Big Bend, The Biggest Nat'l Park in Texas

Copyright (c) by Manfred Pfluegl. All rights reserved.

A trip report of a weekend in Big Bend Nat'l Park. Sept. 3, 1994

So, were do we start. Another business meeting brought me once again to San Antonio in Texas. After spending Thu and Fri educating some of our customers I got the weekend off. My heart was set on going to Big Bend, the biggest and only Nat'l Park in Texas that I haven't toured yet. I headed west-bound, riding into the sunset, just like the good ol' cowboys did. Everyone that Texas is a BIG state, so I was prepared for a long ride. What surprised me was the monotony, only every other hour would I run into a small town. The trip was 2 hours of nothing, then a few houses and a gas station whisked by the car windows, then again 2 hours of darkness. Pretty boring, huuh? It was but some public servants should spice up the trip. I was going more than 100 mph to shorten the monotony, slowed down for a few seconds to 50 at an empty ghost, and was accelerating again when I saw some flashing red and blue lights were following me a mile behind. Since they were getting closer and closer I pulled over. The officer informed me that he was pulling me over for speeding and asked me the usual questions. Since this place is close to the Mexican border where some people make their living trading US guns for Mexican drugs, he asked me if I am transporting either one. He also kindly asked me if he can search my car. Since I had nothing to hide I said "Sure, go ahead". The rest is like in the real-live movies. One officer takes care of you in front of the cop car while the other starts searching under the seats, in the glove compartment, and so on. This guy was serious, he took plastic covers under the steering wheel column off before moving on to search the trunk where the inspected the spare tire and places behind the covers. After not finding anything he let me go without a ticket but with many advices. What a nice guy. Needless to say that I was happy getting away so easily. My lucky day. I continued at a more modest speed and eventually pulled over at a rest station at 2 o'clock in the morning because I was about to fall asleep behind the wheel. I was too tired to even brush my teeth and quickly went to sleep. In the early wee hours of the morning before the sun rise the cold temperatures woke me up - I was sleeping in only shorts and a T-shirt and being on a business trip didn't have a blanket or sleeping bag with me. So I put on jeans and a shirt and rolled over to be awoken up again by the bright sunshine. It was already 9am and time to enjoy the brand new "golden" day.

For those of you who have never been in south Texas, even at the end of August it is quite warm. 100 degrees during the daytime is normal and the evenings don't cool off much early. At midnight it is pleasantly warm at 85 degrees. Out here in the desert I had to expect the temperatures to be more extreme, hotter during daytime reaching 105 and colder at night.

In an hour I reached the park and step by step started to learn about the history of this place. The first people to be here obviously were the native Americans, the Apaches. Later a few Mexicans lived nearby and they called this place "The place without people". That is a pretty good description. It is a giant piece of badland with a large junk of desert and a heart formed by the Chisos mountain range. Chisos, an Apache term, would best translate to "trees". You can already guess that in the higher elevations of the mountains the desert would change to a highland with trees. Spanish explorers were here too. The famous Apache Trail runs right through the park and every first full moon in September the Apaches would put on their war paint and make a bloody journey into Mexico killing farmers and their wives and bringing some of the people back as prisoners and they would steal cattle also to be brought back into their territories. In later years, the US Nat'l Guard tried to prevent raids and fought with the Apaches. Texas Rangers were called in to protect Texans living on nearby ranches. Black and white pictures of that time can be found in the museums in the park. In recent history the INS had a patrol station with 2 planes here and they flew along the border of Mexico and the US. Big Bend contains about 200 miles of Mexican/US border formed by the Rio Grande.

