1,251 + 421 = Splendid Isolation
1,672 is how many square miles you have to go get lost when you visit Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park. Whether you’re looking to get lost or looking to find something… this is the place to do it in peace. Just don’t do it in the summer…. then all you will get out of your time there is a heat stroke.
Sometimes I just need to climb a mountain. Yes it is a need… not simply a want. The rolling hills of Central Texas where I call home simply do not cut it. When I can’t get away to Rockies in Colorado or Canada, I can always get in the car and cruise 88mph down I-10 towards the Chisos.
Panther Junction is only 7 hours and 39 minutes from my driveway including a quick stop in Ft. Stockton for a fill up at the Pilot and chicken finger basket at Dairy Queen. As a product of growing up in the vast state of Texas, that distance doesn’t seem too far. It’s all relative to where you’re raised.
If you’re going to drive all the way out to Big Bend country, you might as well spend at least three nights there. Four nights is just right to see the highlights of both parks. Five nights may be too many nights without Netflix. Keep in mind there is little to no cell reception within the park, let alone 4G. Lack of coverage will make your trip feel like a retreat. But when you trip on a rock, sprain your ankle, fall into an ocotillo and get bitten by a rattlesnake on the Marufo Vega Trail, you’ll wish you had reception.
In 2008, through my church, I started organizing a grassroots group of outdoor enthusiasts coined “Camping Con Cristo.” Big Bend National Park was our first destination. Since then, we have camped all over the State of Texas and beyond and have journeyed back to the Big Bend region many times. Being the first, it will always have a special place in my heart. With each trip out there, I grew to love the splendid isolation of the region more and more. It truly is a place that can get a hold of your soul.
Like dating someone who is no good for you, however, Big Bend will chew you up and spit you out no matter how much you love her. Absolutely beautiful yet brutally harsh and unforgiving, you have to admire any natives or ranchers from the days of old who ever attempted to tame her. Let’s just say she’s not one looking to settle down. Know that going into the relationship.
If you’re making a mix tape for your road trip out there, add the 1972 Eagles track “Witchy Woman” to your playlist. Any Eagles song seems to fit this landscape for some intangible reason, but this song in particular is Big Bend personified as a beautiful woman who will tear you apart.
“Raven hair and ruby lips sparks fly from her fingertips
Echoed voices in the night she’s a restless spirit on an endless flight…
She held me spellbound in the night dancing shadows and firelight…
woo hoo witchy woman see how high she flies
woo hoo witchy woman she got the moon in her eye…”
Speaking of the moon, when was the last time you stopped to look up at the moon? Hundreds of miles from any noteworthy city, there is little to no light pollution in the area, making Big Bend an extraordinary location to lay back and look up in contemplation of creation. Without Netflix, you’ll need something to do at night, so why not sit and stare up at the universe? A few nights of star gazing always does my soul good. It somehow always has a way of putting everything into perspective.
A full moon is nice for being able to walk around at night, but a cloudless night with a new moon can’t be beat. That is when the stars shine bright. Back home, when I look up into the heavens at night, I can count about seven stars in the sky. For some reason, it always makes me think of what the conversation between God and Abraham would be like today…
“Then the Lord took Abram outside and said to him, “Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have!” And Abram counted and said, “Lord, well I counted and there are seven. So… that’s it?” And God said, “Yeah about that… sorry about all the buildup in the storyline… that’s all I can promise at the moment.”
This story from Genesis certainly makes more sense when reading it out in Big Bend on a cloudless night. Aside from its remote location, Big Bend’s sporadic cloud cover and low humidity especially during the winter months make for excellent star gazing opportunities. I don’t know who counts these things, but apparently on a clear night there are approximately 2,000 stars visible to the naked eye out in Big Bend.
Enough talking already. Time to lace up the shoes and hit the trail. Here’s a list of my favorite hikes in order of how awesome they are in my opinion. There are of course many more, but if you only have a few days in the region, this is enough to get you started:
Favorite Hikes: (For a first time visitor. There is a better list for photographers seeking compositions.)
- South Rim
Difficulty: Strenuous: Distance 12-14.5 miles round trip
Many people like to backpack this loop, but I enjoy this one as a nice long day hike. I pack my lunch in my hydropack and take an extended lunch break on the edge of the South Rim. Naturally, I take a siesta under a shade tree afterwards and eventually make my way back down after soaking in the view. Because of magnificent views along the way, the 2,000 foot elevation gain doesn’t seem so arduous.
