Big Bend N.P. XVII the Rainy season in the Chisos, 8/21

Texas Summer Road Trip- Big Bend, BBQ and Bourbon

August 6th-18th, 2021 Big Bend portion the 10th-16th.

I have always wanted to see Big Bend in the rainy season, see it green and without lots of people.  August is the least visited month and the second wettest month in the middle of the monsoon which generally runs from late June (the hottest month) through September.  Boy did we hit that right with this August’s 10 plus inches of rain being the 4th wettest month ever on record in the Chisos Basin, only missing the record by a few tenths of an inch.  I also wanted to experience the heat of the lower desert but only by doing early morning day hikes and then retreating to air conditioning for the afternoons.

Scott and I were within a week of hitting the road in December 2020 for a different hiking trip in the lower desert but with Covid reaching its peak in West Texas just then and many stories about the locals saying please don’t come, we decided the responsible thing to do was to postpone the trip.  I fully retired from farming in the spring so as Covid waned and we got vaccinated I proposed a summer trip to the upper Chisos with some day hikes on the tail end.  We would still drive as flying and renting cars right now is still an insane and expensive process.  Driving would also allow us to hit many more BBQ places and to carry home as much hard to find, for us, Bourbon, as we could locate and afford.

The timing of the trip revolved around the big Perseid meteor shower which peaked on the morning of the 12th under a new moon which would make for optimal viewing conditions.  The plan was for short days with lots of time for easy day hikes and to sit in camp or on the rim and watch thunderstorms roll across the desert, we got that in spades too as it rained on us every single day.  When my brother Jon saw the trip plan he said “Geezer trip for sure” and asked if he could join us.  For icing on the cake and/or to add yet another moving part to the trip plan Scott and I were invited to speak at a farm conference in San Marcos a day or two before we would be rolling through anyway so we added that day and a half onto the itinerary.

As we were in the planning stages the South Rim 4 fire, in April, burned across almost the entire high Chisos leaving me wondering what the campsites would be like on the second half of our 4 nights up there.  I gathered as much intel as I could and decided that the ER7 campsite looked like it had escaped the fire damage that effected other sites to varying degrees.  It would still be fascinating to see what the fire damage actually looked like and how the recovery was progressing.

It is a long ass drive to Big Bend from North Carolina, one I hadn’t done since 1992 but off we went on the 6th stopping in Birmingham for some average BBQ and then ending the day in Shreveport, just short of 1000 miles for the day.  Up and on the road at 5:30 on Saturday the 7th, the goal was to get to Snow’s BBQ in Lexington as early as possible.  They are only open on Saturday and were rated the #1 BBQ by Texas Monthly in their last roundup in 2017.  We made it by 9:30 and the line was already crazy long.

The 86 year old pit master Tootsie Tomanetz (on the left) was managing the pits and greeting the public, tough gal.

3 hours later we made it to the counter and they were out of a lot of things including turkey, pork ribs, coleslaw and potato salad.  It was really good but if anything it needed a bit more smoke.  Pro tip- if you want to skip the line show up at noon or even 1:00 and it looks like they always have brisket and sausage at the end.

We had planned to maybe hit Louie Mueller’s in Taylor and then on to Micklethwaite’s, La Barbeque or Valentina’s in Austin on the way to San Marcos but after 3 hours in a hot line we decided just to head straight to San Marcos and check into our hotel.  After we recovered we made the short drive over to Lockhart and Kruez’s Market for dinner, certainly the best pork ribs of the trip.

Can you smell the smoke?

Sunday and Monday morning we were speaking at the conference and picking Jon up at the Austin airport where he was 5 hours late after delays in Dallas.  As soon as we were done Monday morning we headed west to Marathon, stopping for lunch at Lum’s in Junction, I give it a 3.5-4, pretty good. 

The Marathon Motel seemed fairly full and we spent the evening packing and getting everything ready for the next day’s hike up into the Chisos as I wanted us to be able to just pull out the packs and start walking when we got there.  We would have had dinner at the excellent Brick Vault BBQ but they are closed on Mondays.

Tuesday the 10th we were up early to be at the J&G Grill at the Alon gas station, when they opened at 7:00, to get some to-go breakfast so we could make to the Basin by 8:30 to get our park pass and then get started up the Laguna Meadows trail by 9:00 to beat the heat.  The grill was closed so we back tracked to the Oasis Café for a sit down breakfast, which was great but put us an hour behind schedule.

