Big Bend National Park, Terlingua, Brewster County, Texas

Momma at the entrance to Big Bend National Park.

Finally mountains! And mostly desert. All I can say is WOW! WOW! WOW! Big Bend is one of the most amazing places in the United States. From the flat desert the Chisos Mountains rise to over 7800 feet. The Chisos are the only mountain range entirely within a single national park.

We started our trip at night and by daylight we were in the west Texas desert. The most amazing thing during this part of the trip were the massive wind farms producing electricity.

Indian Mesa rises 3100 feet above the surrounding desert. The Indian Mesa farm contains 125 wind turbines and produces 82 mega watts of electricity.

Indian Mesa Wind Farm.

As we left the town of Marathon towards Big Bend we saw the Chisos Mountains rising in the distance. These massive mountains can be seen for miles away but their grandeur doesn’t really hit you until you get into them. The Chisos Mountains cover and area of 40 square miles. The range is the southernmost mountain range in the United States. They rise to heights over 7000 feet from the Chihuahuan Desert. The Chisos are volcanic in formation and are 35-44 million years old.

approaching the Chisos Mountains

The main peaks are Casa Grande Peak (7325), Toll Mountain (7415), Lost Mine Peak (7536), Townsend Point (7559) and the highest Emory Peak (7825).

1000 miles from nowhere……… I have to tell you at this point that Big Bend is a long way from anything. There are three small towns around, Terlingua, Study Butte ( oh no more Texas pronunciation, It’s Stooty Butte not Stud ee Butte) and Lajitas (la hee tas) all census designated places are in the vicinity. Marathon and Alpine are both well over an hour and a half away.

Terlingua has an interesting history. Although there is a town there today (pop58), a major part of it is a ghost town. In the 1880’s cinnabar was discovered here. Cinnabar is natures source of mercury. The cinnabar is heated in rotating ovens and the mercury separates. The cinnabar mines brought about 2000 people to the town. The mines closed in 1942 when the owner went bankrupt. Today only 58 people live in Terlingua. Study Butte is a bit larger. There are 233 souls there. Lajitas is mostly a golf resort.

In the park is Panther Junction. This is where the main visitor Center is located along with a gas station and a school. There are also RV facilities for the park employees. Even that settlement is 20 miles from Study Butte, and Study Butte is 155 miles from Fort Stockton Texas which is where civilization starts. So you are waaaaay out there.

1000 miles from nowhere
The Chisos Mountains rise from the desert

I really looked forward to this trip. First it was somewhere new that I had been wanting to see for years. But more importantly I finally convinced Momma that to see the sights of Texas she was going to have to hike. So Momma is going to hike. Her experience so far was the last half mile or so up Clingman’s Dome when I took her to the Smokies. She would just as soon drive everywhere but in Texas that is not possible. I have found that compared to NC, Texas Parks are pretty bare bones. If you are going to see it…. you are going to have to walk… sometimes pretty great distances. So Hiking she will do.

Up in the Chisos Basin at the campground

Momma was very impressed with the Chisos. She had never seen mountains almost completely void of trees and vegetation. So now we prepare to hike.

Looks like an experienced hiker!

We are here to do the Window Trail. This trail goes through the Chisos basin to “the Window”…. an opening in the cliffs with a spectacular view out into the Chihuahuan Desert.

These breaks in the mountains around the Chisos Basin are known as “pour offs”. Although relatively dry most of the time they become waterfalls during the rainy season that drain the Chisos basin. The trail was somewhat easy but that is what I was looking for. Don’t want to kill the ol’ girl first time out. I want her to enjoy hiking.

The Chihuahuan Desert is over 501,000 square miles and is the largest desert in North America. It covers much of west Texas as well as extending westward into southern New Mexico and Arizona. It covers most of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, as well as extending into several other Mexican states.

Much of the Chihuahuan Desert is the bed of an ancient sea. It covers the area of Texas just south of the Permian Basin, another old sea bed. The area is dotted with ancient volcanic cones, so if you ever doubted there were volcanos on earth just make your way here.

Starting out on the trail

The scenery was amazing!

The scenery of the Chisos Basin was amazing

It took a bit over an hour to reach the window. One has to be careful especially if it is wet. The pour off has become “polished stone” which means that the water has slickened the stone and taken away all traction especially with wet feet.

navigating the polished stone near The Window.

Now another thing about momma…. she is afraid of heights so in this section she is probably not a happy camper although I will admit there were no complaints. She had heard about the “Window” from her work friends and she wanted to see it. That is why I also outfitted her with trekking poles so she could feel more secure.

