Welcome back to the second half of the story about our stop at the Big Bend National Park near Terlingua, Texas. Last week we explored the southeastern park of this huge park (over 800,000 acres). This week we’ll see the Chisos Basin, Castolon and the beautiful Santa Elena Canyon sections of the park.
Our day started with the approximate thirty mile drive into the Park to the Chisos Basin Visitor Center where we talked with a park ranger about hikes for a couple of older people in moderate shape (asking for a friend!). He directed us to a short walk (Window View Trail) near the Visitor Center that gave a great view of “The Window,” the opening in the Chisos Mountains overlooking the western desert. I should mention there is a gift shop, lodge, restaurant, store and campground near this Visitor Center.
By the way, the Chisos Mountain range is the only mountain range fully contained within a national park. When visitors enter this park located in the vast Chihuahuan Desert, a mountain range like this is totally unexpected. As you drive from the desert floor up the Chisos Basin Road to the mountains, the habitat gradually becomes cooler and moister; the pine, oak and juniper trees appear; both supporting different animal species than the desert such as eagles, white tailed deer, panthers, Mexican black bears and others. Emory Peak, the highest point in the Park at 7832 feet is located in the Chisos. Here are a few photos to illustrate the beauty of the Chisos Mountains.
The park ranger also suggested we (excuse me, our friends!) hike at least part of the four-mile Lost Mine Trail. This trail gradually climbs and winds it’s way through the mountains giving us some fantastic close up views of the surrounding peaks.
While we were driving around in the Chisos Basin, we did see what we think was a grey fox who stopped briefly to give us a quick view.
After the hike and a well-earned lunch (for our friends, anyway!), we headed back down the mountains to the desert onto the thirty-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive that ends at the Santa Elena Canyon. We made many stops along the way to view the beautiful scenery. We saw the Homer Wilson Ranch (from a distance), Sotol Vista, and Mules Ears. Here are some photos from this drive.
We arrived at the Castolon Visitor Center located on a historic site that was originally built to house the US military during the Mexican Revolution but it was never used for that purpose! Since the 1920’s, the main building housed a store called La Harmonia (the harmony) that was a place to purchase supplies as well as a gathering place to socialize and keep up with the news of the day, it’s still in use today.
Since the early 1900’s there was a large farming community located along the Rio Grande here at Castolon. With water from the river, they grew corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, and watermelons. Some farmers and workers were refugees from the Mexican Revolution; unfortunately the people of Mexican heritage were often taken advantage of by Anglo farmers, merchants and mine owners, something that lives on to the present day. The La Harmonia storeowners also tried to raise cotton in the area but quit after several years of unsuccessful crops. The Park Service acquired the area around Castolon in 1961 and the Castolon Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Castolon should not be confused with the conical peak, the Cerro Castellan, located about a mile behind the Visitor Center. It rises over 3200 feet above the desert floor and is distinguished by the multicolored volcanic layers.
After a chat with the park ranger, a stamp in our Parks passport and a visit to the store for some refreshments, we headed over to our last big stop for the day, Santa Elena Canyon. This is one of our favorite spots in the Park. The Santa Elena Canyon was craved through the rock by the Rio Grande over a long period of time. The limestone walls of this canyon go straight up for over 1500 feet, one side of the canyon is Mexico and on the other, the US. Don’t think we need a border wall there (or any other place along the border with Mexico, in my humble opinion). After finding a parking spot (it’s popular with park visitors), we hiked for about a quarter mile, crossed the small Terlingua Creek to the trailhead leading into the Canyon.
First we went up to an overlook, then down some steps that led to a fairly flat trail to where it ended at the river. It’s a site to behold with the colorful limestone and the sun trying to peak between the canyon walls to give some light to the river. After lots of gawking and photos (and it was cool in the canyon with little sun for warmth), it was time to make the return trip to the parking lot.
As we were hiking back, a group of canoeists were making their way down the river. We understand the rule for canoeing or kayaking is to stay towards the center of the river on the international boundary but for sure don’t stop and set foot in whichever country is foreign to you.
Back at the parking lot, we sat for a few minutes absorbing the beauty and uniqueness that we just saw in the Canyon. Here are some photos that barely do this majestic spot justice.
As we traveled back to Terlingua, the sun was inching down to the southwest giving us the photographers’ reverie, the golden hour. There were lots of stops for photos and just as we were leaving the Park for the last time this visit, we were rewarded with beautiful Southwest sunset. I should also mention that Big Bend is a designated an international dark sky park so it’s a great place to practice night and astronomical photography.
It was a fitting end to a visit to this wonderful, off the beaten path national park. If it’s not on your bucket list, it should be! We’ll be back again to further explore the many sites in the park.
Next week, join us for our ½ day visit to quirky Marfa, Texas.
Until next week, travel safe.