The Window

A long and fairly tedious walk – but rewarded by the view from the Window, a canyon that cuts through the Chisos mountain rim 

This is another walk that’s probably very busy at certain times of the year, but as I set out an hour before sunset there’s no-one else around. Although late in the day, I was looking for a trail that might provide a good sunset vantage point. The trail starts at the Basin car park – although you can also start at the Basin Campground (making it a slightly shorter route).

_MG_6416-LR

The well-made trail soon starts descending, with the destination visible in the distance: the V-shaped gap at the of the valley (to the immediate left of the gap is Carter Peak, and to the right is Vernon Bailey Peak).  There’s no marked track to the top of Vernon Bailey Peak, but you can hike to the top and the views are said to be among the best in Big Bend.

_MG_6417-LR

Catching the last of the sun’s rays is Pulliam Peak (or Pulliam Bluff) – one of the two main peaks making up the northwestern rim of the Basin along with Vernon Bailey Peak.

_MG_6428-LR

The trail is fairly exposed for the first mile as it crosses the middle of the Basin, until it reaches Oak Creek. It then enters a forest of pines, oaks and juniper.

_MG_6434-LR

The trail follows Oak Creek, and after 2.3 miles (3.7km) there’s a junction with the Oak Springs Trail. This trail leads to a look-out, and continues down toward Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive – The Window can also be reached via this track, which I’ve read is a more scenic route (but a 4WD is recommended to reach the trailhead). Just after this junction the trail enters a rock canyon, carved by Oak Creek. The creek is the only drainage point for the entire Basin, so while rainfall is low, when there is a storm considerable water is funnelled through the canyon.

 

Near the end of the canyon there are stone steps carved into the rocks, and Oak Creek is crossed several times.

 

The Window marks the end of the canyon: a narrow crevice carved by Oak Creek, with a sheer, vertical drop to the desert floor below. The canyon floor is smooth and slippery, so caution is needed.

_MG_6457-LR

Facing almost directly west, it’s not a bad spot to photograph the sunset, with the “window” framing distant Chisos mountains.

_MG_6476-LR

I stay here for half an hour or so, as the sky gets gradually more orange…  there’s no-one else here, and the photos don’t really do justice to the view and serenity.

_MG_6507-LR

Eventually I need to get going – not so much as it’s starting to get dark (I have a head-torch), but because I’m getting pretty hungry, and I’ve got a 2.8 mile hike back out I need to do before the restaurant closes…

_MG_6518-LR

Location The Basin car park (or the Basin campground, which makes the hike slightly shorter)
Distance 8.95km (5.5 miles) return
Grade Easy. 290m ascent on a well-built trail.
Season/s All year round. Avoid after/during storms
Maps The Basin topographical map.
Also “Big Bend” Trails Illustrated topographical map.
GPS route Routie GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources Hiking Big Bend National Park (Laurence Parent), p.62
BigBend-Window
Route to the Window from the Basin. Source: “Hiking Big Bend National Park” book

The Best of Big Bend (Texas)

A combination of driving and hiking, to explore the best parts of Big Bend National Park over two days.

Having arrived at Big Bend from Sydney after about 19 hours of flying on three flights followed by a four hour drive, I couldn’t face an early start to tackle one of the longest day-hikes in the park (South Rim). Instead, my first day at Big Bend would be a drive through the park. I’d do some of the shorter hikes I’d picked out from my guide book, that would reveal some of the different landscapes in Big Bend National Park. The second day would be the Big Bend Big Hiking Day!

Overview

Texas would not normally be top of my list as a hiking destination in the US. But I’m in Dallas for a conference, and my closest option is Big Bend National Park. Bordering Mexico, it’s a 1:15min direct flight from Dallas (to Odessa Midlands airport). It wouldn’t be too hot in late October/November, and there was a big range of walks. The scenery was spectacular, and the hiking completely exceeded my expectations! You could easily stay a week here exploring the area – my recommendation would to book well ahead if you can, and stay at the Chisos Mountain Lodge (the only accommodation within the park). October to May is regarded as the best time to go, and the very end of October was perfect – warm but not hot days, and chilly evenings.

