I don’t have to think too hard to remember when my obsession for big canyons and wild rivers began. It was April of ’93 and I was still a teenager. Keith, Shane, and I embarked on an incredible adventure into the canyons of the lower Pecos River for a weekend of fishing. That trip forever changed me. Before that, most trips consisted of scenic overlooks, and tourist stops with grand views along the highways. But being on that river, surrounded by those enormous canyon walls that kept closing in the further upriver we headed, I felt something I hadn’t felt before. Something that’s hard to put into words. Power, tranquility, fear, all rolled into one, yet at the same time, in complete harmony. Any which way around it, it’s something I can’t shake…and never want to.
So, what’s that got to do with the Big Bend? Hello…big canyons and wild rivers of course.
In the planning process for this year’s trip, my son had already vetoed the Pecos River since he knew that would be my first idea.
“Alright dude, what are you thinking for this year?”
“I can’t believe you’re my son.”
True, that was last year’s trip. So we started coming up with different ideas and scenarios. This time we were going to have to watch our expenses. Moving into a new house and with what all that entails has left the “entertainment” fund a little light. So we knew camping would be the way to go. But where? That’s when it hit me. Big Bend National Park. Santa Elena Canyon. I could still have my big canyons and wild rivers. We can plan the trip around that river trip. Sounded like a plan, but…..that portion of the Rio Grande is unfamiliar to me, and immediately I knew I was out of my element once I started to try to plan a kayak trip on a section i’ve never been on, and with just the two of us. The shuttles, safety concerns, the camp spots, trying to map it all out with google maps as my guide. We were already way behind in this years planning as it was, and we only had a few weeks to figure it all out. I was getting frustrated, so we decided on a guided raft trip through Santa Elena Canyon. It would be a full day, and then we could use the other days for hiking or backpacking all over the park. Plus, that will help with planning future trips in our own kayaks.
It was on. Or so we thought.
I called the outfitter a week prior to our departure to nail down the dates. I told him our plans and asked what day would be the best. He said he hated to tell me, but they aren’t running Santa Elena canyon at that point, due to the low water level. He said a few weeks earlier they were still running it, but now they were just doing Colorado Canyon. He said that one was a nice little float too, and i’m sure it is. But we had our hearts set on Santa Elena. We’ll just have to wait for a better time when the water is up. Back to the drawing board.
Well, it was too late to re-plan anything, so we decided to continue on without the river trip, and just add more trails to hike. It’s been 20 years since I was here last. My wife and I went through in February 1997 as part of a very long scenic drive from Alpine to Presidio to Terlingua to Marathon to Sanderson to Langtry, and ending at the Pecos River. It was a fun road trip, but we didn’t get a chance to really explore the park. But this trip, it sounds like we’ll have plenty of time.
Wednesday – Day 1
I picked up Nick at 1pm from school, and after a quick stop by the house to say goodbye to the ladies, we headed out. I had everything packed into the tiny rental car the night before, so we were on the road by 1:30. We were making good time, but not as good as I had hoped. We were trying to get to the Chisos Basin campground before dark. A little overzealous thinking, but figured it just might work. It certainly didn’t help that it gets dark at 6pm. Still, we flew down the road.
Also slowing down the process was the abundance of scenic views we were witnessing as the sun started to go down. We stopped a few times to stretch and snap some photos. At this point, with an hour still to go, I knew we weren’t going to make it, but the views were worth it.
We finally hit Study Butte and then the park. I wasn’t expecting the entire park to be 45mph. It seemed to take forever to get anywhere. We finally made it to Chisos Basin junction around 6:45. We turned in and immediately saw the sign. The one that says the campground is full. We were warned by a friend ahead of time that it fills up very fast, but on a Wednesday??? Come on, no way. We sat there for a few minutes trying to figure out what to do. We kept seeing cars going up there, so we figured, what the heck, let’s check it out. If it’s truly full, we’ll just make the long trip to Rio Grande Village Campground.
The road up is a twisted and curvy six miles, with 10mph curves and bear crossing signs dotting the way. We finally made it to the campground and checked out the map and info station. Everything was already reserved for the weekend, but it said there were still a few sites available for that night, and one for two nights. So again, we sat there trying to figure out what to do. Do we stay for a night or go on to camp B? We would have to unload half the car to get everything out for camp. Then have to put it all up the next morning. Or….do we ditch this place and try our chances at Rio Grande Village?
After looking at the spots available, we decided the best thing to do was to head on. So again, we descended the twisting road down and headed to the village. About half way there I noticed something odd. The car was getting pushed all over the place. There was a slight breeze at Chisos Basin, but it was really picking up now…and bad. By the time we hit the campground, the wind was at the 20-30mph level. It was still only around 8pm, and had plenty of time to setup camp. And time is what we were going to need. Fortunately, there were a ton of sites available for the five days we were staying and we found a great spot. We spent the next 30 minutes trying to get the Coleman “Instant” tent up. It’s amazing how difficult things get when you’re getting 40mph gusts. We finally got it up and then headed to the Village store/shower/laundrymat. It was the only place with wifi and our phone service was lost many miles back. We were able to talk to the girls through facebook messenger, then headed back for a very loud and sleepless night.