It was in fact very green all the way down to the park and as we stopped just short of Panther Junction it also became apparent that it was also surprisingly humid for the desert.  Not really unexpected when one thinks about it, moisture laden air rises to make thunderstorms and they used to predict the Arizona monsoon rains would start when they had three days in a row of dew points in the mid 50’s or higher.  It had been raining fairly consistently for weeks now and the air felt like it.  Still, I was not used to the idea of a hot and sticky desert.  As it turned out the dew points the whole time we were there were between the mid 50’s and the mid 60’s when, in my experience, things begin to be uncomfortable.

Up to the Basin, paid the entrance fee, threw out the packs and I took the car down to the Amphitheater/over flow/backpacker parking and walked the extra .4 of a mile and 300 feet back up to the trailhead, kind of a pain in the ass.  10:00 and we were off.  It was already warming up but we made steady, if slow, progress up the Laguna meadows trail.

Not much breeze but adequate shade all along the way and it quickly became apparent that the rains had kicked the wildflowers into over drive which made the sticky climb more enjoyable. 

We only saw a few day hikers on the way up and one backpacker on his way down.  It took longer than I had anticipated but we finally rolled into the LW3 campsite mid-afternoon.  High in the mid 80’s, as it would be every afternoon we were up high.  Not the most appealing campsite but shady and room for two tarps with an open area up the hill to take in the view of Emory Peak and surrounds.  I go down wash to check for water, only 3 minutes in this wet season.

Not much air movement and the gnats are down in the trees so we move up the hill as the clouds are building and hang out for the evening, cooking dinner and trying to decide what the weather will do.  Thunder not too far distant and we decide to start the night under the tarps, good decision as it rains lightly on us a few times during the night.

Wednesday the 11th dawned cool at 59 degrees and it had mostly cleared off but with enough clouds for a nice sunrise over Emory Peak.

We moved up the hill for breakfast amongst the many, many blooming wildflowers. 

As we were getting ready for the day’s hike the resident Sierra del Carmen Whitetail bucks showed up in full velvet, afraid of nothing.

Today’s hike was to explore upper Cattail Canyon to Homer Wilson’s old dam and past, hopefully to the first big drop.  It would also be a walk into the past for me.  In 1974, at age 18, a friend and I attempted one of the first ever descents of Cattail Canyon all the way to the desert.  Little was known about the course of the canyon, even the NPS folks we talked to at the time had any idea of what was in there.  We went in with three 150’ ropes and spent 2 days working our way down through the first 3 or 4 drops (depending on how you count them) to the top of what is now known as Bryan’s Falls.  At nearly 500’ high we knew we had met our end and climbed back out.  Back then you could camp in the canyon, not so anymore due to the sensitive nature of the place.  Since then a number of people have gone through going both up and down canyon. 

It took us about an hour of easy walking to get to the old dam.  The way is easier than I thought it would be due to obvious use trails by both humans and bears. 

There was plenty of water all along the way, constant after about 10 minutes below the LW3 campsite.

More flowers and the Resurrection ferns were unfurling.

We get to the dam which was full of water and seeping out just like it had been in 1974.  After a rest Jon decided he as heading back to camp as his knee was bothering him some. 

1974

Scott and I started on down the now mostly rock bottomed wash, this is the view from the dam.

After a few turns down stream Scott decided he has also had enough and turned back, I told him I would be very careful as I headed on alone.  Due to the amount of water there was a lot of edging and a few climbs around pools that required come careful down climbs.

These things are always like a puzzle, trying to find the right line and way.  I even was surprised to find a few small cairns marking some of the climb arounds.

I saw several garter snakes around the pools and lots of tadpoles swimming in them.

After another hour the walls began to get taller and I knew I was near the first big drop when I was stopped by a huge pool that I couldn’t get around without some severe scampering over the ridge.

I knew the top of the pouroff was just around the corner and I would have loved to have looked down it again but it was getting hot and I was alone and so turned back to a giant boulder just up wash which had good shade.  I settled in for lunch, soaking my feet in the cool water flowing beside the rock.

