TR: Day Hiking Big Bend NP, March 2024

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TR: Day Hiking Big Bend NP, March 2024

Post by al_in_al »

I just got back from a 6-day trip to Big Bend National Park in Texas. It has been on my list for a while, and I finally pulled the trigger on a last minute trip when I got a few nights at the Chisos Mountains Lodge, the only in-park lodging.

I had heard good things about the park (and there is a pretty active chat page full of fans), so I had high expectations that weren't really met. It was a good trip, and I enjoyed my hikes, but it took a while for me to warm up to the park. I enjoyed my 2019 trip to Guadalupe National Park, also in Texas, much more (trip report link a few rows below this one).

In my 6 days, I hiked 63 miles, and completed a large percentage of the hikes in the park that can be completed as day hikes and didn't require driving on gravel/dirt roads. The park has more to offer backpackers and those with more rugged vehicles (my rental had super low clearance - I wasn't going to take any risks).

March 6 - Wednesday

Arrived in Midland, retrieved the rental car, and drove to Alpine for the night.  I stayed at the Quality Inn, which was fine as a place to sleep for the night.  The breakfast started at 6am, and had more options than I expected.

March 7 - Thursday before Spring Break - temps between 61-87 degrees

(I noted Spring Break dates because apparently that's a BIG DEAL here, and temperatures can affect how much hiking is possible.)

I left Alpine just before 7am and entered the park at the Persimmon Gap entrance station, which was unmanned when I drove through around 8am (when I saw everyone driving around with receipts taped to their windshield, I just left my annual park pass visible on my dash while I was hiking).

I stopped at the Dog Canyon trailhead for my first hike, probably my least favorite of the trip.  It was fairly easy with very little elevation change.  There were some small flowers blooming along the trail.  The short canyon at the end was interesting to walk through.  There was no one on the trail until I got close to the trailhead again.

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After the hike, I headed directly to the Fossil Discovery Exhibit, and caught the 2nd half of the ranger talk there.  Excellent exhibit, and the ranger program was top notch (I wish I had left a little earlier in the morning so I could have heard the whole thing).  This was the highlight of my day.  I ate my trail lunch at the picnic area here.

After lunch I continued south to the Boquillas Canyon Trail.  The trail was lined with people selling souvenirs and tamales - I was not expecting this.  They were not pushy, but it’s still not something I expect to see in a national park.

I highly enjoyed this hike into the canyon, and my first view of the Rio Grande.  Sweet acacia trees were blooming along the trail.  Colors were pretty even though it was still overcast.

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After the hike, I drove to Terlingua where I was staying for the next two nights.  I stayed at Big Bend Station, because their single-queen rooms were the most reasonable accommodation I could find.  The rooms were nicely renovated and clean.  The bed, as I had read beforehand, was very firm, but it was SO comfortable - I slept great.  The only downside is that wifi doesn’t extend to these rooms, which are at the very edge of the property.  Which wouldn’t be a big deal, but I didn’t have any cell service once I got south of Alpine/Marathon, so I had to walk to the nearby lodge building to get wifi and check in with my family.  Oh - and the water was another downside.  The shower worked perfectly fine the first night, but the 2nd there didn't seem to be much water pressure - I just waited a long time, and eventually got enough water to shower, though the temperature varied. There are apparently utility issues in Terlingua.
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Re: TR: Day Hiking Big Bend NP, March 2024

Post by al_in_al »

March 8 - Friday before Spring Break - temperatures 52-74 degrees

I spent the day in Big Bend Ranch State Park.  I ate breakfast in my room, and left Terlingua before sunrise, which I watched along the drive.  

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I stopped at the Barton Warnock visitor center (still closed) and paid my park entry fee.  Continued on to the West Contrabando trailhead where I hiked a 10.5 mile loop connecting the Fresno Divide and Dome trails.  I saw 1 trail runner and 2 mountain bikers all morning, the solitude on the trail was quite nice.

I enjoyed the loop and varying views.  Saw some ocotillo and yucca blooming.  With no shade, this was probably the hike where I felt the heat the most, so I made sure to drink electrolytes at my lunch stop.

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After this hike, I continued the drive along FM 170, which is pretty scenic. 

