Big Bend National Park

Named after the huge U-turn in the Rio Grande, Big Bend National Park is in a remote section of southwest Texas.  With only two, mostly desolate roads to access the park, it’s not a place you stop by on your way to somewhere else.  Whether staging out of the towns of Marathon or Alpine, it is an approximately 80-mile stretch, devoid of gas stations and cell phone service, from either place to a park entrance.  I opted to approach the park via US-385 so that I could ride the scenic 25-mile stretch of the park on Main Park Road, from the Alpine Entrance Station to the Visitors Center at Panther Junction.

After going through the Main Entrance at Persimmon Gap, the Rosillos Mountains loom large on the horizon. The mountains are aptly named Rosillos, Spanish for roan-colored (think chestnut-colored horse coat sprinkled with white or gray). It’s highest point, Rosillos Peak, sits at 5,373 feet.
By this point in the trip, I have encountered quite a bit of cactus, but I’m still fascinated by the prickly spines whenever I see them.

At just over 800,000 acres, Big Bend is too big to be seen in just one day (which is all I had), so I had to be strategic about my sightseeing.  With both the Chisos Mountains and the Rio Grande as desired, up-close destinations, I opted to focus on the west side of the park.  After taking in the exhibits at the Panther Junction Visitor Center, I topped off my tank at the park gas station and headed west toward Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.  It was still fairly early, so I heeded a Park Ranger’s advice to visit the desert areas first in order to take advantage of the cooler morning temperatures, then head up to the mountain altitude during the heat of the afternoon.

Castolon Peak’s layers reveal millions of years of volcanic events. According to the roadside placard, “stacked in this tower are several lava flows and volcanic tuffs (ash deposits), with layers of gravel and clay from periods of erosion between eruptions.”
While stopped at the Sotol Vista overlook, one of the women standing near an information placard asked me if I was travelling alone? When I responded with a “yes,” she, and the woman she was talking to when I approached, asked if we could all take a selfie together. It turns out that they were each travelling alone also and loved the fact that the three of us just happened to run into each other. We shared stories, and the pros and cons of travelling solo, each basking in the adventurous spirit of like-minded women. After constantly hearing how unique we were for embarking on unaccompanied travel, we felt validated by running into each other that independent female travel is much more common than people imagine. I think their names were Stephanie and Jennifer, but I can’t remember now, and I lost the piece of paper on which I wrote it :-/
From Sotol Vista, you can gaze toward Mexico, the Rio Grande, and Santa Elena Canyon (the Y-shaped whitish gap on the right third of the photo), approximately 14 miles away as the crow flies.
From the Santa Elena Canyon overlook, the small Y-shaped opening seen from Sotol Vista reveals its enormity. Over thousands of years, the Rio Grande has sliced this 1,500-foot vertical chasm out of pure limestone to form a magnificent canyon.
The timing of my visit to Big Bend was very fortunate; the roads had just been cleared of mud and debris from a recent flood and reopened that morning! Flash floods are common in the park during the rainy season, which runs May thru September. Just a short hike from the parking lot at the end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, I arrived at the engorged Rio Grande. The canyon wall to my right is Mexico, while I am standing on U.S. soil in Texas.

From Santa Elena Canyon, I retraced my route back towards Panther Junction, but detoured onto Chisos Basin Road for the 6.3-mile ride from the desert floor to the Chisos Mountain Visitors Center and lodge, topping out at 5,770 feet.  Like many National Parks roads, this one was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), between 1934-1942.  An info placard along the way stated that work done in the park by the CCC was undertaken by “200 men, most in their teens, and 80% of them Hispanic.  For these young men, life in the Big Bend CCC was defined by isolation, desert heat, strict rules, and backbreaking work.”  A stark reminder that my ability to access this beauty came with a price.

The trailhead for The Window Trail starts behind the Chisos Mountain Visitors Center, and descends through Oak Creek Canyon to the Window pour-off which frames panoramic desert vistas. This peaceful scenic rest area along the trail offers a great view of The Window.

While up at Chisos Mountain Visitors Center, I was surprised to see signs advising visitors to store food and toiletries in an approved bear-proof container while visiting the area.  As the last ice age ended, colder, moister climates moved northward, leaving lower elevations dry and hot, while creating isolated mountains, like the Chisos.  This process left many plants and animals, eg, white-tailed deer, black bear, and mountain lions, stranded and isolated in the Chisos Mountains- an island surrounded by the Chihuanhuan Desert.  (NPS brochure) I enjoyed a nice lunch at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, then visited with a few folks on the patio who were staying at the Lodge.  Unfortunately, the lodge was booked up by the time I decided to visit Big Bend, so I bid adios to my new friends and made the long trek back to my hotel in Alpine, TX.

Enticed by this small taste of the park, I would definitely like to come back when I have lodging in the park and more time to explore its numerous hiking trails in-depth.  Next stop:  San Antonio!  

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