This was our first visit to Big Bend National Park on our pilgrimage to here. We camped at Rio Grande Village in a lovely campground that was never more than 1/3 occupied at this time of year. One evening, we watched the full moon rise over the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico on a perfectly clear night.
From the top, Big Bend is an awesome place. It is remote, wild, solitary, beautiful and with a complex history – human and geologic – both of which are still unfolding. Big Bend has three distinct ecosystems: the Desert (Chihuahua); the Mountains (Chisos); and the River (Rio Grande) in an area about the size of Rhode Island. We had time to dip our toes into each of the ecosystems, which just made us want to come back for a much longer stay.
The desert, which covers most of the park, is young in geologic terms, a mere 8,000 years old. It gets most of its rain in the monsoon season of July to October when water can turn now-empty washes into raging torrents and dry gulches into verdant gardens of exuberantly flowering cactus and plants. In the desert, some plants can wait for rain in their seed stage and can stay dormant for years until the rains come and bring them to life. That’s adaptability!
This desert is fairly green as deserts go, with grasses and cactus and unique plants like the lechuguilla, all of which the native people used for their survival during the thousands of years they traveled through here on the way to the river. The desert is home to seeps, small sources of ground water, and to springs both of which can be identified by the telltale presence of cottonwoods, the sentinel of water. Scattered throughout the desert are the vestiges of nineteenth century human industry – abandoned mines, a small factory that made wax from cactus, a small village here and there, ruins of a spa built around a hot spring that flowed into the Rio Grande.
We visited these historic spa ruins on a gloriously sunny afternoon, when the temperature hit 80. We climbed down into the rock lined, and now open air, hot springs, joining ten other people who were in varying stages of relaxation in the healing and soothing lithium waters. The constant flow of 105-degree water from the spring feeds a waterfall that tumbles about five feet over the edge into the Rio Grande. Here, the river runs fast, deep and cold. The opposite bank, about 50 feet away, is Mexico and the land looks just like where we were sitting – tall grasses, knurly junipers, bony dirt and outcroppings of sandstone – but history has divided the ecosystem.
The Chisos Mountains are like an island of a mountain range in the middle of the sea that is the desert. They rise about 3,000 feet above the desert and as we climbed up from the desert, the low shrubs gave way to canyons of juniper, pinion and oak. Some species here are at the extreme southern limit of the U.S. range including Arizona pine, Douglas fir, and quaking aspen. The rainfall is twice that of the desert below. This is the land of mountains formed by volcanic activity 27 million years ago. It is spectacular.
We hiked part way down the Window Trail on another sunny but cool day, stopped on the trail for a snack and were immediately visited by a very persistent roadrunner, with no fear of strangers. Peter called out a series of “beep, beeps” to him but what he really wanted some of our orange. He left one disappointed little bird.
The Visitor Center at Chisos Basin has a map on the wall, which marks the backcountry camping sites that are available for hikers who are interested in venturing into the high country. Right on the map are post-it notes. The notes detail where either Mexican bear or mountain lions have been spotted within the past 30 days. Some of what they read: mother bear and two cubs; solitary bear spotted; and several that announced a single mountain lion. There were about two dozen notes on the Basin map. A poster nearby reminds all that when you are anywhere in the park, you are in the territory of one of the estimated 25 mountain lions who call this place home. “Be alert because you may not see them, but they certainly can tell you are there.” So noted.
The Rio Grande spends about 118 of its 1,890 miles making its famous u-turn before carving the park boundary, shared with Mexico. We wanted to experience the Rio Grande as much as we could while we were here. On our first day, we took a short hike from our campground up the nature trail to a bluff overlooking the river as the sun was setting and it was ethereal: rich, lush colors, birds everywhere, the vermillion hills of Boquillas de Carmen, Mexico at our backs. This part of the park is a floodplain and at one time supported cotton and vegetable farming and a trading post since it was a popular river crossing.
We later drove all across the park to the farthest corner to experience the Rio Grande as it passed through the spectacular Santa Elena Canyon. We hiked up the Canyon as far as we could, ¾ mile, into what is nothing short of an awesome canyon with walls 1,500 feet high, one wall in the U.S. and the other wall in Mexico. At one point, the canyon is apparently only 30 feet wide and it wasn’t until 1881 that a survey party was ever known to have floated the canyon. The canyon has been carved by the Rio Grande, which runs at a seemingly leisurely pace but transports enough grit and dirt and gravel to have worn away the sandstone layers. The story is that if you float the canyon today and listen carefully, you can hear the grit still scraping away at the rock wall.
We ended our four days at Big Bend knowing we will return to what we have come to believe is one of the most beautiful places we have ever been. Edward Abbey writes, “There are many such (beautiful) places. Every man, every woman carries in heart and mind the image of the … right place, the one true home, known or unknown.” This pilgrimage continues to introduce us to this ever-deepening mystery of home, known or unknown.
Peter and Liz continue their pilgrimage to here, discovering the beauty of places like Big Bend National Park, as they travel across the U.S. in their Airstream.