Cooled down as much as possible I started the climb back out.  The sun was intense off the rock walls but soon I looked up and was back to the dam and near shade.  Just as I was passing the dam I spotted a bear coming down the west ridge towards the wash maybe 20 yards away.  I wasn’t sure but I thought I also had seen a cub.  I moved slowly up wash, away from her, yelling “Hey Bear!”.  She wasn’t happy with me and not only chuffed at me but also started to snap her jaws which is a real sign of discontent. 

I was moving as fast as I could without looking like I was prey, keeping an eye on her and talking to her when I spied the reason for her great alarm, not one but three cubs up the ridge from her (you can see three sets of heads and ears at the base of the dead tree on the ridge).

I was soon around the corner and she stopped paying attention to me.  The next half an hour was thankfully in the shade which helped with the heat.  I stopped at the last good water hole before camp and filled up some water containers and had a bandana rinse which was most welcomed after two sweaty days.

Back to camp by 3:00 and as I am unloading my daypack a big black tailed rattlesnake comes through camp, a few feet from the tarp.  This has certainly been a Wild Kingdom day!

It is clouding up so we head up the hill to enjoy the breeze when it starts to sprinkle so it’s back down to the tarps just in time for a few close thunder claps and it starts to rain lightly for an hour or so, at least it cooled down into the 60’s.  Maybe a quarter of an inch but it finally stops so we go back up the hill for dinner. 

Tonight is the peak of the Perseid meteor shower but it is still clouded over at 9:30 so we start the night under the tarps.  At 5:00 a.m. I poke my head out and see that it is mostly clear so grab my ground sheet, pad and bag and head up the hill to a nice open flat area, leaving the others sleeping.  Not totally clear but I do manage to see one about every 3 minutes with a few nice long ones before the sky starts to brighten.

Thursday the 12th starts at 61 degrees and we are fairly efficient in breakfast and packing up for the fourish mile walk over to ER7.  As we walk back out the Laguna West campsite trail there is a “purple desert mountains majesty” view over Laguna pass.

There is a century plant stalk right at the junction with the South Rim trail that is really being worked by the hummingbirds and insects, three hummers at one time.

As we turn the corner around the base of Emory Peak we get the first glimpse of fire damage on the slopes of point 7395 where the South Rim trail passes.

We get to the Colima cut over trail and run into one backpacker heading down and a family day hiking the loop.  Scott and I take all of Jon’s empty water containers, leaving him with one full quart, and send him on across the South Rim to camp to reduce the amount of climbing he has to do and to give his knee a break.  We head over the pass and down to Boot Canyon to get water.

The first burn areas are just over the pass and are patchy in nature.  This is looking towards Toll Mtn. with some trees definitely killed but others starting to rebound. 

This steep section, looking towards Townsend Point, is one of the more heavily burned areas we saw the whole trip but it is only an acre or two, similar to what we will see all across the South and East rims.

Down to Boot Spring by noon and we fill up half the containers from the pipe thinking it will be a little clearer water than what we might get further up canyon. The creek is running nicely over the fall and downstream.

We move on up canyon and there are burned areas and then very green parts with some stream washing from the recent rains.

Lots of water all along the way and the wildflowers continue to be amazing.

We stop at the last good crossing and fill up the rest of the water containers.

All the way to the South Rim are large areas of grasses and flowers and not many trees but this is not from the fire, maybe the drought and freeze of 2011 but it is clear that there are many fewer trees than there used to be and the NPS estimates up to 20% of the pinyons have been lost.  I hadn’t been up into the high Chisos since 2008 and it is noticeably different, especially when I look at old pictures.

Looking back down towards Boot Canyon and you can see just how patchy the burned areas are and not really too bad.

South Rim by 1:00 and we take a pack off break because they are really heavy now with full water, 11 qts. in mine.  It is thankfully breezy because it is also warming up.  We run into the family who we saw earlier day hiking the loop and a fellow who is camped down the way.

We slowly make our way along the rim, with its two short climbs, taking advantage of the shade when we can.  You can see more hard burned areas but each only a few acres in size.

We finally make it to our campsite at 2:30 and Jon only beat us by 20 minutes.  We are happy to drop the big water load but it should hold us until we head out in two days.

We move out to what I call the front porch, the huge expanse of open rock and tuck into the shade of the small trees for a late lunch and to take in the huge views.

