Camping Trip to Big Bend National Park, December 31,
2003 to January 8, 2004
Big Bend National Park, in southwest Texas, is the most
place. It has desert and river, mountains, forest, and 395 species of
of which don't live anywhere else. It's the largest and least visited
all the national parks--least visited mainly because it's very remote.
It's 100 miles from the nearest supermarket, hospital or pharmacy,
on the way to somewhere else, and is one of the very few places in the
country where no cell phone will work.
The first time I went to Big Bend National Park was 1959 when
years old. The second time I must have been about 15, and I managed to
go every few years until moving to Illinois. For me, going to Big Bend
is like going home. Actually, it's as close as I can get to going home
since the house I grew up in burned down and the neighborhood has long
John and I spent a week in Big Bend less than a year after we
and that was 17 years ago! We hadn't been back since we moved to
because it isn't easy to get there from here. Since it is too far to
without plenty of vacation time, the usual car camping trip needed to
modified somewhat, as we had to fly to El Paso, rent a car, and drive 6
We packed all our camping gear (making a few smaller and
substitutions for the flight--tiny single mantle lantern and a one
stove) into one large suitcase and 4 duffle bags, all just at the size
and flew to El Paso. There we rented a car, and after packing the car,
drove to a supermarket where we had to buy all the groceries for the
as the camp stores are very limited. After buying an ice chest and
for a week, we could hardly find room in the car for them!
Originally, we had planned to drive all the way to the park
that first night in the campground. But luckily, a few days before we
I realized that there was no way we would get there in time to set up
before dark, so I made a reservation at one of the two motels in Alpine
Texas, 100 miles from our destination, and since we didn't even get
far until 8 pm, that turned out to be a very good decision. That
us to get a good night's sleep, leave early the next morning, and set
daylight. But meanwhile, that night it was New Year's Eve. We
had dinner and everything was closed, but we had been to the grocery
and had a car full of food. So we had apples, crackers and tuna, and
and tea in the motel room and watched the ball drop in New York at 11pm
our time, and went to bed.
On an email list I am on, there has been a recent discussion
home--how you can't really go home again, or you can, but either it is
or you are. Well, going back to Big Bend, I can pretty well count on it
being much the same. It's as if those mountains have just been sitting
there waiting for me to come back. This time, though, we found a couple
of minor changes. Apparently, due to several drier than usual years,
of the javelina have moved into the campgrounds. I had never even seen
one close up before. (Javelina are collared peccaries. They look a bit
like wild pigs, or wild boars, but they are not even related.) We
to talk to the campground host before going to our campsite, and she
us about them. She said that we should not leave ice chests or food
unattended even long enough to walk from the car to the picnic
it takes two to cook dinner, one to guard the table and one to run back
and forth to the car where we should leave all the food except what we
using for that meal. And she said we should collapse our tent whenever
we leave the campsite, because the javelina can unzip tents and enter
for food! They are not aggressive unless you try rescue your food from
them once they've got it, just opportunistic, and make the rounds every
day looking for careless campers. I was a bit irritable at first
this meant rummaging in the trunk all the time, which I just hate. And
collapsing the tent every day sounded like a lot more trouble than it
out to be.
But sure enough, as soon as we located our campsite and
in, there were two javelina standing right there waiting for us! I
out of the car and chased them off. We set up camp and quickly
a system for keeping a javelina resistent campsite, and we never had
trouble with them. I think they are pretty good at sizing up new
and every morning and evening we would see them parading around looking
for campers who didn't want to believe that they really had to take all
those precautions. The campers in the site next to us, 3 young girls
their dads, didn't want to bother collapsing all their tents. That
we heard them all laughing because the javelina had unzipped a tent and
"eaten" someone's pillow! After that they collapsed their tents
each time they left camp, but the javelina had already decided that
was one of the more promising campsites and visited regularly. One
I heard one of the girls say, "Dad, what did the pigs do now?"
After setting up camp, having lunch and cleaning up, we
newly erected tent so we could go do a couple of short hikes. We did
beginning of The old ore terminal and Marufo Vega trails so we could
Zachary some of the ruins from the old ore trams, buckets and cables.
either didn't go far enough to find the buckets or they weren't there.
I don't know why anyone would move them, so they must have been farther
up the trail. (John and I did both of those trails when we were there
last.) Boquillas Canyon was also in the area of Rio Grande Village, so
there next. (Big Bend is a huge place, so we did the things nearby that
first day.) There is a short trail at the canyon, 1.4 miles roundtrip,
which ends at a huge sand dune below a cave. Of course, Zachary climbed
to the top, and when he ran down John got a picture of him just as he
out at the bottom. I won't write a lot here about the hikes because we
have photos on the website with notes.
