After having spent the past couple of days exploring the area outside Big Bend National Park, we finally arrived at the park entrance and found ourselves at the end of a long queue of cars waiting to get in. The park, spread over 800,000 acres and bordering Mexico, encompasses 3 different ecosystems – the Rio Grande River, the Chihuahuan Desert and the Chisos Mountains. As the Rio Grande River flows down from the Rockies, it makes a sharp bend east before flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. This large bend is referred to as the Big Bend area and the river serves as the natural border between Texas and Mexico.
We drove along the Ross Maxwell Scenic route, a 30 mile stretch that took us through the mountains and the desert to finally reach the river at the Santa Elena canyon. The many look out points offered us sweeping views of the desert and the hills. Varieties of cacti, succulents and flowers provided sharp bursts of color in the arid landscape. Our car startled a roadrunner that had been foraging for lunch and it quickly ran into the shrubs before we could reach for our cameras.
Santa Elena Canyon
It was noon by the time we reached the Santa Elena canyon. The steep walls of the canyon, on either side of the river, towered over us. The southern wall is on the Mexican side and the northern wall is in the US. Despite it being November, it was 98F and extremely hot. We dawdled by the river bank and debated the merits of undertaking the hike in the sweltering heat. As we turned to head back, a couple, likely in their 80’s, making their way back after the hike waved and smiled at us triumphantly.
“OK…..We have to do this!”
The hike started with a river crossing before ascending a steep, paved trail to a vista which offered us panoramic views of the narrow gorges of the canyon. Below us, we observed a lone paddleboarder making his way through the river.
Once the trail descended to the riverbank, the 1500 ft canyon walls towered over us like a steep cathedral, reminding us that we were ephemeral beings in this landscape that had weathered the sands of time.
We returned from the hike in a contemplative mood and I silently thanked the couple for inspiring us to hike up the trail.
The Lost Mines Trail
We were up early the next day to explore the Lost Mines trail and had been warned that the limited parking would fill up quickly. We arrived at a quarter to 9 and made it into the last parking spot available. Woohoo!
A handy trail map explained the origins of the name.
Early Spanish explorers had discovered and developed gold and silver mines in the area. Legend has it that they had discovered a particularly rich gold mine deposit on the peak of the Chisos Mountain and used prison labor to work the mines. The location of the mine was a closely guarded secret and prisoners were blindfolded as they made their way there. The fierce Comanche Indians resented the Spanish invasion of their homeland and in a particularly bloody battle, killed every man in the mine including those who knew its location. The Indians then sealed the mine to prevent further exploration in the area. To this day, no one knows the exact location of the mine. Legend has it that if a person stands by the chapel door of the San Vicente mission on Easter morning, they can watch the sun rays hitting the Chisos Mountain at the exact mine entrance.
We were feeling lucky after having snagged the last parking spot.
“Maybe we just might discover this gold mine!”
The vegetation in the Chisos Mountains is a stunning contrast from what we had experienced the previous day in the desert and by the river. Juniper, oak and pine trees provided intermittent and welcoming barriers of shade. Century plants rose like sentinels on the side of the trail. Prickly pear with their brightly colored purple fruit (nopalitas) within hands reach tempted us as we trudged past them.
After 2 hours of hiking, we reached the top and were rewarded with stunning views of the mountain ranges around us. Very distinctive, because of innumerable postcards of Big Bend, is the Casa Grande with its lichen covered green and black hued outcrop.
We scrambled up different ledges competing with each other for the best photograph. As we found a comfortable spot and sat down to enjoy the views, we noticed a couple who had made their way to the steepest ledge. The man then snuck out an engagement ring and proposed to his girlfriend.
“We are engaged!”, she shouted at us pointing to her ring in glee. We congratulated them and offered to take a few photos.
With the sun starting to beat down on us, we made our way back. A short distance away was a tree whose gnarled branches had curved across the trail resembling a wedding arch. We laughed with glee as we walked under the arch and back to the start of the trail.