years


Big Bend and far-West Texas is the most overlooked part of the West.

NOTE: This post initially appeared on on April 27, 2017. Feature photo by: Michael Ciaglo / Houston Chronicle

BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK — Since its opening in 1944, breathtaking Big Bend National Park has drawn visitors from all across the United States and the world.

They say the park’s 1,152 square miles oozes “Texas” more than Tex-Mex cuisine, barbecue and the Dallas Cowboys — so I had to see it for myself.

I arrived at Big Bend after a near six-hour drive from San Antonio with a game plan. With a park this vast, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. It offers more than 150 miles of hiking trails that vary by difficulty, type and climate. Moreover, three distinct terrains separate the park — the Chihuahua Desert, the Chisos Mountains and the Rio Grande.

The Chihuahua Desert is one of North America’s four major deserts, while the Rio Grande gives the park its namesake — the river makes a great southwest Texas U-turn that defines the park boundary for 118 miles.

But on this visit, I decided to focus on the Chisos Mountains, the park’s “green island” in a sea of desert.

The Chisos Mountains are littered with unique trees, plants and wildlife. Carmen Mountain white-tailed deer are present within the Chisos and the nearby Sierra del Carmen, but are unknown elsewhere. Arizona Pine, Douglas Fir, Arizona Cypress, Quaking Aspen and Bigtooth Maple represent the last remnants of Ice Age-influenced forests once present in the area.

At the heart of the Chisos Mountains is the Chisos Basin — a spectacularly scenic campground surrounded by towering cliffs, located fittingly next to the park’s most frequented trails.

Situated at 5,041 feet above sea level, the Chisos Basin Campground, which is open year round, provides 60 sites that are equipped with grills, picnic tables, bear and mountain lion-proof lockers, flush toilets and running water. But unfortunately for me, the campground was full when I arrived.

Instead, I pitched a tent at the Rio Grande Village Campground — one of the park’s three campsites, the third being Cottonwood Campground. Rio Grande Village offers the same amenities as the Chisos, with 40 more sites. I then drove back to the Chisos Mountains for a hike at one of the areas’ 11 hiking trails.

The first trail I trekked was the Lost Mine, the first to appear when ascending the winding road up to the Chisos. At 4.8 miles round trip, the moderately difficult trail offered an excellent introduction to the surrounding area.

Nerves set in when I began my hike, as I noticed a sign-post warning at the entrance of the trail — Bear and Mountain Lion Country.

A small population of black bears inhabits the Chisos and Chihuahua Desert, and about two-dozen mountain lions — colloquially known as panthers, cougars and pumas — dwell within the park. Encounters with each are rare, but sightings are not uncommon.

Overcoming my nerves, I began taking in the area when I met Brian Porter and Caleb Boulter, who were descending the trail and finishing up their hike.

I asked the friendly pair from Portland, Maine, if they had seen any bears.

“No bears, but we saw a mountain lion earlier today,” Porter said with a laugh.

“We’ve been doing a national park tour of the country the last few years, so this was next on the list,” said Boulter, a student at the University of Southern Maine. “But also I love the desert. And it’s a perfect spot. I’ve heard a lot of good things about this place from friends.”

Like me, Porter and Boulter had tried unsuccessfully to stay at the Chisos campground.

“So we’re staying at a lodge in Terlingua,” said Porter, an elementary school principal. “That’s been our base thus far. It’ll be four nights by tomorrow.”

After an exchange of emails, I continued to the peak of the Lost Mine trail. A magnificent view of the surrounding terrain made for a hike well worth roughly three hours.

That night I headed back to my camp at the Rio Grande Village and heard the wondrous natural wildlife along the river come to life.

The next morning I woke with enough time to traverse the desert by vehicle, about 5 miles from my camp, and perch along the Rio Grande Overlook — one of many scenic overlooks scattered throughout the park. I watched a glorious sunrise bring light to the Chihuahua Desert before heading back to the Chisos trails.

I had originally planned to hike the South Rim trail, the park’s most frequented and perhaps its best. But a park ranger said the day’s temperature would reach upward of 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. So I decided to save that mercurial 14-mile trail for another visit.

Instead, I opted to trek the Window trail, a moderately difficult 5.6-mile loop.

Along the trail — which descends through Oak Creek Canyon and open chaparral slopes, then ascends to a pour-off that offers a dangerously fascinating glimpse of panoramic desert vistas — I met various hikers preoccupied with the unique wildlife and insects present.

The trail offered little shade and had a significant rise in elevation on the return. I was thankful for my encounter with the ranger as temperatures rose to extreme levels by noon.

After my trek along the Window trail, I decided to depart for San Antonio.

Although my park pass was still valid for another three days, I was running low on supplies, had exhausted myself in the mountain trails and had to return to work the next day.

Big Bend’s sheer size and magnitude roped me in — and I’m planning my next visit.

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