Big Bend - The Mountains

Big Bend National Park
Article by Alexander Moliski
January 14, 2019

"I must say as to what I have seen of Texas it is the garden spot of the world. The best land, the best prospects for health I ever saw, and I do believe it is a fortune to any man to come here. There is a world of country here to settle."

Davy Crockett

The Plan

We wanted to explore the Chisos Mountains and spend a night on the iconic South Rim. You can either go clockwise or counter clock-wise around the mountains taking either the Pinnacles Trail or Laguna Meadows - I've since done both, and they are equally beautiful. We spent our first night in the Pinnacles backcountry (PI2) campsite, and the second night on the South Rim backcountry sites (SW3).

On the way to the South Rim, we took a detour and climbed Emory Peak. The tallest point in the park.

The Chisos Mountains

After three days exploring the surrounding deserts, it was time to migrate to the cooler shade of the misty mountains in the Chisos. Going just a few minutes west of the Panther Junction Visitor Center (our HQ at the time) you find a road that cuts through the desert and leads directly into the mountains. It was a portal, we found, from one world to another.

Pinnacles Trail

For various reasons (that mostly involved us finding a particular beer we all quite enjoyed at the Chisos Mountain Lodge bar), we got a late start to the trail. In fact, we left in the dark. Luckily for us, we had thought ahead and reserved two campsites in the Chisos. The first site was only a few miles from the lodge of the Pinnacles Trail. It was dark going in, so we had no clue what the area looked like once we arrived. We set up camp in the light of our headlamps and fell promptly to sleep.

Through the night the temperature dropped dramatically. We were warned of this, but going from 90-degree heat in the desert below, to low 40’s in the mountains was something you need to keep in mind and pack for.

Because we hiked in at night, the landscape was completely hidden from us. We woke up to a dramatic new world - clouds and mist filled the basin bowl and obscured the tops of the Chisos. The mountain walls we could see were covered in bright green lichen. It was a scene I had never seen before, and something I had not expected to see anywhere in Texas.

The new scenery was enough to warm our blood in the morning. We packed everything up in record time and got on the trail ready to explore more. Before getting to the South Rim - our campsite for the night we decided to make a few mile detour to summit Emory Peak - the tallest mountain in the park. Summiting the tallest mountain almost always rewards you with the best views of the entire area. Emory's height rests at a comfortable 7,825 feet, but it felt much higher because we were starting from thousands of feet below.

About halfway up to the peak, the trees opened enough to see an amazing view of the Chisos Basin. The mountains truly acted like a dam, keeping the sea of fog in the desert from spilling in.

“The Chisos rise like an island of greenery and life in the midst of the barren sun-blasted … stone bleak ocean of the Chihuahuan Desert. An emerald isle in a red sea”

Edward Abbey

Emory Peak

A few notes on the hike to Emory Peak. First, if you leave too early in the morning the foggy conditions might obscure your view from the peak. In both my summits to Emory, the fog was too thick to see anything but cleared up around lunchtime. Second, the hike to Emory is slightly out of the way, but fairly easy overall. At the very last point, a bit of scrambling is needed to summit the very top. It looks intimidating, but I saw a 70-year-old and a 6-year-old up there, which gives me the feeling most anyone can make it.

Once you're on the peak, you have to share the space with some radio equipment, but other than that there is a decent amount of room to move around. We even ate our lunch up there!

From the summit, you can see sweeping vistas of the entire park, the Chisos desert, and Mexico for your hard work. Emory has to be one of the least challenging yet rewarding summits I have ever done. I have climbed Emory three times and each climb the company on the summit was like that of an international airport. I met people from all over the world coming to see a view that was in my state. Around lunchtime is the busiest time of the summit, I would recommend leaving before the crowds arrive.

Emory Peak to the South Rim

From the peak of Emory, we had about half the hike left before we reached our campsite on the South Rim. That 6-7 miles from the top of the mountain to our destination is one of the most naturally diverse hikes I have ever had the pleasure of hiking. Not at all expecting it from a Texas hike, we were amazed to see the environment of the trail dramatically change every few miles. It went from dense, hearty arid trees, to an almost north east scene with fall foliage, large oaks, and little streams. Towards the top, and getting nearer to the South Rim, the tree line broke and the trail waded through waist-high Saharan-Esq golden grasses.

Before arriving at the South Rim, we camp upon our designated campsite. It was beautiful, I still had to argue about it being the best in the country, but I still hadn't seen the South Rim itself, and we set camp before venturing the last few hundred yards.

The South Rim

After eating a quick dinner we threw our day bags on and ran to the cliff. We had already been to the highest point of the park, the place that usually offers the best views, but not this time. We made it to the cliff edge just in time for a spectacular show. What was left of the sun shot through the mountains casting mile long spokes of light. The wind smashed the mountain following the rock face to the top of the plague were we where standing. Once at the top the wind blasted over us in heavy ocean-like waves.

It wasn't until that night did I understand what our ranger meant. Not only was the South Rim beautiful, comfortable, and exclusive, but at night, the real show started. Big Bend is one of the few places left in the continental United States that is considered a ‘blackout zone’, an area completely free from light pollution. I had never seen a brighter night sky in my life. My brother, a resident of Philadelphia said to me, “We only see one star in Philly, and that is the sun”. The comment made me think of all the people who may never get to see the stars as we did. Wispy clouds covered the moon just enough to get a shot that didn't completely block out the sun.

Laguna Meadows Campsite

Side Note: I enjoyed my night on the South Rim so immensely that I scheduled another trip the instant I could. This time, however, I flew my entire family down to Texas. We couldn't get a night on the South Rim again, but Laguna Meadows campsite was open so we got a backcountry permit there.

Laguna Meadows was the third backcountry campsite I had in the Chisos, and it was as amazing as any of the others. I am convinced that there are no bad options. Another reason to prove that if you can't get the site you want you'll still be left amazed.

The Laguna Meadows has to be one of the comfiest and relaxing nights of camping I have ever experienced. Surrounding the back country site are meadows of tall grass. That night, we laid in the grass once again to watch the amazing show that happens every night on a cloudless Chisos night.

The Trail Down

The path back to the Chisos basin was just as pretty as the path up. Actually, it was a lot easier to enjoy, mostly because it was all downhill. Getting into the mountains is a struggle for some, it's a large elevation gain under some hot conditions. You need to pack all of your own water because there is none in the mountains, which adds to the weight of an already heavy pack.

Can you spot Andy?

The team enjoyed a nice warm meal once we made it back to the Chisos Lodge. I so much loved Big Bend that I immediately planned to make a return trip for the following Thanksgiving. It was a park that took my surprise and my heart. Every Texan who is proud of their state should make the pilgrimage to Big Bend. If Texas doesn’t need anything, it's another reason to love the Lone Star state, but after seeing West Texas, and visiting Big Bend, I just couldn't help it. I had joined the ranks of millions in love with Texas.

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