Falling in Love with Big Bend
I first started pining to go to Big Bend National Park after scrolling through an online slide show of national park photographs. I had been told several times that it was one of the best national parks, but I wasn’t convinced at the time.
In 2011 I road tripped to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, located on the New Mexico border. The following year, we had decided to go to the Big Horn Mountains in northern Wyoming, however the week we were available to go was the end of October. The snow and cold caused us to search for a place with a lower latitude. Big Bend was suggested as an amazing alternative, however after having traveled to the region the previous year I wanted something different. The long, flat, desert drive did not interest me and the only pictures I had seen were of the Rio Grande. I was not convinced Big Bend had beautiful mountains. I was wrong.
The picture in the slide show was of St. Elena Canyon, which I mistakenly thought was a picture of the Grand Canyon. I started Googling pictures of Big Bend and noticed it was not a boring place in the desert. It had mountains, canyons and miles of open desert floor. Also like with Guadalupe Mountains, I was impressed with the diverse vegetation from the desert shrubs to the ponderosa pines and maples in the higher elevations. On our backpacking hike, we climbed about 2,000 feet and I loved seeing the vegetation change the more elevation we gained.
Big Bend has three major areas, river, desert and mountains, each offering different sights, smells and sounds. The southern border of the park, which also happens to be the border for United States and Mexico, is the river, the Rio Grande. The center of the park are the Chisos Mountains which rise to just above 7,800 feet. They are surrounded by the flat plains of the desert.
It was perfect. I had a week of vacation I had to use in the wintertime, which happens to be Big Bend’s best season to visit. I called Crystal, my best friend of oh so many years, and asked her to go with me.
Crystal and I decided to backpack in the Chisos, because we love mountains. Also, hiking in the desert requires some navigational skills, and I was not so confident in mine.
As we were getting our backcountry permits, two women about our age walked into the visitor center and you could smell them throughout the place. On the way out Crystal whispered “That’s how we are going to smell at the end of our trip.” We sure did too! Crystal’s husband would not come near us when we got back, not even give Crystal a hug.
With the advise of the clerk, we chose a backcountry site, SE-1, or southeast rim 1, on the South Rim Trail. That gave us a roughly six-mile hike to camp, but the catch was it has a 2,000-feet gain in elevation. We spent a week total in the park, but only one night in the backcountry. Our hike began by way of the Laguna Meadows Trail, the more gradual assent of the loop.
The Chisos are rugged! It was little daunting when we started out looking at the towering mountains and knowing we were going to climb to the top and with 40-pound packs.
When hiking in the desert it is advised to carry all the water you will need with you. We did cross a creek on our hike, but were told the spring that fed it was unreliable and you needed to carry your water. The accepted rule is to carry four liters a day for hydration and cooking. We only went for two days, but that still meant we had to carry about 16 pounds of water. The hike down was so much easier because not only was it down hill, we only had half the water.
I used a 3 liter CamelBak in my pack and nearly drained it by the time we reached camp. Crystal did not drink as much as I did. She also got sick on the way up.
As we started up the steep switchbacks that led to the saddle we thought was the top, I noticed Crystal getting slower and slower behind me. These were short switchback where you can power up them, take a quick breather and power up the next. I was not sure why I was gaining so much ground on Crystal. I had been training for a half marathon, but was not in that much better shape than Crystal.
At one of the top of the switchbacks as I was sitting and waiting for Crystal I could hear a faint sound coming up the trail. She was listing to her iPod to help motivate her to get up the trail.
As we ascended we had spectacular views of the Chisos Basin where the campgrounds, visitor center and lodge are held. One of my favorite parts of hiking is being able to see how far you have come. In between two peaks, we could see the desert plains, which gave perspective as to how large this place is.
We made it to the top of the steep climb and the trail leveled out. There it takes you through beautiful grassy understory framed by short trees, for a breathtaking scene.
