Appearances may be deceiving. Late last night, I pulled into a decrepit and poorly reviewed Walmart in Fort Stockton, TX, about 100 miles north of Big Bend National Park. While I normally shoot for Walmarts with good reviews (rating over 3.5 stars) this one was nowhere near that. Yet, it was the only Walmart, or big business, within hundreds of miles of the park. It would have to do. As I pulled in, I saw a tall man who looked to be in his mid-twenties leaving his car and heading inside. He was wearing hiking shorts and an obviously technical jacket. Curious, I swung by his car as I was searching for a good parking spot. He was from Minnesota! Once inside the store, I instantly picked him out among the aisles and embarked on a Midwestern-traveler-themed conversation. We ended up parking close to one another and crossed paths again in the morning. My assumptions about the Walmart had been wildly off target. Initially, I had assumed it would be another warm night of sleeping. It wasn’t. The temperature dropped into the 40s. That alone probably would have led to an epic night of sleep, but this Walmart also turned out to be one of the most silent I have come across so far!
Without stirring even a little over the course of the night, I woke up at 6:00 AM ready to explore Big Bend. Making my way south, I left behind the scattered community of Fort Stockton and the pre-dawn darkness enveloped me. There wasn’t a soul on the road. Soon, the sky to the east began to come alive with the warm glow of morning. With the help of the sun, I began to marvel at the world around me. Plateaus, buttes, canyons, and mountains rose up on either side of the plain like lines of sentinels directing me south. Not long after, the road ahead appeared to dead end into the confused horizon lines of a tangled mass of peaks: Big Bend.
Upon entering the park, I met my first ranger right as she was opening up shop. She produced a map and I produced a pen. Together, we outlined my options over the next few days. She was exceedingly helpful and even warned me about areas that might have seen potential flooding from the rain the night before. I had forgotten that I had spent the entire day in a deluge. Yet when I looked around the endless desert of scrub grass and spiny cacti, it seemed unyieldingly arid. Clearly, I had some studying to do about desert ecosystems. With the range’s help, I opted to spend most of the day in my car, seeing the park from its different scenic routes, before settling into my backcountry site.
I spent the day driving the length of the park south towards the Santa Elena Canyon. Just across the Rio Grande, this stunning canyon feels truly inviting. Sadly, the previous nights rainfall had made the hike relatively impassable. I retreated back towards Chisos Basin. By the end of the day, I had driven just over seventy miles worth of park roads (out and back). I had seen what I could see from the road and was stoked to explore many of the features up close. Calling it a day, I turned onto Grapevine Hills Road.
Big Bend is the first National Park I have been to that has offered backcountry car camping sites. Curious, I knew I had to try one out. For $12, you can stay in the backcountry (either in car sites or backpacker sites) for 14 days. How awesome is that! I signed up for a few nights at Grapevine Hills 5, a site just north of Balanced Rock. When it comes to the drive-in sites, there is a catch: your vehicle has to be able to handle relatively undeveloped gravel roads. It took me just about an hour to get to my site. The road was totally passable, but it was slow going. After I found the site, I killed the engine, opened my door, and stood there. An all-encompassing silence filled my ears. I was alone. Aside from the sporadic chirping of birds and the buzzing of insects, I heard absolutely nothing. I was the only person for miles.
My first order of business was to survey my surroundings. My site didn’t necessarily have the best view, but it was the end of the line, which meant no one would be heading my way. It was about as secluded as I could have asked for. I didn’t have a direct view of the sunset, but the hills across from my site glowed as the sun dropped below the Chisos Mountains. Soon after, the moon rose. Just short of full, it was almost blinding. I stood outside, looking up at the sky and then down at my shadow. While the moon’s light had obscured much of the starlight, it created a clear shadow on the ground below me. Crawling back into bed, I pulled the covers over my head and fell fast asleep. Tomorrow, I hike!
Adventure for the Day