As I neared Big Bend I noticed Van Halen’s thermometer was reading 76 degrees, which made me very happy. I arrived at Panther Junction (the main park headquarters) around 2 and was able to easily get some good info and a permit for some “backcountry car camping”. The idea here is that in the desert portion of the park there are a lot of dirt roads that are treated kind of like trails and you can reserve primitive camping spots throughout the area. I decided to stay for two nights and got spots at Gravel Pit and Ocotillo Grove. These names turned out to be very appropriate, which was bad news and good news, respectively.
After scoping out the Gravel Pit I took the advice of a ranger and did a short hike into Boquillas Canyon which is right at the eastern edge of the park. Wow, was this hike worth it. The distance was minimal (less than a mile), but during that time I got a good view of the Rio Grande in the desert plane before it headed between the steep walls of the canyon itself. These walls provided wonderful shade as the trail meandered along beaches and through lush riparian areas deeper and deeper into the canyon. Eventually it became impossible to progress any farther downstream but the perfect weather and peaceful scenery compelled me to relax and stay a while. If I had a week to spend in Big Bend I would have easily spent an entire day lounging in Boquillas Canyon. Everything about the environment was relaxing and uplifting, from the way the shade tempered the heat of the Sun to the soft babbling of the Rio Grande as it flowed into the canyon with lazy effortlessness. While walking out I spent some time skipping stones into Mexico; a little cross-cultural exchange of the geologic variety.
On the way back to camp I swung by the nearby hot springs (part of the reason for staying at the Gravel Pit), found them completely packed, and resolved to return later in the evening. Back at the Gravel Pits I cooked some rice and generally enjoyed the ability to hang around outside once the Sun had gone down. By 8:30 I had creeped my way back to the hot springs and much to my delight found them uncrowded. The springs themselves are contained in a small concrete basin right on the edge of the Rio Grande. The water was very hot and the few people who were there were very cool so I stayed a long time. When I finally got back to camp I was well steamed and ready for a day of hiking in the mountains.
I was up with the Sun the next day and had soon traversed the tiringly bumpy gravel road leading away from camp, onto the main park road, and up into the Chisos Mountains. By quarter past 9 I was wearing shorts (!!!!!) as I set out on a loop hike to the South Rim of the Chisos. Up in the mountains the weather was completely perfect and the trees and wind provided just the right amount of cooling and protection. The trail was similarly inoffensive and I made good time to the South Rim lookout. The Chisos themselves are very abrupt in their rise from the valley floor and the results are wonderful vistas of the surrounding desert. While enjoying these views I ran into a group of people I had met last night at the hot springs. In a shocking reminder of humanity’s intricate social connections one of them used to go to school with one of my Madison Astronomy colleagues. Crazy.
The return trip was through Boot Canyon and here, among the calm trees I detected traces of the sunny, still, piny smell that I closely associate with summers spent in California’s Sierra Nevada. Not bad for winter in Texas!
Altitude junkie that I am I took a short detour to ascend Emory Peak via an official trail. I was surprised to find the last 100 or so feet to the summit required pretty committed scrambling up vertical rock but there were a lot of people on top so maybe it wasn’t really that bad. Most of the people I met in the park were college students from somewhere in Texas (usually Austin) enjoying their winter break.
The final 4 miles of the hike fell away easily beneath my boots and I was enjoying an ice cream sandwich at the Chisos Basin store exactly 6 hours after I had left. All told it might have been the most pleasant and enjoyable 16 miles I have ever hiked. Unlike my time in the Valley of Gods or the Grand Canyon I did not have any profound (or pseudo-profound) revelations while out in Big Bend; I just had a really fun time in a really great area. It was not a Conversion or even a renewal of faith but merely an affirmation that the path we walk on is Right and True.
My campsite for the night (Ocotillo Grove) was on the far western edge of the park and the drive there presented more spectacular views. From the desert floor the entire Chisos range was visible and magnificent in the evening light. At the end of the pavement 3 more miles of washboard hell got me safely (although shaken) to camp and I was once again amazed to spend most of the evening walking around outside well after dark. The low was 51! Big Bend also has what might be the darkest skies I have ever seen. Nowhere on the horizon did I see the telltale glow of civilization and the heavens were free to bathe the desert in their coolly comforting light.
While hiking I had crunched some numbers and realized that, with all the fun I was having in the Southwest, I had lost track of time and now needed to be in San Diego in just a few days. Thus I was forced to abandon my plans for Guadalupe National Park and instead put the pedal to the metal heading west. A native Texan that I had spoken to recently told me that if I was in already Big Bend then I wasn’t really missing anything by skipping Guadalupe Mountains so it was with minimal regret that I set my alarm for “very early” and went to bed. Before sleep took me I had some time to reflect that, once I arrived in California and started staying with friends, the first epoch of my trip would come to an end. No longer would I be a lonely stranger drifting from place to place, meeting new people and discovering new corners of the country one day at a time. My experiences up to this point had been wonderful and amazing beyond my wildest expectations and I consider myself truly lucky to be able to do this.
Like many national parks, Big Bend is seasonal. What’s unusual is that summer is the off season. I definitely did a double take when I saw that maps that said “Rio Grande Visitor Center (closed in summer)”.
Related to the above, the park was quite full. The ranger at the backcountry office said I wouldn’t have been able to sleep in the park if I had shown up over New Year’s weekend. Everyone was from Texas.
Related to the backcountry driving roads: Van Halen was technically able to travel over them, but I’m not sure I’d recommend the experience to anyone in a standard sedan. Traveling from the Gravel Pit to the Hot Springs and back, a one-way distance of only ~5 miles, took me a full hour of careful driving over the worst roads I have yet to traverse.
There is a small town, Boquillas, on the other side of the Rio Grande near the park. Unfortunately for me the border crossing was closed during my time there because I hear it’s pretty nice.