Monday, August 7, 2017

Big Bend National Park. Sigh.

An expansive view from one of Big Bend National Park's many tread-worthy hiking trails. Hmm. Wonder how and where Trump's wall would fit in here? Big Bend borders Mexico.
I added a new national park to my LOVE list during our spring 2017 SW road trip -  Big Bend in the far southwestern reaches of Texas. I'd visited there in what seems another lifetime, my twenties, long before the Internet provided easy access to everything you need to know before you go anywhere, do anything.

In the 1970s I knew nothing, about the park, took one short, steep, HOT walk and was on my way. I had no idea what I was missing!

PK and I, bolstered with online advice, were revved up for Big Bend, having read how great it is and also how the park's precious campsites, both in established areas and in dispersed sites, are hard to come by during peak seasons, one of which is early spring. Reservations are possible, but we didn't have any.  If you're a member of the didn't-plan-worth-crap club, of which I am president, you would be subject to the first-come, first-served method of securing a campsite.

This involves getting up early and maybe waiting in line, as we've endured at national parks elsewhere. We were up before 7 a.m. at Marfa, (see post) where we'd spent the previous night (don't laugh, that's early for us) and then on to Marathon, the small town closest to the park's Panther Junction headquarters 69 miles south.

At Panther Junction we learned that all the coveted backcountry sites were booked out for four days  They may not have worked for us anyway as they're all on gravel roads, many requiring 4WD, which we lack. They were booked four days out. 

A surprise about Big Bend NP is that it encompasses an entire mountain range. The Chisos Mountains provide much of the park's stunning scenery - a green island in a desert sea, according to park literature. The park is huge, 1,252 square miles, and the Rio Grande forms a 118-mile border between Texas and Mexican states. We headed to the campground at 5,401 ft elevation, fingers crossed that a first-come, first-served site would be available. 

We were in luck! An incredibly cheerful volunteer campground host greeted us the moment we arrived and  guided us to one of the remaining sites, which happened to be among our best ever. The view was spectacular, and because we were on the bottom tier of the hillside campground and we had only a couple neighbors. If you want to camp at Chisos Basin, and can score a reservation, ask for site 60 or 59. Sixty is the BEST. (Somebody beat us to it) No complaints! Neither would work for large RVs. Our Roadtrek Agile is 19 feet long.
A Torrey yucca decorated our camp area, which was also a great birding spot. Another bonus of this campground is that it is way cooler than at lower elevations. While campers at the popular Cottonwood Campground were enduring temps in the 90s, we were basking in the mid-70s. Spring and fall are the best times to visit. Low elevation camps are closed in summer when temperatures on the ground can reach 180 degrees! Instant death!

The road into the Chisos Basin provides a campground overview and a look at the Window, that deep V between mountains. The Window is a popular hiking destination, and we found out why.
The Window at sunset viewed with a telephoto lens close to our camp.The trail leads to the point of the V. 

Here's PK at The Window's V. The drop-off is a pour
over for flash floods and is scary high. The path

has been polished slick by hiking  boots. We did not
go any closer fearing death or inconvenience from
a misstep. 


 The trail leading to The Window is equipped with carefully carved or constructed
 stairs. PK, in his trendy khaki outfit, is camouflaged. 

Rocks I loved.
  And more rocks. The park's geology has been described as a 
geologists' paradise due to all the exposed rock strata. According 

  to park literature, the abundance, diversity and complexity of rock

outcrops is "staggering." For me, their beauty is staggering.


Wildflowers, including numerous cacti varieties, were around every bend in the trail and along roadsides at all park elevations.

Claret cup cactus.
Prickly pear cacti were flagrant show-offs.

A century plant, which actually lives about 30 years, blooms once and dies.
We were fortunate to see this grand specimen.
Ocotillos made art all over the areas we explored.
This jay appears to be giving us the stink eye. Dozens of jays and other birds and butterflies delighted us en route to The Window. The park attracts around 450 bird species throughout the year. 

