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

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London Bridge at Lake Havasu

About a two hours drive from where we were staying is the 1830’s London Bridge at Lake Havasu City. The Arizona bridge is actually a reinforced concrete structure clad in the original granite blocks. She was brought to America by Robert P. McCulloch from the City of London after paying a grand total of $2.4 million for the bridge itself and for its shipping. The bridge was shipped across the atlantic to Port of Houston and then was transported overland to Lake Havasu City, where re-assembly began in 1968. The bridge and the Bridgewater Channel Canal was completed in 1971 and links an island in the Colorado River with the main part of Lake Havasu City.

1830s London Bridge

1830s London Bridge

Next to London Bridge and along the canal is a series of tourist attractions in buildings that show their 60s and 70s age. The English Village is kind of campy, but it’s good for mild family fun. There’s a nice 2 mile Shoreline Trail walked along, where we saw boat goers, waterfowl and fish along the docks. Along the channel are 1/3 scale lighthouses replicas, which are actual functioning navigational aids. Each is built to the specifications of famous lighthouses on East Coast, West Coast and Great Lakes. More than eighteen can be seen on the shores of the lake, most can be hiked to and some are only accessible by boat.

Arizona London Bridge

Just north of the bridge is Lake Havasu State Park with its scenic shoreline, beautiful beaches, nature trails, boat ramps, and convenient campsites. The waters of the lake are bit cold this time of year, but when the weather is sunny and 90 deg F, it’s a nice reprieve.

London Bridge sign Cool waters Wading in Lake Havasu Shoreline Trail Lighthouse Replicas

Revisiting Joshua Tree National Park

The amazing views of Joshua Tree National Park griped us so well on our first trip, that returning for a longer stay seemed natural.  One month later, and there are some notable differences in the wildlife: weather was considerably warmer, birds and lizards were active, some wildflowers were blooming, and even the alien ocotillo plants were starting to green out.

Our visit this round included, Mastodon Peak down by Cottonwood Spring.  This hiking trail is different than many of the other trails because it’s located in Colorado Desert portion of the park.  Instead of joshua trees, palo verde trees, fragrant creosote bushes, spiny cholla, tall spindly ocotillos grow. At the spring, the California Fan Palm, the only palm native to California, grows hardy. The trail to Mastodon Peak offers spectacular views and is a  geology playground. When we took a pit stop, a Costas hummingbird hovered so close to us that I could see its purple plumage. Along the trail, tiny Long-tailed Brush Lizards and Western Fence Lizards sunned themselves on rocks. When we reached the top, the day was clear enough that we saw the glimmering Salton Sea from the top.

Mastodon Peak

Mastodon Peak

Our second hike took place at Barker Dam in the Mojave Desert half of the park. The dam is a water-storage facility built in 1900 by early cattlemen to water their herds. Along the first half of the trail cacti, california juniper, joshua trees, honey mesquite, desert almond and deer grass grow abundantly between granite rocks.  At the Barker Dam, we smelled the water before we saw it.  Along its muddy banks grow Goodding’s Willow trees and invasive grasses next to cholla and pricklypear cacti.  On the 2nd half of the trail, features a flat lowland wash where the water would have normally gone if the dam didn’t prevent it.  We found artists painting sceneries among joshua trees, yucca, creosote bushes, muller oaks, junipers and Cat’s-claw acacia — a plant known for its sharp curved thorns on its branches. One plant is named cheesebush (ambrosia salsola) because it kind of smells like cheese. I even caught a quick glimpse of a Kangaroo rat escaping down a hole. There’s also a short side trail leading to a rock with petroglyphs, left by migrating native americans who painted the pictographs on the ceilings and walls of rock shelters near water sources.

Barker Dam

Barker Dam

For our third hike, we went back to White Tank Arch trail, where large boulders of white tank granite bulge from the ground forming abstract shapes due to erosion by wind and water. We stopped at the arch, which we missed on our last trip. Apparently, the arch is formed by water will dissolving the minerals on the rock surface. The water also seeps into tiny cracks causing them to expand and contract with temperature extremes. Bits and pieces of rock fell away over time and exposed new pieces to the elements. Wind also wore away bits and pieces to shape the arch. One day the arch will tumble, and be replaced by other unique shapes and forms.

