Big Bend National Park: Chisos Basin

At the heart of Big Bend National Park resides the Chisos Mountains. They extend nearly twenty miles from the Punta del la Sierra in the southwest and then to Panther Junction in the Northeast. This is the only mountain range to be totally contained within a single National Park. A forest of piñon, oak, and juniper cover the crowns and crags, but at high elevations, you can find quaking aspen, douglas fir, drooping juniper, bigtooth maple, and ponderosa pine. This creates a splendid habitat for a multitude of animals and insects, but bears and mountain lions are the most notable inhabitants. Such apex predators indicate a healthy well-protected wildlife environment, mostly thanks to forest regrowth and a community that supports wildlife protection.

View from The Lost Mine Trail

View from The Lost Mine Trail

Chisos Basin Junction Road

For our second week, we drove along the six-mile Chisos Basin Junction Road. Starting at Gano Springs road in the desert, we turned southward on Basin Junction road. At a decent pace, we saw the gradual transition between arid desert and cooler mountain habitat as we traveled. By the time we passed Maple Canyon, majestic rough rocky peaks come into form. Before we knew it the sotol, lechuguilla, and yucca were gone — replaced with junipers, pines, oaks, and Texas madrones. After our passage through Panther Pass, the winding road rose to over two thousand feet above the desert floor. We then descended into breath-taking vistas of mountain summits and an incredible erosion-formed basin covered in vibrant greens.

North side of the Chisos Basin

North side of the Chisos Basin

Lost Mine Trail

Just as we sank into the basin, we passed the Lost Mine Trailhead and parking lot. The Lost Mine Trail is perhaps the most important hike to undertake if you only have a day to spend in Big Bend. If you go the distance, you’ll cover five miles and gain 1,000 feet. You can even take a paper interpretive guide with you and discover all sorts of plants, animals, and geological formations. Check the ranger schedule and join a guided hike up the trail, you’ll learn even more. Near the end, after the switchbacks stop, the trail continues up a relatively gentle slope through a clearing and to what appears to be the peak. If you look back towards the trailhead, you’ll see Casa Grande and Chisos Basin — a few totally worth the day hike.

Alternate view of the Chisos Basin from Lost Mine Trail

Alternate view of the Chisos Basin from Lost Mine Trail

Down into Chisos Basin

After Panther Pass and Lost Mine, the Junction Road weaves downward. Here we took a stop at the last bend to take in the amazing views of Chisos Basin. We could see a ridgeline that encircled the area: to the southeast, Casa Grande rose up into the sky like a castle. To the west, the ridgeline breaks and dips down into v-shape called The Window, before it turns southward toward Emory Peak.

Chisos Basin from Panther Pass

Chisos Basin from Panther Pass

Mountain Lodge & Visitor Center

We hopped back into the truck and continued our way into the heart of this natural splendor. Just past the camping ground turn off, the road ends in a parking lot and a set of buildings which house a lodge, the visitor center, and convenience store. In the visitor center, we learned about the area and wildlife. In a corner, we stared at a map indicating over 100 bear and 10 mountain lion sightings for the whole of the park — most of them concentrated in the Chisos Basin. When offered by a ranger, we immediately agreed to a lesson on how to avoid bears and cougars while on the trail before heading out to Window Trail.

Trail Hub

Chisos also happens to be the central hub for many of the trails leading up and around the Chisos Mountains. Each range from easy short and accessible hikes, to multi-day backpacking routes.

Window View Trail

The shortest and easiest is Window View Trail at less than a mile round trip and provides excellent views of the mountain peaks surrounding the Chisos Basin, and a view through the window. We sat on one of the benches along the trail and enjoyed a classic Big Bend view.

Panorama of The Window

Panorama of The Window

Window Trail

This nearly 6-mile trail descends through Oak Creek Canyon to the Window pour-off which frames panoramic desert vistas. Luckily during early November, there wasn’t much water, but sometimes during wetter periods Oak Creek can flow with water, so be prepared for a bit of wet trekking. I should say that this trail can get tricky: the top of the Window pour-off is the slick rock with no railings, watch your step.

The Window - A pouroff leading down into the desert floor

The Window Up Close – A pouroff leading down into the desert floor

South Rim Trail, Up Laguna Meadows Trail, and Down Pinnacles Trail

If you got the time, I cannot recommend the South Rim Trail enough. This challenging trail is well worth the 2,000 foot gain, as midway are the stunning vistas from the South Rim. You can ascend by way of the steeper Pinnacles Trail, but I suggest the more gradual Laguna Meadows Trail for your up-route, then take Pinnacle down. This is a 13-mile round trip, so bring your gear, lots of water, extra food, and of course watch out for bears and cougars. The views along South Rim are stunning and you will not regret your hard work.

South Rim is Amazing

South Rim is Amazing

Farewell to Chisos Basin

As the sun made her way down into the V-shaped gap of The Window, we heaped ourselves into the truck and basked ourselves in the blessedly cool air conditioning. This time we headed back to Lajitas with the sun to our backs and arrived to our Airstream under a brilliant star spray of the Milkey Way.

