Big Bend - The Desert

Big Bend National Park, Texas
Article by Alexander Moliski
January 13, 2019

“Water, water, water....There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount , a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation."

Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness

The Chihuahuan Desert

Every explorer has a bucket list full of hikes and trails they want to complete before hanging up the boots. My personal list was made of the top trails in the country, the famous long-distance hikes such as the Appalachian Trail and the JMT, various trails in national parks, and extensive backcountry trails hidden in obscure corners of states. Big Bend National Park was nowhere near my list. Frankly, Out of all my excitement about national parks, I would have placed Big Bend near the “What to do after visiting my top 50 parks?” section.

I could not have been more wrong about the park. In an odd twist of events, I ended up moving to Texas, and once there Big Bend appeared as a blip on my radar. As far as hiking goes, Houston doesn't have many options, so I decided to take a trip to one of the state’s two national parks - the other being Guadalupe National Park, a wilderness area that I knew even less than Big Bend.

Everyone says Texas is big, but you can only get a true sense of scale if you drive through the country sized state. Nine hours after leaving Houston, I arrived at the gates of Big Bend. I have to say, there is something magical about West Texas, you get a feeling of what the Wild West was out there. I have driven all over the county, but there was something about West Texas that my north eastern roots just couldn't resist. I was completely smitten.

Apparently, the nine-hour drive wasn't enough time to do any research on the park at all. I had no idea what to expect, no plans, no itinerary, no trails, nothing. It was exciting. Most of the time I over plan and end up changing all of the plans on the first day anyway. We were the first in line to receive back country permits, the ranger (C. Duffy, who we will get back to in part two) ended up being more of a travel agent than a park ranger. He was extremely helpful and booked us a campsite on, what he claimed, was the best campsite in the country. I instantly doubted the ranger’s claim but was willing to humor the idea.

Big Bend, like the rest of Texas, is huge. The park nearly the size of the state of Delaware (1,981 sq miles vs 1,252 sq miles). Many visitors view Big Bend as two separate parks, there are the Chisos Mountains, and the surrounding Chihuahuan Deserts - both have incredible trails, views, and camping options. Our journey began in the desert.

Hiking the Hot Spring Trrail

Our first mistake was underestimating the size of the park. We knew, like everything else in Texas, it was going to be big, but we were not prepared for the 30-60 minute drives within the park itself. When planning a trip to Big Bend, make sure you know how much driving you plan on doing - it eats at hiking time!

Being that it was Thanksgiving, we decided to do an easy, 6-mile hike to get a feel for the area. We headed all the way to the border of the park to hike the Hot Spring Trail. It was already hot out, and the idea of getting in a natural hot tub appealed to exactly none of us. At the same time, none of us had actually seen a hot spring, so we had to check it out.

Drive through the only tunnel in the state of Texas on the way to the trail head!

Once we arrived at the trail head, parking at Daniel's Ranch, we loaded up our day bags with way too much food and headed down the incredibly hot, Hot Springs trail. Like the sun forgot it was November, we hiked in 90 plus degree heat, in the middle of the desert, with absolutely no shade.

The trial immediately rewards you with a vista of the famous Rio Grande, the river that acts as a natural border between two massive countries. Two countries, may I remind, who are not at the time friendly with each other.

I personally loved this trail. The Chihuahuan was not the same as the high deserts in Utah, the Texas deserts are perfect examples of a raw, unforgiving wilderness. Everything was out to get you, the heat, the plants, and the hike. The Rio broke the landscape into two worlds, It was beautiful. Being only a few miles, and relatively flat, it didn't take any time at all to finish the trail.

Looking towards the Mexican mountains. . .

After three miles, the trail dips and you find yourself walking on the bank of the river. The hot springs are hard to miss, one point many years ago, someone attempted to make this remote area a resort. The hot spring is dammed up into a little pool right along the river. There will also be plenty of people because the springs are a popular destination. We also found that there is a shortcut to skip the trail which makes the spot even more popular for those not wanting to do the six-mile hike in the scorching desert.

Naturally, we attempted to swim across the river. I highly commend those who are able, the river is freezing and swift. I couldn't make it more than three feet before being pushed back to the shore. We did find a spot to ford the river a little farther down, but it was still difficult. My first Thanksgiving from home was on the banks of the mighty Rio, staring into another country. It gave perspective on what I was grateful for.

