Big Bend National Park: The Misty Mountains


And then the clouds came.

In the growing light before dawn, we were awakened by a soft rain. We made sure that our gear was covered, and climbed back into our sleeping bags to doze for another hour or so. At 7:30, I woke up in earnest. Outside our tent it had stopped raining, but the mist had rolled in, making the world chilly and moody and destroying any visibility. It was my 35th birthday, Tuesday, November 12.


Although it was so misty, it was also breezy, and the billows of cloud and mist were blown up the adjacent slopes so that Emory Peak just above us was alternately visible and shrouded. We took our time making coffee and preparing breakfast, hoping that the clouds and mist would eventually clear.


While we were waiting for the coffee to finish percolating, two deer, a doe and likely her surviving fawn from that spring, wandered into our camp, browsing vegetation. I wouldn’t say they were unconcerned by us, but they didn’t spook while I tried to get a good photo.

Sierra del Carmen Whitetail Deer, a sub-species found only in the Chisos and the Sierra del Carmen
Hygroscopic Earthstar (Astraeus hygrometricus)

After the deer had moved on and after we had eaten breakfast, I set off to find one of the composting toilets placed at intervals among the high country campsites. Sean went the other route and dug a cat hole. Leaving camp for the roughly mile long round trip to and from the toilet, I got a taste for just how misty it really was, and also mysterious and silent. About half way down the trail to the toilet I got a little nervous (I had just set out alone into what the signage kept reminding me was mountain lion and bear country).  The toilet was among the campsites at the top of Boot Canyon. Although it was open air, I couldn’t see much, just the occasional dramatic canyon wall opposite when the clouds would part momentarily.

It was tantalizing.

Near the beginning of my return hike, some movement off the trail startled me until I realized that it was just the two deer who had continued on their way nibbling breakfast near the trail. They didn’t seem to be nervous about anything, so I decided I shouldn’t be either. The mostly uphill return was a little rough considering how we’d overdone it the day before.

Back in camp, we decided to at least try and see some of the South Rim. Perhaps, we thought, the clouds would part at least a bit. (This hope was belied a bit by that we could no longer glimpse Emory Peak above us).

We gathered our things for a day hike and set out, back up Colima Trail to the top of the ridge and then toward Blue Creek Canyon. Only a few switchbacks down, we decided to give up. The visibility was so poor that we couldn’t see much past the first line of trees of the trail. There was just nothing but thick cloud.

We returned and broke camp. Filling our water bottles and bladders, we used the end of our water. It turned out that we had planned well in that respect. It also made for significantly lighter packs for the return trip. We set out just before 10:30am.


For the descent, we took Colima Trail to Boot Spring Trail and then Pinnacles Trail back into the Basin, essentially creating one big loop over the two days of hiking. The return trip was 5.25 miles, dropped about 1,900 feet in elevation, and took about 2 hours, 15 minutes.


When Colima Trail ended, we turned left onto Boot Spring Trail.


Once we reached Boot Spring Trail, we knew that the canyon and its famous Boot Rock were out there in the clouds, we just couldn’t see them.


Video: Brandon Hayes

We crossed a lovely little spring gurgling and singing its way downhill. Apparently it was too ephemeral to be named on the maps, but it was lovely.

Chipping Sparrow

As we descended, we were basically heading north with the obscured easterly vistas to our right. Even more than on the other side of the Chisos on Laguna Meadow Trail, it felt like we were passing through distinct pocket ecosystems. This merely may have been impressionistic since we could only see what was near us and not have the sense of space that we’d had the day before when visibility was good.

[I have been endlessly frustrated trying to ID these showy purple flowers.]

We reached the spur trail to the top of Emory Peak, and we noted that there were huge bear lockers for backpackers to stow their gear while the went up to the top. So it turned out that my plan would have been perfectly executable. There was a momentary tug to go up to the top even though my legs were hurting, but the clouds had only gotten more dense and the visibility was worsening. There would have been little point in climbing to the top of Emory. We continued down, and Boot Spring Trail became Pinnacles Trail.


The abysmal visibility forced us to look more closely at the details along the trail, which were captivating.

Cardinal Catchfly (Silene laciniata)

Pinnacles Trail below Emory Peak was extremely steep, essentially a switchbacking staircase. We were glad to that we’d chosen to descend on this trail instead of climb it (even if we were missing the legendary views).

Bigtooth Maple

At one point, we passed through a grove of Bigtooth Maple, which was like walking through a whisper of autumn.

Texas Madrone

At Juniper Flat, the trail leveled out for a while and passed through a scrubby meadow and patches of wildflowers.

Globe Mallow
Prairie Verbena
Common Chinchweed (Pectis papposa)

The trail descended again after Juniper Flat, and when we came upon the sign for the Chisos Basin Loop Trail, we knew we were almost back down, even if visually we had little idea where we were in relation to Casa Grande, the Window, or other Basin landmarks.


Soon we passed the historic lodge structures, although their view of the Window (below) was significantly obscured.


And then, suddenly, we were at the trailhead and our Captiva was visible (somewhat) in the parking lot across the meadow.


We had gone all the way to Big Bend National Park, we had hiked into the Chisos, but we had missed out on the South Rim and some of the most spectacular views in the National Park System. Disappointing, certainly, but I would not trade it for the very special experience we did have on a magical morning.

3 thoughts on “Big Bend National Park: The Misty Mountains

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