Friday, June 7, 2013

Quick Summary: Big Bend National Park

Lacking longer backpacking trips to report on, I'm going to talk a bit about the other type of hiking I really enjoy--shorter day hikes.  These are nice because the whole family can come along and get a taste of the outdoors without the big commitment of a lot of gear and nights spent on the trail.  Although I've greatly enjoyed several backpacking trips in the past, and hope to enjoy many more in the (relatively) near future, I clearly am much more likely to do day hikes than backpacking trips, and day hikes will outnumber backpacking trips by a large margin.

This "quick summary" format is not a true trip report type post (such as done on gjhikes, for instance) but rather a sampling of what various locations offer in terms of day hiking opportunities.

About five years ago, I went with my folks and my oldest son (who was only 12 at the time) to Big Bend National Park, and we did a number of day hikes.  Big Bend is smack dab in the heart of the Chihuahuan desert, which offers significant differences in character, flora and fauna from other southwestern deserts in the US such as the Mojave, the Sonoran, the Colorado plateau, etc.  But the desert isn't the only thing that the vast expanse of Big Bend offers--in fact, there are basically three environments that are on offer.  The Chisos Mountains are a "sky island" type of area.  Because of their relative elevation, the climate and character of the Chisos Mountains differs substantially from that of the desert.  The third environment is the Rio Grande itself.

Big Bend is an extremely large park, one of the largest in the lower 48, and is in fact larger than the entire state of Rhode Island (which, granted, is the smallest state.  But that's still pretty cool.)  However, compared to many other parks, it's extremely remote, and gets relatively little visitation.  Big Bend is, in fact, a great place to escape and enjoy a fair bit of solitude.  Even if, like me, you go and stay in the Chisos Mountain resort hotel, eat breakfast and dinner every day at the resort restaurant, and only venture out during the day for relatively low key day hikes that are appropriate for (in my case) the relatively elderly and the relatively young.  It does offer some long-distance backpacking potential, but the extreme aridity of much of the region can make that problematic, unless you're willing to cache water beforehand.  Because of this, Big Bend may, in fact, be better for day hikers than for backpackers--although there are some really iconic backpacking routes in the park that sound really nice.

Another nice facet of visiting Big Bend is that the best season to do so is precisely when many other hiking locations in North America are unavailable due to inclement winter weather.  I went in February and found the weather to be perfect--warm, but not too warm.  You'll probably need, especially in the Chisos, a sweatshirt or something in the early morning or later evening, but during the day, long pants and a t-shirt are perfectly comfortable.  By March, it's Spring Break in Texas, and college student outdoor enthusiasts flood the park--at least relatively speaking--it's still never really a heavily traveled park, even during peak season.  During much of the summer, the weather is miserably hot.  Anytime between October and maybe April is workable, though--and the "dead of winter" is probably the best time to come.  Snow is very rare, even in the highest peaks of the Chisos (which aren't really that high--high point Emory Peak is still under 8,000 feet).  The average December/January high temp recorded at neighboring Lajitas is around 70 (low is 35) and in February it's still only mid 70s and mid 40s respectively.  By May, your average daily high is nearly 100, and it stays there (or above) mostly through September.  I consider the park season to reasonably be October through April, with preference for November until Spring Break--during which I want to avoid all of the college kids, and after which, it's likely to be too hot to be fun to visit.

If you've only got a couple of days or so, you probably want a quick sampling of what the park offers--I've given my favorite of each type of hike available.  Although I haven't hiked every trail, these four short day hikes--none of which really takes more than half a day, including driving from the Lodge to the trailhead and back, were among my favorite.

Desert Hike: Grapevine Hills Trail.  Following a pretty rough dirt road (although not 4x4 required--we were perfectly fine in our rented Ford Escape) from the Chisos Mountains Basin junction after coming out of the mountains, you reach the trailhead.  It heads mostly north-northwest and according to the map, the last little section of it is called out as "primitive" and requires a HCV.  I think this is slightly over-stating it, but be cautious.  We hiked the trail on a sunny mid-morning during the week and saw, I think, maybe two or three other people on the trail in total--one as a small group coming out of the hike as we entered, and one coming into the area as we left.  All in all, there is a sense of solitude and vastness, especially near the end of the hike when you're high enough on a ridge to see across the desert floor for miles.  But this is all par for the course in Big Bend--you'll never feel crowded, and may in fact feel, frequently, like you're the only person around for miles on end.

