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Big Bend National Park 2017: No. 1 - Intro

Updated: Dec 1, 2018

In my experience, every great adventure starts with the desire to see and experience something new. I have been interested in camping on the South Rim in Big Bend National Park since I was a child, but it wasn’t until my 30s that I was finally able to join one of my childhood friends, Travis, into the Texas desert backcountry. It was a strenuous hike, especially given that I had just suffered a considerable back injury that I was still healing from, but the experiences and photos were well worth the effort. Since there are so many days and events to cover, I will detail each phase of the trip via separate blog posts.

The desert can be a deadly place, but it is also incredibly beautiful and full of life if you know where to look.

The trip started on November 29th, 2017 with a long drive on Interstate 10 where the desert scrub went on forever with minimal verticality beyond a few, stubby plateaus. An eerily similar landscape continued as we headed South from Fort Stockton on Hwy 385, though a few solitary mountain peaks began to break up the horizon. We needed some hearty food before trimming down our intake in the backcountry, so we stopped in the city of Marathon at the Oasis Café for a Super Burger. The food was delicious so we were full and happy as we continued South towards the entry to Big Bend.

The first step to get into the park starts at the Persimmon Visitor Center. It’s a small building on the Northernmost outskirts of the Big Bend where we paid the fee for the days we would be in the park. Leaving the visitor center, the scenery remained much the same as the road prior, but after a few miles of snaking through the Chihuahuan desert, the Chisos mountains finally burst out of the horizon and beckoned for our undivided attention.

North Face of the Chisos Mountain Range.
Heading South on Hwy 385 (Main Park Rd) as the Chisos Mountains dominate the horizon.

We stopped at the Panther Junction Visitor’s center to set up our backcountry camping reservations, and talk to the Park Rangers about current backcountry conditions. Unfortunately they notified us that the backcountry was very dry and not to expect any water beyond the trailhead. With that information in hand, we headed up the winding Basin Junction road through Maple Canyon and into the Chisos Basin Campground where we would stay for the night.

The Chisos mountains have numerous great rock faces that make the rock climber in me want to break out the traditional climbing gear and head up a vertical crack, but on closer inspection, the quality of the limestone appears to be too brittle to safely support climbing gear. That might be why I couldn't find a single designated climb online.

Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park, Texas
Heading up Basin Junction road in the Chisos Basin, the towering cliffs called to the climber in me.

The sun cut through Maple Canyon as we drove up into the Chisos Basin.

Big Bend is one of the few places in the world certified for dark-sky stargazing. On previous trips to the McDonald Observatory (located a few miles to the Northwest), I have experienced the dark and vibrant West Texas starscape in all its incredible grandeur. However, on this trip, the Moon would be both a consistent point of intrigue, and our nighttime nemesis. As the moon transitioned through the waxing crescent phase towards a brilliant Super Moon, it began to chase the sun, rising as the sun set, and setting as the sun rose. Essentially, the valley was always bathed in sunlight, either directly or reflected, making both stargazing and sleeping a challenge.

Super Moon - While the term is bemoaned by most Astronomers, it refers to a full moon that occurs at the closest point to the Earth in the Moon's orbit. It is more appropriately called a full moon at perigee syzygy, and it can be approximately 13% larger and 30% brighter than a moon at its farthest point (apogee).

We got our first glimpse of the moon rising over the rim of the Chisos Basin as we set up camp.

We used our first day in Big Bend to stock up on supplies (mostly water), and prepare our bags for the long hike. While I had packed an assortment of camera gear for this trip, I stripped down my kit to only the Nikon D750, Nikkor 28-300mm f3.5-5.6 zoom lens, and the Nikkor 20mm f2.8. I always want to take more gear (especially lenses), but my body can only carry so much, and technically photography equipment isn't essential like water, food, and shelter. We needed to pack three gallons of water for our three days in the backcountry, so given all the extra weight and my back injury, I decided to leave my small, carbon fiber tripod behind. As you might expect, I would later regret that decision.

After getting our packs set up, we tried to rest from the long drive to the park to make sure we were fresh for the next day’s hike. However, while eating dinner in the dark, our campsite was suddenly visited by a small, furry, black and white creature…it was a skunk. We froze in place and just watched as a very curious skunk went under my chair, around our tent, and finally back into the desert. In the matter of only a few hours, our great Big Bend adventure almost turned into “that time we got sprayed by a skunk in Big Bend and had to drive 11 hours home wreaking of the nauseating odor."

Casa Grande Peak basked in the last rays of sunlight as the moon rose ever higher into the sky.

Our first day in Big Bend proved to be enjoyable from the beginning, but we needed to get some sleep because the real adventure would start early the next morning.

© 2017-2018 Shaun C Tarpley


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