Another amazing view from the South Rim Trail Sig Reclines before The Window Chisos Mountains Casa Grande looks like a castle instead of a "Big House" to me! Chisos Visitor Center - Take a moment to learn some bear and mountain lion safety

The post Big Bend National Park: Chisos Basin appeared first on The Adventures of Trail & Hitch.

Saguaro National Park East

In our second trip to Saguaro National Park, we headed out to the Rincon Mountains to see what the East half of the park had to offer. We stopped by the Rincon Visitor center to check in, load up on life-giving water, and maps. Hitch spied some Prickly Pear Cactus Candy and so we nibbled on the tasty jelly treat while walking the small interpretive trail around the building. Having never eaten a prickly pear cactus, I couldn’t say if that’s what the candy tastes like – to me it was like a very sweet flavored jelly candy with a light sugar coating.

Cactus Forest Overlook

Cactus Forest Overlook

After looking at the map, we decided to take the Cactus Forest Loop Drive. It’s an 8-mile drive on a paved road with pullouts, viewpoints and parking near several trailheads. Average speed on this road is about 15 miles per hour, due to the occasional foot and bicycle traffic. There are even signs that read “Share the Road!” with symbols of cyclists, hikers, cars and turtles. Yes, that’s right tortoises need to cross the road too.

For the first leg of the trip, we headed north along the one-way road toward Santa Catalina Mountains. At first glance, we noticed a distinct difference from Saguaro National Park East, this half of the park was much greener and in full bloom. There were bright yellow swaths of brittlebush punctuated with the talk stalks and bright red flowers of the Ocotillo and then with sprinklings of purple Santa Catalina prairie clover and Fairy duster. According to the ranger, late March and April is the start of the wildflower season for Saguaro National Park, provided that there were enough rains in the previous two seasons.

Though there are several stops along the drive, most noteworthy are Cactus Forest North Trailhead, Rincon Mountains Overlook, Loma Verde Trail Head and Javelina Rocks. Unfortunately, Mica View Turnoff was closed for road construction.

Cactus Forest

Cactus Forest

Just past the Mica View Turnoff, the road turns east towards the Rincon Mountains. At the Cactus Forest North Trailhead, we parked the car and took a short 3-mile hike toward the Lime Kilns. According to the park material, a lime kiln is used to produce quicklime through the calcination of limestone (calcium carbonate). The kiln produces heat at around 1000°C in order to create the quicklime, which was used to make plaster and mortar for building construction. We didn’t reach the kilns as hoped because we ran out of water pretty quickly and had to turn back. By now I should be learning that however much water I think we need, I should double it because the air just seems to suck moisture at frightening speeds out in the Arizona desert. Regardless of our water shortage, the walk was rewarding. We saw plenty of colorful wildflowers, majestic saguaro and alienesque cholla. We also found a mysteriously large hole dug by some animal and theorized that it was either a tortoise or badger den. Insects were also out in full force here and we saw several kinds of butterflies and bees. I think my favorite is the Carpenter Bee, which is bread large in the Sonoran Desert, and has a length of almost 2 inches and weighs over one gram.

Loma Verda Trailhead is another stop that I would have loved to explore but lacked the time to do so. Here a hiker can access the winding crisscrossing trails of the Cactus Forest. According to many local hikers, its one of the best well-marked trails in the park and is perfect for out of town hikers. Instead of stopping here we moved on to a short stop at Rincon Overlook, where we were rewarded with a pretty awesome view of the Rincon Mountain herself and the surrounding cacti forest.

Rincon Overlook

Rincon Overlook

At Javelina Rocks, we jumped out of the truck and started exploring. The rocks are fun to climb and superbly photogenic. It would have been fun to romp around, but the trails are thick with prickly pear cactus, and this is where I got stuck with one. The spines don’t really hurt, but they kind of tickle when you move about with them stuck in your skin. The younger prickly pear shoots tend to have a hair trigger and their spines easily stick in. Honestly, it was a nice place to sit on a rock and pull out spines from my leg. I’m just very glad I keep a leatherman with tweezers and pliers handy.

This is my view while extracted Prickly Pear Thorns from my flesh

This is my view while extracted Prickly Pear Thorns from my flesh

For our final stop, we had lunch at Javelina Picnic area. As desert scenery goes, it was lush with green, vibrant flowers, and busy birds. Overall, an ideal desert alfresco dining experience.

I was told by a park ranger that the best time to visit is just an hour or two before sunset when most of the mammals come out to feed. During the summer, a herd of Javelinas will seek shelter in the cooling shades of the Rincon Visitor Center. If I had an extra day or two, I would plan a visit at dusk and plan a proper exploration of this marvelous park.

Flowering Palo Verde

Flowering Palo Verde

The very photogenic Javelina Rocks

The very photogenic Javelina Rocks

Santa Catalina prairie clove

Santa Catalina prairie clover

Brittlebush Wildflower

Brittlebush Wildflower

The Desert is a bloom!

The Desert is a bloom!

Duo Javelina Rocks

Duo Javelina Rocks