Rachel and I love the outdoors. I think if we could hike and backpack every weekend we probably would! That’s why when we first moved to Austin we were a little disappointed in how difficult it was to find backpacking trails in the area. We discussed our frustration with one of our close friends from St. Louis on a trip back home around Thanksgiving. Little did we know this conversation was the start of one of the most memorable trips we have ever been on.
Fast forward 3 weeks later and we found ourselves in a car with our friend Chris Wally driving out into the Texan desert en route to Big Bend National Park. I cannot express how little we planned this trip! Wally had defended his dissertation in California the previous week and had just become Dr. Wally, and Rach had been working quite a bit as well. Which is probably why we literally had to pay for our campsites with pennies, nickels, and dimes because we all forgot to get cash before we got into the park, and why we randomly decided to hike 18 miles in one day, but I think the spontaneity of the trip is what made it so wonderful.
We arrived at the park early on a December Monday morning and headed straight for the Chisos Basin Campground. This campground was surrounded by jagged red-orange rock walls and a beautiful blue and orange sunrise. After driving around for awhile we finally found a first come, first served campsite and quickly began unloading and setting up our tents. After making our campsite feel pretty homey, we ran up to the small store located in the park and grabbed a map. After studying it for a few moments we listed the various trails we wanted to tackle and the canyons we longed to see and ultimately decided that if we were going to really maximize our time at Big Bend we needed to hike an 18 mile loop with a small summit trail on this day. So we filled up our water bottles, grabbed a few PB&Js and carrots, and headed deep into the park. At first, the thought of 18 miles sounded extremely daunting but we quickly learned that all in all the trail we had chosen was only steep in a few spots and otherwise held only gradual inclinations and declinations. After about 5 miles of admiring the varying landscape and vegetation we made it to the final ascent of the Emory Peak Trail. Emory Peak is the tallest peak in the park and one of the best views. We headed up the trail and all felt our stomachs sink a little once the trail came to a sudden end. We had basically made it to the summit, however, the last 50 feet of the trail were large rugged rocks that would need to be climbed in order to officially summit the peak. We all took a few deep breaths and slowly scrambled our way to the top, trying hard not to look down the hundred foot drop offs to our right. When we made it to the top we all fell silent as we took in the view. We could see for miles and miles! We ate our lunch and talked about all of the hard work we had done to get here, not only the effort that went into hiking and scrambling to the top, but the amount Rach had worked in order to get a few days off in a row and the FIVE years Wally had put into getting his PhD. A celebration definitely seemed in order so I pulled out a bottle of champagne and some orange juice and let the official Dr. Wally pour us all some bubbly to acknowledge all of his hard work! Although summits and mimosas was completely worth it, we all felt a little more apprehensive as we scrambled back down the rock face to get back to the dirt trail. But we made it!
We continued along the trail past the South Rim Loop and saw views that rivaled those from on top of Emory peak and finally, after 9 hard hours of hiking we made it back to the campground and hightailed it straight to the park lodge and restaurant for a well deserved meal!
Because we did such a long hike on our first day at Big Bend, it opened up our second day for more hiking and exploring. While hiking on our first day we asked everyone we passed on the trail what we should do and see in the park which helped us formulate a rough plan of action for our second day.
For a trail map of the Emory Peak and South Rim Loop hikes, click here.
We woke up at 5:15 am on the second day, packed up some breakfast and navigated the winding roads to the natural hot springs along the Rio Grande in the park. When we showed up to the trail we saw a small sign with “Hot Springs 0.25 miles” and an arrow pointing right on it. Unfortunately, it was still dark at this time and we had some trouble actually finding the hot springs. At one point we almost crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico! Once we actually found the springs, we enjoyed soaking in the 103 degree water and watching the sunrise over the U.S. and Mexican border. Right before we left, we decided to take a quick dip in the Rio Grande just to see how the water felt. All I can say is that I’m glad the hot springs were right along the river! After a cold shock to our bodies we jumped back into the hot springs to warm up again. We all agreed that this was the very best way to start our day!
After changing out of our swimming suits we got back into the car and headed to a place called Boquillas Canyon. We began hiking along the Rio Grande headed for the canyon and quickly noticed a small settlement across the river in Mexico. As we followed the Rio Grande, a voice from across the river called over to us, and asked in English if we wanted to hear a Mexican song. We all looked at each other and without hesitation said, “Of course!” The man began to sing a beautiful Mexican ballad, and as his voice bounced off of the tall walls of the canyon we couldn’t help but feel love-struck with our surroundings. Mexico was pretty beautiful where we were standing. The canyon was a couple hundred feet tall on both sides with sand dunes bordering areas of the rock walls. We followed a dirt trail until it ended only a short distance into the canyon itself.
After soaking in the magnificence of Boquillas Canyon, we journeyed all the way from the East side of Big Bend National Park to another canyon on the opposite side of the park called Santa Elena. The road to the west side twisted and turned through ravines and mountainous structures. When we arrived at the Santa Elena canyon, we grabbed our cameras and found the trailhead. After a short mile hike we reached the end of the canyon trail and goodness did it offer us a beautiful scene! We gazed in awe at the large rocks of the canyon that framed a generous bend in the river. We spent some time taking pictures and watching the colors of the canyon change as the sun slowly lowered in the sky.
Though we didn’t hike as much our second day, the driving and heat still took it out of us. When we got back to our campsite at 4:30ish we were ready for dinner. The last hike that was on our list was the 1.8 mile Window Trail. We heard it was a beautiful place to see the sunset. Since it was getting dark and the sunset had already begun, Wally put some beers into a pack and we decided to just watch the sunset from the entrance of the window trail right by our campsite.
However, I’m a sucker for an awesome sunrise or sunset shot. We arrived at the trail head and lazily began hiking down the dirt path. After only a few feet I asked a passerby if this was a pretty trail and he simply responded “Yeah man, the sky is on fire down there!” Well, after hearing this I knew we had to get down there even though the sun had already started to set! I looked at Wally and Rach and then up at the quickly darkening sky yelled, “We’re doing it!” and took off at the fastest pace I could muster in my socks and chacos! Luckily we were running downhill so gravity did a lot of the work and we made it to “the window” in about 15-20 minutes. As I ran past people on he trail I asked them, “How’s the view?” and they all went on and on about how it was worth the trouble which motivated us to just keep running! When we finally made it to the window, after traversing some slippery rock stairs they couldn’t have been more correct…the view really was worth the effort, and the sky really was on fire. As the nimblest of the group, I made it down first followed closely by Rach and Wally. We cracked open some highly shaken beers, and enjoyed the view.
This was the perfect way to end our trip to Big Bend, and we really felt like we didn’t leave any stone unturned. We had only been to Big Bend for two days, but we had enjoyed the big hikes, the big canyons, and colorful sunsets. As we hiked back to camp in the dark we decided the only thing left to do the next morning was to jump in those hot springs one last time before a safe drive home! Mission accomplished.
For a map of Big Bend National Park, click here.