Between Denali and the next adventure, several months intervened; I helped drive Ian to the West Coast, via Nashville and Houston; incremented my Muir Woods count by one; visited the San Antonio missions for the holidays; and did a first day hike at Westcave in Austin: a fascinating, private nature preserve, rehabilitated in the 1970s after years of trespassing and abuse.
But the first chance to load out the gear and take it on adventure came in February. My best friend Drew was on a photo shoot in Oakland late in January; sensing my wanderlust (and seeking help for the drive back), he asked if I wanted to tag along on the road trip back to Austin. The answer, of course, was yes — in no small part because any drive from Northern California to Central Texas would inevitably pass near my favorite place in the whole country: Big Bend National Park.
If you have not heard of Big Bend National Park, you are likely not alone. It’s among the more remote National Parks in the lower 48 states; the nearest major cities are El Paso (a five hour drive at minimum) and San Antonio (six and a half). Perhaps owing to its remoteness, it receives few visitors relative to its size; Big Bend is slightly larger than Yosemite, yet saw only 440,000 visitors in 2017, compared to Yosemite’s 4.3 million.
Named for the big bend in the Rio Grande that defines the iconic shape of Texas’ southern border, Big Bend was many things before it became a national park in 1944. In addition to its rich native history, it hosted army outposts during both the Mexican-American War in the mid 1800s and the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century. Over the years a few farmers, ranchers and miners carved out a hardscrabble existence in this vast frontier. One Mexican pioneer built a low-slung desert hut from ocotillo branches and chunks of limestone, and there lived to the impressive age of 109.
Big Bend is also large enough to encompass several different ecosystems, all of which you can glimpse in an hour-long drive from the park entrance to Rio Grande Village at the far end. As you enter, whether from Terlingua to the west or Alpine to the north, you are likely to first notice the rocky terrain of the Chihuahuan Desert, sparsely vegetated with prickly pear, ocotillo and the occasional sotol.
Keep driving to reach Panther Junction, the intersection of the two entrance roads, and you will see the majestic Chisos Mountains to the south. If you were to head that direction, you would find yourself in the Chisos Basin: lusher and greener, filled with juniper, cypress, oak and Mexican pine trees.
Stay on the main park road, however, and you will find yourself at the east end of the park, Rio Grande Village, and the grasses and cottonwood trees that line the muddy banks of the big river. Once a small settlement founded to support the lead and silver mines in Boquillas del Carmen, Rio Grande Village now hosts a small general store and a campground. The mist rising off the river at sunrise gives the place a magical feel.
For the sake of this introduction, there’s no need to hit all of the biomes. This was a two-day visit, and the day-one plan was simple.
- Drive to the Chisos Basin in Big Bend National Park
- Hike the Window Trail
- Camp at the Chisos Basin Campground
Naturally, one cannot drive from Oakland to Big Bend in one fell swoop, but the specifics of this road trip (Oakland to Phoenix to Van Horn) feel less than useful for planning purposes. So in general terms, I’m going to outline three strategies for getting to Big Bend from points west.
The Direct: You can do this in one day. Head out as early in the morning as you can; take Interstate 10 toward (and past) El Paso. When you hit Van Horn, hang a right on Highway 90 toward Marfa, Alpine and Marathon. It will be about 200 miles from Van Horn to Panther Junction; once there, you can decide on camping. Depending on what time you started out; you might end up having a light first day in the park.
The Artsy: Two day trip. Take Interstate 10 to Highway 90, but stop in Marfa instead of driving on to Marathon. Visit the Chianti foundation; see Donald Judd’s colossal works in concrete (free) or book ahead for the full tour (the Flavin is worth splurging on). Wander the local art galleries and shops; depending on your vibe, have a cocktail at the Hotel Paisano, or a Lone Star at the Lost Horse Saloon. If you went the cocktail route, stay in a rustic yurt or vintage trailer at El Cosmico; if you’re more of a Lost Horse type, try the Riata Inn. Either way, wake up early on day two, and you’re just 125 miles from Panther Junction. Hit the park early and get a long hike in.
The Hardscrabble: Two days, again. Take Interstate 10 to Highway 90; hang a right on the 118 in Alpine and drive to the Terlingua Ghost Town. Despite the “ghost town” name, this small hamlet still has some things going for it. Wander the dusty, sun-bleached cemetery; grab a drink at La Kiva on the banks of Terlingua Creek; have dinner at the Starlight Theater. Stay at an AirBnB, or one of the local hotels. Wake up early on day two, and you will find yourself just 15 minutes from Maverick Junction, the western entrance to Big Bend. If you wake up early enough you could be at Santa Elena Canyon by sunrise.
The most accessible camping options include the centrally located Basin campground, Rio Grande Village on the eastern side of the park, and Cottonwood at the southwest. If you have a high-clearance vehicle, you may also want to look into one of the backcountry camp sites. Most sites outside the Chisos Basin are accessible via dirt road, although you will need to make a reservation with a ranger upon your arrival.
Drew and I ended up getting to the park in mid-afternoon; claimed a camp site in the basin near the Window trailhead with a couple of hours to go until sunset. Then we set off on the Window Trail as the late afternoon light cast dramatic shadows on the basin walls.
The Window Trail is, admittedly, not the deepest cut on the album. It is well known, and one of the most popular trails in Big Bend. But there are good reasons for that.
