Big Bend National Park: Grapevine Hills


It was Wednesday morning, November 13, and it was time to go home, but still we wanted to get in one more short hike before driving back to El Paso for our flight. We drank some hotel room coffee while we loaded the car with the gear we had packed the night before. The visibility was better, but still not great.

Our destination that morning was Grapevine Hills and its famous balanced rock. In my mind I was already calculating: if we arrive at the trailhead by such time and on average it takes us so long to do a hike of said length then we should be starting the drive to El Paso by that time which makes it possible to catch our flight and so forth.

The store and visitor center are visible across the parking lot from the door of our room at the Chisos Mountains Lodge. The formation behind them is visible too. The wall of mountains behind that, which forms the north wall of the Basin, is not.

In the interest of time, we decided not to get breakfast at the lodge, but to grab something later during the drive to El Paso.

Vernon Bailey Peak peeks through the clouds.

For the final time, we drove up and over Panther Pass and down the long slope of Green Gulch. The bottom of the cloud layer was higher than it had been the previous afternoon, which afforded the opportunity to take a few photos. But I had learned my lesson. We should have pulled over and captured some images when the skies were clear two days before on our first drive up into the Chisos. I had assumed we’d capture images of these peaks another day, but then because of the clouds we never had another opportunity. Next time. (And there will certainly be a next time for this park.)

Green Gulch

We turned left onto the main park road and then almost immediately turned right onto Grapevine Hills Road, a 7.7-mile maintained dirt road that allowed access to the trailhead, due north of the Chisos.

The sun was drawing water, as my Grandma would say. Image: Sean M. Santos

Sean captured some video of the drive. It appears both that the road was bumpier and that we were going faster than it actually felt at the time.

Video: Sean M. Santos


Soon we were at the trailhead, although it was about 15 minutes later than I’d hoped. We were definitely flirting with it being just a little too late to make this hike. But we were there! Standing there at the trailhead! How could we not?!

We set out.


Grapevine Hills Trail is a mile one-way. It heads south in almost a straight line through the remains of what had been a huge dome-shaped laccolith formed by magma rising up through sedimentary rock. The magma cooled into granite that was harder than the overlying rock, which ultimately weathered away, leaving the granite boulders to weather into an array of shapes and formations.


Looking back in the direction of the trailhead, the light was so tender on the Rosillos Mountains to the north.

Rosillos Mountains
A high-up rock looks like an old tortoise perched to watch the world.

After 3/4 miles, the trail began climbing steeply up the southern wall, switchbacking toward balanced rock. Balanced rock was out of sight for most of the hike and climb, and then suddenly there it was.

Image: Sean M. Santos
The view from balanced rock. Nugent Mountain in the Chisos is visible 10 miles away.

It was getting late, so we didn’t linger at balanced rock, but instead hustled back to the car. Sean changed into his airplane clothes then, but we were now about 20 minutes later than my intended do-or-die time for getting on the road, so I left my hiking clothes on. It was about 9:20 (central time), and our flight departed El Paso at 2:45 (mountain time).

A final view of the Chisos in the clouds from Grapevine Hills Road.

We had a decision to make: drive out of the park’s west entrance the way we’d come and head over many miles of two-lane highways through Alpine and Marfa eventually to meet back up with I-10, or drive out the park’s north entrance and make a straighter line toward I-10. The former was more direct, but the latter got us to the interstate sooner (although much further east).

We opted for the latter, taking the route that we had not yet seen. The drive through the desolate northern portion of the park whet my appetite further for a return visit. Outside of the park, the drive to Marathon was also beautiful (although we had to go through an immigration check-point where the officers just continued pulling on their cigarettes while they questioned us).

Finally we made it to Fort Stockton, a city of about 8,500 people on I-10. Border patrol vehicles were everywhere. Everywhere. It was bizarre and felt like insane overkill. As we were making our way to the interstate, one drove up beside keeping pace for a while, and it distinctly felt like the officers were checking us out, probably because Sean is…you know…brown. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had run our plates. Sean and I both grew up in Detroit along a far-different international border, and the feeling in Fort Stockton was just mind-blowing by comparison.

But soon we were on I-10. When I saw the first distance-to-upcoming-cities sign, I about had a panic attack: 241 miles to El Paso. I began silently calculating speed, distance, and time on the steering wheel with my fingers. Sean noticed and put on some mellow music to calm the nerves. At that point I thought there was little chance we’d be able to get to El Paso, gas up the car, return it to Enterprise, check-in, get through security, and get to our flight in time.

Happily, the speed limit on I-10 in West Texas is 80mph, so we had that in our favor. Also, we were driving into mountain time, so we’d gain an hour. As the hours passed, I began to relax since we were making unimaginably good time. But still, the unknowns of the airport were in the back of my head.

We made it to El Paso a little after 1pm. Gassing the car and returning it took no time at all. Check-in was smooth, and security was speedy (although an agent told us that about half an hour before it had been a mess). Once we were at our gate, I changed into my airplane clothes in the men’s room. We even had time to have a celebratory beer at a bar and grill while we waited for our carry-out order for the flight to be prepared.


I also texted my mother, who had been afraid we’d been eaten by mountain lions.


Soon we were settled into our seats and under way to Chicago.


And when we got home, as usual, Elsa was pleased to see us.


1 thought on “Big Bend National Park: Grapevine Hills

  1. Pingback: Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Unit: Saying Farewell to the Dakotas | As They Are: Exploring the National Parks

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