When I told people I was traveling to Big Bend, more often than not they would respond with, “Where is that?” As one of the largest of all the National Parks, Big Bend is one of the least visited. I suppose that has to do with how remote it is, being located hundreds of miles from any major city. But if you are looking for a little more solitude and a lot less concrete it is so worth the drive!
Big Bend National Park is located in far west Texas along the border with Mexico where the Rio Grande “bends” through the Chihuahuan desert. The landscape is rugged, the people are few and the wildlife rules. Having adapted to the extreme weather and terrain conditions, a unique array of animals and plants thrive there. More species of birds, cacti and bats reside there than any other park in the United States. Mountain lions and brown bear roam under cover and herds of javelinas snort about care free.
Coming from Marathon, the drive to the north entrance of the park is about 40 miles. The long drive into the park through the Chihuahuan desert is breath taking. You simply must get out of the car to look around. I kept asking myself how can such a place exist? While we were far from home we were not THAT far! Fields of blooming cacti in the foreground and ancient rock formations in the background completely surround you. I have never felt so wonderfully isolated in my whole life.
Mule Ears Peak in the Chihuahuan Desert
When you arrive to the entrance a park employee will charge you a mere $25 for your entire car load of guests. The fee is good for 7 days. Think about that for a moment. A family of say, 5 people, can have a week’s worth of entertainment in nature’s playground for $5 a person. Where else can you do that? You are given a map of the park and the rest is up to you.
We decided to spend one full day hiking the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains. If you only have time to hike one trail this is probably the one. The trail is not too difficult and the panoramic views are amazing. We stopped at the Ranger station in the Chisos Basin Visitor’s Center to get a trail map and find out where the cougar and bear sightings were. I’ve been told many times that the black bear are not interested in people. That is, of course, you don’t stumble onto a momma and her cubs. The cougars, or sometimes called mountain lions or panthers, are a different story. Solo hikers and families with small children are strongly discouraged from hiking trails that have recent cougar sightings.
As excited as I was to be in Big Bend and all its natural wonder, I was apprehensive about an unexpected encounter with a creature larger than me. To ease my mind, we decided to bring bear spray we had purchased at Cabela’s. This is basically pepper spray but with a spraying distance of 40 feet. While it didn’t say intended for cougars on the can it did give me some peace of mind.
It was late November and the weather was perfectly mild with a cool mountain breeze. We had walking sticks on hand and those would prove to be very helpful. The trail begins at 5,600’ elevation and is about 5 miles from beginning to end. Good hiking boots are a must as most of the trail is steep and rocky. There are plenty of overlook spots to take photos (or pretend you are so you can catch your breath).
The view from Juniper Canyon
We saw lots of birds, funny road runners on the trail and soaring raptors overhead. The closest we got to a bear was walking over the scat (poop) along the trail. There was lots of it and it usually looked pretty fresh. We heard rattlesnakes in the brush when we would get off the path to take photos so watch where you put your feet!
We were really worn out by the time we got to the top. There were a few joking comments from other hikers about hoping there was a Starbucks. But what you see when you get there is far better than any over-priced coffee. The view simply leaves you speechless. You can see what seems like a 1,000 miles in any direction (and one of those directions is Mexico!) Because it was November, the low angle of the sun lit up the rich fall colors in the foliage adding to the perfect moment.
As I was taking photos, I spotted a pretty little cactus sitting in the sun. I took its photo with the sun shining down creating a nice back light. It struck me what a lucky cactus it was. It didn’t need much other than a small amount of water and it gets to sit soaking up the sun in all of God’s splendor every day. A lucky cactus indeed.
It was time to make the trip back down. That went a lot faster! We passed hikers that were just starting to make the hike up. I wondered if they realized they would be hiking in the dark soon.
Thoroughly exhausted, we practically collapsed when we got back to the car. Giddy from our awesome experience we fumbled for the map to find our way to our next adventure……