Big Bend National Park: The Moody Desert

A Raven soars over the Chihuahuan Desert

It was Tuesday afternoon, November 12, our final afternoon at Big Bend National Park. We were back in Chisos Basin earlier than we had planned, driven from the high mountains by the mist and clouds. We ate through some of our remaining bars and food for lunch, but not before I had consulted “Butterflies of the Big Bend Country” in the store to determine the species of our butterfly companion: Lyside Sulphur.

We would be spending our final night at the park in the Chisos Mountains Lodge here in the Basin. We inquired about early check-in, but our room wasn’t ready. While we were in the lobby, we overheard staff talking about possible road closures, which made us a little nervous. The visibility was still horrible, and we wanted to drive down out of the mountains (in the hope that visibility was better in the desert below) and see a few more sights this final afternoon.

We went into the visitor center and consulted with the ranger. He said that when he’d last had a report, the visibility at park headquarters at Panther Junction in the desert below was about the same as it was here in the Basin. But he said there was no reason or even remotest possibility that the road into the Chisos would close. He told us that this weather, unusual for the time of year, had happened often in the preceding weeks, and that some occurrences were worse than this. He also said that this time of slow seeping rain/drizzle was excellent for the desert because it would soak into the land, as opposed to sudden torrential storms that just wash over the surface.

We browsed for a while and looked at exhibitions in the visitor center before deciding to head down to the headquarters at Panther Junction. Even if visibility were terrible, we could possibly check out a video or presentation in the auditorium there.


The drive up and over Panther Pass and down Green Gulch in the thick clouds was spooky fun. Then, about half a mile from the main park road, as we sloped down into the desert from the foothills of the Chisos Mountains, we suddenly dropped beneath the cloud line and could see the lower elevation desert rolling out before us.

When we reached Panther Junction (which consists of a gas station, park headquarters, and some NPS housing), the clouds were visibly rising. I wouldn’t say clearing, but rising enough that we were beginning to anticipate a couple of desert walks that had been on our “if we have time” list.

Big Bend National Park Headquarters at Panther Junction

The highlight of the Panther Junction visitor center was the scale 3D model of the park. It was also where I was able to pick up the US Geological Survey’s Geologic Map of Big Bend National Park, a huge map and companion book that were ridiculously only $10.

We were also looking for a plush roadrunner, but had no luck finding one. Ever since Virgin Islands National Park, we’d been collecting a small stuffed animal of one emblematic representative of each park’s fauna that we had actually seen with our own eyes (sea turtle for VI, California Condor for Pinnacles, and so forth). There were plenty of toy bears, mountain lions, and javelina, but we hadn’t seen any ourselves, and had settled on a roadrunner to represent Big Bend.

After the visitor center, we drove southeast in the direction of Rio Grande Village to the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail at Dugout Wells, the site of an old homestead. It was a guided, half-mile loop trail with many interpretive signs.

Nugent Mountain

As we explored the nature trail, the clouds…how to put it?…thinned somewhat. They didn’t lift, and they didn’t dissipate, but they let at times more light through. Our only companions at the nature trail were a pair of ravens, irritated by our presence.

Decomposing Prickly Pear
Blind Prickly Pear (found only in the Chihuahuan Desert)
Elephant Tusk Peak in the distance.
Creosote Bush
Desert Marigold

Dugout Wells was within site of the Sierra del Carmen, which we glimpsed as clouds unfurled in great sheets across the desert.

The distant Sierra del Carmen in Mexico.

After we circled back to the car, we headed west, back once more on that great arc around the Chisos and toward Burro Mesa.

Part of this formation looks like a huge man of stone reclining against the rock. Foreground: Ocotillo. Image: Sean M. Santos

Our destination was Sam Nail Ranch, nestled along Cottonwood Creek between Burro Mesa and the Chisos Mountains. It still looked like all the clouds in the world were being formed in the heart of the Chisos Mountains and billowing from them across the whole earth.

The Chisos Mountains shrouded in clouds.

Two brothers, Sam and Jim Nail founded the ranch in 1916. Two years later, Sam married Nena Burnham of Government Spring. They would live here until 1946, two years after the park was established. The remains of the ranch are still an oasis in the desert.

Racoon scat

The newer of the two windmills still runs, and when the wind blows, it still pumps a trickle of water that keeps the old ranch site an oasis. The fin of the windmill indicates it was made by “The AERMOTOR Co. Chicago.”

Ruins of the adobe ranch house
The valley between the Chisos Mountains and Burro Mesa

We said goodbye to the Burro Mesa area for the final time and returned to Chisos Basin. We picked up our key, stopped at the store to purchase a celebratory bottle of wine, and headed to our room. It was tidy and (thankfully) had tile floors. We dumped our damp and filthy gear in the entry area, poured some wine, and began to sort, repack, and dry out our gear. We had to shift from backpacking mode to airplane mode.


After we had things in order and had killed the bottle of wine, we walked over to the main lodge building for dinner. In the last of the light, we could see that the clouds were lifting and some of the Basin’s geological features were becoming visible again.

Chisos Mountains Lodge dining room

Celebrating my birthday dinner at the lodge was quite pleasant. I had the brisket because I was in Texas. We got chatting with our server, who had worked in 2012 for the park concessionaire on Isle Royale, the season after we had been there.

After dinner, we returned to our room and turned in. Our hope was that if we woke early enough the following morning, we’d have time for one more short hike before having to begin the drive back to El Paso.

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