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.
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 Park—801,163 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.
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.
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.
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?