And to watch the thunder clouds building over the desert but mostly moving away from us.

At one point I go back to the campsite for something and come back to find another black tailed rattlesnake slowly moving across the front porch.

Finally about 6:00 one of the storms starts to move directly at us so we head to camp to make an early dinner before it rains. 

Just as dinner is cooked it starts to rain and we duck under the tarps to finish eating.  That is when it opens up on us and dumps rain for about an hour, fortunately all the lightning was off to our west a bit.  One of the bad aspects of almost all of the rim campsites is that the entrance trails all run downhill into the campsites, funneling all the water straight into the tent pads.  We had standing waves running through our tarp and Jon had big water too.  We just sat there perched on our pads and ground sheets but managed to keep everything pretty much dry.

It finally stops and we get out to assess the scene and do what we can to get ready for the night.  We had a cup sitting out on the bear boxes and it had over an inch of rain in it.

It starts to sprinkle again so we pack it in for the night at 9:00 and it rains lightly until midnight.  Won’t be any meteor viewing again tonight.

Friday the 13thAfter so many hours under the tarp I am up early to a wonderfully cool 54 degrees and out to the front porch for the sunrise, 6:30 and still a few stars in the sky, a great start to the day.

By 7:30 we are all up taking in the beautiful sunrise

And the first golden light on the Sierra Quemada

With coffee as the sun breaks the horizon and breakfast on the front porch.

After a luxurious time spent taking in the opening of the day we returned to camp to deal with the aftermath of last night’s storm.  Around Scott’s and my tarp is a mud hole after the river that had run through it.

And we take everything out and commence with a full yard sale, hanging gear on the many available limbs to air and dry for the day.

We have a free day and all have different plans for it.  9:00 I go off alone to walk the South Rim all the way back to the farthest campsite and back.  Partly to just take it in leisurely and partly because I want to check out all of the campsites on the South and East Rims and document their condition after the fire.

It is a beautiful morning with fairly clear views off the rim and the wildflowers all along are fantastic.

One of the casualties of the fire

I get to the side trail to the old composting toilet near the SR4 campsite, where the fire is supposed to have started and there is this closed trail sign.

I go down to look for signs of the toilet and it is totally gone, only the bear box for the peat moss is left.

The section of trail between the farthest west campsites is the steepest and most open with views down into Boot Canyon, some areas the trees have been gone for some time like this

And some are now dead from the fire, I have been keeping an eye out for how much erosion is happening due to the fire and for the most part I have not really seen a lot but this section was the worst that I saw all day.

The hillsides are definitely being held together with the grasses and the plethora of wildflowers.

After inspection of the last campsite I turn around and slowly head back towards camp, slipping down the Boot Canyon trail about 5 minutes to the first water so I can fill up one more platypus container that will give us enough to get through tomorrow morning, pretty good looking water from last night’s rain.

Back to camp by 1:00 after 5 miles and the guys have been having a morning checking out the area.  Back out to the front porch, into the shade for lunch and to take in the changing view.

Late in the afternoon I walk over to Townsend Point and to check out the rest of the East Rim campsites.  This section has some of the largest, hard burned, areas of the whole fire

with some moderate erosion in places, not so much soil as the lighter materials like ash and charcoal

Townsend point, the second highest point in the Chisos, is mostly in the trees with limited views

But there is a good view back towards where we are camped, the highest point on the East or South Rims at 7400′ and you can get an idea of how the fire poured down over the rim into Juniper Canyon

Juniper canyon itself was essentially untouched.

The side of Townsend Point looking west towards Emory Peak and Boot canyon took it hard but again you can see the patchy nature of the hard burned areas.

As I return to camp the clouds have been building all afternoon but not as extensive as yesterday and the storms dropping rain are smaller and farther off to the east and west of us.  We watched one that dropped a lot of rain near Nugent Mountain and even gave us a small rainbow.

We had great late afternoon light and the best sunset of the trip.

We cook dinner out on the front porch and have great hopes for a clearing night sky to finally see some meteors.  We even start the night laying out in the flat area near the front porch but are woken at 11:00 by rain drops, damn!  Back down to the tarps with just spitting rain and fitful sleep until about 2:00 when I see Jon’s light moving around, I peek out and it is clear!  We all move back up to the front porch and watch off and on for hours.  The sky is still not totally brilliant with so much moisture in the air but the meteors are pretty good and frequent with some really long, bright ones.  Finally success!

