Our first day to explore Big Bend National Park started off early, due to my failure to book accommodations closer to the park. Mea culpa, but I didn’t have firm dates until a week or so before we got there, and I figured that it being winter we’d make out okay. Whelp!
So we were up at 0500 Thursday, February 16th, and on the road to the park before 6AM. Saw a beautiful Texas sunrise as we rolled down US385S, through Marathon, heading for the Panther Junction Visitor Center inside the Park. It was at this facility that I purchased my Lifetime Senior Pass. For the grand sum of $80, this pass will cover the entrance fees for all National Parks, as well as most National Monuments, Battlefields, Historical Sites, etc. for as long as I last. It’ll also cover the annoying Day-Use parking fees back home in the White Mountains.
As the name implies, Big Bend is located along a “big bend” in the Rio Grande. Centered in the park are the Chisos Mountains, an impressive and rugged chain of mountains quite unlike the granite and forested mountains I’m used to in the Northeast.
After procuring the Pass, I chatted with one of the Park Service Rangers for a bit. I wanted to validate my hiking choices with someone who knew the ground. After reviewing the list I had put together, the Ranger said that on that particular day the Window Trail would be a nice walk. “Shouldn’t be too crowded, and the day’s temps probably seem warm to you”.
True enough. Though the day was sunny, it was chilly. I think it was about 40°F at the Visitor Center, and by the time we had wound our way up Basin Road to the Chisos Basin Campground, it was closer to 30 degrees than 40. But, the sun was still out, and the ground was bone dry.
It’s hard to know how to dress for these cold, dry conditions, especially when the first part of the hike goes downhill, as canyon hikes often do. I decided to layer up, topping off with the parka shell, figuring that I’d shed what I had to on the uphill return journey.
We parked very close to the trailhead in one of the parking lots at the Chisos Basin Campground. Wife was going to stay with the Jeep and catch up on this and that while I took the walk. The trailhead was well marked, and included a warning sign.
Although the trail descends to the Window, you’re already quite high in elevation from the start. I didn’t check the GPS, but I’d guess that the trailhead is at five or six thousand feet above sea level. That makes the air thin; accentuating the cold and dryness. It takes some getting used to.
The trail was obviously well-used, featuring packed earth and small amounts of loose gravel about. Larger stones were here and there, and evidence of good trail maintenance was reflected by the frequent erosion controls placed in the path.
I walked for a mile or so, gently downhill. The canyon walls closed in throughout the descent,
and eventually the trail became a wash, a dry stream bed that funneled the rains down and through the Window at its end. As I approached the end of the trail, there were a few up and down sections where stairs had been built into the sides of the stream bed. They made the passage easier, and safer.
After almost three miles the end of the trail came into view- The Window. This is where the water runoff flows out into space, creating what must be an impressive waterfall if viewed from the other side of the opening.
Look at how the water has polished the stone to a glossy finish over the centuries.
After trying to take a decent selfie in front of the Window (and failing), there was nothing left to do but walk back the way I came.
In truth it was not much more effort than the walk in. Elevation gain was less than 1000 feet.
Along the way I saw a flock of impressively blue birds in a tree near the trail.
They were the same shade of blue as a bluebird, but were larger- about the size of a robin. They also lacked the orange breast of the bluebird.
The only other photos I took on the way out were of a prickly pear and agave near the trail. These plants are everywhere in the park.
The hike took 2 hours 30 minutes, and was about 6 ¾ miles long, all told. The good news was Wife was waiting for me with the Jeep right where I left her! I loaded my gear into the vehicle and off we went to explore more of the park.
We headed over to a different section of the park by following the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive all the way down to the Rio Grande. Here we were able to walk a couple hundred yards and get right up on the river at Santa Elena Canyon. The sheer wall across the river was the beginning of Mexico, and it was imposing. The Rio Grande, however, was not. Here at this place it was a very small river. The water level was low. We saw a corresponding trail head across the river on the Mexican side.
Here we encountered our first swarming insects of the trip. There were small bugs all over the place, about the size of mosquitoes, but they did not bite. I found if one kept moving they didn’t present much of a problem, but would swarm you if you stood still. They got into the Jeep, and it took some driving with the windows down to evict them from the vehicle.
By now it was midafternoon, and we decided to head over to the Texas border town of Terlingua. This was the town we planned on staying at during our Big Bend visit. It’s a small town- a few hotels and restaurants along with an old ghost town.
This ghost town is a big draw, and it’s one of the reasons the hotels fill up year round. There’s a lot of information out on the Web about Terlingua should you want to know more.
The attraction for us was the Starlight Theatre restaurant. This place is also widely known, and has a reputation for good food. We arrived one hour before they opened at 5PM, and hung out on the porch until it opened. By that time there were at least 75 or 80 people waiting with us. In the middle of nowhere.
I had an excellent brisket plate with pinto beans and German potato salad, while Wife had a good looking cheeseburger. And yes, the food was that good- worth the wait.
Thanks for dropping by! Next up will be Day #2 in Big Bend.