At this point I should say that there are two main areas in
camp: The Chisos Mountain Basin campground, and Rio Grande Village on
river, 30 miles away. My favorite place to camp is the basin, but it
too cold up there at night in the winter. On the other hand, the river
campground is too hot in summer, but great for winter trips, so that's
we camped. For hiking, we planned each day based on the weather. If it
was expected to be cold in the mountains we hiked in the desert where
had highs usually in the 60's and 70's. If it was going to be too hot
the desert (one day it was 88!) then we hiked in the mountains.
After returning to the campsite and popping the tent back up, we cooked dinner. We put onions, carrots, polish sausage, a jar of Newman's Own Spicy pasta sauce in a pot, cooked that for a few minutes and added pasta and zucchini. Since we only a one burner stove, I put the pasta in the same pot with everything else and added enough water for it to soak up as it cooked. It worked fine. Actually, I knew it would because I had done that before. After dinner we had to figure out how best to wash the dishes. There is a closet size room at the restrooms with running water where you can wash dishes, but there is no hot water or anyplace to set things down. And if you wash dishes at your campsite, you can't throw the wash water on the ground because it will attract javelina. And I wanted to use hot water to wash dishes, especially as it was getting chilly after dark. So we wiped all the dishes off with paper towels and heated some water on the stove. I washed the dishes in about an inch of warm water, and then John or Zachary took them up the the restroom to dump the wash water and rinse the dishes in cold water. Then we bundled up and played a card game called XACTICA, by the
makers of SET, by
lantern light. I think that first
was the coldest. We were wearing hats and mittens that evening, but the
rest of the trip we were in a warming trend.
It was hard to get up early because, being at the western edge
central time zone, sunrise wasn't until 7:48! And since it was cold
sunrise, we weren't too motivated to get up in the dark! So most
we were awake and waiting for light by 7:00 or so. Then we'd get up and
put water on to boil first thing. Our first morning in the campsite we
had instant oatmeal. Zachary mixed 2 packages with one package of
hot chocolate. I had a tiny bite out of curiousity and it was kind of
eating solid hot chocolate with a spoon--the sort of thing that only
good on a camping trip.
After cleaning up and collapsing the tent, we packed our day
water, trail mix and power bars, and drove up to the mountains to hike
Lost Mine Trail, a good 4.8 mile moderately strenuous warm up hike with
some elevation gain and great views. See photos.
Dinner back at the campsite was lentils, a can of rotel
onions, spices and ham all cooked in the same pot. Made instant brown
to go with it. After dinner we played XACTICA again, but that was
time we did that. Most nights we just went to bed after dinner. Usually
it had been dark for 3 hours by then anyway. (Sunset was about 6:11.)
When you live outside, the sun tells you when to go to bed and when to
I think it was that night that I saw the most amazing sight. I
to the restroom when I looked up at the full moon and saw something I
never seen before. It LOOKED like someone had taken a cookie cutter and
cut a large perfect circle in the clouds with the moon in the middle of
the circle. But I thought, how was it possible that the clouds could
such a perfect circle like that? I ran back to the campsite to tell
and Zachary. They both knew what it was. They said it was a moonbow! I
had never even heard of one before! But, on closer inspection, I could
see that there were no clouds at all. Stars were visible both inside
outside the ring that looked like a circle of clouds. Zachary wanted to
take a picture of it, but we had no tripod, and it would require a long
exposure. So he put the digital camera on the back window of the car. I
crawled into the backseat so that I could see the screen and tell him
when he had it in a good position. Then he took the picture with an 16
second exposure. It turned out pretty well, really.
Pancakes and ham for breakfast.
Since this was predicted to be a hot day on the desert, we
mountains again and hiked the window trail. It's 5.2 miles roundtrip
and 800 foot descent because it ends at the "window", a notch
in the ring of mountains that form the basin where the water runs off
a rain. I had forgotten that that trail is so pretty and interesting. I
remembered the flat part at the beginning that is so hot in summer, and
of course the view at the end, but I didn't remember the carved steps
and down both sides of the rock path the water takes. See photos.
Back at camp for dinner we heated up some canned chili, rice,
You know what I find interesting? At home, you can trash the
cooking dinner, spend a long time cleaning up even with a dishwasher.
you can go camping, cook a great meal with one or two burners, wash
in a little dish pan in an inch of water, everyone pitches in, and
is cleaned up and put away in minutes. Now, what's that about? There's
a lesson in there somewhere.