- Emory Peak
Difficulty: Strenuous: Distance: 10.5 miles round trip
If you slept a little late and don’t have time to complete the South Rim before sunset, then hit the trail for Emory Peak. The best part of the trail is the scramble to the top of the boulders right at the end. Once you reach the top you have an incredible view of an antenna used by the park system. Really though, it is an absolutely incredible 360° view from the highest point in the park. If you are in great shape, and get started early enough, you could potentially see both the South Rim and Emory Peak on one long day hike. That would only be necessary if you have limited time in the basin and enjoy having blisters the next day.
- Lost Mine Trail
Difficulty: Moderate: Distance: 4.8 miles round trip
Although not very long, this trail likes to switch back and forth uphill for what seems to be the longest time. But when the switchbacks end, the trail abruptly levels out at the ridge with superb views of Pine Canyon and the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico. There are some excellent photo opportunities here.
- Window Trail
Difficulty: Moderate; Distance: 5.6 miles round trip
This one begins near the Chisos Basin campground and ends in the “V” of the window. It’s much flatter than the Lost Mine Trail and not much to see along the way, but the pour-off at the end of this trail is fantastic. The slick rock at the window makes a perfect slide. I rarely say “Be Careful,” but you really could slip and slide right out of the window to the canyon far below.
- Grapevine Hills Trail
Difficulty: Easy: Distance: 2.2 miles round trip
First you have to drive six miles down Grapevine Hills dusty dirt road to the parking area. Don’t wash your car before going down this road. A little over a mile through a flat boulder field leads to a group of balanced rocks in the heart of the Grapevine Hills. There are great bouldering opportunities out here.
- Marufo Vega Trail
Difficulty: Strenuous: Distance 14 miles round trip
The trail is named after Gregorio Marufo, who grazed goats along the river. There are a few sections of the trail that are better suited for goats than humans. But overall, the trail is easy enough for the average athlete to complete in a day. The park doesn’t promote this one too much due to the harsh conditions out there. You could die if you attempted to hike this one in the heat of the summer. In the winter however, it is a fantastic place to visit.
- Hot Springs Historic Trail
Difficulty: Easy: Distance: 1 mile round trip
There is a longer Hot Springs trail, but don’t bother with that, just drive to the Hot Springs parking lot and walk a half mile to the hot tub. You’ll pass the remains of a resort, pictographs and a homestead before you see the natural hot tub along the shore of the Rio Grande. Best place to relax at the end of the day after hiking. The 105°F springs are a popular destination so you probably won’t get it to yourself, but that’s okay.
- Closed Canyon Trail
Difficulty: Easy; 1.4 Miles Roundtrip Slot
Big Bend Ranch State Park’s hiking trails can’t compete with the National Park, but this one sure is cool… literally. When the sun heats up, hide out in this slot canyon for a while and get refreshed. When it cools down again, get back on your mountain bike or horse because the State Park has trails that cater to those activities more so than hiking.
Keep reading if you like favorite lists:
If you like showers, then the Rio Grande Village is the place to be. It is much lower elevation than the Chisos Basin, making it a few degrees warmer. Best place for winter camping (which is my favorite time to be in the park anyhow).
For camping in the Spring or Fall, the Chisos Basin is the place to be. It is convenient to many great trail heads and the store and restaurant near the lodge. The lodge itself however is decent but way overpriced for what you get. If your road trip partner is not a “camper” and staying in a lodge is the only way to get them to join, then go ahead and reluctantly reserve a room.
The Cottonwood Campground has no great amenities to write home about, so if you want to be in that region, you might as well save a little money and remote camp out at a place like Ocotillo Grove.
The stretch from Lajitas to Presidio on 170 is particularly beautiful around the “Big Hill” as is the stretch of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive from Sotol Vista Point to the Santa Elena Canyon. Those are my two favorite stretches of asphalt in the region.
For the less adventurous visitors to Big Bend country, there is still plenty to see from the car or short walk from the parking lot. The paved wheelchair accessible Window View Trail near the Chisos Basin lodge is a great example of this.
Favorite Time to Visit:
Because most of the trails offer little to no shade, I prefer to hike there in the cooler winter months. I’d rather be a little cold at night than hot when hiking. That’s just me. December is particularly nice because of the many cottonwood trees in the area that transform bright gold.
Late March and early April is a great time to visit the park in bloom. There are about 46 varieties of cactus that bloom from mid to late spring. Yuccas, mountain laurels and ocotillos put on quite a display this time of year as well. The spring flowering season begins in February along the river and continues up into the mountains by late April.
The summer flowering season based on the monsoon is more reliable, but visiting the park in the summer is uncomfortably hot. Sunflowers and sage are the show stoppers for the summer season.
In conclusion, just get out there. You don’t need to over plan it. Just call in sick. Tell your boss you’re sick of crowds and traffic and technology and you need to get away for your own sanity. Load up your gear in the car and start driving down I-10 towards destination splendid isolation.