January 17-21, 2013
After a long travel day, I enjoyed a beautiful weekend in Big Bend National Park. I started by getting to Midland from Denver via Southwest Airlines which was reliable as usual. Steve drove from Dallas to pick me up, and we continued on to Alpine for the evening in order to shorten the drive to the park in the morning.
We booked rooms at the Holland Hotel, known as the best accommodations between El Paso and San Antonio. The historic hotel was built in 1928 for $250,000 and in 2011 was renovated while keeping its 1928 delights. It’s certainly a place that supports the phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. It’s façade isn’t terribly appealing, but the lobby, reading room, fireplace heated patio, bar and restaurant are quaint and charming. After enjoying the atmosphere with dinner at the bar, we called it an early night.
Before heading toward Big Bend, Steve took a short run while strolled around the quiet town with a heavy art influence, and then we indulged in the Holland Hotel’s complimentary continental breakfast. Try the cinnamon roll – it was heaven!
After a couple of hours of driving through barren West Texas, we finally arrived at Big Bend, a national park that I loved while I was on my year long venture across America. We set up camp at the Village Campground, before we set out for a few hikes, the first being the Boquillas Canyon Trail. The trail started with a short uphill climb and then descended down to the Rio Grande. The river, a greenish color, snaked through the canyon where we encountered a “singing Jesus” on the Mexican side of the border. He stood near his canoe, sang, and hoped we’d add a tip to one of the jars lining the trail on the USA side. We continued across the sandy trail past the sand dune created by the wind blowing sand into the canyon wall. We spotted a turtle sunning on the river’s edge, before we turned back toward the trailhead while passing a variety of cacti and a few butterflies flitting around the only thing in bloom – a weed!
Upon return to the campground, we checked out a looped trail nearby. I had actually hiked this trail before near sunset, and the banded colors of the Sierra del Carmen glowed red and purple in the setting light. It was a lovely stroll past marked natural features, as we passed by a horseman carrying reeds on our way up to an overlook that provided a panoramic view of the US/Mexico border. We spotted horses trekking to the water’s edge for a drink on the 70 degree say and even one or two small flowers, though April is supposed to be the month to see the cacti in bloom.
The light hikes were perfect for Steve’s prep for the 50K he was running in the morning. More power to him…cheering is all I plan to do, though I did participate in the pre-race dinner at the Chiso’s Lodge, another camping area in the park. While Steve “Carb-loaded”, I savored luke-warm Elk chili and enjoyed the restaurant’s heat before we headed to our tent! The weather forecast called for lows in the 40’s, not too bad, but when we arose at 5:30 a.m. the next morning it was a frosty 28. I did not pack the appropriate clothing!
Steve’s run began at 7:30, so I joined him at the start line to send him off on a rocky road. The race followed rocky road and trail where spectators couldn’t reach, so I opted for a hike on the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains. After an hour drive, I was the first car to arrive at the parking area. The trailhead was peppered with warning signs…do not hike alone…mountain lions and bears have been spotted in this area…do not hike in the early morning. Well, hopefully 8:30 wasn’t considered early. I picked up a walking stick and headed out for my five mile hike. The trail changed from paved to rocky after the first rise, much to my pleasure. I prefer natural. The scree path led me past oaks, juniper, prickly pear, ocotillo, and many more low water surviving plants as I climbed to an overlook providing me magnificent views or the Chisos and the “window” as the sun rose over the mountains.
There was a bit more wildlife in the mountains than the desert, and they seemed immune to humans. The bluebird perched on the rock and didn’t mind me getting somewhat close to shoot a photo – a rarity for birds. The whitetail buck feeding on the prickly pear must have been hungry! I dropped my water bottle which barely got him to look up for a minute. He just kept eating while I stood (not even quietly) not ten feet away?!?
The trail continued switchbacking up the mountain at a low grade before I reached the peak from which I was supposed to be able to spot the “lost mine”. Legend has it that the Spanish forced Indians to work in the mine until they revolted and hid the mine. I find it hard to believe there was a mine, since there isn’t much precious metal or water in the area…mercury is the only mining mineral.