One of hundreds of unidentified butterflies along The Window trail.
Santa Elena Canyon of the Rio Grande dwarfs  a
kayaker. The canyon is a stopping point for tour
buses and one was disgorging tourists when we pulled in. The short 
hike up the canyon has a few steep spots. Combined
with the 90+ degree heat, it was a challenge to
some of the elderly sightseers. Later an ambulance
was called to the canyon to rescue someone who'd
collapsed on the trail. Because of heat at lower elevations,
we confined most of our hiking to the Chisos Basin. 
We hiked a couple other trails out of the Chisos Basin, in addition to The Window, and weren't necessarily smart about it. The popular Lost Mine Trail, on the road to the Chisos Basin campground, is only a few miles long. We intended to hike it in the morning, but by 9 a.m. the parking lot was full. Later, when we decided to give it a try, much of it was in the sun and even at high elevation, it was  bloody hot.  It's steep, rocky, and strenuous. It was worth the effort for the panoramas at the top, but we wish we'd had an earlier, cooler start.

The bottom line about Big Bend National Park is that
it's well worth your time and energy to explore. We stayed but three nights, having reservations and obligations down the road, but I understand how many other visitors tromp the trails and ride the roads for a week or more.

Big Bend National Park has a comprehensive website.

Earlier posts about Spring Road trip 2017


Marfa, TX, a lesson in road-trip planning

Arizona, a zone of its own

Joshua Tree National Park  


Marfa, Texas - A lesson in road-trip planning


Marfa, Texas, surprised us with a big ole dust storm and widespread fame.
We arrived in Marfa on our 10th day away from Oregon, having driven 240 miles that day from Las Cruces, NM. That doesn't seem like a lot of miles, but we'd had a rough morning hunting for yard art in Mesilla, NM. Fun! And then grocery shopping at Wal Mart for the next five days of van cooking. Definitely not fun, the shopping or the cooking.

Then, halfway to Marfa on Interstate 90, I discovered that we were within striking distance, with a half-day detour, to the McDonald Observatory. TripAdvisor confirmed it as a five-star attraction, and reports we heard later from travelers who'd managed more informed planning, said it was fantastic. I'd somehow missed it.

We had a timeframe that commanded obedience. And on we went. 

Next time.

We let go of the planning crisis as our son, Chris, called and we pulled off the road for a 30-minute conversation. He was about to embark on a 700-mile kayaking expedition into the Amazon basin. His  expedition ended with high drama that resulted later in the FBI showing up at our Oregon home

It's good to be clueless about some things in advance. When he's out of country, we're always grateful to hear from him. It makes trip-planning snafus meaningless. As it should.

I knew nada about Marfa, which turned out to be a Mecca for lovers of minimalist art. I include our illustrious RV park in that category. Minimalist. 
Our RV park. It even had tumbleweeds that rolled around during the wind storm.
With a population of just 2,000 Marfa is a national, if not international, art center. As such, it draws all kinds of quirkiness and plenty of star power. It even has an NPR station serving a "wide range." (We still listen to the Marfa station when programing on our local Jefferson Public Radio fails us, which isn't often.) 

Had we known that Marfa was a celebrity art town, perhaps we would have known to stop on Interstate 90 not far from city limits to gawk at the Prada installation. 
Oblivious, we bombed right past this roadside oddity in the West Texas desert, which is a minimalist art installation. Photo from the Internet.

Lesson, and note to self

If you book a camp or hotel in advance, at least take a look online to see what's there, even if there's practically no hope of anything fun or interesting, as was my mistaken opinion regarding Marfa.  A couple minutes on TripAdvisor would have had us hurrying to catch more daylight hours there, and perhaps built in a day to visit the McDonald Observatory.

Marfa revealed itself in stages during the late afternoon hours as we explored its wide tidy streets, slunk around a luxury art-and-fancy-guest-filled hotel, and strolled past closed art galleries and shops.

We were there fewer than 24 hours, but wish we'd had time to explore the art and other intriguing stuff. As it was, we were bombing along the highway by 7 a..m. the next morning to reach Big Bend National Park early enough to score a campsite, either in the  backcountry or  a campground.

Handmade stone church compares well with Marfa's water tower. 


What's the hurry? 

Why didn't we just chill and spend another day? Sadly, we'd violated a road-tripping rule by tying ourselves to a schedule anchored in reservations at a non refundbale Austin Airbnb and a date-specific commitment to friends in East Texas. (Later we were thankful for hurrying to East Texas for a most unusual and fun house concert/party and other great stuff with our hosts.)

Next road trip? If immutable plans must be made, such as for a music festival or wedding, at least build in unplanned days on either end just in case another McDonald Observatory or Marfa-type thing springs up.  

We're road -tripping. We're retired. We can hang a little bit looser. 

Earlier posts about Spring Road trip 2017

Arizona, a zone of its own

Joshua Tree National Park