Saturday the 14th62 degrees the low and we drift in and out of sleep but I am up at 7:00 to get the ball rolling as we are trying to be walking by 8:00, after one more beautiful meal on the front porch we are on the trail by 8:30.

On around the Northeast rim with views down into Juniper canyon and we cross these two snails having a race across the trail.

Down the steep side of Townsend Point into Boot canyon and this is probably the single largest area of hard burn we have seen.  If there will be bad erosion this is probably the area it will happen in.

Beautiful morning along the canyon, still lots of water.

We take a break at the picnic table at the Boot cabin and I notice this juniper already sending out new growth.

The big lizards are enjoying the sun on the back of the cabin.

On around the shoulder of Emory Peak and there is water running in the wash there and I start to see more trees putting out new growth including new leaves on this oak.

Of course the Boot

The final pull up to Pinnacles pass and we start to see people and more water in the wash there too.

We had gone 4 days and had only seen 12 people total, 3 backpackers and the rest day hikers but we are now on the Emory Peak highway and there are tons of mostly young folks heading up, way too late in the morning and mostly unprepared.  I will never understand the attraction of having to do Emory Peak at the expense of other, better options.  We see several sets of backpackers and I say “I hope you are not carrying all of your water?”  Their spirits are crushed when I tell them there is tons of water in Boot Canyon.

Over to the shady side and it is downhill the rest of the way now.

After 6 plus miles, Scott and I are back to the parking lot by 12:30 and I go down to get the car while Scott grabs the picnic table in the shade to wait for Jon.  With his knee he is moving slow but he finally arrives at 2:00 and we hustle off to Study Butte.

While I am checking in for our cabin at the Chisos Mining Co. motel the guys get lunch at DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ.  Into the cabin, and we take turns showering and woofing down the BBQ.  The BBQ is not quite as good as past visits, it has good smoke and flavor but a bit dry, it is the end of his week so maybe that is the reason.

We sort equipment and clean up some things while we wait out the heat.  We had planned to do short hike this evening but between the heat and then the rain we decided to pass and just went to have dinner at the Chile Pepper and to sleep in a bed with AC.

The last two mornings in the park were to be devoted to crack of dawn day hikes to show the guys some special places and for them to just generally check out the rest of the park.  Sunday we were up before 6:00 making coffee and out the door by 6:15 to make the drive all the way down to Santa Elena canyon for sunrise.  Didn’t miss it by much.

There were two other cars in the parking lot already but otherwise quiet.  We walked out to the Terlingua creek crossing and it was muddy and deep.  A young couple came up and she decided to test it out while her partner watched, adventurous gal.  It was crotch deep at the far side and he followed her across, we decided to pass.

Back to the Dorgan house, to show them the amazing chimney built entirely of petrified wood and the view, Scott loves petrified wood.

Blue Creek had flashed recently and there was a pretty good puddle to drive through.

Quick stop at Cottonwood campground and Castolon just to look, both are closed for the summer.  We stopped just short of Tuff canyon at the base of Cerro Castolon and took a short hike to check out a little slot canyon

and came back down through Tuff canyon itself.

The reflective umbrellas did help

This was a really beautiful flower on a Desert willow, looks very much like a snapdragon.

As we were getting back to the car a ranger slowed to check on us, all good.  We drove up the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive a little farther and pulled over on the side to check out another canyon and were finally stopped by some big pools of water.

It was getting warm so we headed for the Basin for lunch, stopping at many over looks along the way and at Sam Nail Ranch to walk the loop, the windmill was pumping water and the pecan and fig trees were very happy.

The Lodge restaurant was sort of serving lunch, on the patio only and there were only a few options that seemed more premade for takeout, the hamburgers and cold beer were good just the same.  One more stop at Panther Junction to check out the visitor center and then we decided it was time to head back to the room instead of driving all the way down to Rio Grande Village.

About 6:00 we went to the Ghost Town to hang on the porch and have dinner at the Starlight.  Always an interesting crowd on the porch. 

Monday was the transition day and the beginning of the long drive back home.  Up before sunrise again and we pull off the side of the road at first light to go check out Swirl tinaja.  Made it to the tinaja, always fascinating with all of the mortar grain grinding holes and it was holding some water but not as much as I would have thought with all the rains.