As well as hiking, the park is a good place for astral viewing or photography  – in 2012, the park was named as an international dark-sky park by the International Dark-Sky Association. You can also do rafting or canoeing trips down the Rio Grande River (which I didn’t have time for, and I prefer hiking given the limited time). To reach some of the trailheads, a high-clearance 4WD vehicle is required – or so I was told. I didn’t want to risk getting stuck or puncturing a tire on my rental car.

https://hikingtheworld.blog/

Highlights

It’s hard to pick out any single area or hike – and with only two full days, I didn’t get to Rio Grande Village, and the border crossing with Mexico. This could be another full day trip, including some of the walks in this area.

So, what are the best hikes in Big Bend? My recommendations, if you only have a few days in the area:

  • Emory Peak and South Rim – even more spectacular views than Lost Mine, but a long day walk. If you don’t like heights or rock scrambling, skip the summit and do the extended South Rim (Northeast and Southeast Rim trails). If you only do one walk in Big Bend – do this one!
  • Lost Mine –  great views for a relatively short walk. Go very early – or late – to avoid the crowds as it’s a popular walk. I had the top to myself for over an hour in the late afternoon, and it’s good spot to watch the sun set (bring a good torch!)
  • Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (below) – you could easily spend the day exploring the area, if you do some of the shorter walks.
  • Santa Elena Canyon at the end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive – very different scenery from the other walks, as you follow the Rio Grande upstream.

_MG_5953-LR

Day One – Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and Lost Mine

On entering the park on the 118 near Study Butte (I’m coming from Terlingua Ranch, the closest accommodation I could find at relatively short notice), the ranger recommends Maxwell Drive as being the most scenic option. After the flat and almost monotonous landscape all the way from Odessa Midlands to Big Bend, the mountains rising out of the desert make a pleasant change.

_MG_5736-LR

My first stop is the Sotol Vista Overlook, a short detour off Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. There’s space for many cars to stop, but I share the lookout with just one other car and a small group of motorcyclists sporting Swiss flags on their Harleys.

The 180-degree view is impressive, looking over the western side of Big Bend National Park, with Santa Elena Canyon in the distance.

_MG_5744-Pano-LR

Not long after the Sotol Vista Overlook turn-off, the Mule Ear peaks are visible in the distance. The very distinctive peaks are two volcanic plugs, created by differential erosion of their lava beds.

_MG_5764-LR

Towards the end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, the Santa Elena Canyon rises up in the distance, marking the border of the US and Mexico.

_MG_5768-LR

It’s worth a brief stop at the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook, where there’s some interpretative signage about the canyon.  The most impressive in Big Bend National Park, the canyon was formed by the Rio Grande river cutting a deep, narrow gorge through the mountains. It changed direction sharply here, as a result of movement along the Terlingua fault zone that crosses the park.

Santa Elena Canyon (3.2km / 2 miles)

The best way to really appreciate the depth of the canyon is the relatively short Santa Elena Canyon Trail, which is clearly marked at the end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The trail heads through a tall stand of giant river cane, with the start of the canyon behind it.

The mouth of the canyon is soon reached. The cliffs to the right are the easterly edge of the Mesa de Anguila (a large mesa in the western part of Big Bend National Park).

https://hikingtheworld.blog

To enter the canyon, you need to cross Terlingua Creek, which drains into the Rio Grande. It can be dry – or it can flow strongly. I guess it was in between these two extremes, and I managed to cross it without my shoes getting too wet or muddy, but going 50m upstream.

Once this creek is crossed, the path climbs steeply up the side of the canyon on a paved track. This is one of the few exposed sections, with most of the track being shaded.

From the top of this section there’s a great view over the Rio Grande flood plain. In the far distance are the Sierra Quemada and Chisos Mountains.

https://hikingtheworld.blog

The trail then descends as it follows the river into the canyon.

https://hikingtheworld.blog

Most of the trail follows the edge of the river, sometime diverting inland through grass and giant river cane. Eventually there’s a sheer canyon wall that blocks any further access, and marks the end of the trail.

The trail returns the same way the car park.

https://hikingtheworld.blog

Location End of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
Distance 2 miles (3.2km) return. GPS route on Routie.
Grade Easy. Total 180m ascent.
Season/s All year round. Can get very busy at peak times
Resources Hiking Big Bend National Park (Laurence Parent), p.102

From here – unless you have a high-clearance vehicle, in which case you can take Old Maverick Road to make a circuit – it’s back up Ross Maxwell Drive… The next stop is the Desert Mountain Overlook, a short walk to a viewpoint over the park.

