Despite my best intentions, my 6:00 AM alarm was completely unrealistic. I turned it off and curled back up. The conditions were absolutely perfect for sleeping in. A few hours later, I finally stirred and headed towards Chisos Basin. My main goal for the day was to summit Emory Peak (7825 ft.), the highest peak in the park. The trail was straightforward, but wound through a landscape that I was thoroughly unfamiliar with. I have spent a little time in the desert southwest, but not in recent memory. Almost without fail, my hiking experience is in high alpine or wooded areas. Big Bend is part of the Chihuahuan Desert, the wettest desert in the United States. There are four deserts in the United States: Sonoran, Mojave, Chihuhuan, and Great Basin. I have spent little to no time in any of them.
As I climbed towards the peak, I realized that the world around me felt defensive. Each plant had a different system for defending its water supply. Spikes, spines, and thorns grew from every plant. Yet the Chisos Mountains are also home to pine, aspen, oak, and maple trees. The Chisos receive almost twice as much rain as the desert floor just below them. This relatively hospitable chain of mountains, a remnant from ancient volcanic activity, was a fully functioning ecosystem that allowed for an entirely different type of biodiversity than the surrounding world. Water retention was still a paramount evolutionary trait of most flora, but it was unlike any desert I had ever visited before.
Near the top, I ran into a guy named Robert, who was camping on South Rim that night. Together, we summited Emory Peak, swapping stories about our lives and adventures around the United States. The last hundred feet were a scramble and we coached each other up the peak. From the top, we could see far into the horizon. Visibility in Big Bend is second to none, often topping a hundred miles. We looked down into Boot Canyon, over Chisos Basin, into Santa Elena Canyon, and into Mexico.
Realizing I had gotten a little more sun than I had hoped, I decided to hang out in the shade while I waited for sunset. In retrospect, I wish I would’ve pushed further from Emory Peak to the South Rim, but I guess I have to save something for next time. Hanging out at the lodge, I made casual conversation with a few fellow adventurers as I processed the previous day’s images. As the temperatures began to drop and the shadows grew longer, I walked downhill towards the Window, one of the most famous viewpoints in Big Bend. At the Window, two major ridges meet in a tight valley with a seasonal river flowing through it. Instead of waiting in the parking lot for sunset with the rest of the park visitors, I headed for the river itself. The hike was only five miles round trip, so I knew I could cover the downhill trip to the Window relatively quickly. Even so, the sun kept dipping lower in the sky so I jogged the last mile of the trail.
Eventually, the trail transitioned from relatively open desert of the Chisos Basin into a tight, water-worn canyon with tranquil puddles and smooth rocks. My “window” into the sunset, however, initially left something to be desired. I had expected to find a small gap overlooking an unencumbered vista towards the Rio Grande. While I did have a stunning vista, there was a massive monolith smack dab in the middle of the gap and the sun was sinking just west of my position. My first idea was to climb one of the sides of the canyon, but they proved far too shear and smooth to do so safely. Despite my relatively compromised position, my shutter clicked constantly as the sun, although just out of sight, danced warmly along the cliffs and canyons to the north. When the colors began to fade, I turned tail back up the canyon, braving one off trail ascent further up the canyon to take one last shot of the dulling sunset.
My climb back up the canyon and through the desert was overpoweringly lit by the full moon. I had known this would happen, so I left my headlamp behind, but I was still stunned as I noticed a clear, white light slipping through the desert foliage. At first, I thought it might be the headlamp of another hiker, but then I realized it was the moon. Even though the sun had just dipped beneath the horizon, the moon had already risen above the Chisos Basin, spilling its pale beams over canyon wall and cactus alike. The effect was both beautiful and utterly blinding. My night vision swayed from spectacular to non-existent as the path swerved towards and away from the moon’s intense beams. While I thoroughly enjoyed the ability to hike in the middle of the night, it meant that the moon was overpowering Big Bend’s star-studded dark sky. One more reason why I will have to return to Big Bend some day soon…
After another night of chilly and moonlit sleep, I woke early to catch Balanced Rock at sunrise. I ended up sharing my sunrise with a photography clinic of about eight people. While I clambered over rocks and found fun angles, they set up tripods and talked aperture and ISO. Although I didn’t love how crowding the area was, I definitely benefited from their conversations about settings, angles, lighting, and other photographic babble.
I ended my stay in Big Bend by watching the film about the park in the Panther Junction Visitor Center. Normally, this is one of the first items on my agenda, but this video had been a little harder to track down. The video, though, reinforced every emotion that I had had during my time in Big Bend. It is a truly enormous park with unparalleled biodiversity and an uncanny ability to make its visitors feel small, insignificant, and alone in its massive vistas. Initially, I had been worried about the heat, which I am sure is oppressive in mid-summer. My visit, however, was a wonderful medley of temperate days and chilly nights. The weather was always perfect in the shade, which is surprisingly available in Big Bend. This is a park that warrants further exploration. It truly is a gem.