The trail goes through the Grapevine Hills, which is the eroded and scrambled remains of ancient volcanic activity, and follows the course of a wash through a valley surrounded by crumpled and tumbled brownish red rock walls, which appear to be made of heaped boulders.  The trail is easy to follow, and if you occasionally get it mixed up with the bed of the wash, it doesn't really matter since they both go the same direction.

The trail itself is an out and back--a little over a mile one way, and is flat for the majority of the hike.  The valley is a closed in box canyon of sorts, though, so as you reach the end, you have to climb to the ridge of the cliffs, where you'll see an interesting structure where big fallen boulders have conspired to leave us an arch.  From this high point, you can look back across the valley, with its long, rugged arms stretched out on either side of you.  You can also walk through the arch--it's got about six feet of clearance, and see the other side, where the ridge slopes back down to the desert floor.  From here, you have a commanding view of miles of desert, broken up by several hill and ridge structures similar to the Grapevine Hills through which you've just hiked.

The trail is reasonably well maintained and marked with cairns--although, like I said, if you lose it, that's hardly a major problem.  I'm quite sure I accidentally got diverted into the wash bed repeatedly, since the trail crosses the dry stream bed repeatedly.  There is no water or any facilities of any kind other than a sign at the trailhead, so bring your Camelbak or other water bottle.  When I went in February it was a little cool at around 8:30 or 9 AM or so when we were in the shadow of the valley walls, but a little later when the sun got higher, it was extremely pleasant.  It's a simple out-and-back; there's no loop, you just hike to the endpoint, look around, and turn around and come back.  Although there is a few hundred feet of climbing near the end, it's not very long, nor very steep--maybe a Class 2 here and there at worst.  Its not much worse than climbing a few flights of stairs.  The ease, the solitude and the very scenic views all through this hike make it one of the gems of the desert hikes offerings, and a great example of what the desert hikes at Big Bend can offer.

Mountain Hike: The Window Trail.  The South Rim trail is iconic, but fairly difficult and quite long--almost better suited for a shorter backpacking trip rather than an arduous day hike.  Climbing Emory Peak is also both long and strenuous.  The Lost Mine Trail (which I haven't done yet... sadly) sounds like a nice one that's comparable in distance, difficulty and scenic quality to the Window Trail.  With a trailhead right at the Lodge parking lot, chances are you can wake up, eat breakfast, fill up your water bottle or Camelbak, and just start walking before the sun has completely risen over the walls of the mountains around you, especially in the winter when sunrise comes late.  For almost three miles, you'll head downhill from the Lodge down the valley floor to the east end of the basin.  At first, the mountain walls are fairly distant, but as you get further along, they close in, until you're almost in slot canyon conditions at the end of the hike.  You'll also go through a relatively well watered creek-bed, and may in fact cross over running water and see some aquatic wildlife (we saw a frog near the end of the hike.)  You may see other wildlife as well--we saw both several whitetailed dear and quite a few javelinas, but black bear and cougar are not unknown in the area, and bird life is abundant.  Again; the hike offered a fair bit of solitude, but near the end, we bunched up with another group or two of day hikers.

The entire hike is quite nice, although you're going further downhill into the bottom of the basin rather than uphill to the peaks.  Once you reach the end of the hike, the canyon walls have grown all around you, and through a narrow slot, the creek pours off the edge of the Chisos Mountains down into the desert below, and you get a spectacular view of the desert floor thousands of feet below you spread out in the mid-morning sunlight.  Be careful about going too close to the edge though--needless to say there's no railing, and the slickrock is often wet.

After this spectacular hike down, don't forget that you need to hike back, and this time it's all uphill (although it's only really steep in a few places--but it's like climbing quite a few flights of stairs all at once when it really gets going.)  Although it's relatively cool, it's very, very dry untill you get very near the end.  Bring plenty of water.  My 2-liter Camelbak would have been perfect if I'd had it five years ago when I was last here.  My one 16-oz. water bottle that I did bring was not.