The Arch

The Arch

Finally, we took a turn around Cap Rock, named so be cause of a rock capping a giant white tank. Cap Rock is also home to this odd little memorial (which kind of looks like graffiti and a mound of rocks from a distance) to Gram Parsons on the north side. Gram Parsons was a musician who played with bands like the Byrds and the Rolling Stones. He loved Joshua Tree and spent hours looking up at the sky waiting for the UFOs to fly by. In 1973, he died of a massive drug overdose. As his body was being flown back to Georgia via LAX, his friend Phil Kaufman snatched Parsons’ coffin off the freight ramp. Kaufman and an accomplice brought the body out to Cap Rock, laid it on the desert floor, and set it aflame in a macabre little ceremony, trying to fulfill Parson’s death wish. The two men were arrested soon afterwards, but were released when it was found that no California laws prohibited body-snatching or impromptu cremations. Makeshift memorials and inscriptions are cleared by the park caretakers regularly. Funny enough, Parson’s incineration actually happened a quarter mile away from Cap Rock, but people keep coming back to this location.

Cap Rock

Cap Rock

As we drove back to our trailer at the end of the day, we spotted a wild jack rabbit and later a coyote, which we tailed as far as we could on the road. I really had fun at this national park with its abundant wildlife, stunning desert views, and fascinating history. Just worth a multi-day visit for the adventure goer.

Make Shift Shrine Mastodon Peak Barker Dam Western Scrub Jay Ram View from Mastodon Peak Cholla cottonwood spring Boulders of Mastodon Trail Lizard! Mastodon Peak Salton Sea from Peak Ocotillo Sig Yucca Petroglyphs White Tank Arch

Mt. Rainier: Skyline Trail

This is a 4.5 hour route that loops around the broad Edith Creek basin, leading through alpine flower fields, past thundering waterfalls, and over high, craggy peaks. By heading northeast from the lodge, you’ll enter the lower reaches of Edith Creek basin on the Skyline Trail. There are several junctions along the way, but Skyline Trail is always well marked. Head straight through two junctions about 1/4 of a mile from the start. The steep trail then gains 200 feet over the next 1/4 mile to a junction with Dearhead Creek Trail. The enticing views of Mount Rainier and Nisqually Glacier on the early portions of this hike are just a taste of things to come.

Stay to the right through the junction with Dearhead Creek Trail, then make a left at the next junction with Alta Vista Trail, 0.6 miles from the start. Leave the pavement behind as you hike straight toward Mount Rainier. Cherish the next 1.25 miles, which climb 850 feet to Panorama Point. The trail ascends a rocky ridge overlooking Nisqually Glacier

We did not go this far and we did not get to Panorama Point. We ended up just shy of Sluiskin Falls and had to head back because it was getting dark. Regardless, it was a beautiful hike with the season just starting to turn Autumn. I want to get to Panorama Point someday, but would need to leave early in the morning to make it.

Mt. Rainier: Shadow Lake-Sunrise Camp Loop

The trail head is located on southwest side of the visitor center parking lot and follow it west toward Sunrise Camp, ignoring any faint side trails. At about 0.5 mile out, you’ll notice a well-signed trail leading to the left (this is the Wonderland Trail) dropping down to White River. Continue straight ahead toward Shadow Lake and the Sunrise Camp.

Shadow Lake is about 1.2 miles from the trail head and is a haven for wildlife. The trees provide perches and shelter for birds and good shade and cover for beasts. Deer frequent this pond, as do mountain goats, so approach it quietly if you want to see any visiting critters. After passing a short spur to an Emmons Glacier overlook, you reach Sunrise Camp at about 1.8 miles. At the junction on the far side of camp, turn right–the left fork leads to Frozen Lake and then steeply up the side of First Burroughs Mountain. The right fork leads you along the wildflower meadows below Burroughs for 0.6 mile to reach yet another trail junction. Go right here and follow this main path 1.4 miles back to the trail head.