Second stop was to see a pictograph called the Red Buffalo but the road to it was in bad shape including a big puddle and my low clearance car was not going to make it so we moved on and stopped at the Fossil Bone exhibit before heading north to Marathon for lunch.  Got my chicken fried steak for the trip.

On into Fredericksburg which would set us up nicely for tomorrow’s pillage of Austin liquor stores and the first of four BBQ stops for the day before dropping Jon off at the airport.  We had dinner and then went over to Luckenbach for Pickers night.  Slow night but it was amazingly mild weather for the Hill Country in mid August.

Tuesday the 17th– just about our first leisurely morning of the trip.  On the road by 8:00 to make it to the first liquor store in Austin when they opened at 10:00.  Right on time and we score a few bottles we were looking for and several new ones.  In North Carolina the liquor is state controlled and sold through their stores so there are a lot of things we never see and the taxes and prices are higher than in Texas.  Some years ago I realized I could find all kinds of good, reasonably priced, bourbons in Texas and have been bringing some home after every trip to Big Bend.  After three stores we mostly got what we came for and brought back 18 bottles.

Bourbon procured, we needed to move on as we still had a long way to go today.  11:00 we were at Terry Blacks’s BBQ and it was very good with excellent sides, we got some additional moist brisket to take home for a taste off later. 

Next stop was Franklin’s which is only open for order-ahead takeout and they are doing a brisk business.  Those cars are inline to check in for their pick up and the ones in the parking lot, with their trunks open waiting for the goods.

 Scott got a whole brisket to take home but we also got a pound to taste immediately.  That brisket was a step above all the others, look at the juices on the butcher paper!

Just about then Jon got a text saying his flight had been canceled, augh!  He said just drop him at the airport anyway and he would deal with it.  So off to the airport and we drop him at 1:00.  Next stop Stiles Switch BBQ in North Austin to pick up some moist brisket to go.  Okay but not the best for sure. 

Finally on the road by 2:00 heading northwest towards Tyler and Stanley’s Famous BBQ for dinner.  It too was pretty good but the award winning ribs were just okay and they smoke with Pecan and I thought it had a slight bitter, creosote aftertaste.

Some friends asked if this was the Heart Attack tour, but Scott and I have a standard operating procedure.  We share an order and usually keep it to a 1/4# each of brisket, turkey and either sausage or ribs and maybe something else they might be known for like a pork chop.  Beans and slaw to also compare and again maybe another interesting side.  We always finish the meats, sometimes the sides, never eat the bread.  So we pace ourselves, four places in a day is not really too hard to do and keep our school boy figures.

After the ninth BBQ joint for the trip we got on I-20 and made tracks.  Vicksburg for the night after a 600 mile day followed by an 800 mile day on Wednesday and we were finally home after 4000 miles, whew!  We just about beat Jon back to our homes driving as even though he got another flight, it was delayed by thunderstorms in Dallas and didn’t get home until late on Wednesday too!

So I finally made it to Big Bend in the summer and it was everything and more I had thought it would be.  August is definitely very lightly visited, which I prefer and it was nice to essentially have the upper Chisos to ourselves, I had no problem walking into every campsite on the rim and along Colima trail as there was no one else up there.  If you want to go in the summer I would definitely go in August and certainly not in June, before the rains start, when all kinds of nuts show up in the hottest month of the year (and are surprised that a desert park is hot!).  This year in June, Rio Grande Village at 1850’, was the hottest place in the nation for four days running getting to 117 degrees and even the Basin at 5400’ was in the high 90’s.

While the South Rim 4 fire was something no one wanted to see happen, I was looking forward to seeing the aftermath in person.  The tremendous rainy season has definitely helped and it seems to change and improve every week.  As I have said before, it is not as bad as it could have been and is quite patchy as to the trees burned.  While the official size of the fire was 1300 acres not all of it burned, it definitely creeped through the undergrowth and burned a lot of grasses and such but it was just about as good an outcome as one could hope for.  Of course the civilian reports are dire, I talked to some folks who had been told by a ranger at the west entrance that the whole thing burned and it was all gone…not true.  We were also very fortunate that between the fire and the rains the place was really green and the wildflowers maybe a once in a lifetime bloom.