Wild horses grazed on the banks of the reedy banks of the Rio

The Dodson Trail

Unfortunately, we didn't get a campsite along the Rio that night, instead, we secured backcountry permits on the lonely Dodson Trail. We drove out of the Hot Springs area until we found our trailhead. We hiked down Dodson Trial for a few miles before finding a flat spot to fit our three tents. The area felt extremely backcountry, there was nobody for miles despite it being the parks busiest season of the year.

The Dodson Trail is one of the many zones where primitive camping is allowed. You still need backcountry permits, but you can set up anywhere in the designated zones, as long as you are off the trail - the ranger go over all the rules before issuing a permit, it's a very simple process and a great alternative if they are out of campsites.

Doesn't get more back country than that. . .

Along the trail, we stumbled on the Homer Wilson Ranch. An abandoned, early 1900’s ranch house that was in operations until it was abandoned in the mid-1940’s. Homer Wilson lived alone on the ranch with only his few hundred sheep and goats to keep him company. We came upon the building at the perfect time, because as soon as we went inside to explore, the clouds opened and there was a solid, torrential downpour for thirty minutes. We stayed completely dry in the hundred-year-old building.

The trail sat at the base of the Chisos, and right below the South Rim, where we would be sleeping the next night. We had no clue what to expect but knew that the mountains surrounding us were enormous. Don't be too distracted by the views, you may want to watch your step! Critters were crawling everywhere, you're in their home so be a kind visitor.

Santa Elena Canyon

We left the Dodson trail in the morning and drove clear across the park to the Santa Elena Canyon. The hike through the canyon was only a few miles, but as I've mentioned before, sometimes the shortest hikes offer the best views. Santa Elena Canyon may be one of the most most beautiful natural areas in the entire state, and well worth the drive.

Once again, you are walking with the Rio, but it is an entirely different feel. The river cuts through the side of a mesa creating a massive canyon. This hike is fairly easy and very short, a hike for all ages and lifestyles.

Canyon walls several hundred feet high. . .

Mule Ears Spring Trail

The Chisos Mountains had been taunting us the entire time we were in the desert, but we wanted to do one last hike before heading up into the range. The Mule Ears Spring trail sounded interesting, and it was only a 4 mile hike, so we figured we could hike it quickly before heading into the mountains. Again, having no expectations, we were blown away. Around the first bend in the trail, you can see a dark, fortress-like, jagged, mountain in the distance that highly resembles two mule ears.

The path lead in and out of ancient, inactive, lava fields. For being a desert, the landscape changes dramatically, even on the short hike. Again, it was different than the hike to the hot spring or through the canyon, there were views all around and a magnificent display of Texas plant life throughout.

The Mule Ears are all that's left of what was once massive volcanoes. The softer stone has been worn away after thousands of years from the sandy winds of the desert. Now what remains are two stone obelisks acting as a witness to time.

Mule Ears has to be one of the most interesting and distinct mountains I have seen. It ranks high with Square Top mountain and Capitol Peak on my list of personal favorites. It is a monolith left from a massive volcano. As far as I am aware, most of the land around Mule Ears is also a primitive camping area. Next time I go to Big Bend, I know I am going to set my tent up in the shadow of the obelisk.

Only having a few days left in the park, we finally decided it was time to see the other half, the Chisos Mountains. I was already happy with Big Bend and the amazing desert hiking it had to offer. I came to the park expecting nothing but was blown away time and time again, The Chisos were about to surprise the hell out of me. A mountain range I had never heard of, that in my opinion, compare to the beauty and ruggedness as some of the mountains in Colorado, Wyoming, and California. In a way, my time and experience in Big Bend reflected my experience in Texas. I came to the state knowing nothing and not expecting much but left immensely surprised and more than satisfied.

The hikes we decided to do in the desert were relatively easy, short, and extremely rewarding. If you are the type that likes hiking but not crazy about camping, these few hikes are perfect for you. There is a fair amount of driving, so make sure to allocate some extra time, but if you make it out to Big Bend, do not neglect the Chihuahuan Desert.