February, 2015 – Big Bend National Park in Texas has a really varied landscape. It is possible to go from a river habitat to a desert habitat to a mountain habitat without ever leaving the park! There are lots of hiking options in each of these terrains, and we enjoyed sampling the different locales, sticking to lower elevation hikes on cold days and higher elevation hikes on hot days.
The heart of the park is the Chisos Mountains, a range that juts up from the desert floor (down around 1,800 feet elevation), and soars to heights of over 7,800 feet. A quick walk out to an overlook gave us some beautiful views.
We hiked the Window Trail one day, an easy 5.6 mile round trip hike from the central lodge. Because of the huge variations in elevation in this park, any mountain hike like this one is good for a warmer day.
We expected to find a “window” somewhere along this hike. Descending a scenic dirt path, we were amazed when we suddenly found ourselves in a fun little canyon that was lined with large, flat and smooth rock that had been worn down over the ages by Oak Creek. The rangers have carved some really neat stairways through this part to make the hiking super easy.
We were still on the lookout for that “window” as we made our way across the cool, shaded rocks. What we found, however, was not a window so much as vast opening in the canyon walls that peeked out at the desert floor in the distance. It was very dramatic — but quite slick too. Our intrepid RVing friend, Amanda, braved the slippery slope and went out for a closer look.
The Santa Elena hike is down at the desert floor level of the park at the southwest end, and it follows the Rio Grande river into another stunning canyon. The scenic drive to get there warmed up our camera shutter fingers, and when we arrived at Santa Elena we found people out enjoying the warm sunshine on the banks of the river. Farmilies played on the edge of the water, and other folks kicked back for a little relaxation in the sun.
This 1.7 mile hike involves a lot of climbing, twisting and turning through a series of switchbacks at the beginning. At one switchback I noticed a beautiful glow coming from behind the rocks out on a ledge. I left the trail to go see what I could see, and soon found myself precariously tip-toeing along a steep rock face with the Rio Grande twinkling up at me from many feet below. I managed to get past the spooky part and found a huge rock overhang that was beautifully lit in the late afternoon light.
Once I got back on the trail, I realized I had totally lost track of Mark (and we’d forgotten to bring our trusty two-way radios…darn!). I kept asking hikers that were on the return trip if they had seen a guy in a gray shirt taking lots of photos. I got plenty of reassurances that he was ahead of me — and that all the climbing was well worth the views at the end!
We had chosen to do this hike in the afternoon, and that turned out to be a great time to go, as the sun had finally penetrated the depths of the canyon. Photographers who were there in the morning said the light hadn’t been great — but the shade would be a welcome respite at a hotter time of year!
When I finally caught up with Mark, the trail was empty, and we were the only ones in the wonderful big open area at the end of the trail. Huge boulders begged to be climbed on, and a fabulous view between the lofty canyon walls opened up to the sunset-lit cliffs beyond.
After enjoying the cool rock walls carved by creeks and canyons that we saw on the Window Trail and Santa Elena hikes, we then sampled a true desert hike out in abundant sunshine: the Grapevine Hills hike. This hike was at the desert floor altitude, but instead of finding ourselves surrounded by sheer rock cliffs that had been formed by a flowing river or stream, we passed through a wide open area that was rimmed with wonderful rock hoodoos.
The further we went on the trail, the more fun this hike became, as it twisted and turned its way into the rock hoodoos. This was like a kid’s playground. We scampered all over the rocks, feeling very much like kids, and at the end of the hike we found the signature rock formation — a balancing rock.
The wonderful thing about Big Bend National Park is that you can pick your destinations within the park to suit the climate of the day. We saw both hot, dry weather and freezing cold, wet weather during our two week stay, and we were grateful that during the heat we could play outside in the mountains and during the cold spells we could hang out at the lower elevations.
We also saw a very unexpected weather pattern that we’ve never experienced before: a thermal inversion between the desert floor and the mountains. For quite a few days it was 15 degrees warmer in the Chisos Mountains than it was at the lower elevation parts of the park thousands of feet below!
Another very popular hike is the Lost Mine trail. This 5.1 mile hike took us on a steady climb through woods and trees, opening up after a while to huge views. We did the hike in the afternoon, so the mountains that filled our views as we hiked were shaded and not as dramatic as they could be.
As we approached the summit, the trail took a turn, and the golden light of late afternoon lit up the distant mountains in spectacular color. Like the other hikes, this end point was a true playground, with boulders to climb on and spots to perch and enjoy a snack with a view.
Big Bend is a hiker’s paradise, and many people we met were embarking on multi-day backpacking hikes across the park. We stuck to short day hikes, but found them all very fulfilling.
Backpacking is great, but there is something about having a warm, soft bed and no twigs or rocks in your back at night that we really like, especially when you have a beautiful view!! (Here are some details about boondocking and RV camping in Big Bend).
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More info about day hikes in Big Bend National Park (from the US National Park Service):
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