Every year everyone celebrates the day they were born, but for whatever reason, each decade on Earth requires a special celebration. We generally tend to try to avoid cliches, but we couldn’t resist when I turned 30 last Thursday (April 21) and decided to go to Big Bend National Park to celebrate!
Coming from Houston, Big Bend is nine and a half hours away. So we took Friday off from work and left just before midnight on Thursday night. Driving in shifts, we made great time (with a celebratory stop at Texas staple, Whataburger.)
Obviously, we would’ve liked more than a three-day weekend to really get to know Big Bend, but we were determined to enjoy each day we had to the max.
Once we checked in and got our spots (more on that later), we came up with a plan for how to make the most of our limited time there.
First up, checking out Santa Elena Canyon. After an hour drive down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (about 30 miles) from where we checked in at Panther Junction, we arrived!
HOLY SMOKES it is absolutely beautiful!
Let me offer a bit of advice – There are three stops for Santa Elena, 1. Boat drop, 2. Overlook, 3. The actual trail. Skip the first two and head straight to the trail (unless you’re going to drop a boat in the water.) The overlook and boat drop provided cool views, but you get similar views when you go down to the trail, PLUS you get to actually go IN the canyon from the trail.
The canyon is on the Rio Grande River and is where Mexico and the USA meet and provides some of the coolest views I’ve seen. The sides of the cliffs are extremely high and provide an awesome “tunnel” that you can hike down. We spent about 2 hours in the canyon and were constantly amazed how great the view was. We can’t recommend it enough.
As hard as it was to leave this gorgeous canyon, we were ready to start climbing mountains! We drove to the base of the Pinnacles Trail and headed to our camp spot for the first night, PI1.
It was about a 3.5 mile hike to the spot, to an elevation of approximately 6,600 ft., but once the hike started, I quickly forgot about that – every view was better than the last. “The Window” was in our view for virtually the entire hike, and we had to stop every 5 minutes to stop and take in the view.
See why?! I couldn’t stop commenting on the layers upon layers of mountains that were visible behind the giant mountains in front of us. It was incredible.
The hike took us about 2 hours since we were making such frequent viewing stops, but we finally arrived and were blown away at how large the camp spot was. Each spot was about 20-30 yards off of the trail and had essentially three “rooms” – a bedroom (to set up our tent), a kitchen (where the bear boxes were), and a game room (a bare area to…play?)
Speaking of bear boxes – let’s take a moment to talk about the wildlife at Big Bend. There were warnings everywhere about mountain lions and bears – there are approximately 2 dozen mountain lions and a “small population” of bears, which was frighteningly vague. I’ll go ahead and tell you that we didn’t come across any bears or lions, but we did see quite a few other animals throughout the weekend. We saw: a road runner (not nearly as big as Looney Tunes would have you believe), a ton of Mexican Jays, a couple of deer, and the adorable ringtail. All of which were less skiddish than our dogs. A little worrisome that there might be a family of bears or lions that are completely unafraid of us, but like I said, we didn’t have to fight Yogi or anything like that.
We were happy to get off our feet and finally get to CAMP! We’ve heard all about the stargazing that takes place at night, so we were extremely disappointed when both nights were too cloudy to get a view of the spectacle, but that’s the ONLY complaint we could make, which was just bad luck/timing.
The nights were surprisingly cold in the upper 50s/low 60s, but we were fine once we put the rain cover on our tent and got curled up together for bed.
We woke up with the plan to go to our second campsite, TM1 on top of Toll Mountain, but first, breakfast and coffee!
Now that we’ve fueled up, it was time to set off on the trail to the top of Toll Mountain. The hike continued to shock us with the killer views. We’d stop to take a look, then walk past a tree and get a completely different view that was even more amazing than the last.
The hike to TM1 wasn’t nearly as far, but what it lacked in distance, it more than made up for in elevation gained. The switchbacks were more frequent and the climb was more intense, but again, the views.
We arrived at our spot, on top of Toll Mountain, and thought we were dreaming. Our spot basically had a patio, where we could sit on rocks on the side of the mountain and had a complete view of everything below us.
Now that we were set up, it was time to tackle Emory Peak. We were relieved to finally hike without our packs on and took off at a much quicker clip than before. It was about another 2 miles from TM1 and was much more trying than the rest, but oh boy was it worth it. There was a little scramble at the end that served as a test to see how bad you really wanted to see the view. Obviously, we were game and made it to the top. Now, when we went to Rocky Mountain National Park, we were much higher in elevation, but never did we get to the top of a mountain. We got to the tip top of Emory Peak and had a 360 view of all of Big Bend. I cried. It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. It was pretty scary with drops on all sides, but I can’t put into words how unbelievably amazing it was. All the hiking with packs on was immediately worth it.
Sadly, it was beginning to get dark, so we had to head back to our spot, because, you know, bears/lions.
Going back down was a great feeling after hiking UP for 2 days. We made great time on the way down and got home in time for the sunset.
I don’t think you’ll find a better sunset anywhere in the world. The colors were incredible. From our site, there was a tree that obstructed a portion of our view and on one side, the sunset was a combination of reds, pinks and oranges, and on the other side of the tree, it was blues, greens and purples. It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Again, I cried. I could go on forever about the sunset, but I’ll just let the pictures do the talking.
We stayed up as late as we could in hopes of the clouds clearing out of the way so we could see the stars, but no luck. The forecast called for a 90% chance of rain on Day 2, but all we got were clouds. They did do us a solid in blocking out that desert sun, but I think I’d have rather seen the show the stars put on.
Waking up on the last day of our trip was a very somber time. We weren’t ready to leave, but we’ve got bills to pay, so we packed up and headed down, again making much better time than going up the mountain. The view of the sunrise was great from our site, but not nearly as fantastic as the sunset. For sunsets, we 100% recommend TM1, but for sunrises, you may want to check out a different spot.
This was one of my favorite trips we’ve made so far. I had no idea that I would’ve enjoyed desert camping quite this much. We got a bit of everything – climbing up mountains, river hikes, and the best views. It seems that Big Bend isn’t often mentioned when discussing the 59 National Parks, but it absolutely should be. It’s worth every bit of sweat, loss of sleep, fear of bears, everything. You HAVE to make it out there.
Have you been to Big Bend or another National Park? Tell us about it – we’re already planning trips to a couple of other National Parks for this year and we can’t wait to get to go back to West Texas. Keep exploring!