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Big Bend '17: No. 6 - The South Rim

Updated: Dec 1, 2018

It is easy to build up an experience in your mind before a trip and then be underwhelmed by the actual destination. However, one of the greatest moments in hiking is when your expectations are not only met, but completely exceeded by reality. As we finally crested the last hill and merged with the South Rim trail, the Chihuahuan Desert finally opened up in all its expansive grandeur, and all we could do was stand and stare in the heat of the afternoon sun.

The South Rim of Big Bend National Park

As the Boot Canyon Trail came to an end, the rolling grass hills slowly faded into a gnarled crest where the rocky desert scrub took over again along the Southeast Rim Trail. The distant horizon gradually rose above the crest as we hiked up the hill until the Chihuahuan Desert billowed from underneath the hazy, blue mountains. Drawn as if a moth to a flame, we walked up to the crumbling edge of the long, rocky cliffs that dropped precipitously to meet the rippled desert floor. Along the edge, the depth of the view was incredible, spanning over 20 miles out to the mountains of Northern Mexico.

The edge of the South Rim stands proud above the valley below at around 7,400 ft above sea level, while the base of the cliffs merge into the wrinkled valley below at around 5,250 ft. The rapid difference in elevation makes for a stunning drop of over 2,100 ft when viewed from the ridge's highest point.

We hiked up the trail for a few hundred feet before we found our campsite, SE1. We set up camp, and dropped as much weight from our packs as we could before setting out again to hike the rest of the Southeast Rim Trail. As we hiked Northeast, the view on our right continuously shifted as we passed by the plants that managed to survive along the ragged edge of the cliff. Unfortunately, all that remained of the agave blooms from late spring/early summer were tall, dry husks that had an almost petrified look to them.

(Use the arrow on the right to scroll through photos)

Hungry and in need of water, we stopped for a short respite in a shady alcove just before a curve in the trail where it headed West away from the rim. It was December 1st, but the sun was still painfully hot, and the dry air pulled moisture so quickly from our skin that we were almost always thirsty. I sat on the edge of the cliff, only a foot or so from the drop off, where the immense feeling of scale was inescapable.

Panoramic view from a shady alcove of the South Rim view.

The rock climber in me desperately wanted to scale the stepped cliffs and explore the large nooks and ledges, but just looking at the rock made it evident why I shouldn’t. While some of the limestone looked sturdy, most of it was brittle and decomposing, especially the cracks that I would need to set gear. For now at least, these cliffs would have to remain unexplored.

The resilience of life never ceases to amaze. Even when it doesn't make sense for something to exist, at the confluence of favorable conditions, life will flourish. It’s almost as if life is an inevitable, natural, self-replicating balance to entropy that stands in defiance of an otherwise inhospitable universe. As a case in point, on a vertical cliff of marbled limestone, a lone cactus clung desperately to a small collection of soil gathered in the crease of a small fissure.

Agave Cactus growing on a vertical slab of limestone.

Two Peregrine Falcons were actively hunting along the northernmost tip of the Southeast ridge, but they were too far away for a good shot. The hike up to the rim had only been about 4.5 miles, so the additional 1.25 miles out to the Southeast corner of the ridge seemed worth the effort to try and get a better view of one of the desert's apex predators.

Peregrine Falcons flying over the Northeast Rim of Big Bend National Park

It didn't take long for us to reach the Northeast Rim around campsites SE3 and SE4 just before the trail headed back West towards Boot Canyon via the Northeast Rim Trail. As we had hoped, the Peregrine Falcons were still hunting a few hundred feet or so away from the face of the cliff. Unfortunately, they were never close enough for a good, clean shot, but they were enjoyable to watch as they patrolled the area. We did see one falcon go into a full dive so fast that neither my shutter or I could keep up. If I had committed more time to playing with my settings and waited for them to come closer, a better shot may have been possible, but we had other plans on the other side of the ridge so we couldn’t stay for more than a few minutes.

Peregrine Falcon, Northeast Rim, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Backcountry hiking is always a battle against time and weight. With my recent back injury still healing and the addition of gallons of water to my pack, any luxury item suddenly seemed like an unacceptable burden. My camera rig alone already weighs around 4.5 lb, so I couldn’t bring myself to lug another 2 lbs of tripod given that my pack was already around 60 lb. For most shots I was able to rig up something temporary using rocks or a tree, but in the end (especially during the night shots) I wished I had just grabbed the carbon-fiber tripod and dealt with the extra weight.

Nikon SLR rigged in a tree as a makeshift tripod
What I like to call my backcountry treepod #wishIhadmytripod

This was not the first time that a trip has shaped my standard camera setup; I had a similar epiphany with camera lenses after hiking through Canada. I tried all sorts of lenses that were much lighter than the 28-300mm VR, but they all sacrificed too much in focal length and image quality, so in the end I just haul the big zoom and at least one fast prime for when the light drops (in this case a 20mm f2.8). While it may be a load on the back, I think the tripod is now one of those things that I can’t hike without. The pain of missing a shot is still greater than the pain of hauling another piece of gear.

Northeast Rim, Big Bend National Park, Texas

The Northeast Rim was beautiful and the shade was a welcome gift as the sun dipped lower in the afternoon sky. The rocky ledge was broad and full of large boulders that made it a great place to rest and watch the falcons. We would have loved to stay for hours and enjoy the view, but we had already decided that our first evening on the rim should be spent eating dinner in front of an amazing sunset, and we were on exactly the wrong side of the rim for that. With that in mind, we grabbed our gear and began the approximately 2 mile hike back to the Southwest corner of the Rim.

(Use the arrow on the right to scroll through photos)

The rim trail is fantastic because the view into the valley shifts constantly during the hike. At one moment in was a bare, sharp drop, and the next the trees opened up to a grassy window with dried-out Agave blooms or ancient petrified trees jutting out. As we rounded the Southwest corner, the glare of the setting sun backlit the shimmering stalks of grass, and the endless sea of mountains beyond faded into an increasingly hazy horizon.

We had planned to watch the sunset from the Southwest Rim Trail, but as we turned the corner and headed North, there was no doubt that our viewing spot would need to be a little farther, and a little higher than we had initially thought.

© 2017-2018 Shaun C Tarpley

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