There are some roads that 2004 Volkswagen Jettas were never designed to go down. Sand roads. Dirt roads. Gravel roads. Big-ass rock roads. Hot desert roads. Mountain roads. Big Bend National Park in southwestern Texas has more than its share of all these, and I became intimately familiar with them in the fall of 2011.
Like all of Texas, Big Bend National Park is larger than life. Its 801,163 acres stretch along Mexico’s border for 118 lonely miles and it’s craggy mountain peaks rise 7,832 feet into the southwestern sky. The desert doesn’t spring to mind when most of us think of species diversity, but Big Bend is home to more species of birds, cacti, and bats than any other national park in America. There are certain parts of the year that Big Bend can be busy, but the annual visitors generally number under 400,000, compared to Yellowstone’s traffic-jam inducing 4 million and the Grand Canyon’s theme-park-like 5 million. On the day I arrived, the rangers in the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center told me that I was visitor #6 for the day – that was about 1:30PM. In other words, Big Bend is the perfect place to get away from the crowds and maybe even see some wildlife without worrying that the nineteen tour buses behind you loaded with screaming tourists will scare them off.
The grade to the Chisos Basin is steep enough to scare the hell out of anyone who isn’t used to mountain driving. It was apparently enough to scare the life right out of the car too, which decided that overheating was in order about half way up the mountain. It’s probably high time for a new waterpump, but the car’s thermostat is apparently wired so poorly with the electrical system that a few degrees over the engine’s happy range and the car begins to think that it hasn’t just overheated, but that it also has a dead battery. Thanks, German engineers. A little overheating and WHAM – the car suddenly turns off – in this case pointed upwards at an ungodly angle. If it’s only slightly in the red, the car might go into “sad mode” first, limiting the speed at which you can drive. Ultimately sad mode tends to turn into dead mode within a few minutes, but there are some places (and they seem to abound in Big Bend) where even driving very slowly is preferable to stopping.
Fortunately, the cure for sad mode and dead mode is to just turn the car off and wait a few minutes for the car to forget why it was so angry. Halfway up a steep mountain is a lousy place for car trouble, especially knowing that you’re miles and miles from any service station. When your car is contemplating life on a mountain, you’re faced with the decision of whether to keep going up the ridiculous slope…a few more miles…or heading down the ridiculous slope several dozen miles. Going up seemed to be the logical, slightly irrational choice and the car only died half a dozen more times on the way to the top. Oh, yes…the brakes also lose their full effectiveness when the car turns off. Cheers!
The death-trap on wheels finally made it to the Chisos Basin Campground, which is just about as nice of a somewhat-developed campground as one could ask for. The road into the campground is a 15% grade, which is just nuts and obviously not recommended for any large RVs. I camped in campsite #24, which was right next to a water spigot and a short distance from the bathroom – if you’re camping in a developed campground, you may as well get to take advantage of the perks. It’s $14 a night to camp here, but don’t worry…if you don’t have exact change you can pay with a check or credit card – how’s that for modernity in the middle of nowhere? The volunteer campground hosts came by shortly after arrival and gave the sage advice to tie the tent zippers shut at night from the inside. Apparently the local cleptobiotic skunk population has learned that it’s way more fun to cuddle up to tourists in the night than to sleep on rocks. Can you blame them? Chances are good that you aren’t going to get sprayed, but it’s probably best to keep the little guys out of your tent to begin with. Keep your eyes peeled though – you can see four species of skunk in Big Bend, the Spotted Skunk, the Striped Skunk, the Hooded Skunk and the Hog-nosed Skunk. What a windfall!
A short hike from the Chisos Basin Campground is an outdoor amphitheater where you can go and see a ranger-led program many evenings. I got there a few minutes late, but with only four others in attendance, it wasn’t too difficult to find a seat. I can’t say that I was especially sorry for being late, since they said that about two minutes before I got there a mountain lion had trotted through the amphitheater. While I love wildlife, mountain lions are – in my opinion – best viewed in the wild from extreme distance. Of course, there have only been five attacks on humans in Big Bend in the last 25+ years and none of them were fatal…but I would really hate to be the first. Black bears are also present in the park and a hiker came across one on the trail the day I arrived. In the end though, cactus injures far more people in Big Bend than the wildlife ever has.
2011 was a ridiculously dry year – the driest year Texas has ever had, at least since they started keeping records in 1895. I’m always cautious when I’m in mountain lion country, but mountain lion country combined with no rainfall can easily result in more frequent encounters. I headed out the next morning on the Window Trail, a 5.6 mile round trip that is probably the most well known and well traveled trail in the park. There was plenty of evidence of bears – their droppings were all over the trail, some quite recent. The National Park Service rates this trail as “moderate” which is probably accurate – you descend about 800 feet in elevation on the way to the window, which isn’t a big deal by itself, but it is definitely hot enough to humble any cocky tourists or even hardened trekkers who think they can hike it without water, especially on the return leg. It’s a rule of thumb wherever you hike, but in Big Bend, bringing water is really a life or death thing. Dehydration can and has killed people in Big Bend many times and bringing one gallon of water per person, per day is a minimum…even on easy hikes.
The rock walls of the Chisos rise up around the Window Trail and look really inviting to climb, with tons of holds, but the rock is extremely brittle and fractures easily. I clambered up the rock a short distance and when the rock started coming off in my hands, I headed right back down. I fancy myself as a whole man, and not a splatter on the rocks. There are some climbable areas in the park, but this is definitely not one of them. The trail was pretty deserted – I passed a group of three, but that was it – my kind of place. The “Window” itself is a gorgeous slickrock pour-off that serves as the drain for the entire Chisos Basin…and drops a long way down to the desert below. Oak Creek wasn’t flowing since there hadn’t been any rain, but I’d hate to be stuck there in a flash flood! I stopped for a while and relaxed on the warm, smooth rock and had the snack of champions, toaster pastries – the cheap knockoff of PopTarts.
I started retracing my steps back up the Window Trail but when I came to a turn off for the Oak Spring Trail, I decided to follow that for a while to see where it went. The trail climbed in elevation quickly, and the higher I went, the better the view got. There are a few areas that are almost directly above and to the right of the Window and the view of the surrounding landscape of the western section of park from the higher vantage point is just spectacular. I kept heading on the trail which clung to the mountain and in some areas was wide enough for only one hiker. I reached the point at which the trail started to head down the mountain and towards the desert floor, but after deliberating, decided that I didn’t have enough water or ambition to turn a 5.6 mile hike into a 10 mile hike.
Before departing on the hike, I had been faced with what seemed at the time like a pointless question. Should I put the rain fly on the tent? The answer was an obvious “NO” with no rain clouds in sight, blazing hot temperatures and a relentless sun, and of course and perhaps most importantly the fact that Texas was in the middle of a drought of historic proportions. While I enjoyed a lovely sunset from the balcony of the lodge after my hike, the rain gods apparently heard someone’s plea and saw fit to let the heavens pour forth onto and into my flyless-tent. The wind suddenly picked up and the temperature dropped 15-20 degrees within minutes.
If there is a moral hidden somewhere within this story, it’s to always expect the unexpected in the desert. It’s an unpredictable place of unparalleled beauty – a place of sunsets that can put Hawaii’s best to shame – and a place with a night sky that will take your breath away. They say everything is bigger in Texas. It seems they weren’t lying.