We did not go right! We went left for some amazing views of Mt. Rainier, but only after a sharp hilly climb and up all the way to Frozen Lake and part way up Mt. Fremont Lookout. We then backtracked to Sourdough Ridge toward Dege Peak, then back down to Sunrise Visitor Center. The hike took us all day and at that altitude we were out of breath. But it was so worth it.

Note: There are many old, decommissioned trails in the area. Stay on the main marked paths at all times.


Big Four Ice Caves Trail

Big Four Ice Caves Trail is a 2.2 mile out and back trail located near Granite Falls, WA that offers scenic views and is good for all skill levels. The trail is primarily used for hiking & walking June until Nov, and snowshoeing (from Deer Creek – 7 mi) Jan through Mar when the gates are closed.

Very easy hike, lovely views, and excellent diversity of wild flowers along the trail. Extremely crowded in the high season on weekends, so I suggest going on a weekday in the morning. I was disappointed to find beer cans dumped in a stream. If you’re planning on camping in the area, pack a thermos of hot cocoa, come back at night with a blanket to throw on the grass in the meadow near the trail head and watch the night sky.

The ice caves are fascinating to look at, but you should not step on the snow and do not enter the caves. People have died at Big Four because of sudden cave ins.

Mima Mounds

Mima Mounds are a natural prairie land of puzzling mounds that have baffled scientist and geologists for years. They are definitely worth a look see if you’re in the Capitol State Forest area. My personal favorite story of how the mounds were created is the “burrowing pocket gopher” theory.

Mima Falls is also near by and is one of the highlights of the many trails that make up the expansive Capitol State Forest. If you don’t mind sharing the trail with horses or dirt bikes, the hike is very easy (despite some massive muddy sections) and takes you through both old and new as well as cleared forests.  There is a shooting range near by, so best stay on the trail.

A short but sweet hike, even more lovely if you go beyond the paved wheelchair access trail. There are 4 hiking loops The 1 Mile paved path has a ramp to the top of a mound as an overlook. The South loop is bigger at less than 2 miles. There is a smaller loop inside of that. The North dirt trail starts by the observation building and is a mile long. You’ll see a tower in the background, but that’s on private property so put away any hope of scaling it for a good view. I highly recommend going during June when many of the wild flowers are in bloom. We also had the good fortune of seeing a juvenile kestrel test its wings above the mounds.

Jackknife Bridge

Everett Spencer Island

Spencer Island is located near Everett, Washington. The trail is primarily used for nature trips and is accessible year-round. We also included Langus Park paved trail (3 miles) in our hike, which is along the Snohomish River and Union Slough. The trail head proper starts at the old Jackknife Bridge. The bridge spanned nearby Ebey Slough from 1914 to 1980. In 1993 it was moved here to Union Slough, providing pedestrian access to Spencer Island. It is one of the last remaining bascule bridges (counterweight drawbridges) in the country. We took the levee trail to the south through the alder trees, then back north along the Steamboat Slough side. The best time to go is spring, when water fowl and other birds are nesting. We saw herons, tree swallows, various duck and geese species and a bald eagle. They had just cleaned the south trail and laid down bark, so it was a nice comfy walk.

Point Defiance Park Trails

Point Defiance Park Trails is a 3.6 mile loop trail located near Tacoma, Washington that offers the chance to see wildlife and is good for all skill levels. The trail is primarily used for hiking and is accessible year-round.

A nice walk along Owens Beach, then back up on the main trail to view the Narrows Bridge. Saw sea lions poke their heads above water, scared a baby Douglas squirrel, heard cannon fire and bagpipes in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Birthday. Finally enjoyed a fine picnic, with the background sounds of howling zoo wolves responding to a fire truck siren. Although it was a crowded trail, it was an easy fun hike.

Mt Rainier

Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge Trail

Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge Trail is a 4 mile out and back trail located near Olympia, Washington that offers the chance to see wildlife and is good for all skill levels. The trail is primarily used for hiking, nature trips & walking and is accessible year-round. This is an easy and lovely hike to take in the early spring. During low tide when birds are feeding, I saw bald eagles, herons, various breeds of geese and duck, cormorants, song birds and humming birds. It was also cold, rainy and windy day so I suggest treading carefully on the wet and slippery boardwalk.