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I stopped at Closed Canyon for the hike there - it felt nice and cool in the shade of the canyon walls.  I turned around just before the end of the trail where there was a pool of water that would require getting your feet wet.  Some people were taking off their boots and continuing on, but I wasn’t sure I would be able to get back up out of the water on my own, so I was happy to turn around there.

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I also stopped at the Hoodoos.  Very cool stop along the river.  I hiked the 1 mile loop trail there, though I am not sure why - it doesn’t take you past anything particularly interesting that I could tell.  I would just walk up to the overlook, then down to the hoodoos themselves.

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I turned around on FM 170 at the west entrance, stopping a couple of times at some pullouts, but I was really reaching the end of my patience for driving today. 

I watched sunset on the Chisos from the side of the road on 118 between Big Bend Station and the park entrance.

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Re: TR: Day Hiking Big Bend NP, March 2024

Post by al_in_al »

March 9 - Saturday - first day of Spring Break - temperature from 56-68 degrees

Today’s focus was the Ross Maxwell Scenic drive, and the goal was to be at the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook for sunrise.  I ate breakfast in my room again and left Terlingua in the dark, passing the Maverick Junction entrance station before it was manned.  I hated to pass by so much scenery in the dark, but I’d see it all on the way back.  It was a little eerie to pass the white volcanic rock in low light.

Sunrise was kind of a bust - there were low clouds to the east, blocking the sun, which was too bad, because the light clouds to the west should have glowed a nice pink, but they didn’t.  It was still nice to see the canyon before the harsh mid-day sun.  I liked the light the first hour or so after sunrise.

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A cold front had moved in, so temps stayed pretty low in the desert today.  And windy, thanks to the front.  I kept all my layers on (each day I started with a short sleeved shirt, long sleeved shirt, fleece hoodie, and puffy vest).  I only saw 3 people on the trail with me, with a couple starting as I left.  I saw some people approach the entrance but not come into the canyon - I’m not sure if they didn’t want to hike, or couldn’t find the crossing.  There is a stream crossing that sometimes has water, but if you continued to the right, there is a second crossing area that was dry and easy to walk up the opposite bank - it was marked with flags.

I can see why this is a must-do hike - there are great informational signs, and it was just lovely heading up through the canyon until you couldn’t go any further (especially when it wasn’t crowded).

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I headed back on the scenic drive, stopping to enjoy the pullouts now that it was light out.

I stopped at the Mule Ears trailhead and hiked 6 miles RT past the spring to a nice viewpoint before the trail drops down to Smoky Creek. On the way out I only passed 1 hiker, but the trail was busier on the way back - finally saw some spring breakers (families) on the trail!

The view was a little hazy, but I enjoyed a peaceful lunch sitting at the overlook.

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I took the Burro Mesa side road and hiked to Burro Spring. I probably should have skipped this hike (to have more time at Upper Burro Mesa), but the views of the mountains at the trailhead were just gorgeous in the afternoon, and I couldn’t resist. Otherwise, this was probably my 2nd least favorite hike of the trip (but it was short).

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I drove down to the Upper Burro Mesa trailhead and started the trail there. It was downright chilly with the wind - I kept my fleece on the whole hike.  There were a few people on the trail, but not many, and plenty of parking.

The trail is really interesting and fun to hike - except for the sections of soft gravel that are tiring to walk in (or maybe it was because I had already hiked so much this day).  I didn’t go down the very last pouroff - the warning sign at the trailhead called it bouldering to get back up, and while I probably could have made it, I didn’t want to guess wrong while hiking alone.

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Finished up the scenic drive with nice light in the afternoon.

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I drove up into the Chisos Basin for my 3 night stay at the lodge.  There was plenty of parking at the registration/restaurant building - and since there wasn’t a line at the restaurant, I had dinner before checking in.  The parking up near the rooms was tight, but there was a space near my building available.

A note about the Chisos Mountains Lodge - it's kind of a disgrace to national park lodging. I have stayed in a bunch of in-park lodging. I know the amenities are few, buildings are old, furnishings are rustic. But these rooms have not been updated in FOREVER. Linens are old. Carpet is BADLY stained. Tiles are cracked. Fixtures are loose. Not completely clean. No pride has been taken in the upkeep of the rooms. It is now run by Aramark, was recently Forever Resorts - I've stayed in other FR properties, and they are generally pretty nice. All I can guess is it's the culture of the park, going back a long time? They are planning on completely replacing the lodge building (restaurant and registration, not the actual rooms) next year, due to repair being unsafe/unsustainable. Maybe they are waiting to do a big reno of the rooms as well at that time?