According to the map there was a backcountry toilet coming up. I knew I was staying hydrated because I was looking forward to using it. When I got there and opened the door, I quickly changed my mind. Apparently no one sits on it but hovers over it … for everything! It was covered in disgusting spots and I didn’t want to think about what it could be. I really had to go and there are not many places to hide off the trail in a desert forests. The seat was a little too tall for me to squat and hover, but I did so by standing on my tippy toes and holding on the railing. It is not my favorite memory from the trip.
Sorry there is no picture of the backcountry toilet. It was too disgusting.
Once we were up on the ridge, I thought surely Crystal would speed up and keep up with me, but she seemed to get slower. She took a few steps and had to rest. In my head I was scolding myself “You’ve picked too tough a trail and now you are going to kill your best friend!” Looking back we think she might have fallen victim to altitude sickness, Even though you really don’t get it below 8,000 feet, some people can get it a little lower.
I rounded a corner on the trail and was disheartened to see we still had more climbing to do! It turned out not to be too much. Once we began to travel along the South Rim, the views were among the best I’ve ever seen. We came to the edge of the rim, which is about a 2,000-foot straight drop then a steep slope after that.
Here we could see hundreds of miles to south. We caught glimpses of light indicating where the Rio Grande was, showing us that Mexico was beyond that light. The sun was just above the horizon casting shadows on the hilly terrain below, accentuating the ruggedness of it.
Site SE-1 was near the cliff of the South Rim but far enough off that you do not run the risk of stepping off in the middle of the night.
We set up our tent under a few trees and began to boil water for our dinner, a freeze-dried Tex-Mex dish that turned out to be a mistake, and than dined on the bear locker. The Tex-Mex dinner gave us terrible gas, and to make conditions worse was having to sleep in an enclosed space with two people who ate that dinner.
Having just visited Montana where they take bear safety extremely seriously because they have grizzley bears, I just new the smell would attract bear. I tried to put my mind at easy and read my book, A Walk In The Woods, by Bill Bryson. Unfortunately I had just come to the part where they fend off a bear at their camp! To put me even more on edge, I could hear something moving around outside our tent.
Crystal said she needed to go to the bathroom. She unzipped the tent only to close it quickly saying, “I think I hear something, maybe an animal.” This was when I thought I would not get any sleep that night. Finally our bladders could not put if off any longer. When I unzipped my door I saw several deer snacking on the trees above our tent. “So that explains the noise and eyes!” I thought. After that I slept well, except for the smell.
The next morning I woke up at dawn to catch the sunrise from the rim. It was so breathtaking that I ran back and insisted Crystal wake up to see it. She was not happy with being woken up, but when she got to the rim she was glad she did not miss it.
Crystal was feeling much better the next morning.
The trail makes a loop that goes around the rim and then later connects to the Pinnacles Trail, which descends back toward to Chisos Basin. We opted out of this three-mile loop around the rim, and backtracked slightly to the where we had left the Pinnacles Trail.
The unreliable spring did have water if we needed, but we had plenty. We followed the creek for a way into a deep gorge that left me in awe.
A spur trail takes you up to Emory Peak, the highest point in Big Bend at 7,825 feet, but the extra climb and our heavy packs discouraged us from summiting the mountain. We continued downward to the Chisos Basin. We came to crook in the trail with a good sitting log and lunched. There we met Trip. Yes, that is his real name, and no we did not make it up because we met him on our trip or because I tripped shortly after. After an introduction, we realized we were from the same state and knew some mutual people. Trip was from Springdale, AR., which is a neighboring town to Crystal’s Fayetteville, AR. Later in our stay, Crystal and I shared a hike with Trip along the Rio Grande.
It was not long after lunch, with the visitors’ center in view, that I lost my footing on some stairs. My camera was around my neck, so naturally as a photographer I used my hands to keep my camera from banging on the rocks. Unfortunately that left my knees to take the banging on my body. The pain was so intense I immediately became nauseated and my hands were shaking. After I calmed down, I check my knee and much to my relief it was only bruised. I limped back to the visitors’ center, but by the next day the pain was gone.
I was so happy we chose the trails we did at Big Bend. The views were the most beautiful I have every seen. Being accompanied by my best friend made it all the all the better. I will definitely go back to Big Bend, and will probably do the same trail again.