Big Bend, Here We Come!
After many hours of driving, we’ve finally arrived in Big Bend National Park. Although the park is considered by many to be one of the most enticing of the national parks, its visitor numbers do not reveal it. It’s a difficult place to reach. No matter which transportation method you choose, Big Bend is unquestionably remote. Ultimately, this has to be a good thing for the wildlife and must also be helpful in protecting the environment within the park.
Of all the national parks, the span of geologic time represented in Big Bend is by far the longest. Evidence of unceasing change over 120 million years is visible throughout the park. That’s a number you can read and be amazed by, but it’s impossible to truly grasp the concept of time on that scale. If anything, I feel, rather than comprehend, the weight of that number. I think everyone who arrives in Big Bend senses it, connects with it, and never forgets it.
Signs of early human habitation in the park are linked to a period beginning 10,500 years ago and continue up until the changes brought on by the arrival of Spanish explorers in the 1500s. In the 1930s, there was a push to protect the area and the Texas Legislature established Texas Canyons State Park in 1933 as a result. The park was renamed Big Bend State Park later that same year. A few years later, Texas deeded the land to the federal government and Big Bend National Park opened in 1944.
Fossil Bone Exhibit
Upon arriving in Big Bend, I’m very interested in seeing the Fossil Bone Exhibit. It was completed in January 2017, so we’ll be some of the first visitors to see it. Funding for the exhibit was raised by Big Bend Conservancy, a group of Big Bend enthusiasts who envisioned this as an opportunity to feature the park’s aforementioned 120 million year history. What an incredible example of individuals making a difference!
The design of the structure that houses the exhibit is simple, but effective. The structure has a roof and walls but it’s not enclosed. Other than the shade provided, don’t plan on visiting for an opportunity to cool down. Move on, there is no air-conditioning here : )
As we near the building, I wonder if my hearing is playing tricks on me. In the middle of the desert, I hear waves crashing on an invisible shore; a disconcerting feeling, until I realize that it’s the result of air moving through the building. As this area was submerged under an ocean a very, very long time ago, it seems appropriate, although I’m not sure if it’s intentional.
There’s a great deal of information included in the displays, but I must admit that I didn’t find what I was most looking forward to. I hoped for maps of the areas in Big Bend that have been studied. I would love to see pictures of the geologists, botanists, paleontologists, and others who have worked in the park, of the objects they discovered and the conclusions they drew. Since I haven’t stopped at all the visitor centers, it’s entirely possible that I can find what I seek somewhere else in the park.
The first time we visited Big Bend, we didn’t see the eastern end of the park. During this visit, my mission is to be able to say that I have driven all the park’s paved roads, although I’m not necessarily sure that it’s the best use of our limited time. From what I’ve read, the most memorable experiences lie in the center and western end of the park, but I really want to get to know Big Bend so for that reason, our jaunt into the unknown east is well worth it.
Once we’re driving, I quickly decide that the views of the mountains from the east are worth it. After many miles worth of scenic views, we see a tunnel up ahead. This is the only tunnel in Big Bend and, as far as I’ve been able to determine, the only above-ground tunnel for cars in Texas. That should qualify as a unique Texas experience, right?
Just after the tunnel there’s a sign for the Rio Grande Overlook. That seems a memorable Big Bend moment, so I rush up the baking track to get a look at the glittering waters of the river. At the top, I look out over…. a wide swath of rocky desert, beyond which lies a distantly visible band of green vegetation. That’s like opening a large Christmas present to discover a square of my favorite chocolate. It’s nice, just not what I expected. Might be better if the sign just says “Overlook”.
At least we know we’re headed for that green band where the river lies hidden. Once we reach it, it feels like we’ve arrived in a desert oasis. We choose to forego Rio Grande Village, and instead turn right at the hiking trail to the hot springs and the nature center. At the end of the road, there’s a tucked away area where we can walk down to the edge of the Rio Grande. It’s not the most impressive view, but our mission was to lay eyes on the river and now we have. We admire the recently travelled tree lined road, which seems such an anomaly in this desert landscape, and then continue over to see the additions to the nature center.
Crossing the new bridges over the wetland area, we continue up the trail a little bit, until we reach a more elevated area. Continuing on this trail could be interesting, but we’re starting to run short on time. I had let our Airbnb hosts know that we would arrive before dark, so we return to the car and head for Terlingua.
The Window Trail
The next morning, we set off with the goal of exploring the Chisos Mountains. There’s a strange sense of leaving one world and entering another as you leave the desert floor behind and begin to ascend the mountain road. Close to the top, we pass a full parking lot at the beginning of Lost Mine Trail and continue on to the Chisos Mountains basin. This basin is actually the center of an ancient volcano, which helped shape the landscape seen through the opening in the volcano wall. This opening is what gives the trail its name.