I loved sleeping in the tent. The wind came up every night
the tent seem so cozy. And the light from the full moon cast moving
on the fly of the tent. I would lie there listening to the wind and
the shadows of the trees dancing on the tent until I fell asleep.
We took a "day off" from hiking since we had a long one
for the next day, but by the time we went to see several different
with all the short walks included, it still added up to 4 or 5 miles.
Chihuahua Desert Nature Trail
Santa Elena Canyon--such a beautiful canyon. It's about 10
but you can only walk a short way into it. See photos.
Sam Nail Ranch
tortillas, instant black beans, salsa
Today we tried to start early because we had planned a 10.5
and needed to be finished by dark, but by the time we drove an hour to
trail head for the Chimneys trail, it was about 10:00. We carried
just in case, but knew we shouldn't have any trouble getting back
dark. We had perfect weather for a desert hike with a high of around 70
or a little higher. This is a hike you would never do in the summer as
there is no shade at all except at the chimneys (rock formations
with petroglyphs). We saw a few desert plants in bloom, and Zachary
some artsy photos through an Ocotillo (a plant that looks like a type
cactus, but is actually the only member of the Ocotillo family). For
we stopped in the shade of the chimneys and then hiked on past the
to Pena Springs before turning back. As the sun dropped toward the end
of the hike, we could watch the shadows gaining on us, and then they
us up. It's amazing how fast the temperature drops once that happens.
We made it back to the car just before sunset. Not far down the road we
stopped at Sotol Vista to watch the sunset where we saw another strange
sight. Two lights appeared low in the sky that sort of looked like
headlights. At first we thought it must be sunlight reflecting off
clouds, but they
never moved or changed. We tooked pictures and watched them until they
disappeared after the sun went down. We have no idea what it was.
None of us can remember what we had for dinner that night. But
chocolate pudding afterwards because we had to share the chocolate
experience with Zachary, and also we wanted to test it and see if it
work again. So now I have to tell you the chocolate pudding story. When
John and I went to Big Bend seventeen years ago, it was about the same
of year, during winter break. It was generally much colder on that trip
than this one. But in all the times I had been to Big Bend, I'd only
in the summer and camped in the Chisos Mountain Basin. So that's where
we set up camp for the first two nights before we moved down to the
river. We just about froze to death in the evenings. We hiked the South
(13 miles) while we were camped up there and that second evening it was
too cold and windy to cook outside without finding a way to block the
wind. The campsite had a shelter, and luckily we had 2 tarps with us.
tied them around the shelter to make a wind break and cooked dinner.
we made chocolate pudding. John thinks it was instant, and I thought we
cooked it, but either way, it was Royal pudding mix in a box. We
believe how good it was! Honestly, we both thought it tasted as good as
the best chocolate mousse we'd ever had! How was it possible, we
that a pudding mix could be so good! So when we returned home, and our
daughter Elaine returned from visiting her father, we had to share our
with her. We whipped up a batch of Royal chocolate pudding, knowing
would really appreciate our discovery because she loves chocolate of
kinds, and guess what---it just tasted like pudding made from a
mix. We couldn't believe the difference. So if you want packaged
pudding to taste like high quality chocolate mousse, just make sure you
are very tired, very hungry, and make it in a frozen wind whipped
campsite! So back to the current trip. We made the pudding after our
10.5 mile hike
with Zachary, and it was okay, but it wasn't mousse. We just weren't
and hungry enough, and, although it was chilly out, we weren't
enough for that magical transformation to happen.
We wanted to hike the South Rim Trail, and since it is a
mile hike with lots of switch backs, we saved it for the end of the
so we could work up to it. It's my favorite hike, and it's in the
30 miles from where we were camped on the river. I knew it would be a
idea to camp in the basin the nights before and after the hike in order
to make the best use of daylight hours, but It's colder up there at
than in the river campground. There is a motel in the basin, so I had
the last two nights there.
That meant that this was our last morning in the campsite. We
leisurely morning at the picnic table before packing up all the camping
gear. We watched the 5 javelina parade by and we were visited by lots
birds that morning for the first time. Among others, there were
a kind of woodpecker, and a TINY bird that looked sort of like a
in it's winter colors, only shorter and rounder, and maybe with a
beek. The birds would land on branches only about 4 feet away from us,
much closer than the birds at home will get to us.