The closest peak is the distinctive Cerro Castellan (1,004m), and in the distance is the Chisos Mountains with the highest peak in Big Bend, Emory Peak (2,387m).

https://hikingtheworld.blog

Just after the lookout is the Castolon Store where it’s time for lunch: a still half-frozen sandwich, and a drink. The store only gets deliveries weekly, so the choice of food is limited. But it does sell some books on the area, local maps, hats and other essential camping supplies.

Tuff Canyon

The next, short walk is Tuff Canyon, which starts right next to Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. A narrow, sheer-walled canyon, Tuff Canyon was formed Blue Creek, which is one of the largest drainages of the Chisos Mountains.

https://hikingtheworld.blog

It’s a short and well-marked track, with two lookouts over the canyon, which are perched right above the crumbly edge of the canyon walls. The track then descends into the narrow (and shaded) canyon, which it follows for a while, allowing you to get a close look at the very loose “tuff” (a light, porous rock formed by consolidation of volcanic ash) that makes up the canyon.

Location Off Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (20 miles/32km from start of road)
Distance 0.8 miles (1.2km) return
Grade Easy.
Season/s All year round.
Resources Hiking Big Bend National Park (Laurence Parent), p.99

A few miles after Tuff Canyon, the Mule Ear peaks come into view again.

https://hikingtheworld.blog

I don’t have time to do the full 11km (7 mile) return hike out to the base of the peaks, but I walk the first half a mile or so of the track, to get a view of the Mule Ears and the Chihuahuan desert. It looks like a pleasant walk, but the scenery wouldn’t change much along the trail.

https://hikingtheworld.blog

The Chimneys (8.4km / 4.8 miles)

My last hike from Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is The Chimneys Trail. It’s a very flat, featureless and exposed hike to the the tall and rocky ridge, visible in the distance. I only see a handful of people, on their way back to the car park. (I wouldn’t recommend this walk if you have limited time.)

 

The Chimneys has always been an important landmark, and Indian rock art marks the base of one of the high pinnacles. There’s not much written about the Indian petroglyphs, which vary in age from thousands of years old to some carved in the 1700s and 1800s.

The petroglyphs are on the southern-most pinnacle, with an unmarked but distinct path leading from the main path up to the base of the rock outcrop.

https://hikingtheworld.blog

While the hike to The Chimneys is horribly boring, the landscape once you get there is interesting. Climbing some of the lower outcrops provides a good view over the desert landscape: to the south is Kit Mountain, and beyond that the Chisos Mountains.

https://hikingtheworld.blog

Location Off Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (12.8 miles/20km from start of road)
Distance 4.8 miles (8.4km) return. GPS route on Routie.
Grade Easy.
Season/s All year round.
Resources Hiking Big Bend National Park (Laurence Parent), p.84

After this walk, I drive back to the end of Ross Maxwell Drive, and to the Chisos Basin to have a look at the Visitor Centre and get a drink.

https://hikingtheworld.blog

I’ve got time for one more hike: the Lost Mine Trail, which was on my “must do” list from prior research.

Lost Mine Trail (10km / 6 miles)

I had read conflicting reports on the Lost Mine Trail hike, from “must do” to “it’s completely over-rated”. I’d argue it should be near the top of your “to do list”, but pick a time when the trail is less busy. I went a couple of hours before sunset, and had the top (the hike doesn’t actually go to the Lost Mine peak summit) to myself – with great views as the sun set behind the Chisos mountains. I’ve covered this hike in a separate post.

_MG_5946-LR

Day Two – Emory Peak and the Window

Today’s the “big day”, starting with a circuit of Emory Peak and the South Rim, and hopefully allowing enough time for another hike before it gets dark. I end up hiking 40km (25 miles) today across two hikes.