It wasn't so bad that I wouldn't stay there again. The location is great, and the staff was all really nice.

I walked the Window View trail for sunset, which was nice.  There were some clouds, but you could still see a nice orange glow to the west.

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Re: TR: Day Hiking Big Bend NP, March 2024

Post by al_in_al »

March 10 - Sunday - Spring Break - temperature in the 50s

Time change today - so instead of sunrise at 7am, it was at 8am.  I decided to have breakfast in my room before heading out for the day.  It was forecast to be overcast, so I decided to save the South Rim for tomorrow (supposed to be sunny), and do the Window and Lost Mine trails today.

I started the Window trail around sunrise at 8am.  Instead of my wide-brimmed hat, I wore my wool beanie and gloves.  With all downhill hiking there wasn’t much opportunity to warm up.

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There weren’t too many people on the trail, but I was near a family when I reached the trail split, and decided to head up the Oak Spring trail first to get to the viewpoint above the Window, where I took a snack break.  You can see where the Window is, but you can’t really see the pouroff (at least where I felt comfortable going).

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Heading down from the trail split to the Window was my favorite part of the hike - the trail work with the stairs is really neat.  

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When I got to the Window, there was a large family there, and I never got time alone because there was a constant stream of people coming and going at this point (but not too crowded).  Everyone took turns getting close to the edge (but not too close).

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The hike back up was easier than expected due to the cool weather, but I think I did finally warm up enough to take off a layer.

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I took a short rest in my room, but got restless and headed out to do the Lost Mine hike just before 1:30pm.  Traffic in the parking area at the lodge wasn’t bad (I later learned this was because the park had instituted their “1 car out, 1 car in” traffic control from 10am-3pm).  When I got to the trailhead, the main parking area was full, with 3 cars double parked waiting for a spot.  I decided to turn around and head to the first parking area about 0.25 miles back towards the basin instead of waiting or circling the area.  There was one spot in the next closest parking area, so I took it and walked back.  Of course, when I got to the main parking area, there were 2 free spots open!  Oh well.  The road walk wasn't that bad.

The views at the saddle 1 mile in are great, and just keep getting better the further up the trail you go.  Lots of room to spread out at the end.  

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Very enjoyable hike, definitely consider it a must-do, though the parking situation is unfortunate.  The small parking area was still full with a car waiting when I ended my hike.

I arrived back at the lodging area around 4:45 pm, the exact same time as the day before, but the difference was STARK.  Parking was PACKED.  No parking near my room, no parking at the registration building.  I made another circle and managed to find a spot behind the Rio Grande buildings, thank goodness.  Obviously, ending traffic control at 3pm was a little early.  Restaurant was also busy with a wait to get seated - I had planned to eat outside anyway, so I placed my to-go order, and it didn’t take too long to get my food.

I enjoyed the patio off my room as the clouds were clearing, and walked the Window View trail again for sunset.

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Re: TR: Day Hiking Big Bend NP, March 2024

Post by al_in_al »

March 11 - Monday - Spring Break - temperatures in the 60s

The sky was finally clear, and the stars and Milky Way were putting on a nice show this morning - Big Bend is a Dark Sky park (not sure how this picture will show up - it's better on my phone).

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I was up for breakfast in the restaurant at 7am.  The buffet is decent and a very fair price - completely self-service, so you can be in and out quickly if you want.  I lingered a little to check in with family using the wifi before heading out on my hike.  I don’t like to hike alone before sunrise.

I started the South Rim loop around 8:15am.  It was noticeably warmer in the morning than the previous day, but still cool enough to start out in layers and wool hat.

I hiked the loop clockwise - starting on the Pinnacles trail.  The elevation gain starts immediately.  

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There were a decent number of people on the trail, but they were *all* heading to Emory Peak.  Everyone was congregating at the trail junction there, and when I continued on towards Boot Canyon, I had the trail to myself for a long time.