Deeper into the canyon those steps look like a problem
The Window

we stayed at the window for about 30 minutes or so to rest for the hike back.

That’s as close as she is going.

We hiked back to the car and went to our lodging at Ten Bits Ranch. This B&B is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. Situated in the Chihuahuan Desert it is an old west town and each shop is a different room. The landscape on the property makes you think you have never even left the park..

Ten Bits Ranch operates almost totally off grid. They drilled a well one quarter mile deep to find water. The property has a 14.4 kW solar power array that delivers ample electricity to the accommodations.

Ten Bits Ranch
What a gorgeous place!

We stayed in the Gunshop. It was decorated in theme but still had enough modern amenities to make it very comfortable.

The Gunshop

Day two we planned another hike this one into Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio Grande. To get there we took the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. This route was laid out by Ross Maxwell the first superintendent of the park. He laid it out so all the wonders of Big Bend….. or most of them anyway could be viewed from the car or nearby overlooks.

The sun rises over the Chihuahuan Desert at Ten Bits
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
Mules Ears
Santa Elena Canyon from afar
Chisos Mountains

We arrived at Santa Elena Canyon mid morning. Immediately problems began. It was already 106 degrees. Ok for me but momma ain’t used to that.

Hiking in Texas. Momma has yet to grasp the concept of starting early, especially in the desert. This lack of time management is going to bite us in the ass over and over during our exploration of Texas.

Second problem when we got into the canyon…. It had rained somewhere in the desert overnight and Terlingua Creek was high. Now high in the desert is different then other places. It was maybe knee high…. with a slick muddy bank on the other side.. Ha ha there was no coaxing momma to wade the creek and scramble up the mud bank. So we just “looked” into the canyon. We saw it and we both saw the Rio Grande which a year ago never seemed possible.

Santa Elena Canyon rises up to 1500 feet above the Rio Grande River. It separates the  Mesa de Anguila in Texas from the Sierra Ponce on the Mexican side. The walls are sheer except for a rockfall in the canyon which is 180 feet high and nearly blocking the river. Santa Elena Canyon is nearly 7 miles long.

The trail is just 1.6 miles round trip as it ends abruptly at the canyon wall

Santa Elena Canyon
The Rio Grande exits Santa Elena Canyon

We headed out towards Boquillas Canyon on the other side of the park. We made a stop at Castolon the site of an old Army base, Camp Santa Helena, from the early 1900’s. Revolution was raging in Mexico from 1912 through 1920. Cross river raids were being made into the United States ( think Pancho Villa) so the National Guard built some forts in the area to protect the US citizens from these deprivations. At Santa Helena the troops lived in tents while the fort was built and ironically about the time of it’s completion the revolution in Mexico ended. The army rolled up their tents and the buildings were never occupied……..until 1921 when the La Harmonia Company Store opened in one of the barracks. The La Harmonia Company ranched and farmed the area but never saw real success. the Park Service bought the La Harmonia holdings in 1961 and the store was converted to a concession area for the Cottonwood Campground.

The Castolon area also contains some of the oldest adobe ruins in the park. In 2019 a fire in Mexico jumped the Rio Grande and roared through the Castolon area. Many of the old buildings were damaged and are awaiting repairs. Of course the area was mostly closed.

The Barracks at Castillon
La Harmonia Company Store.

Boquillas Canyon was a long way. When we got there the temperature was 109 so we decided not to do that hike either. Boquillas is the only crossing into Mexico along this part of the river. We didn’t have passports so we couldn’t cross.

Boquillas Canyon is nearly as spectacular as Santa Elena. The vertical drop from Pico Del Carmen to the water is 7000 feet, deeper then even the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. Boquillas Canyon is 33 miles long!

Boquillas Canyon.
Boquillas Canyon
Chisos Basin campground with Casa Grande Peak in the background
Emory Peak from the Chisos Lodge Restaurant

In the Chisos Basin the NPS has built a lodge, restaurant and campground. We decided that first morning to drive in from the Ten Bits Ranch and eat at the Chisos Lodge.

The park was first formed as Texas Canyons State Park in the 1930’s. The CCC came in and built the 7 mile road into the basin by hand with picks and shovels and a single dump truck which was loaded by hand. In 1944 Congress passed legislation to buy the area from the State of Texas to establish a National Park on the site.

The State of Texas still operates the Big Bend Ranch State Park adjacent to the National Park. Big Bend Ranch State Park opened in 1991.

Santa Eleana Canyon

We are going back here, just not in August. We will plan a early spring or late fall trip so we can fully enjoy the sights and sites, of the park. It gets very hot very early in this area…..

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