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.
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.
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.
On Monday afternoon, November 11, not long after we began my big birthday backpack into the High Chisos Mountains Complex, we were switchbacking up Laguna Meadow Trail, still within sight of the lodge buildings, when Sean, who had been in front but was now behind since I’d requested a slower pace, said:
“There’s an insect on your backpack.”
“What kind of insect?” I asked.
“A butterfly,” he replied.
“Take a photo.”
We stopped. He snapped a few photos of the yellow-green butterfly. And we continued on, assuming like most times that a curious dragonfly or a shy moth landed on us during a hike, that it would soon fly away. Some forty-five minutes later, he mentioned that the insect was still there.
Up and up and up we hiked along Laguna Meadow Trail, growing wearier and warmer. Each time I asked, “Is it still there?” the reply came back, “Yes.” Even when we stopped to rest, munching on trail mix while sitting on the rock walls that the trail dogs had built to create the switchbacks, the butterfly was still there. Even when I’d stop at practically every switchback, bending over to ease the weight of my pack and to stretch my hamstrings and to catch my breath as we reached the high ridge of the Colima Trail near our campsite, the butterfly was still there.
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.
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.
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.
Monday, November 11, Sean and I had the morning to spend exploring the southwestern portion of Big Bend before we broke camp at Cottonwood and hiked into the Chisos in the afternoon. There were still many things to see in this part of the park, but it was time to pick just one or two.
We grabbed our day packs, water, and snacks and headed toward Burro Mesa.
After our day of exploring three canyons, visiting hot springs, and lunching in Mexico, it was time to head back to our campsite at Cottonwood Campground. The sun was setting in earnest as we passed back around the great bulk of the Chisos Mountains at the center of the park. On the western slopes, the dramatic light of the setting sun caused us to pull over and take in the vista.
Perhaps the most striking elements of the western face of the Chisos range are the lines of igneous rock that cut like huge, ancient stone walls across the slopes. These are lines of magma that pushed up and cooled beneath the earth. The hard igneous rock that forms them was left standing when the softer sedimentary deposits eroded away. In the light of the setting sun, they were particularly striking.
After our visit to Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico and Boquillas Canyon, there were still two major sights we wanted to see in the eastern part of the park before returning to our campground: Ernst Tinaja and the Hot Springs. But first, we drove down to the Rio Grande Village visitor center. At the center, we paid our backcountry fee an reserved a primitive campsite in the Chisos Mountains for our backpack the next night. This season, the park has switched over to a computerized system for backcountry reservations, and ours was the first that the ranger at Rio Grande Village had processed.
Both to and from the short drive to Rio Grande village, we were afforded breathtaking views of the Sierra del Carmen across the river in Mexico.
After the visitor center, we attempted to reach Ernst Tinaja, one of many depressions in the rock in various parts of the park. The depressions act as natural water holes, trapping rainwater, and are both dramatic and great places to see wildlife. Ernst Tinaja is several miles up Old Ore Road from the main park road. Unfortunately, after about three quarters of a mile, we decided that the road was just too rough for the rented Captiva. We turned around and returned to the main road.
From Tuff Canyon, we followed the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to its terminus at the main park road. We headed east, north of the great bulk of the Chisos Mountains. We passed the park headquarters at Panther Junction and continued southeast, windows open to the glorious fragrances of a cloudless morning.
From Santa Elena Canyon, we headed northeast on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive past Cottonwood Campground and Castolon to the pull off for Tuff Canyon. There are many washes in the desert of Big Bend National Park, but perhaps none so dramatic as Tuff Canyon. It was carved by Blue Creek, which originates in the Chisos Mountains. The rock that comprises the canyon is volcanic tuff, formed when a volcanic explosion blew tons of ash into the air, which eventually hardened as it was compressed by overlying layers of rock.
In the photo above, the darker rock on the canyon floor is trachyitic lava, and the light gray rock of the walls, which eroded away much more quickly, is the tuff.
We followed a short trail around and down into the broad wash at the canyon’s mouth. Then we turned and hiked into the canyon proper. The geology of the canyon’s formation was visible everywhere, from harder, basaltic rock trapped within the ash from the time of the explosion to the steep undercutting from when Blue Creek in flood carves the canyon deeper and wider.
Eventually we came upon a a series of ledges and huge boulders that indicated we’d reached the extent that it is easy to walk up the canyon. So we turned around and returned the way we we’d walked.
We hiked back up to the car, pulled back out onto Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, and continued on toward the heart of the park.