When you live outside, you realize how different each day is
that you hardly notice when you live in a house where the artificial
and thermostat settings are the same from day to day. You notice the
in moonlight, clouds, wind, temperature, and the animals that come and
from day to day. You experience all these things more directly and
Things I did not miss while we were camping:
microwave or other kitchen gadgets
hot showers (or any shower, actually)
central heat (or any heat, actually)
I can honestly say I didn't give a thought to any of those
I may have thought briefly about a shower once, but I got over it.
So after enjoying our feathered visitors for a while, we
the gear and headed up to the mountains. We checked into the motel
we took turns taking showers and mostly goofed off until dinner. We
resting up from the previous day's hike since we had the longest one
of us the next day. That night in the motel room, I had a terrible time
sleeping. I missed the tent! It was after 3am when I finally fell
and we had to get up early for our longest hike the next day!
We were up at 6:30 or so, dressed, packed our day packs, and
the lodge for breakfast where we waited for sunrise and picked up the
lunches we had ordered. (We were all getting a bit tired of trail mix
power bars and backpacker bars.) As soon as it was light, we headed
out. Again, we carried flashlights, just in case, because we had a
mile hike and 10 hours of daylight. We definitely did not want to be
the hike after dark. Attacks on humans by mounain lions are rare, but
have been 3 in recent years. And they are most active at dawn and dusk.
(I was glad to see several deer, because that meant there was plenty of
food for the mountain lions.)
It was a little hard to know how to dress for this hike. The
supposed to be in the 50's, but of course it was colder than that when
started just after sunrise. I decided to start off wearing long
thinking that I would probably regret it later when I had to strip down
to take them off and stuff them in my daypack. As it turned out, I
took them off and was very glad I had worn them! We were hiking in
ALL DAY! Of course we hoped they would burn off by afternoon, but they
never did. And we never saw a high in the 50's. By the time we reached
the South Rim it was 37 degrees and misting. The activity kept us warm
enough, but we didn't want to spend much time sitting around at any of
There are a lot of truly spectacular views from the South Rim
we didn't see any of them this time, hiking in fog the whole way.
of this, we didn't take many pictures. I was really hoping the clouds
clear by the time we reached the South Rim so Zachary could see the
from there. As you stand on the South Rim, which is the southern edge
the Chisos Mountains, it is a sheer drop of 2000 feet to the desert
below, and you can see 80 miles into Mexico. But the clouds were too
thick. We sat on the rocks near the edge, ate lunch, and moved on. But
fun anyway, and a different experience hiking the whole trail in dense
instead of bright sunlight.
Near the beginning of the hike before entering the clouds, in
Meadows, Zachary found it fascinating that there were such a variety of
plants in that one spot--desert plants, meadow, and forest all in one
so I took a photo attempting to capture that, and you can see the
above that we were soon to inter.
Boot Springs where the trail crossed it was dry as a bone.
seen it without water.
The park service used to offer horseback trips on the South
Trail. This has been discontinued because the horses were too hard on
the trails. But because it is a long popular trail and because they
were taking groups
on horses every day, they had put outhouses in 2 or 3 locations. This
however, we found an exciting change. The outhouses have been replaced
with composting toilets! I was so glad to see this! I just love the
of composting toilets and would love to have a house with one! It makes
such perfect sense, both in remote locations (easier and more sanitary
maintain) and in homes (no wasted water and free compost for your
flowers). These didn't have an odor at all. John and Zachary found it
that I got so excited about a toilet.
I was feeling so good after about 10 miles that I said I felt
could do the hike again the next day with a quart of water and no food.
(Not that I WOULD do such a stupid thing, I just felt like I COULD).
that last 2 or 3 miles that get you. We were dragging in at the end.
last mile or so was definitely the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other
routine. But we finished the hike well before dark, in just over 7
because rest stops were cold and wet, so we didn't rest much). So we
plenty of time to rest, shower, and have the car packed and ready for
departure in the morning.
Up at 5:30 and on the road by 6am since we had to drive to El
catch a 2pm plane. We had a one hour time zone change we gave us an
hour, so we actually had time for lunch at Chili's near the airport
we reached El Paso.
All in all, it was a great trip. And a big plus for me was
loved it and wants to go back. I would like to go sometime when we can
stay longer--at least 2 weeks, maybe a month or more. It would be fun
hike the same trail under different conditions, say the Window trail
and after a rain, and to have the time to do some serious bird
and maybe even some limited backpacking. It sounds like I'm alreading
the next trip!
Well, if you've read this far, I hope you enjoyed it, and be
check out the pictures. John did a couple of 360 degree panoramas, and
you can use your mouse to get the whole view. Fun stuff!