Big Bend National Park – Chisos Mountains and Santa Elena Canyon

Chisos Mountains, Big Bend National Park

We were in Big Bend a full week, and it was barely enough to cover the highlights. Several people we talked to opted for a couple of hikes a day. Owing to the direct afternoon sunshine, and the fact that a lot of hikes necessitated a drive down bumpy rocky roads or hiking in open desert, one hike per day was enough for us. We visited the Chisos Mountains area after our Balanced Rock hike.

The Chisos Mountains go around in a circular fashion and in the middle is a slightly hilly area called “The Basin”. Big Bend operates another campground, a lodge and restaurant, and a park visitor center in the Basin, and many trailheads begin here. We didn’t even look around the Basin when we first arrived, because after the Balanced Rock hike we were looking for lunch. Several tourists were admiring this tarantula outside the restaurant.

I was opting to be cool, pretend I’d seen a lot of tarantulas in the wild in my life, and eat my lunch, but Cal had to go have a look.

There is a break in the Chisos Mountains circle called “The Window”. There is a 5.6 mile round trip trail that can be taken to it, but that would have been our second hike of the day. We opted for the quarter mile paved “Window View” trail. The view through the Window and out to the western part of the park was spectacular.

View of “The Window” from The Window View Trail, Big Bend

On another day, when we were fresh, we returned to the Chisos Mountains to hike the Lost Mine Trail. This trail is 4.8 miles round trip with an 1,100 foot elevation gain. It was one of those straight-up trails, but despite that, it is one of the most popular trails in the park.

There were several switchbacks, and at one point the trail was nothing but pure rock.

The trail left, and the trail right

Once we gained elevation, we were rewarded with gorgeous views of the Chisos Mountains.

I saw this same view on a postcard, and said it was a view of “Elephant Tusk”. That might be the formation in the top center of the card. It doesn’t look like an elephant tusk to me, though.
Being at this altitude and looking down on the mountain peaks was pretty exhilarating!
At the top
The only wildlife we saw was this lizard, perfectly matching the rocks it lives on.

At the top, I inched my way around the corner of the rock we were on, and dangled my feet while I looked at the view below. There was nothing but air straight down. It was a bit dizzying, so I didn’t stay for long!

In the western side of the park is another “can’t miss” hike, the Santa Elena Canyon. It is at the end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which in itself was a treat. There were many places to stop on the way, a nice way to see the park if one wasn’t inclined to do a lot of hiking. We visited the ruins of Sam Nail Ranch, an oasis of green sunk into the hills. It was supposed to be great for birding, but we didn’t see birds.

The Nail family once called this their home

Another stop-off, this time to see “Mule’s Ears”, below

We admired the purple cactus on the way. I had never seen purple prickly pear cactus before, and there were areas where there were more purple than green.

And, a blooming ocotillo. These usually bloom in the spring, so this was a surprise. A whole area of blooming ocotillo in the desert is really a sight to see.

The rock behind the ocotillo is called “Cerro Castellan”, and was a landmark for those traveling along the way. We had stopped for a look at Tuff Canyon, which we ended up hiking in for a bit. The area we were driving through had seen major volcanic activity millions of years ago. There were over 20, and some minor ones, which created the landscape we were seeing. “Tuff” is hardened volcanic ash. This canyon was an unexpected surprise and I would have loved to explore it further.

Santa Elena Canyon lies at the end of this scenic drive. At the beginning of the canyon, we had to figure out how to get around the creek that feeds into the river. The other hikers showed us the way.

We had arrived at Santa Elena Canyon. The walls on the left are Mexico, on the right is the US, and the Rio Grande River is in the middle. I had a mistaken impression we could wade over to Mexico, but it was too deep at this point.

The trail to get up and inside the canyon
Sadly, the end of the trail. We could go no further.
With Cal down the trail a bit, you can get a little perspective on how large the canyon is.
With my back to Mexico and the Rio Grande. I touched the bushes with my walking stick so…I was there

A woman we crossed paths with several times on this day seemed a little disappointed with the size of the river. “Rio Grande”, she said, “The word means big! Where is it big?” She had tried several paths on the river, and none panned out for her. Indeed, at times in the park, it seemed like no more than a trickle. It seems to me that at times when I’ve crossed over into Mexico further east than Big Bend that it was wider and deeper. Or maybe “Grande” refers to the length. Or maybe it used to be bigger? Who knows, but it was grand enough to me.

The Twosna Travelers at the very bottom of the USA

Big Bend is one of our least visited US National Parks. It’s a distance to go, even for Texans. There aren’t a lot of paved roads except for the main connectors through the park. With its combination of river, desert, and mountains, it was an amazing place to visit and I’m glad we were able to spend a week there.

Next time – Big Bend Ranch State Park

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