The short version of the Window Trail begins right behind the store, next to which you’ll also find some convenient restrooms. The trail is less than a mile long, so we’re definitely going for a stroll rather than a hike, but what this short trail lacks in breadth of experiences, it makes up for in stunning views.
I receive my first reminder to stay aware of my surroundings as I walk along the flat and paved path. I hear a sound from my father which indicates a certain amount of surprise. Following his eyes, I look down at my feet and see a snake moving quickly toward some plant cover. I could so easily have stepped on him, and he would probably not have reacted well to such hostility. Unfortunately, he passed so quickly that we had no way of identifying him. More than likely he was non-venomous, as most Texas snakes are. It was an interesting episode with a happy ending, so we continued back to the car.
Lost Mine Trail
Heading back up the mountain, we aimed to park our car at Lost Mine Trail, which we hiked the first time we visited Big Bend. Depending on how much time you spend enjoying the views along the way, and there are many, it will take you about 3 hours to complete the there-and-back hike. There’s something to see all along the way to the top, but it’s what you see when you arrive at the top that makes this hike such a favorite. I won’t describe what seems to me a view beyond the reach of words, except to say that you’ll never forget it.
Having read the previous paragraph, you might understand my disappointment at not being able to walk the trail during this visit. On our first full day in Big Bend, we arrived early, only to discover a full parking lot. At a guess, there are maybe 15-20 parking spots and there really is no way to park safely on the side of the road somewhere else. In this part of the park, the road is narrow and full of curves. We had a choice of staying until someone else left, or continuing on to see other areas of the park. It was a heavy let down. I had been visualizing seeing those amazing views again and had to accept that it wasn’t going to happen. It might be years before I have another chance. The reality is that these things happen on trips and all you can do is accept it and let it go. I shake off my disappointment by remembering that Big Bend has an endless supply of beautiful sights. I have to be grateful for the opportunity to see so many of them.
The Chihuahuan Desert Along Ross Maxwell Drive
We return to the floor of the Chihuahuan Desert and look forward to seeing the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Down here, temperatures are often 20 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they are in the Chisos Mountains. The Chisos might be doable in the summer, but I don’t think you would find much enjoyment on the desert floor. As it is, the temperatures are above 90 on this April day, and I happen to not function well in heat. Tim always says my intolerance for cold makes me a defective Norwegian, but it seems I would also make a defective Texan…
Fortunately, Big Bend provides many places along the road to pull over and appreciate the scenery. Very often, visitors will also find informative signs displayed at these stops, about geology, plant life, etc. A few times, we take an abbreviated walk, just to be able to see the view from different angles. When you’re short on time, the scenic drive does provide an opportunity to see as much as possible of the changing landscape.
Santa Elena Canyon
The one place where I intend to forge my way through the blistering heat (ok, I’m exaggerating a little), is at Santa Elena Canyon. It may get uncomfortable, but I’m not going to miss these memorable views. The ascent to the path along the canyon wall, above the Rio Grande, is fortunately paved with more than good intentions. Although somewhat narrow, stairs cut back and forth across the cliff face until you achieve quite an impressive elevation, and arrive at the even narrower path cut into the canyon wall.
Old Maverick Road
As we neared the end of the afternoon, we chose to return to Terlingua on Old Maverick Road, rather than returning the way we came. This is a dirt and gravel road, but it should be doable for most cars. At the beginning of the track is a sign that says the road is only recommended for four-wheel drive vehicles. We did not have one, but since there had not been any rain recently, we correctly assumed it would be ok. Be aware that there’s no cell reception in this area; you should have a certain amount of confidence in your vehicle when traveling here. If you do choose this route, you will experience one of the park’s most surprising views a few miles up the road, on the right. There seems to be a rift in the landscape, and within it appear a surprising range of colors. This, to me, is one of the most beautiful areas of the park.
The first time I experienced Terlingua, it seemed like an alien place to me. Straight out of a movie. After our second visit, I can say that it’s growing on me. The people who choose to live here couldn’t in any sense of the word be described as average. The decision to leave behind many of the conveniences of modern life could imply many things, but there’s no doubt that these are independent and confident people.
Since we had chosen to stay in an Airbnb, we had an opportunity to converse with our thoughtful and generous hosts and find out a little about life in Terlingua. It seems that most residents were not born and raised here. People come from other places and for differing reasons, but they must all have fallen under Big Bend’s spell at some point. After enjoying two amazing sunsets and witnessing the soft color gradients of two sunrises, we begin to sense that same spell creeping up on us. Maybe we’d better get going before it’s too late…
Pulling away from our cute little Airbnb, the Cinco Circle Casita, we head west, rather than north, on the recommendation of our hosts.
To be continued…
Come back next week as we discover the unexpected on our drive toward Presidio.