Emory Peak (31km / 19 miles)

The main reason not to do Lost Mine Trail, is if you are doing Emory Peak. This long day-hike offers outstanding views from Emory Peak, with some rock scrambling required at the end to reach the actual peak. It’s best combined with the South Rim, to make this into a circuit – even better, include the Northeast and Southeast Rim trails which adds a couple of miles, but offers panoramic views all the way along the trail. I’ve also covered this hike in a separate post.

https://hikingtheworld.blog/

The Window (9km / 5.5 miles)

I’ve got just enough energy left to make it the Window, a canyon that end with a narrow slit in the Chisos mountain rim. It’s a pretty tedious walk, that goes gently downhill from the Basin car park. I wouldn’t like to do this walk in the middle of summer, especially coming back up the hill. But the somewhat boring nature of the walk is compensated by the last half a mile, where you enter a narrow canyon (with steps carved into the canyon walls) and end in front of the narrow Window, overlooking the desert.

Do this walk near the end of the day; you’ll avoid the crowds (I had the place to myself) and enjoy views of the distant mountains under an orange sky. This hike is also covered in a separate post.

https://hikingtheworld.blog/2017/10/29/the-window/

More information

For planning the hikes, the Big Bend” Trails Illustrated topographical map and Hiking Big Bend National Park book by Laurence Parent were invaluable. The free map you get at the entrance gates was also useful when driving through the park.

Some other resources I found useful:

  • Best Hikes in Big Bend (blog) – I don’t agree with some of the advice, but found it useful as a starting point for researching what to do and see.
  • SummitPost – information on the highest peaks in Big Bend, including routes to hike or climb them (many have no marked trails and are for experienced hikers)
  • NPS – the official National Parks Web page, which include the calendar and booking page for Chisos Mountain Lodge (only accommodation in the park, other than camping – book as much in advance as you can).

Have I missed a great walk…? Let me know in the comments! I definitely plan to come back one day and do some more hikes in Big Bend.

Wollangambe Canyon

Wollangambe Canyon is an easy canyon in the Blue Mountains, requiring no abseils and basic navigation skills – bring a lilo and keep an eye out for the exit!

Leaving Sydney around 8:30am, we were parked at the Mt Wilson fire station and on the track down to the Wollangambe River by 10am. The plan was to hike/wade/swim “Wollangambe One” (also known as the Upper Tourist Section), and possibly continue on and complete Wollangambe Two (Lower Tourist Section).

It’s about a 45min walk down (3km) on a narrow but well-defined track; the track forks a few times and we took the left fork each time so we entered the river at the uppermost point that can be access from Mt Wilson (via an established trail!).

The first kilometre or so is easy going, with water depth no more than about a metre. Pleasant wading on a warm summer day! A beautiful tiger snake led the way for a short while and crayfish were frequently spotted, before we reached the “normal” entry point for this section of the canyon (Wollangambe MGA546914).

From here, it got very slow. And very wet. Having ignored the recommendation to wear a wetsuit and bring a lilo, it was very slow and tiring with long swimming sections. About 80% of this section of the canyon is “swimming depth”, with a few rock scrambles and a bit of wading. We reached the end of Section 1 (at MGA560916) around 4pm, exhausted and very cold – the exit here is well marked, with a large arrow marked on the cliff behind a small beach.

In hindsight, a wetsuit was not required (being a fairly warm day – although of course the water was pretty cold) – but a lilo would have made it a much more enjoyable excursion! While we only saw two groups along the way, at the exit point there were about 20-25 people, including a number of families and children. All of whom were clearly more sensible than us and had wetsuits, lilos – and waterproof bags that actually kept their possessions dry!

About an hour or do later and we were back at the car; the track up is well marked with one short-but-steep section that requires some care.

Location Starts at Mt Wilson fire station (off Bells Line of Road, Blue Mts)
Distance Around 9km. Allow up to six hours.
Grade Easy-moderate (with a lilo!). Easy navigation.
Season/s Ideal in summer on a warm day. Avoid before heavy rain or storms.
Map Wollangambe 1:25,000
Resources OzUltimate.com has helpful track notes

Map-Wollangambe.PNG

Havasu Falls, Arizona

A hidden gem: a two-day walk through a dramatic landscape red canyons and turquoise waterfalls.

I stumbled across this hike somewhere in the depths of the Web… it looked amazing, and yet I hadn’t seen it in any of my US hiking  books. After a bit more research, it was added to my mental “wish list” of hikes! “The Havasupai Waterfalls are the most dramatic waterfalls in the Grand Canyon and possibly even the entire Southwestern United States” and “Havasupai (Havasu Falls) might just be one the the most beautiful places on Earth” are a few of the descriptions of this hike.

