WAY DOWN SOUTH, turn at the little town of Marathon Texas, onto a road stretching towards Mexico. Lined by the barbed wire fences and branded gates of ranches, the black strip of asphalt has one intention: Big Bend. The subtle contours of Texas Hill Country, dotted with yucca blooms and tangled mesquite, are deceptive. Follow the road through the park entrance and the land transforms; slopes and ridgelines grow into breathtaking mountains and cliffs, the expanse of blue sky above enhancing their majesty.
The desert is a place of such wonder. Appearing unlivable, yet supporting an abundance of life that is so unique and perfected. Not only existing but thriving, parched and scorched and wind-weathered.
We spent four nights in this spectacular place and left with scraped-up legs, sun-reddened faces and the regret of leaving so soon.
Over a hundred million years ago it was all under water, a sea. Two different seas, actually, that came and went, leaving layers of limestone and fossils. These layers were exposed by the same tectonic disruptions that formed my beloved Rockies. The Mariscol Mountains in the south of Big Bend are the southernmost extension of the Rocky Mountain Range.
The park’s high and low points have a difference of nearly 6,000 feet, reaching 7,825 ft. at the summit of Emory Peak, and dropping to 1,850 ft. at the Rio Grande Village. The Chisos Mountains- rugged, reddish lava towers- are grouped in the park’s center. Emory Peak stands the tallest of these formations, severe slopes uniting at a jagged summit. Casa Grande, at 7,325 feet, acts as a formidable sentry, casting her shadow across the winding road leading to the Chisos Basin.
Big Bend’s disparate elevation and dynamic geological history fosters a variety of ecosystems and tremendous diversity amongst the resident flora and fauna. The park is a sanctuary for thousands of species, many of which are endemic and/or endangered. Plants range from Juniper and Oak trees to more than sixty species of cacti, from delicate wildflowers to viciously-spiked-and-barbed everything else. The animals include some 450 species of birds, of which we saw only a handful. Though cougars, bears and other creatures inhabit the park, we saw only jackrabbits, sprinting and springing across the gravely hills, and heard the wailings of coyotes in the early morning hours.
Claret Cup Cactus
Prickly Pear Cactus
Prickly Pear Cactus, buds
Prickly Pear Cactus, blooms
Purple Prickly Pear Cactus
Dr. Suess plant
Century Plant, blooms once in its life time
Funnel Web Spider
We find beauty within every inch of the natural landscape. Patterns, spiraled, spotted, layered; textures, smooth, curved, rugged. They catch the eye in a way modern-day clean-cuts and white-washings cannot; they captivate the mind erasing the droning, buzzing, beeping world of walls in which we eat, sleep and work.
In nature, we awaken and play.
WHERE WE WALKED
Buro Mesa Pouroff. 1 mile, round-trip. A fairly level path, across the sand, through the cacti, to a break in another one of Big Bend’s giant rock walls. Step down into the river bed and follow it back, the towering walls narrowing till they meet. We hear there can be water, but it’s bone dry. It’s left it’s mark over the years, a giant chute formed where the rock walls meet.
Emory Peak overnighter. Climb from Chisos Trailhead. After 4 miles, reach the saddle and spur trail to Emory Peak. The 1.5 miles to the summit ends in a technical rock-scramble to the top.
From Emory Peak, we coast down Boot Canyon to camp. It’s cool and lush and the setting sun illuminates the cliffs around us. Our camp is quiet and protected amids Oak, Juniper and Pinon Pines. Big Bend’s backcountry camps are complete with bear boxes and composting toilets.
The park service warns that there are no reliable water sources in the backcountry of Big Bend. Climbing out of Boot Canyon to the South Rim, Boot Creek is dry, a stream-bed of lava rock, polished and sculpted from past flows.
Morning view of the Sierra Quemada Wilderness, South Rim of the Chisos Mountain Range. The land, shaped by volcanic activity some 40 million years ago, was one of the last strongholds of the Apache tribe. The Chisos Mountains are thought to have inherited their name from the Apache word “chishe” meaning “people of the forest.” A windy day in Big Bend, the dusty haze lasts into the evening.
Return to Chisos Basin on the Laguna Meadow Trail, downhill all the way home. Makes for 16 miles round trip, a nice breaking-in for our legs and feet.
We can see Boquillas Del Carmen, a village across the border, i.e. across the Rio Grande. Stashes of hand-made walking-sticks and copper-wire figurines are tucked along trails and overlooks. The cardboard signs request money to bus the children of Boquillas to school. Buying such “contraband” is explicitely stated as illegal by the park service and federal government. Tourists can visit Boquillas through Big Bend with a passport.
Boquillas Canyon, accesible via an easy trail along the Rio Grande floodplain.
The hot springs are located in the Southeastern corner of the park. The ruins of an old hotel nearby, the rudimentary foundation built around the spring is dated 1912. Respite for weary bodies.
The short walk to the springs threads its way between the tall grasses bordering the Rio Grande and limestone walls where you can see ancient wall art mixed with modern vandalism. Art as defacement, defacement as art.
The setting moon illuminated by the rising sun. Morning at K-Bar 2, one of many primitive car camping sites. A $10 backcountry permit allows you as many nights at primitive and backcountry sites as desired.
Off-roading in the name of geology.
Walking through an old burn area, this nasty pierced through the sole of my shoe up on into my foot. Deep breaths.
Under two miles, the trail to the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook was one of the most serene and spectacular moments in the park. 1.8 miles round trip. Through tall grass to the river and the mouth of the canyon. Then up a few paved switchbacks with cacti jutting across the trail and fossilized seashells peeping out of the rock walls. A gradual descent on a sandy path to the river bank where you can sit and hear the river, watch the big birds circle above, see the sun shine on the rocks. The sediment in the water turns the river a murky, sea-foam green and the rocks of the canyon are smooth, as if polished.
Interpretive trail. Took the Lost Mine Trail a mile up to the saddle and turned onto a faint trail leading to Casa Grande.
The furious calm of the wild, so many sprouting, growing, blooming, dying, decaying things. Effortless transitions between states of being, occurring and intermingling. In every death there is life.
This entry is in memory of my late Aunt Deb. A woman unafraid to be smart, to be beautiful, to stand tall.