Big Bend camping was my chance to stay really close to nature and experience the wilderness, to see a whole new habitat that can survive on less generous and more treacherous conditions. It was an opportunity to meet people from different walks of life and getting to know their adventures and interests. Those open skies, camping right in the basin, surrounded by mysterious shapes of barren rocky mountains: it was an experience of a lifetime.
From Austin to the Chisos Basin
Sharing the ride from Austin happened to be the best decision, as it not only helped us economically, but it could have been really boring to ride on my own for what seemed like seven hours to nowhere. After a few scenic hill country towns like Dripping Springs and Fredericksburg, we saw a number of ranches and maybe a few interesting species of deer. But soon after Sonora, the hill country is far behind, and the land gets absolutely barren, with habitat only in the form of shrubs and bushes.
Here, in the middle of nowhere, a vast flat land expanded up to the horizon dotted by hills, windmills and oil rigs. But finally, Big Bend welcomes you with peculiar mountainous structures, and soon after the quick registration at the visitor center you are at the campsite in Chisos Basin.
Setting up the tent was a first-time experience for me, but after all, it wasn't that hard. Joe helped me get the poles through the hooks on the top and then again hooking them on both the sides. The ground was hard, and so a mallet was absolutely necessary to get the stakes into the ground. Having a tent of four gave me that extra space to accommodate most of my stuff inside the tent.
Bear-proof lockers are a convenience that you get at these campsites. In absence of those, there is a huge risk of being ransacked by bears looking for food. So better be careful. We did follow a strict schedule to be able to make good use of our time here.
Hill Country Outdoor did an excellent job, in providing coffee, breakfast, dinner and packed lunch for all these days. We always had a leader to go with us on each hike, as getting lost in any of these trails can mean a lot of grief.
Out of five days, we spent the first day reaching the camp and setting up the tent, and the last day packing and getting back to Austin. But we made the most out of the rest of the three days, enjoying every bit of it. There were several options and in fact, it’s hard to choose one over the other. I did a few interesting hikes like Lost Mine, Window Trail and South Rim on the first and last day, while the middle day gave us the excitement of a float trip on the Rio Grande and visiting the ghost town of Terlingua.
View from Boot Canyon
Lost Mine Trail
Lost Mine Trail has more of a constant elevation, and although you are exposed to the sun most of the time, Lost Mine kind of gave us a warm up to get ready for the more strenuous hike of South Rim. In fact, although South Rim has a lot more miles and switchbacks and changes in elevation, you are in the shade most of the time and as long as you keep up a constant pace, South Rim is definitely not as hard as it seems.
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Lost Mine gives a good look at Casa Grande from almost all angles and allowed us to peek into some of the beautiful hilly areas behind Casa Grande. The end of Lost Mine has some of the most fantastic rocky structures with cliffs and valleys. Turn around and you always have that constant view of the Chisos Basin and the campsites behind you, surrounded by those peculiar rocky mountains on one end and Casa Grande on the other. In fact, on the Window Trail that we ventured on, the evening view was exactly opposite to Lost Mine Trail.
South Rim Trail
Doing the South Rim Trail at our own pace allowed us to take halts, admire nature, photograph some of the most picturesque terrain and share our experiences. On the South Rim numerous lookouts give you some of the most amazing views of this region. As you stand there on the edge you can see the expanses of rugged terrain, with very sparse vegetation.
Some of those mountains resemble sand dunes while a few have their own unique shapes. The Rio Grande in the distance marks the boundary with Mexico where the terrain continues equally barren and tough for living. Santa Alena canyon is constantly visible from this trail, which is one more interesting hike in this region. We did have Amory Peak on our list and adding that to South Rim would have been an achievement, but no fun at all.
While running through the cactuses and tall grasslands with the exception of few shady areas of pinion pines and cedars, it was fascinating to see colorful patches of autumn trees on this trail. The inverted boot-like structure at one corner marked the Boot Canyon trail and looked quite interesting.
Most of the terrain had very few signs of human touch and that is what made this place so pristine. The region was definitely harsh for any kind of inhabitation but nevertheless there was this vast diversity of flora and fauna. Right from the century cactus plant to the beautiful grasslands, and from road-runner to javelina it had its own ecosystem. We took seven hours to finish these twelve miles of trail, enjoying the constant descent from the Amory Peak trail end.
The Window Trail has its own charm. The mission was to capture sunset from the window at the trail's end, and so we left the camp late, at around five.
The Window Trail structures seem to be created by the constant flow of gushing waters through the rocks. Although the water was sparse at this point in time, there seemed to be a number of small streams around as we walked towards the Window. They do seem to have a monsoon in this part of Texas, usually between August and September, but I wonder how predictable it would be. A few of the rocky surfaces appeared as if somebody has chiseled the entire rock. This seemed like heaven for rock climbers as well as rappelers.