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I ran into hikers again as I approached the South Rim - it looked like most early hikers who weren’t doing Emory Peak hiked the loop in the other direction.  Views were slightly hazy, but still great (I’m sure they were nicer in the afternoon, but I like to hike earlier in the day).  I enjoyed walking from viewpoint to viewpoint.  Took a break away from the occasional groups doing the same to eat lunch.

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Even after leaving the main rim area, there are still sweeping views at points along the trail for a while.  

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The Laguna Meadows trail was pleasant heading downhill, but seemed to go on forever.  Not very crowded in the afternoon, which was nice.  Overall, I spent 7.5 hours on the trail (13 miles according to my GPS).

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After cleaning up, I had an early dinner at the restaurant again - really enjoyed to-go and eating outside, and service was fast.  Restaurant was crowded again right when they opened for dinner.

Enjoying the room patio again, and had a good roadrunner sighting.

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Walked the Windows View trail, again, for sunset.  Hard to resist.

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Re: TR: Day Hiking Big Bend NP, March 2024

Post by al_in_al »

March 12 - Tuesday - Spring Break - morning temperatures 62-66 degrees

I decided to return to the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and watch sunrise from the Sotol Vista overlook.  I ate breakfast in my room, and checked out of the lodge.  The parking area by the rooms was busy with hiker activity, but not full.

As I drove past the Lost Mine trail, all spots in the lot AND the closest parking areas before and after the trailhead were full, with cars waiting.  Pre-sunrise, just before 7:30am.  There was a constant stream of cars headed up to the basin.

The scenic drive was less traveled at this time.  Clouds affected the sunrise colors again, but it was still nice and peaceful.

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I still had a few hours before I had to start the drive to the airport, so I hiked the Ward Spring trail. Nice trail with interesting scenery.  I had also considered hiking the Chimneys trail, but read that it was soft gravel the whole way, and the effort of that scared me away.  Had the trail to myself until I got back to the trailhead and a couple of groups were starting to hike.

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I also stopped at the Sam Nail Ranch on the way out - nice easy walk.

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Heading out of the park toward Marathon, I passed by the Basin traffic control, where people were being turned around, so there was a wait as the rangers talked to people, and then they just stopped in the road because they didn’t know where to go.  It was also quite crowded at the Panther Junction visitor center, possibly had full parking.  There was a line waiting to get in at the Persimmon Gap entrance a little after 11am.

Overall I enjoyed my trip to Big Bend and thought it all worked out well.
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Re: TR: Day Hiking Big Bend NP, March 2024

Post by Selkie »

Thank you for such a detailed account and many captivating photos.
I was especially drawn by the rock formations, canyon views from bottom, and early and late day views.
Glad you were able to find times and trails that provided a bit of solitude, away from the masses.
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Re: TR: Day Hiking Big Bend NP, March 2024

Post by tibber »

Awesome trip report and photos! I liked the panos, gives you a real feel for the place.
Lots of similarites to Arizona with the plants and rockery too.

Thank you for taking the time.

Happy St Patrick's Day!
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Re: TR: Day Hiking Big Bend NP, March 2024

Post by al_in_al »

tibber wrote: Sun Mar 17, 2024 11:17 am Awesome trip report and photos! I liked the panos, gives you a real feel for the place.
Lots of similarites to Arizona with the plants and rockery too.

Thank you for taking the time.

Happy St Patrick's Day!
Yes! I started reading "Brave the Wild River" while in Big Bend - it's the story of the first botany-focused expedition down the Grand Canyon, and it mentions lots of the plants I had encountered in Texas.
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Re: TR: Day Hiking Big Bend NP, March 2024

Post by MarxMN »

Thanks for the trip report. I have never been to Big Bend. It is definitely a desert environment. I assume temperatures are much warmer in the summer.

Bill
Last edited by MarxMN on Fri Mar 29, 2024 9:23 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: TR: Day Hiking Big Bend NP, March 2024

Post by al_in_al »

MarxMN wrote: Sun Mar 24, 2024 3:32 pm Thanks for the trip report. I hav enever been to Big Bend. It is definately a desert environment. I assume temperatures are much warmer in the summer.

Bill
They are (though people claim it can hit 100 in March, I was glad I didn't experience that). You don't hike there in the summer.
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