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Hiking Adventure in Big Bend National Park

2013/04/23by Deborah Lonergan

Updated 04.01.2014

If you’re looking for another National Park adventure, look no further than Big Bend National Park. This beautiful area on the Texas-Mexico border is a prime destination for hikers, bird watchers, photographers and nature lovers. Deborah Lonergan from It’s About Sixty tells us why we should go hiking at Big Bend.

Rio Grande at Santa Elena Canyon

Rio Grande at Santa Elena Canyon

The Rio Grande flows in a generally southeast direction for most of its 1250 miles along the Texas-Mexico border. About 300 miles southeast of El Paso, the river takes an abrupt turn to the northeast known as the “big bend”.

Nestled in the bend is Big Bend National Park801,163 acres of rugged terrain and varied habitat. Within its boundaries are desert, mountain forest and river ecosystems, home to thousands of species of flora and fauna, some unique to Big Bend.

Scientists study here, birders spot here, rafters raft here, campers camp here and hikers hike here. Some visitors might do it all. We have come to hike.

The Hiker’s Guide to Trails of Big Bend National Park describes forty-nine developed trails and primitive routes within the park, ranging in difficulty from wheelchair accessible to strenuous day hikes and overnight backpacking trips.

We have less than two days to hike, but time enough to hike at least two trails.

Santa Elena Canyon Trail

We arrive late in the day from the west, so we choose Santa Elena Canyon Trail, a short, relatively easy trail, and one of the prettiest, on the west side of the park. The south wall of Santa Elena Canyon is in Mexico; the north wall is in the United States. Between the walls is the Rio Grande.

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon

Manmade steps take us part way up the north canyon wall. From there, a well-traveled path continues west into the canyon. The trail is narrow and rocky in places but easy enough as it gradually heads back down to the river’s edge. We stop often to take in the beauty around us: cacti sprouting improbably through crevices, canyon walls etched in sharp relief against the sky and reflected in the river below. When we reach the river’s edge, we rest and listen to the canyon before retracing our steps.

The 1.7 mile round trip has taken about two hours. As we walk to the car, we turn and look back. The setting sun casts its golden light on the south canyon wall.

Window Trail

We get an earlier start on day two. Desert gives way to mountain forest as we drive the thirty-three miles from Terlingua toward Chisos Mountain Lodge. Window Trail is our choice today. We find the trailhead at the Chisos Basin Campground, just below the lodge. We pace ourselves going down to the Window, knowing that the return trip is 2.2 uphill miles. The view changes at each turn. The flora changes as the elevation changes. Eventually, the plant life all but gives up and we are surrounded by jagged rock faces and rock paths worn smooth by eons of water runoff. We have reached the Window pour-off and the end of the trail. Extreme caution is required here. A false step on the glassy rock would be our last.  We stop a safe distance from the edge and gaze through the Window.  The desert, hundreds of feet below us, stretches to the horizon. We rest in the shade of the wall and then head back up the trail.

Looking Through the Window at Window Trail

Looking Through the Window at Window Trail

The round trip has taken about five hours. We know that others have gone to the Window and back in far less time, but what is the point, really, in rushing?

Ever been to Big Bend National Park? Feel free to leave some additional tips to Deborah’s post in the comments section!

Updated 04.01.2014

An artist, amateur photographer, and creative nonfiction writer, Deborah writes, publishes, and occasionally illustrates It's About Sixty...., a collection of personal essays about life in the seventh decade. She has always been a big fan of the travel writing genre.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Suzanne Fluhr (Just One Boomer)
Twitter:
April 23, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Taking time out for hikes definitely enhances visits to the United States west. The terrain is so strikingly dissimilar from what we have “back East” even though we also have scenery that is pause worthy in its own right.

Walk on and write on!

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Robert Fowler
Twitter:
April 6, 2014 at 6:39 am

I have flown over Big Bend National Park several times and it certainly looks like a rugged and remote place as well as an interesting place. I always wondered what it would be like on the ground. This is pure nature.
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Veronica
Twitter:
April 12, 2014 at 5:02 am

I remember coming here and sitting on that very ledge, looking through the window. It’s beautiful!
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