We’ve been in Texas so long already, that we might quite possibly be honorary citizens by now. Our plastic 2017 Texas State Parks pass already has the greasy patina a of a well-traveled credit card.
Leaving Laredo, the Grand Plan was to head to Big Bend National Park. That’s three days of travel, since we tend to move less like roadrunners, and more like armadillos when we are camping. (A bit of Texas metaphor for you!)
Our first overnight was Garner State Park. We arrived early enough to take a pleasant four mile hike, and view this lovely State Park from an aerial perch. Part of the walk was through a juniper forest, where most of the trees were 10-12 feet high. I had the unusual (and quite pleasing) feeling of being a kid in a kid-sized forest. I liked it a lot.The park was quiet, the aging restrooms clean but unloved. For us, it was a good stop.
A change in plans found us happily stopping for a night at Seminole Canyon State Park, a repeat visit from our swing through this area four years ago. We had a pleasant campsite, and had enough time for a hike with Jezzy along the rim of this beautiful canyon. I loved the sculpture that overlooks the canyon from the Visitor Center. It celebrates the many petroglyphs which decorate the canyon walls here, and along the Pecos River Valley. There are enough hikes and sights here to easily keep a traveler happy for an additional day or two.
Ahhhhh, Big Bend. This isn’t a National Park anyone is just going to stumble upon. It’s remote, and big enough that it requires a full day just to travel from end to end to catch some of the popular sights. Our plan was to make the Chisos Basin campground (the highest at 5400′), our home for three nights, then move on for two nights to the Cottonwood Campground on the western end of the Park. But, we managed to grab a spectacular campsite at Chisos, and couldn’t bear to vacate, so we stayed for five nights. No regrets at all about that choice.
Our first hike was to The Window, which combined a walk down through the bottom of the Basin with a gradual climb up a spectacular rocky canyon. Steps carved into the steep sides by the CCC in the 1930s made this a hike that anyone with even a moderate level of fitness could accomplish. The The Window at the end is the reward for your labors -a narrow keyhole which provides a grand view to the desolate valley below. We didn’t venture too close to the steep edge – the shiny patina on the rock was plenty of warning that footing was likely to be treacherous. We detoured on the way back to an overlook that provided not only spectacular views, but also a bit of unexpected cell service at a high peak. (There’s WiFi at the Visitor Centers, but no cell signal in the Park at all. In addition, we also couldn’t find any English-speaking radio stations – a blessing on inauguration day).This was a great hike – probably only 6-7 miles total, but packed with grandiose views.
We decided to haul out the bikes for the next day and do a Crankshaw Triathlon – truck, bike, hike.We drove down the steep switchbacked road from camp to a spot near Grapevine Road, a 7-mile gravel washboard, which would deposit us at the trailhead to Balanced Rock. The panniers on my bike were bulging with our hiking boots, extra water, lunch, and snacks. The ride to the trailhead was a nightmare! Grapevine Road runs downhill for these seven miles, and the bright sunlight on the white gravel made it impossible to see (and avoid) the worst of the ruts. Oh, it was a painful ride. When we arrived at the trailhead, I actually had to pry my fingers from their deathgrip on the bars. Lucky for us, we were again rewarded with a great short hike down a sandy wash through a boulder field. I love these Out West sights -there isn’t anything in my experience to compare them with. We scrambled up and around the giant boulders of Balanced Rock without interference by any other hikers. It’s such a treat to have a spot like this to yourself. As you might guess, the uphill ride back to the truck was tough. I had to stop three times, which really pissed me off! (once for a car, once for a gulp of water, and once from sheer exhaustion)
We knew bad weather was heading our way for Day 4. Winds of 25-40, gusting to 50mph were forecast, along with a 40% chance of rain. Sounds great, doesn’t it? We decided to stay close to camp – we took down our awning, rolled up our mat, and packed away all loose stuff. John actually bungeed our grill and stove to the picnic table, which was partially covered by a sun shade. We leashed Jezzy up, and hiked the half-mile up to the Chisos Basin Visitor Center, in order to check news, and update our library books, (we could not survive without digital books from the GR Public Library). Jezzy started to get a bit antsy, and we knew the storm was upon us – as we looked west, blue sky was replaced by an ugly yellow/gray smudge – dust kicked up by high winds. We were slammed all night. The Fireball held firm, but bounced back and forth as we were buffeted by big gusts. Rain came down in dirt blasts. It was the roughest we’ve experienced.
The next morning was clear, but still very breezy. It was our last day, and we were unwilling to sacrifice it to hanging around camp. So, we hiked to the Lost Mine (we never did figure out where the mine was supposed to be). We climbed steadily for about 2.5 miles, with a few great views of the Basin. Our campground is in the middle of this photo. At the top, a wide-open expanse across slickrock made the going a bit hairy – the thought of being blown off a 6700′ peak gives one pause. The thrill of an incredible view pushes us on. Rewards are ours.
That last evening, we joined up with our neighbor, an amateur astronomer with an incredible set of super-highpowered binoculars mounted on a very sturdy tripod. I actually saw the Andromeda Galaxy – a first for me. I can’t comprehend this vastness of space, but I love having the chance to cogitate on it all. Big Bend is a Dark Sky Park, and one of the least light-polluted areas of the US. There are thousands and thousands of stars you can see with your naked eye. I can’t begin to capture the fantastic sky with a cell phone camera. It is indescribable -my wish would be for everyone to get to experience this sometime.
I’ll quit here – this post has certainly dragged on long enough. Big Bend has cemented itself in our camping repertoire as a place we will happily visit every few years. Upon leaving, we were surprised to realize that we spent five days here, and never even saw the Rio Grande. How is that possible??