Thursday – Day 2
The night slowly drug on with the endless wind slamming the tent until about 2:30 in the morning. At that point, it completely stopped. I mean, completely. Like a light switch. It was calm, and the entire campground let out a sigh of relief.
Even with little sleep, we were up early. We had plenty to do, and we didn’t want to waste any time. We briefly spoke with the camp host as he was making his rounds. He told us that the wind last night wasn’t too bad. It was in 55mph gust range that lasted nearly 3 days a few weeks before. We’re just gonna hope it stays the way it is now…calm.
Since we arrived after dark, it was amazing to see all of our surroundings come alive with the early morning light. We were able to now get our bearings on where we were in the park and the campground.
The Window Trail was going to be our first hike of the day. But before we left for that, we had an uncontrollable urge to explore around the campground. We walked down some trails that took us past the really cool amphitheater, then on to the Rio Grande.
Once back, we loaded up for the 29 mile trip back to the Chisos Basin and to the trail head.
We arrived at the visitors center around 9:30am. The road up was a beautiful drive and not near as nerve racking as it was at night, driving it for the first time. We got out and wandered around the area, soaking in all the views. We walked the short loop trail as a warm up.
Once back, we got our day packs on and headed on down the main trail. I was surprised how warm it was. Still short sleeve weather in November.
The trail is well maintained, but I did notice the constant downward grade and the seemingly endless switchbacks during the first mile. I knew that wasn’t going to be fun on the way back. I like going up on the way, and down on the way back. Then we saw the sign with the arrow that pointed to the campground, then we saw the campground. Just right there. Wait a minute, we could’ve parked at the campground and skipped that crazy first mile? Go figure. Oh well, more exercise for us I guess.
It was a beautiful hike to start our trip with. It was getting pretty warm, then we’d get in the shadow of the cliffs and it dropped twenty degrees. That was a nice surprise.
There weren’t very many other hikers on the trail at this point, which was kinda nice to not constantly have to move to the side.
The last half mile or so, began the narrowing portion of the trail. There were lots of steep stair climbs and tall cliffs all around us. Absolutely worth all the effort.
We finally made it to the Window. The views were amazing. Pictures can never do justice in places like these. It’s a place you need to see in person.
We stayed there for a while, resting and just enjoying the beauty surrounding us. We heard more folks coming up through the canyon, so we figured we’d clear out and let their first view of the Window not have us in it. Snap, snap, snap a few more photos and off we went. The way back wasn’t too bad, but the amount of traffic had grown a lot. It seemed every hundred yards or so we were moving over and exchanging pleasantries with groups of 4,5,6, and one up to 8. We hit a good stride once we broke into the sunlight again and made good time to the campground sign. Then it was that last mile. That last straight up mile. You know, it’s been a while since i’ve done any real hiking. I didn’t prepare too much thinking this was going to be a river trip with some hiking as opposed to nothing but hiking. Well, I was paying for it. Each switchback seemed to be at a 60 degree incline, and i’m pretty sure that last one was a 90 degree. (not really). But it definitely was getting harder and harder. I really should’ve remembered all the past lessons I had to learn the hard way.
Once back at the car, we threw down the packs, did a little stretching, and fell down…I mean, sat down. Our plans included making sandwiches for lunch, but the Lodge did have a restaurant, and we sure were hungry. Hmmm…decisions, decisions. Yeah right, there was no decision to make, we both jumped in the car and headed to the parking lot. Burger and fries for both of us. So good. They sat us by the window with views all around. Our waiter was awesome and let us know about some great spots to check out while we were there. He did most the talking since we were both stuffing our faces with some dang fine grub.
At this point, i’ll say again, a sentence from before…” I really should’ve remembered all the past lessons I had to learn the hard way.”
We were so full. As in, can’t move full. The thousands of calories we just burned over the last four or five hours were recollected in the thirty minutes we were at the restaurant. But it was so good.
We spent the next few hours driving around the park. We picked short trails to get out and walk around on. We figured we needed to keep moving before we start getting too stiff and the sore began creeping in.
It was getting late in the day, and as we drove around the campground scouting future camping spots, we came across the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail. We pulled over and decided to give it a go. It wasn’t a very long trail, but looked to have some great views of the upcoming sunset.
What an amazing end to an awesome day. This trail, as short as it is, definitely became one of our favorites. It was so peaceful. And despite being so close to the campground, it was surprisingly quiet. We could hear horses down by the river, but never saw them, and on the other side of the hill, we saw a goat with a bell around it’s neck, and continued to faintly hear him as he slowly walked the river.
We walked back to the car well after dark and headed to camp. We were pretty wore out from the days activities. It was still early, and the decision was made to keep it simple for supper. So we whipped out our small grill, a Stok Tourist, and cooked up a batch of hot dogs and chili. After supper it was another trip to the village store to shower and talk to the girls before we hit the sleeping bags.
It remained windless the rest of the night. The campground was quiet except for the six javelinas that hung out behind the tent most the night. They never bothered us and were not aggressive. Just grubbin down on all the pecans. Nick actually walked through the group on a trip to the restroom. All involved were startled and surprised, but they ran one way and he ran another. A quick reminder to always take a flashlight on any nighttime bathroom trips. 🙂
Part 2 coming soon…
Thanks for coming along,