Beyond the Book - Big Bend II
"I must say as to what I have seen of Texas it is the garden spot of the world. The best land, the best prospects for health I ever saw, and I do believe it is a fortune to any man to come here. There is a world of country here to settle." - Davy Crockett
Part Two, The Chisos
With a number of hot desert days under our belts, it was time to migrate to the cooler, misty mountains of the Chisos. Going just a few minutes west of the Panther Junction Visitor Center (our HQ at the time) you find a road that cuts through the desert and leads directly into the mountains. It was a portal, we found, from one world to another.
Like I said in part one, and in Willingness to Wander, we truly expected nothing from Big Bend, but even if I had expectations of the Chisos, they would have certainly been blown away. The mountains create a massive bowl, in the center of the bowl is the Chisos Basin visitor center, the Chisos Mountain Lodge, and a few campgrounds. Chisos basin acts like a mini resort. They have a few motels, cabins, and even a restaurant! So again, if you are interesting in magnificent mountains and nature, but not keen on spending a night in a tent, this would be the perfect place for you.
For various reasons (that mostly involved us finding a particular beer we all quiet enjoyed at the Chisos Mountain Lodge bar), we got a late start to the trail. In fact, we left in the dark. Luckily for us, we had thought ahead and reserved two campsites in the Chisos. The first site was only a few miles from the lodge off the Pinnacles Trail. It was dark going in, so we had no clue what the area looked like. We set up camp in the light of our headlamps, and fell promptly to sleep.
Another thing to note is that the temperature dropped dramatically. We were warned of this, but going from 90 degree heat in the desert below, to low 40’s in the mountains was something you need to pack for.
We woke up to a dramatic landscape. Clouds and mist filled the basin bowl, the tops of the Chisos obscured and the bits we could see were covered in bright green lichen. It was something that looked like the mystical mountains in China.
The scene only drove our interest in the park. We packed everything up in record time, and got on the trail ready to explore more. Before getting to the South Rim - our campsite for the night (a spot the ranger claimed to be one of the best back country sites in the county) we decided to make a few mile detour to summit Emory Peak - the tallest mountain in the park. Summiting the tallest mountain almost always rewards you with the best views of the entire area. Emory sat at a comfortable 7,825 feet, but it left much higher because we were starting from thousands of feet below.
About halfway up to the peak, the trees opened enough to see an amazing view of the Chisos Basin. The mountains truly acted like a dam, keeping the sea of fog in the desert from spilling in.
A few notes on the hike to Emory Peak. First, if you leave too early in the morning, the foggy conditions might obscure your view from the peak. In both my summits to Emory, the fog was too thick to see anything, but cleared up around lunch time. Second, the hike to Emory is not hard, it is a little out of the way, but easy overall, however, at the very last point, there is a bit of a scramble to the very tippy-top. It looks intimidating, but I saw a 70 year old and a 6 year old on the top, and there isn't any other way up.
Once you are on the peak, you have to share the space with some radio equipment, but other than that there is a decent amount of room to move around. We even ate our lunch up there!
You are, of course, gifted sweeping vistas of the entire park, the Chisos desert, and Mexico for your hard work. Emory has to be one of the least challenging yet rewarding summits I have ever done. Additionally, I have never been up there and not met an interesting person. That being said, lunchtime can be a busy time for the peak, try to plan getting there before noon.
The Trail to South Rim
From the peak of Emory, we had about half the hike left before we reached our campsite on the South Rim. That 6-7 miles from the top of the mountain to our destination is one of the most naturally diverse hikes I have ever had the pleasure of hiking. Not at all expecting it from a Texas hike, we were amazed to see the environment of the trail dramatically change every few miles. It went from dense, hearty arid trees, to an almost north east scene with fall foliage, large oaks, and little streams. Towards the top, and getting nearer to the South Rim, the tree line broke and the trail waded through waste high Saharan-esq golden grasses. The next three pictures were all taken on that few mile stretch!
Before arriving to South Rim, we camp upon our designated campsite. It was beautiful, but I still had to argue about it being the best in the country, but I still hadn't seen the South Rim, and we made sure to set up before venturing the last few hundred yards.
The South Rim
After eating a quick dinner we threw our day bags on, and just in time for the sunset we found the South Rim. We had already been to the highest point of the park, the area that usually offers the best views, but not this time. South Rim has to take the cake on best view in Big Bend. It was magical. The ledge fell hundreds of feet straight down, and the wind hit you similar to the wind on a beach.
While we were up there gawking at the view, a large group of people, all our age, joined us. We had a Thanksgiving party, they taught us a new tradition (which we have done every trip since then), and watched the sunset over the South Rim together. The setting sun set golden rays that filled the landscape.
It wasn't until that night did I understand what our ranger, C. Duffy, meant. Not only was the South Rim beautiful, comfortable, and exclusive, but at night, the real show started. Big Bend is one of the few places left in the continental United States that is considered a ‘blackout zone’, an area completely free from light pollution. I had never seen a brighter night sky in my life. My little brother, a resident of Philadelphia said to me, “We only see one star in Philly, and that is the sun”. The comment made me think of all the people who may never get to see the stars like we did. The Milky Way was entirely visible, as were the cosmos behind it.
Unfortunately, I had no clue how to shoot the stars, and didn't have the correct equipment, so that is a memory just for me. We spend most of the next day relaxing, because our next, and final, campsite was so close. It was on the return trail of the loop called Laguna Meadows.
The Trail Down
The Laguna Meadows have to be one of the comfiest and relaxing nights of camping I have ever experienced. Surrounding the back country site are meadows of tall grass. That night, we laid in the grass once again to watch the amazing show that happens every night on a cloudless Chisos night.
The path back to the Chisos basin was just as pretty as the path up. Actually, it was a lot easier to enjoy, mostly because it was all downhill.
The team enjoyed a nice warm meal once we made it back to the Chisos Lodge. I so much loved Big Bend that I immediately planned to make a return trip for the following Thanksgiving. It was a park that took my surprise and my heart. Every Texan who is proud of their state should make the pilgrimage to Big Bend. If Texas don’t need anything, it's another reason to love the the Lone Star state, but after seeing West Texas, and visiting Big Bend, I just couldn't help it. I had joined the ranks of millions in love with Texas.