The desert is big and contains many surprises. Interesting geological formations can be found all over the place. Volcanic rocks are forming the surface in many places. Lifting has exposed old rock formations and presents the layers to be seen from tens of miles away. Dinosaur bones have been found that are 60 to 80 million years old. Some old graves are just off the street, the most famous one is from a woman who died in her 30ies in 1910. Despite it is dry and hot and I sweat strongly it is astonishingly easy to find water or the marks of water in this huge desert. There are tons of dry washes and empty creeks that tell me that during the rain rich months flash floods are likely and that there must be enough water to carve canyons and creeks into the rock. Near the grave of that lady I found a few pools of water and in a dry creek digging just a couple of inches revealed moist dirt.

Along the way to the center of the Nat'l Park which is called Panther Junction are two historic ranches. One consists of one single building with missing windows and doors that is made up of just a single room and outside is a porch covered with a tin roof which a great view of the valley it is in. A few hundred yards away is fenced small area most likely formerly used to keep horses. The other one is at the end of a trail that starts to be grown over by cacti. It was built next to a creek which is dry. The building was constructed with bud bricks and time took its toll. The only thing left is a small portion of a single wall. The remaining mud bricks are very brittle and I am sure in another 30 years the remains of the building will have been fully "dissolved". What remains there is the windmill which is still pumping water out of a well if the wind is string enough. With strong wind it seems to be pumping half a quart per minute. Not surprisingly it's a wild jungle around the well and the trees that the rancher planted are well and give pleasant shade.

Another trip lead me to a dry canyon, called something like Lost Burro. After a few miles the trail suddenly sort of disappears. Wild cacti and other plants with thorns gave me a hard time and punctured my skin in a few places. So with a little bit of blood on my knee and ankles, without a trail, not having seen anyone for a while (the whole Nat'l Park had no more than 30 visitors and half of those were staying in the air conditioned motel-like cabins in the higher elevations of the Chisos Mountains) it finally felt like it should feel in Nat'l Park. In the area I found a dry creek with some tiny pools of standing water. Following the creek bed upstreams I found a dry waterfall. It was easy to climb and only 15 ft high, cut into solid rock. Further up I found another dry waterfall; since it was higher I had to walk around it to the top were the water had carved a jacuzzi sized tub that was filled with dirty water and seemed like a life spender to all sorts of insects.

The road eventually ends at the Mexican border, the Rio Grande. It is carrying a lot of water which surprised me. I had heard rumors that the US farmers use all of its water and when it reaches Mexico (which it does a few hundred miles upstream in El Paso) it is dry ruining the life of many Mexican farmers. Maybe it is just a false rumor or maybe it is just temporarily carrying water, I don't know. The water is extremely muddy and brown. One cannot see a single inch. It carries a lot of sediments into the Gulf. Here is the famous St. Elenor Canyon. A canyon 1200 to 1500 ft deep cut by the Rio Grande. Quite spectacular due to its height and its narrow width. A trail leads a mile into the canyon. Right after the trail starts the trail was flooded by a side stream flowing into the Rio Grande. It was only 50 ft wide so I figured I can easily wade through it. After taking my shoes off and stepping into the water I was half a foot in mud and quickly up to my shorts in water. Boy, I had to take my shirt off too. Eventually the water was up to my nipples. It sure was fun crossing. The trail was worth the effort. The echo is just fantastic. Impressed by the scenery I took an hour long nap. On the way back I saw a turtle in the water, my first turtle viewing in the wild.

It was getting dark soon and after some more driving, this time back towards Panther Junction, I got to my primitive campsite by 10pm. The camp site was perfect: nobody around, no restrooms, no water. In short a real getaway. I lay down on the car and looked up to the night sky. It was like watching TV. Every five minutes there was a shooting star. Overall the night sky was fantastic despite the fact that the park rangers said that the air is polluted by far away cities such as Houston and Mexico City. After watching for an hour it was time to hit the sack, eehh car that is. The first hours of sleep were great but at some point I started freezing. At 7am I was already on my way since I couldn't sleep anyway because I was cold. This time I headed for the Chisos Mountains. To warm up my bones I decided to hike the Lost Mine trail. The name comes from the legend that Spanish explorers had found a rich mine. The hired Mexicans to work for them. The Spaniards put bags on the heads of the Mexicans and they traveled for days like this to the beginning of the trail to the mine. This way the Mexicans wouldn't know where the mine is. The Apaches, however, disliked the intrusion and one day decided to kill them all down to the last man. The mine entrance was then covered up by the Indians and hence the mine was "lost" forever. This was one of the most scenic hikes I ever did. It was early in the morning so the air was fresh and cool with man shady spots along the hike. Vultures and hawks circling in the sky and beautifully shaped mountains all around you. I loved it. It becomes obvious, nobody would ever find a mine in this kind of environment even it the search can be narrowed down to 10 square miles.

