Beyond the Book - Big Bend, Part I
"Texas will again lift it's head and stand among the nations. It ought to do so, for no country upon the globe can compare with it in natural advantages." - Sam Houston
Part One, The Chihuahuan Desert
Every backpacker has a bucket list full of hikes and trails they want to complete before hanging up the boots. My list consists of famous long distance hikes such as the Appalachian Trail and the JMT, various trails in national parks, and extensive back country trails hidden in obscure corners of states. Big Bend National Park was nowhere near my list. Out of all my excitement about national parks, I would have placed Big Bend near the “What to do after visiting my top 50 parks?” section.
I could not have been more wrong about the park. In an odd twist of events, I ended up moving to Texas, and once there Big Bend appeared as a blip on my radar. As far as hiking goes, Houston doesn't have many options, so I decided to take a trip to one of the state’s two national parks. The other being Guadalupe National Park in Texas, but I knew even less about that park.
Everyone says Texas is big, but you can only get a true sense of scale if you drive through the country sized state. Nine hours after leaving the Bayou City, I arrived at gates of Big Bend. I have to say, there is something magical about West Texas, you get a feeling of what the Wild West was out there. I have driven all over the county, but there was something about West Texas that my north eastern roots just couldn't resist. I was completely smitten.
Apparently the nine hour drive wasn't enough time to do any research on the park at all. I had no idea what to expect, no plans, no itinerary, no trails, nothing. It was exciting. Most of the time I over plan and end up changing all of the plans day one anyway. We were the first in line to receive back country permits, the ranger (C. Duffy, who we will get back to in part two) ended up being more of a travel agent than a park ranger. He was extremely helpful and booked up a campsite on, what he claimed, was the nicest campsite in the country. I instantly doubted the ranger’s claim, but was willing to humor the idea.
Big Bend, like the rest of Texas, is huge. The park nearly the size of the state of Delaware (1,981 sq miles vs 1,252 sq miles). I consider Big Bend as two separate parks, you have the Chisos Mountains, and the surrounding Chihuahuan Deserts - both have incredible trails, views, and camping options. We started in the desert.
Our first mistake was underestimating the size of the park. We knew, like everything else in Texas, it was going to be big, but we were not prepared for the 30-60 minute drives within the park itself. When planning a trip to Big Bend, make sure you know how much driving you plan on doing - it eats at hiking time!
Being that it was Thanksgiving day, we decided to do an easy, 6-mile hike to get a feel for the area. We headed all the way to the border of the park to hike the Hot Spring Trail. It was already hot out, and the idea of getting in a natural hot tub appealed to exactly none of us. At the same time, none of us had actually seen a hot spring, so we had to check it out. On the way to the Hot Spring Trail, enjoy driving through the only tunnel in the state of Texas (other than a few highway tunnels in Houston).
Once we arrived at the trail head, we loaded up our day bags with way too much food, and headed down the incredibly hot, Hot Springs trail. Like the sun forgot it was November, we hiked in 90 plus degree heat, in the middle of desert, with absolutely no shade.
The trial immediately rewards you with a vista of the famous Rio Grande, the river that acts as a natural border between two massive countries. Two countries, I might add, who were not at the time friendly with each other.
I personally loved this trail. The desert was not the same as the high deserts in Utah, the Texas deserts are a perfect examples of raw, unforgiving wilderness. Everything was out to get you, the heat, the plants, and the hike. That being said, it is beautiful and relatively flat trail.
After three miles, the trail dips and you find yourself walking on the bank of the river. The hot springs are hard to miss, one point many year ago, someone attempted to make this remote area a resort. The hot spring is damned up into a little pool right along the river. There will also be plenty of people because the springs are a popular destination. We also found that there is a shortcut to skip the trail which makes the spot even more popular for those not wanting to do the six mile hike in the scorching desert.
Naturally, we attempted to swim across the river. I highly commend those who are able, the river is freezing and swift. I couldn't make it more than three feet before being pushed back to the shore. We did find a spot to ford the river a little farther down, but it was still difficult.
My first Thanksgiving away from home was in Mexico, on the bank of the Rio - dinner was fresh mustard sandwiches (we forgot the rest of the sandwich material on the opposite side of the river).
We didn't get a campsite along the Rio that night, instead, we secured back country permits on the lonely Dodson Trail. We drove out of the Hot Springs area until we found our trail head. We hiked down Dodson Trial for a few miles before finding a flat spot to fit our three tents. The area felt extremely back country, there was nobody for miles (even during the park’s busiest time of the year.)
Along the trail we stumbled on the Homer Wilson Ranch. An abandoned, early 1900’s ranch house that was in operations until it was abandoned in the mid 1940’s. Homer Wilson lived alone on the ranch with only his few hundred sheep and goats to keep him company. We came upon the building at the perfect time, because as soon as we went inside to explore, the clouds opened and there was a solid, torrential downpour for thirty minutes. We stayed completely dry in the hundred year old building.
Santa Elena Canyon
We left the Dodson trail in the morning and drove clear across the park to the Santa Elena Canyon. The hike through the canyon was only a few miles, but like I've mentioned before, sometimes the shortest hikes offer the best views.
Once again, you are walking with the Rio, but it is an entirely different feel. The river cuts through the side of a mesa creating a massive canyon. This was a very short, but rewarding hike that I recommend to anyone.
The Chisos Mountains had been taunting us the entire time we were in the desert, but we wanted to do one last hike before heading up into the range. The Mule Ears Spring trail sounded interesting to us, it was only a 4 mile hike, so we figured we could hike it quickly before heading into the mountains. Again, having no expectations, we were blown away. Around the first bend in the trail you can see a dark, fortress like, jagged, mountain in the distance that highly resemble two mule ears.
The path wound in and out of ancient, inactive, lava fields. For being a desert, the landscape change dramatically, even on the short hike.
Mule Ears Mountain has to be one of the most interesting and distinct mountains I have seen. It ranks high with Square Top mountain and Capitol Peak on my list of personal favorites. It is a monolith left from a massive volcano. As far as I am aware, most of the land around Mule Ears is also primitive camping area. Next time I go to Big Bend, I know I am going to set my tent up in the shadow of the obelisk.
Only having a few days left in the park, we finally decided it was time to see the other half, the Chisos Mountains. I was already happy with Big Bend and the amazing desert hiking it had to offer. I came to the park expecting nothing, but was blow away time and time again, The Chisos were about to surprise the hell out of me. A mountain range I had never heard of, that in my opinion, compare to the beauty and ruggedness as some of the mountains in Colorado, Wyoming, and California. In a way, my time and experience in Big Bend reflected my experience in Texas. I came to the state knowing nothing and not expecting much, but left immensely surprised and more than satisfied.
The hikes we decided to do in the desert were relatively easy, short, and extremely rewarding. If you are the type that likes hiking but not crazy about camping, these few hikes are perfect for you. There is a fair amount of driving, so make sure to allocate some extra time, but if you make it out to Big Bend, do not neglect the Chihuahuan Desert.