From the peak, the trail crosses a ridge rock pinnacles. While the ridge is relatively wide, it still made me a little sick to my stomach as I knew a big misstep would slide me right of the mountain. I explored carefully and enjoyed some trail mix beneath morning sun before I began my descent as the next pair of hikers summitted. It was nice to have to majestic beauty to myself. It wasn’t long that I shared the trail with ten more hikers. I heard one group trying to determine how many feet are in a mile…I chimed in, “5,280…I live in the Mile Hi City”.
I continued on to the base, dropped off my walking stick, and headed back for a shower in time for the race after party. I watched the presentations to the winners while I waited for Steve, who was only using this as a training run for a 50 miler in May, to be shuttled from the finish to the food tent! He had a successful run, but certainly wasn’t hungry immediately, so after cleaning up we went for dinner in Lajitas.
Lajitas was far…but what isn’t in West Texas? I think we drove for an hour or more. There isn’t much in Lajitas except the golf resort with a nice little bar. I had a grilled romaine salad which was fantastic when I visited three years ago, but the menu wasn’t quite as fancy this time. It didn’t really matter. Hungry and happy to catch the last five minutes of the Broncos game, we sunk into the cushy seats and wondered if we’d make it back to the camp ground.
I was happy to find that Steve had a small heater, and we slept with on for the night. Clearly I am not a winter camper! The stars both nights were magnificent. We could see the Milky Way, though it took until midnight to spot the Big Dipper which was very low to the horizon.
Sunday included nine miles of hiking after we broke down our tent which was big enough to fit his Mini Cooper. Many joked that we were sleeping in the garage. The hikes were located in another area of the park along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive…I think it took us an hour to get there too. The park is enormous…at least 50 miles in every direction!
Steve has purchased a trail guide book that provided a description of each trail in the park. I’m impressed with the author who could write two entire pages about trails the simply crossed the desert. I’m going to shoot for a paragraph!
The first trail we followed was the Mule Ears Trail which undulated across lava flow and desert to Mule Ear Springs. The four mile roundtrip took us past a variety of cacti under the beating hot sun in the late morning of a relatively cool day in Big Bend! It was so still, we could hear the wings flapping of the four blackbirds that flew overhead. Much to our relief a cool breeze kicked up and stayed with us as we investigated remnants of manmade structure and finally ducked into the shade of trees near the “spring”. Reeds hid the stagnant water and a little greenery covered the trickle of water coming from the ground that we climbed right over not knowing it was our final destination! We followed footprints on what we thought was the rest of the trail before turning around after getting scratched by a few thorny branches. While the changing view of the Mule Ears rock structure was nice, the spring was a let-down. Having said that, a day in the desert beats a day in the office!
Our next hike, according to the guide book, was easier and not as hot. It was definitely hot, but fortunately for us a light breeze came and went. The trail once again led us past a variety of cacti. Admittedly, both trails probably would have been tremendous had these thorny plants been blooming! Our final destination was the “Chimney”. The rock formations, volcanic dikes, looked so close, yet they were 2.5 miles away. Once we arrived we found proof Indians once lived here… Petroglyphs carved in the southern spire, mortar holes for crushing grains, and rocks piled up to make a wall. After circling the spire, we followed the path to explore the other rock structures featuring a few cool arches. Before heading back to the car, we enjoyed a little shade the formations provided.
After our nine miles, it was time to bid farewell to Big Bend and we exited the park from a different direction on our way to Marathon. We had originally planned to stay at the Gage Hotel, another famous haunt, but being sold out, Steve found a house online. I didn’t know much about it, but when we drove up to it, I wondered what we had gotten into…Yikes! Our tent looked better from the outside. Once again, the phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover” came into play. The two bedroom adobe house was precious on the inside. The beds were covered in old quilts, the furniture were antiques, and there was even a non-functional, wood burning stove in the kitchen for decoration.
Since we couldn’t stay at the Gage, we at least enjoyed dinner at the 12 Gage Restaurant. My spinach salad and crab and shrimp cocktail were both fantastic! Actually, for a small town with about five buildings along Main Street, I was surprised by the tasty food. Our breakfast at the soda fountain before heading home was delicious too! I’ve wanted to return to Big Bend National Park since I visited three years ago, and it was well worth the trip…I might have to visit in April sometime in order to enjoy the cacti in bloom! For anyone planning on going, the locals say this will be a good year because the area has received so much rain. ETB