We got lucky on our way down as Mitchell pointed us to a couple of deer feeding in the bushes. The trail is mostly a constant descent at a reasonable pace while you have the same constant elevation on your way back.
We took Oak Spring Trail which is much steeper and slippery at places. Better be careful and make sure to look out for others as the surface is hard rock, and you really do not want to break your bone at this place.
The view from the Window was amazing. The window slit is a vertical structure through the rock with a few rocky structures right in front of the slit, giving you the view of the landscape beyond. The sunset added fantastic colors at this time of the day and we took our own time, enjoying the beauty and admiring nature.
Water suddenly became precious here and the shower after the long day of hikes made our day. The things that we take for granted become so valuable here.
After a long day of physical activity, the food tasted amazing and the hard ground of the campsite and the freezing cold did not keep us from a sound sleep. In fact, most of us slept like babies, snoring the bears away.
Big Bend National Park
The float trip was probably my luck at its best because I had completely missed registering for the event and was kind of sad about my negligence. I knew I won't be able to make it to Boquillas, as it needs a visa, but I had always wanted to do this float trip, ever since I heard about it during the pre-planning meeting. I got in almost at the last moment, as someone dropped out.
The outfitters, Charlie, Mike, and Robin, did a fantastic job in explaining to us the do's and don’ts. Kayaking appeared it would be a huge challenge, counting our inexperience in kayaking. But at the end, it didn't seem that horrible at all. Joe and I had a lot of fun going in circles, but when we needed to we kept the kayak in line with the flow at rough rapids, not getting into an odd angle and jeopardizing our route. Getting wet is no fun at all.
It was interesting to know that this was also a part of the Rio Grande where there were border crossings in the past and looking at the harsh terrain it did seemed like an arduous job.
The float trip gave us that tranquil and happy time as most of the time we were admiring nature and let the Rio Grande do her job to take us to our destination. The tall mountains around, the peaceful atmosphere, a sunny bright day and a fantastic crew of people, what more would you want. It was fun, exhilaration and peace of mind at one go.
Haven introduced us to the all-time old movie classic Fandango and the "DOM" rock somewhere close to our float trip drop-off point in Big Bend Ranch Park. The view of Rio Grande from here was awesome and I guess I was lucky to not have missed it. Eric, Haven, Judy and I took turns getting some pretty pictures at this spot and that was good fun.
Visiting the Terlingua theatre starlight shopping center is another experience of its own. Although the café was closed at that time, it was interesting to visit their shop, which had everything to keep the reputation of its name “The Ghost Town”. The place also gives that unique feeling of being in the wild west, resembling many of those Hollywood movie scenes of the wild west.
Chilli Paper Cafe served us the most delicious and authentic Mexican food in a homely setup. The quantity was more than enough, and it was nice to eat something substantial after living on camping food for a little while. The Fajita was exquisite and so was the chili sauce. The homemade sauces added an interesting flavor to the cuisine.
Although I could not go to Boquillas with the group, it did seem to be an interesting way to cross the border and get to know a little bit about the people on the other side. Being in this rough terrain they do not have ample means to make earning. Once a mining town, currently, Boquillas seems to be surviving solely on the tourist coming from the other side of the border.
As you cross the Rio Grande they provide you with a couple of options to get to the village, the most interesting being the burro ride. People are very hospitable, and they would love to show their village around and try selling some of the handmade knick-knacks. The food here is awesome and it would cost you half the price for the delicious tacos and burritos that you might pay in any of the Texan towns.
South Rim Overlook
One of the highlights of this camping was meeting some interesting people. It was amazing to meet people like Paco who have retired for last 15 years and at the age of 84, he had more vigor than probably any one of us. A very humble guy, with love for nature, kept himself absolutely fit and happy through his hobby to explore. I am pretty sure he did not need a lot to put that constant smile on his face.
The campsite was a perfect spot for enjoying nature at its best. Situated right in the basin of the Chisos mountains we had tall, massive Casa Grande on one side, with a solid rocky range of mountains on the other side ultimately descending towards the window. The window had that peculiar curvy shape, and every night we saw the moon rising from the Casa Grande finally setting towards the window. The early morning views of the moon setting at the window were soothing. In fact, the moon was so bright that we hardly needed our headlamps most of these days.
The last day festivities were the peak point of our three-day camping with lots of creativity in terms of Halloween costumes, singing and campfire jokes. I could hardly believe to have such a great company, each one of them being special in one or the other sense. It was great to meet some of the researchers, writers, athletes, photographers, and business tycoons who were equally interesting as plain humans and I find myself lucky to have met them.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Darshan
K S Lane from Melbourne, Australia on December 26, 2017:
Really informative. Love the inclusion of the beautiful photos.