From this trail head the road continues to the place called "The Basin". The name doesn't need any explanations. Besides the more comfortable camp ground and another ranger station one can also find a restaurant and the before mentioned motel-like lodging facilities. The Basin is the trail head for all other hikes in the Chisos. The range from a .3 mile "hike" to a 30+ mile hike. I opt for the second longest hike, a 15 mile loop passing the highest peak in the Chisos, following the East Rim and then returning via the South Rim and some meadow. Armed with a 3 liter bottle and sun lotion I head out into the lion and bear country. There are signed there saying so, and pointing out the dangers and the frequent sightings. Chances of seeing a mountain lion are 1 in a million. So, I knew I wouldn't get lucky, or should I say unlucky? Anyway I was very pleased that large portions of the trail were in partial shade. I passed five people who were either on the small Loop Trail or maybe on the way to the peak of Chisos' highest mountain. After that fork I didn't see anyone for the next 4 miles which brought me to the East Rim. The trail lead to a creek filled with water. In its vicinity I saw many deer. The view opens up at the rim. Picture yourself on top of a cliff falling straight down, high above the floor. In the lower country 20 miles away is silver band which is the Rio Grande and even further back mountain ranges in Mexico. Behind you are strange volcanic rock formations with colors from black to weired light green. While I was ready for a half-way break and sitting down near the cliff to rest and take a sip of water I hear a friendly "Howdy". A geology student from Florida greets me and is very happy to see someone else out here. He is here for his school work. How dedicated. Later the trip continues and the trail turns and I get a good view of the areas to the south and later of those to the west where I can recognize some of the rock formations that I had past the day before. Also visible is the St. Elenor Canyon, also some 30 miles away. Once away from the rims the trail was heading down and unlike in the morning was more out in the open. It was warm but not unbearable hot. It continues to go down for miles and eventually I get bored and start jogging. After another 7 miles on which I didn't see a single soul I finally saw a four wheel drive car and next to it one of those prickly pear cacti eating wild black pig-like animals. Minutes later I saw the first lodging buildings and worn out I reached my car hungry. Those slices of bread tasted twice as good as they usually do.

I rested for an hour continuously drinking and at 6pm I had to say good-bye. An 8 hour drive back to the air port still lay ahead of me and I was not looking forward to it. But there was no choice. So, I set the cruise control to 60, stretched my legs, held the water bottle in one hand and steered with one finger of the other hand. Since it is so far away from any city it's even impossible to receive any radio station. Half-way I stopped at El Rio after having to avoid deer on the road once. There I refilled my water and bought some more food to be my only entertainment for the next hours. It was funny, it was close to midnight and by now I had drunken 5 quarts (5 l) of water. I don't think I have ever consumed so much fluid in a single day. By 2am I get to the rental car agency and later I was freezing some more at the airport where the air conditioning made any sleep impossible. Finally on the plane I caught some z's and at 8:30am Phoenix time I stepped out of the shower ready for another day.

As they say in the song "Life is good, so good, so nice".

Go there yourself. You don't even have to hike to see and enjoy the beauty. The scenic drive from Panther Junction to St. Elenor Canyon is rated as one of the Top-10 scenic drives in the US. Go pack your suit cases.
Page last updated 9-19-94