Getting there was the first challenge. I needed to be in San Diego on Monday for a conference, so the best approach was to fly to Las Vegas from LAX and pick up a car, overnight in Peach Springs and drive the last 100km to the start of the hike at Hualapai Hilltop early the following morning. Getting there at sunrise, the hike started with impressive views down the Hualapai Canyon, a side canyon of the Grand Canyon. A few mules are tethered near the start of the trail – this is the only place in the US where mail is delivered by mule (UK Daily Mail).

The trail drops quickly  from 1575m down into the canyon via a series of switchbacks and follows the dry floor canyon. After about 10km the Havasu Canyon is reached, and some trees and greenery start to appear… another 2km and I reach the village of Supai at 975m).

Supai is an interesting place. Home to the Havasupai Tribe, which has a population of about 600 people, it’s the smallest Indian nation in America. Reached by foot, mule and helicopter, Havasupai tribe has been living in the area for centuries. The land on which the Supai village is now situated was claimed from the National Park in 1975, after many court battles, granting the tribe a trust title to approximately 185,000 acres (source: Wikipedia). The village now has a shop, cafe, church, post office, health clinic and a lodge, which is where I stayed overnight (day-hikes are not permitted, and it would be a very long day hiking back up to the top of the canyon). The village looks pretty run-down and while many locals are reliant on tourism, no-one appears particularly friendly…

I check-in to Supai Lodge around midday and continue hiking down Havasu Canyon. The best is yet to come: Havasupai is roughly translated as “the people of the blue-green waters”, in reference to the amazing turquoise colour of Havasu Creek, formed by leaching from minerals. Navajo Falls is reached first, a short detour off the main track about 3km beyond the village. It is spectacular. One of those spots where I know the photos won’t do justice to what I am seeing.

I take many photos, and continue… Another 3km and I reach (arguably) the star attraction: Havasu Falls. Being outside peak season there are a few other people on the track and swimming, but there is also a sense of isolation and serenity. It’s somewhere I could happily camp and stay for a few days.

_mg_0138-lr

A little further again (another 2km) after walking through the fairly-empty Havasu camping ground, and I reach the 70m-high Mooney Falls (these are the highest). The base of the falls is accessed through a rough track carved through the cliff and then down some less than confidence-inspiring wooden ladders. But worth the effort. Each waterfall seems to outdo the last in beauty and amazing-ness!

_mg_0017-lr

I climb back up the narrow trail to the top, with one last waterfall to reach. There’s now a 4km stretch to Beaver Falls. The track is well-defined it gets rough in sections, with a number of ladders and steep sections to scramble down as it alternates between the two banks of Havasu Creek.

At last, Beaver Falls. I’ve walked 24km from the start of the hike at the top of the canyon many hours ago. I still have another 11km back up to the lodge at Supai where I’ll sleep tonight. It’s another 7km further before  Havasu Creek meets the Colorado River, and I fear that I won’t be back at Supai village in time to get some dinner.

I take a few (more) photos, and reluctantly head back up the trail. I’ve got enough time for a swim at Havasu Falls – the water is warm and relaxing – and make it back to the Sinyella cafe in Supai on the far side of the village about half an hour before it closes. A cold drink and fry-bread never tasted so good!

Supai Lodge is fairly basic, but I sleep very soundly (after a mix-up with rooms is eventually solved, and I am allocated a room that doesn’t already have an occupant)!

It’s an early start again the next day. Back through the village, up Havasu Canyon and then the final ascent up Hualapai Canyon to the car.

I get back mid-morning. It’s been a spectacular day and and half. I wish I could stay longer and I will be back one day. But today, I have a conference to get to.

img_5544-lr

Location From Highway 66 near Peach Springs, turn onto Indian Route 18 and follow this for 100km to Hualapai Hilltop
Distance 47km (35km Day 1 to Beaver Falls; 12km Day 2).
Grade Moderate.
Season/s March through June considered the best time. Avoid monsoon season (mid-July to August) where flash flooding can occur
Map Havasu Falls, AZ  36112C6
GPS Route Routie GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources Permit required: refer NPS web site
Good track notes on BigBoyTravel web site
Photos Google Photos gallery

map-havasu