Big Bend National Park: Into the Chisos

Emory Peak

After a morning spent exploring Burro Mesa and striking our camp at Cottonwood, we drove to the heart of Big Bend National Park: Chisos Basin. We had reserved our backcountry campsite the day before and planned to hike into the mountains for an overnight backpack trip. I wanted to wake up the following morning, Tuesday, November 12, on my 35th birthday in the Chisos Mountains.

Vernon Bailey Peak looms over the Chisos Basin

Multiple times over the preceding days we had driven the park roads in a great arc north of the Chisos, but this time, we turned south onto the road that ran up into the center of the mountains. The road rose steadily up the northern slopes into a canyon called Green Gulch. A delicate set of power lines ran along the road providing electricity to the visitor center, store, and lodge in the Basin.

As the elevation increased, the vegetation became steadily greener and more lush. Up we went into the Chisos with jagged, spire-like peaks rising on either side. They reminded me of photos of mountains in China, both in the deep burnt sienna of the rock, and in the evergreens of various species clinging to them. The road began twisting into a series of sharp switchbacks as we climbed Panther Pass and then descended into the Chisos Basin.

We parked at the trailhead (approximately 5,400 feet elevation), stopped into the store to grab some cliff bars to have as snacks, shouldered our backpacks (which because we had to carry all our water were very heavy), and set out. Our destination was Colima 3 campground, one of three along Colima Trail in the forests of the south side of Emory Peak, about 5 miles away. We began the hike at just about 2:30pm, and arrived at the campground 2.5 hours later, just before 5pm.

5 miles. 2,000 feet elevation gain. 2.5 hours. We pushed ourselves because in honesty, we started too late and were worried about losing the light before we were able to set up camp. Our intention was simply to make it to camp, and then the next morning with a home base in the mountains have time to hike out to the South Rim and perhaps to the top of Emory Peak before heading back down to the basin in the afternoon.

This Plains Lubber grasshopper is missing its right rear leg.

Of the two major trails into the High Chisos, we chose Laguna Meadow Trail because, although it has the same 2,000 feet elevation gain, it achieves it more steadily and slightly less steeply.


Throughout the Basin and at other points along the trail were warnings and guides to safety in bear and mountain lion country. Black bears were not always present in the Chisos during the history of the park. During the 1980s, bears crossed the Rio Grande from the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico to make the Chisos Mountains their home.

Drummond’s Blue-footed Bup

Laguna Meadow Trail led us quickly up and out of the Basin. Looking back, we could see through The Window, the westerly facing gap in the mountains that provides the only drainage from the Basin.

The Window created by Vernon Bailey Peak to the right and Carter Peak to the left

The Chisos Mountains formed by ancient volcanoes and rising many thousands of feet above the Chihuahuan Desert, are like an island of green in a sea of desert. Many of the species found in these mountains, such as quaking aspen, were stranded as the region warmed at the end of the last ice age. Some of these stranded species have evolved into distinct species and subspecies endemic to these mountains or to the Chisos and the neighboring Sierra del Carmen. Other species, such as yucca and ocotillo, are rare in mountain habitats, but are found here along with pines, junipers, and oaks because they have traveled up from the desert floor. The mix is splendidly fragrant and wildly fascinating in its juxtapositions.

Mexican Jays
Emory Peak

As we climbed, the play of light on the mountains from a partly-cloudy afternoon was intoxicating.

Toll Mountain (left)
Globe Mallow
Sean shakes hands with a Century Plant (Agave havardiana).
Emory Peak
Threadleaf Phlox

The hike was exceptionally tough. In addition to its being a daunting hike by itself, we were carrying very heavy packs, we got started late, and we had already hiked 4.6 miles that morning on Burro Mesa. We were pushing ourselves at a very quick pace as we raced the sunlight. It was the toughest hike of my life so far. The only hike that comes close was the unexpected 11-mile backpack of our first day on Isle Royale.

Toll Mountain
Mexican Drooping Juniper, found nowhere in the United States other than the Chisos Mountains.
Graves Oak, one of three species in the Chisos.

Looking back, we could see how far both in distance and height we’d come from the Basin. (The image below is the continuation to the right of the image above.)

Pinyon Pine (left)
Toll Mountain (right)

We knew from our hiking guide that the trail would crest beneath Emory Peak and would run basically flat through Laguna Meadow proper, meanwhile, we were switchbacking up the western face of Emory toward the longed-for ridge.


The shaded portions of the trail were a welcome relief. And as we rested, we could admire the beautiful work of the trail dogs who built and maintained these trails.


Just before we crested the ridge, a look back showed us the entire Chisos Basin spread out to the north behind us. In elevation, we were now just about equal to the wall of Pulliam Peak on the opposite side of the Basin.

Casa Grande Peak to the right, Pulliam Peak (center) is the high point of the northern wall of the Chisos Basin.

And then, after one more switchback, the world leveled out into Laguna Meadow, and we encountered the first of the backcountry campsites we would pass on the way to ours. What we would discover later is that we had inadvertently chosen the highest campsite of any we would pass in the Chisos.

Mountain Sage, endemic to the Chisos Mountains, found nowhere else on earth.
Engelmann Prickly Pear

At the 4.1 mile point, Blue Creek Trail cuts off from Laguna Meadow Trail to begin a long, rugged descent into the desert. We continued left on Laguna Meadow Trail.

Blue Creek Canyon

Above and below, Blue Creek Canyon plunges back to the desert. We had looked up this canyon when we stood at Sotol Vista, and Blue Creek would, miles away, also carve Tuff Canyon. The cliff in the middle distance beyond the canyon is part of the South Rim, our destination in the morning.

Blue Creek Canyon

After showing us Blue Creek Canyon, the trail began rising again, now to the south of Emory Peak.

Emory Peak
Emory Peak

After about 0.8 of a mile, Colima Trail cut to the left. Our campsite was now only about half a mile away. Unfortunately, much of that half mile was uphill in a series of steep switchbacks that would bring us to our highest elevation of the hike (just about 7,400 feet). By this time, I was having a truly rough time of it, having to stop frequently to catch my breath. But we continued on.


After we reached the final ridge of our hike, the switchbacks ended and the trail dropped in a gradual decline through forest. We almost missed the small sign and spur trail to our campsite. But suddenly, there we were. We’d made it!


All the campsites in the Chisos are primitive backcountry sites with bear boxes and flat areas for pitching tents. Unlike the vast majority of the park, where backcountry camping is permitted virtually anywhere, here it is limited to the designated, reservable sites. Fires are prohibited. These restrictions help to protect the fragile mountain ecosystems and ensure that human campsites are spread far from each other.

Our site was at about 7,150 feet, not even 700 feet below Emory Peak, the highest point in Big Bend, immediately to our north.


As the sun set, we set up camp entirely, before turning our attention to supper.


When the sun finally set, while we were finishing preparing supper, darkness came quickly and absolutely. And the temperature dropped precipitously, so much so that Sean danced around to keep warm while we waited for our dehydrated meals to rehydrate.

The caterpillar of the Tawny Holomelina moth (Virbia opella) apparently wanted a taste of my supper.

As soon as we finished supper, we locked up all of our foodstuffs, garbage, and toiletries (anything with a scent that could attract wildlife) into the bear box, and climbed into the warmth of our sleeping bags. We left our packs outside our tent with the rain covers on to prevent them from getting damp. Soon we were asleep.

3 thoughts on “Big Bend National Park: Into the Chisos

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