A summer trip pretty much requires you to keep to the Chisos for the most part but in general, and I know this will be a somewhat unpopular opinion, I find them pretty boring and much less interesting than the lower desert.  Yes the wildflowers and birds are beautiful and a draw, when they are there, and of course the views from the South Rim are the real attraction but without those things the basic pinyon/juniper forest is not very interesting, to me. 

All the time, online, people are in awe of going up into the Chisos like it is some huge wild place.  If you draw a line around the main upper Chisos along the 6600’ contour line, which would capture Boot Spring, it is only about 2000 acres (maybe 1000 acres if you never leave a trail) and if you walked every single trail from the Basin trailhead up (not including the Window and Lost Mine trails) including out and back on the Emory Peak, Boot campsite and Laguna West campsite trails it is barely 20 miles total.  It is just not that big, tiny really, in relation to the rest of the park or any other mountain range.  It is actually hard to spend more than a few nights up there unless you just want to sit and take in the view, a pastime I fully endorse, as there is only so much you can do, especially if you don’t explore Cattail canyon and surrounds.

Yes everyone needs to hike up there and see that view and ecosystem and get oriented to the rest of the landscape but there is a hell of a lot more to see in the park than those 2000 acres.  This was my eighth trip up there but the first since 2008, too many other cool things to explore.  I am sure I will be back up there at some point but it will be a few years and maybe with some new people to show it to.

It was a great trip and we saw amazing sights but I probably don’t need to go back in the summer again.  I will mostly keep to my sweet spot of early December which seems to be perfect for both good weather and fewer humans.  That is not to say that people shouldn’t go in the summer to experience real heat and a green desert (if the rains come) especially if you are into astronomy and night photography or other such nighttime pursuits.  To really know the park one should experience it in all seasons.  I have been fortunate to be there in brutally hot and very cold, rain storms and snow storms, really wet seasons and the worst drought since they started keeping weather records, crazy wind and blissfully still, incredible cactus and wildflower blooms and the driest shriveled desert, stupid holiday and spring break crowds (never again) and the least visited times and it is different, in some way, each time; might be why I keep going back just to see what’s next. 

This entry was posted in Big Bend and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Big Bend N.P. XVII the Rainy season in the Chisos, 8/21

  1. phieldnotes says:

    Excellent TR, thoroughly enjoyed it! (Especially as I’m currently tethered to central Texas due to caregiving responsibilities for two aging parents. I may finagle a backcountry visit this winter if I can get my brother to come for a visit.) And I concur with some of your BBQ reviews, namely Franklin and Stiles Switch. Kreuz used to have a fantastic bone-in chop that was, um, fantastic. Last time I was there was underimpressed with it.

  2. Don’t think I’ll ever see the South Rim again, but really enjoyed reading about your adventures and especially seeing your terrific photos. Thanks for sharing!
    I’m trying to get back to Big Bend this year. Looking at early November as one possibility, if I can score a site at Cottonwood when they open up for registration. Do you think it will still be too hot then, and, since that’s the time of the chili cookoff, is that a bad time to visit regardless of the weather?

    • Dick, I hope you can get back, November at Cottowood should be a great time. I have never been there during the Chili Cookoff’s but my understanding is, while there is a bit more traffic in the park, mostly they stay over in Terlingua and carry on. I would for sure stay away from Terlingua if I didn’t want to run into a bunch of people.

  3. James B says:

    I have been enjoying your great adventures in Big Bend. I have been there 30 times so far, but have not been going as much as you or done the multiday hikes like you have.
    You are the first person I have seen post about that other small canyon full of water near Tuff Canyon. I found it several years ago, you can take that canyon all the way down to the River road. Im also a member of bigbendchat, but have not been active on there for a while now.

    Again, thanks for sharing all your wonderful adventures

  4. John Markovitz says:

    Great article. Congratulations on your retirement. Walking in nature, bears, rattlesnakes, Hummingbirds,bourbon and barbecue. Adventurous living. Doesn’t get much better does it?

  5. Jac says:

    Absolutely phenomenal article. You are my hero! I wonder if you’d let me post one of your photos on my Social Media (Traces of Texas) along with laudatory comments and a link to this your article. Jac from Traces of Texas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s