Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is tucked into the, uh, big bend in the Rio Grande that forms the boundary between western Texas and Mexico. There are three distinct ecosystems here: the river, the desert, and the mountains. The Chisos Basin is in the middle of the park; plants and animals were stranded here in this relatively green, cool, moist pocket at the end of the last Ice Age as cooler temperatures receded north.

Memorable Moments

The highlights of my trip:

~Really tasty camp cooking... except for "cooking" a dehydrated Mountain House meal with solar "heated" water that was barely lukewarm, but hey it was still technically edible!
~The views from Toll Mountain campsite overlook...
~The Camelbak shower, stark naked in the middle of a desert, washing off five days worth of sweat and dust...
~Roadrunners, javelinas (like little wild pigs), miniature deer, coyote noises at night...
~Full moon, amazing night sky, zillions of stars...
~Dave's 27th birthday chocolate bar at the top of Emory Peak...
~Finally learning how to use a Whisperlite stove...
~Views from the South Rim...
~Spending most of an evening pulling those damn tiny, irritating cactus needles out of my arms, legs, and abdomen...

Ok, if you want to know more details about what we hiked and where we camped, read on...

Hiking in Big Bend
Get this: one gallon of water per person per day. Does not include cooking or washing water. And yeah, if you're hiking in the desert, you will go through this much water.

For that reason, we did a bunch of short hikes, and one overnight (30 hr) trip.

~Hot Springs via Daniel's Ranch: parallels the Rio Grange from the Rio Grande "village" to some hot springs right next to the river. We did this walk to spend some time near the river but ended up spending just as much time resting in a cool little canyon most of the way toward the hot springs. It was good practice for desert hiking (i.e. carrying your body weight in water). About 6 miles return.

~Santa Elena Canyon: right into Santa Elena Canyon, as far as you can go before you need rock shoes for "deep" water soloing. The canyon walls shoot straight up for hundreds of feet and make Ithaca's gorges seem like wrinkles in an old Mexican woman's face. We walked it first thing in the morning, and it was cool, dim, and silent. Great amusement in whistling, whooping, and throwing rocks into the canyon and listening to the echoechoechoecho... it's short, less than 2 miles return, but memorable.

~Grapevine Hills/ Balancing Rock: up a valley in the Grapevine Hills to an egg-shaped rock leaning on a phallic-shaped rock. Surely fertility rituals must have happened here at some point. It's another short one, about 2 miles return, but Dave and I turned it into a bit more of an adventure by scrambling up the western side of the canyon. For my effort, I was covered in cactus prickles and halfway to terrified. Great place for sunset.

~Chisos Basin overnight: we went up the Laguna Meadows trail, not a very difficult uphill. Walked the Southeast Rim trail to the South Rim overlook, which is one of the most magnificent lunch breaks I've ever taken.

Finished the day by taking the Boot Canyon trail to our campsite, "Toll Mountain 1." At the junction of the Pinnacles and Emory Peak trails, tucked into some trees at the foot of Toll Mountain, this is one of the best campsites I've ever enjoyed. Amazing views with your own overlook, a composting toilet just a minute away, no other campsites within a half-hour walk, protected from the wind and sun, plenty of room yet cozy... perfect place to spend Dave's 27th birthday.

The next morning, we did Emory Peak, elevation 7,825 ft. Apparently this is a new routing of the trail; it's very easy until the final exposed scramble to the rocky summit. Pinnacles trail back to the Chisos Basin visitors center. With the exception of the last part of the Emory Peak trail, all of the tracks were very well graded and well maintained.

The difficulty is carrying enough water—we had over three gallons between the two of us. We left behind the stove and took only ready-to-eat foods, otherwise we would have needed more water for cooking.

Big Bend was a great introduction to desert hiking, which was totally new to me. The variety in the ecosystems kept me entertained. With a longer stay, I would put more effort into learning the local plants and animals.

Camping in Big Bend

~Stillwell: we arrived after the ranger stations closed, so we spent our first night in Stillwell, 8 miles out of the north of the park. Our "primitive" site was $5 per person per night, shower included. The tent sites are across the road from the RV sites and the general store. We took the first site on the right, next to the hills. It was dead silent at night, until (what I think was) a coyote yapped and howled. Full moon, no light pollution, trillions of stars and you remember what it means to be part of the Milky Way, 'cause it's right there in front of your eyes.

~Croton Springs #1: this, and the next two sites, are primitive sites inside the park. We intended to spend a night here but arrived late and couldn't find the site. Turns out some folks were squatting on it. :-( We slept in the car. Wouldn't recommend staying here, because the two sites are across a tiny parking lot. If there is no wind, the desert is so quiet at night that you can hear conversations 50 yards away like they're happening next to you.

~Grapevine Hills #2: This site was a little better than Croton Springs. Even though there is another site that shares the same parking area, the tent sites are situated farther from the parking. Grapevine Hills road leads to Balancing Rock, which is convenient if you want to do the walk at sunset, but the road is super dusty.

~Paint Gap #1: My favorite site! There are no other camp sites sharing the parking, so you're totally on your own. The road isn't too dusty. The site is close enough to the main road that you can sometimes hear distant motor noises, which is a bummer, because otherwise this site would be totally perfect.

paint gap 1 site

This is long enough. Good times were had, and surely will be had again, as we are now the proud sponsors of a year-long National Parks pass.

casa grande from the pinnacles trail


  1. Remember, pay back is hell! Fantastic photos, as usual :)

  2. Great to hear from you again Nico. Glad you're on the road and not back in an office. You and Dave look so happy together and the desert looks amazing. I look forward to your summary of your trip finances over the past 12 months. Safe travels.

  3. Jaaaay Z! Thanks for your note. It's great to be back on the road, though there may be an office in my future... but it's a means to an end, right?

    I'm a little hesitant to post personal financial data on the interwebs for all the publics to see. But I think it will prove that it IS possible to travel for an extended period of time, if you're willing to save for it.

    Also, did you happen to find a white Nepali wool/ fleece hat at Lauren's place? I can't find my hat...

    Keep in touch, hugs to Laura, high fives to you!