The journey itself, short though it is, has plenty to offer. The first half of the gently sloping trail features dramatic views of the rocky peaks surrounding the basin. As the trail narrows, the walls of Oak Creek Canyon rise up around you, and the seasonal waters of the creek nurture trees and plants that cool the air as you walk the final stretch toward the trail’s namesake. A spur near the end of the trail leads to an overlook with dramatic views of the northwest quadrant of the park.
Spur aside, it’s five and a half miles in and out, which makes it a terribly convenient hike, easily accessible both from the Chisos Mountain Lodge and the nearby campground. It’s the kind of hike that you could still do if you, say, got a late start and found yourself in the basin in late afternoon, with sunset not all that far off. Hypothetically.
In the summertime you might think twice about starting this trail in mid-afternoon, or at least bring extra hydration; the initial walk to Oak Creek Canyon is exposed, and the direct sunlight can be a bit much. But in early February, the conditions were ideal. And soon enough we found ourselves in the canyon, where the steep walls shielded us from the afternoon sun.
The crown jewel of the hike, of course, is the Window itself, a narrow gap between Carter and Vernon Bailey peaks where runoff from Oak Creek pours out into the desert below. The creek is seasonal, and it was not flowing when we were there; nevertheless, centuries of running water have polished the rock at this pouroff to a smooth, almost glassy sheen. Out of the window sits a gigantic split rock, one of the lower foothills of Vernon Bailey Peak. And then off in the distance lays the desolate majesty of the desert and mountains beyond.
After spending a good half hour at the window, taking photographs and not seeing another soul, we hiked back to the trailhead, where we prepared to make camp for the night.
Unlike in Denali, this was not a backcountry situation; we had the benefit of Drew’s car parked nearby, and the whole park headquarters (complete with bar and restaurant) just a half mile up by walking trail. Still, conditions were set to be a bit cold that night; this would prove a useful test for the gear.
I promised at the outset that this blog would catalog screwups and mistakes alongside more heroic stories. This definitely falls in with the former. Drew had invited me on this road trip on a lark; he had not brought along a sleeping bag. I had flown to Oakland with what gear Ian had left me: a tent in a backpack, sleeping bag (but no pad), head lamp, and a Camelbak day pack capable of hauling two liters of water and a couple of trail beers. Drew for his part had a pile of blankets in his back seat; we figured that this would be more or less enough to brave one night before heading to the Rio Grande and Boquillas in the morning.
The tent set up by sunset, we headed to the Chisos Mountain Lodge just after dark. I can sing the praises of the backcountry all day and all night, but there’s something to be said for the creature comforts of a general store and a bar with local beer — Big Bend Brewing Co., out of Alpine — all walking distance from your camp site. Eventually we made our way back by the light of a headlamp, before loading blankets and sleeping bag into the tent.
The night was cold. Colder, I think, than either of us expected. It started out in the fifties when we settled in for bed, which was altogether reasonable. But the temperature dropped quickly overnight, to temperatures that my inherited sleeping bag was not rated for. Poor Drew had only blankets.
It was in the forties by midnight, and the thirties by 5 AM. It was around that time that I learned a valuable lesson: there is a reason you need a sleeping pad. In cold weather, you need to protect your body heat as much as you can, and a warm sleeping bag is only part of the equation. Being in direct contact with a cold object — like, say, the cold ground on a cold night — causes your body to lose heat through conduction.
So there’s that.
I awoke before sunrise, all shivering and miserable. Looked over to the other side of the tent and found that my traveling companion was missing. Unzipped the tent and vestibule, walked over to his car and found him in the front, bundled up in blankets, the foam cushions of the driver’s seat a more effective insulator than the thin layer of tent that had been shielding him from the cold ground.
“We should just go”, Drew said.
We braved the cold for a few moments more; tore down the tent, losing even more heat as we unearthed the stakes and folded the freezing tent poles. But soon enough we had all the gear thrown back into the back seat of the car, and were on our way out of the basin at daybreak. An inversion had trapped the early morning fog halfway up the mountain; as we made our way down the winding road and back to the desert, we drove into the mist as though descending into the sea.
To the desert floor we descended, headed to the Hot Springs Trail, Boquillas Canyon, and a story that we’ll come back to at a later date.
I read somewhere that there’s a method to figuring out whether, in a dire situation, you can eat an unknown plant. The strategy is first to touch the plant to a section of exposed skin, and wait for a reaction; then, after some time, to touch it to your lips, and wait for a reaction; then, after even more time, to touch it to your tongue, and wait for a reaction. The idea here is that if the plant were dangerous, you would be able to find out when it gave you a rash, rather than when it killed you after eating it.
This may not have been the most dramatic of camping trips, but it was a needed first step, a light touch of an experience before leaving the road and taking the tent out on the trail. Here we were deeply unprepared, but at least there was a safe way out: we were not far from civilization; we could drive away and avoid hypothermia. We could live to camp another day.
This was a short hike, in the end, and not that complex of a situation. It’s a bit of an odd one to write up, given that most of the stories to come involve many miles more. Nevertheless, this trip taught me the valuable lesson that you need good gear to keep you safe; that your body is the only furnace you’ve got on the trail; that preserving body heat is a primary concern and that there are more ways than one to lose it. These are all things that we could have — should have — understood beforehand, but nevertheless learned quite viscerally when we woke up shivering early in the morning.
The next trip would come a couple of months later, thousands of miles from Big Bend, in New York’s Hudson Valley. I would need a sleeping pad to go along with the bag and the backpack, plus a little bit of chutzpah to take this show off the road. @