River Hikes: Santa Elena Canyon trail.  The river environment is the last major environment in Big Bend, and it's worth checking out.  From the Chisos Basin Lodge, take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive towards the canyon.  On the way, take a few moments to stop at the Tuff Canyon and at least look at the overlook.  If you're feeling a little bit more adventurous, walk down into the canyon.  The NPS considers this one of the desert hikes, but honestly, it's too short to seem more like just exploring the area you're already in to me.  The Tuff Canyon is a nice, shady area--it's not super spectacular as far as canyons go, but still interesting.  If you really want to get crazy, you can also stop at the Mule Ears peak viewing area prior to that, and hike to Mule Ears Spring, for another desert hike with some neat scenery.  From the Tuff Canyon view area, you can also see Cerro Castellan, a beautiful and iconic solitary mountain.

The Santa Elena Canyon trail is close to an overstatement as well.  It's a very short hike; under two miles round trip.  From the parking area/trailhead, you cross a broad, sandy river bank several hundred yards across (unless the river level is a lot higher than when we were there) and then enter the narrow, high-walled canyon itself.  Across the river on the Mexican side (which you could easily hit with a thrown rock if you were so inclined) the rock walls rise straight out of the river, but on the American side, there's a sandy riverbank with foliage. Because of the steepness of the walls, the entire canyon is usually fairly shady, making for a nice cool environment to explore and scramble around in.  You can't actually go very far before you run out of trail and bank and have to turn around.  It's a nice environment, though and worth seeing.  I also like this particular trail, because on the way to the trailhead, you have the opportunity to see several other fabulous points of interest in the park, making it a busy and productive part day.  The Boquillas Canyon Trail on the other side of the park, is very similar in all respects, except there's not as many easy lookouts and sights on the way.  However, if you want to be a little bit more adventurous, load up on water bottles in your car, and spend a day doing the Marufo Vega Loop trail, including a backcountry camping night.  This trail is not well maintained, and use of a high quality topo to avoid getting lost is essential.  But, if that doesn't intimidate you, that could be a fun prelude to doing the Boquillas canyon hike, which is just a little down the road from the Loop trailhead.  Because this is only a day (and possibly night or two, depending on how fast you want to hoof it) in the backcountry, water isn't as much a concern, assuming you have a stash in your car when you're done walking.

Nearby point of interest: If you leave the park on the east side (and pick up some barbecue or Mexican food in Lajitas) you can take Farm Road 170 towards Presidio.  This is a fantastically scenic drive through Big Bend Ranch State park, which is also quite large (although not even half the size as the national park.)  Although the Ranch lacks the geological spectacle of the Chisos, El Solitario, the geographic feature that most defines it, is also pretty nifty, and it is a great example of more of the rugged desert scenery that makes the national park so appealing. 

I didn't really explore it much, although we stopped frequently on the drive for scenic lookouts and photo ops, but one hike in particular is a must-see.  Completely on a whim, we came across Closed Canyon right off the road, and stopped and explored it.  It's about a mile and a half hike (round trip) into a slot canyon, and it was possibly my favorite hike of the entire trip, in spite of the fact that it was outside of the park, and we only did it on a whim.  Although in theory, the canyon pierces the entire mesa and reaches the Rio, unless you come equipped with rock climbing gear, you can't actually make the entire trip.  We got stopped by some really gnarly tinajas--pools of old standing water.

In general, I think of southern Utah as the capital of slot canyons, but this is a pretty nice one, and feels a bit different from Utah's red sandstone, since it's grayish brown igneous rock.

Like in the national park, we saw a few people, but not many, and felt like we were often on our own for much of this hike.  Really, except around the Chisos lodge area, and in the Santa Elena canyon, I never once felt like there was much in the way of human activity anywhere in this entire region. 

As always with slot canyon exploration, keep a wary eye on the weather.  There's no escape route if a flash flood decides to race through the canyon.

A white-tailed deer we saw in the Chisos Basin near the trailhead.

Near the end of the Window Hike in the Chisos Basin.

My son and my dad at the top of the Balanced Rock hike in the Grapevine Hills.

Closed Canyon, a slot canyon in nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park.

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