Backpacking the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park

December is a great time to backpack in the Big Bend. Very little rain, warm days, and crisp, clear nights (for great star-gazing) make for a special time on the trail. This past week I packed up for a short overnight trip to the south rim of the Chisos Mountains, an “island in the sky” in the heart of Big Bend National Park. These mountains rise from a high plateau in the central part of the park at 3500′ to a height of 7300′ at my campsite on the south rim, overlooking the sprawling desert toward the Rio Grande River, and Mexico beyond. The desert can produce some interesting weather, and this morning was no exception…the cool air flowing down into the lower desert produced a layer of fog/clouds that carpeted the elevations below me as I drove to the trailhead in the Chisos Mountains:


Hitting the trail, the ecosystems change as I gain in altitude, from desert to prairie to sub-alpine, here the view through “The Window” looking west toward the distant settlements of Study Butte and Terlingua:


Along the trail, it is not unusual to encounter a small deer, the Carmen Mountains whitetail, a sub-species found only in the United States in these Chisos Mountains:


There is a mixture of hardwoods and juniper covering the slopes of the basin, with towering pinnacles dwarfing the vegetation, still sporting fall color:


From my viewpoint along the south rim of the Chisos, the cliffs fall away 2000′ straight down to the floor of the Chihuahua Desert below. This part of the trail is closed from February to June to avoid contact with the perigrine falcons which nest along these cliffs in the spring:


From the southeasternmost edge of the south rim, the desert floor spreads out to Mexico and beyond. From here, trails drop down to the desert forming the “Outer Mountain Loop” trail that crosses the desert floor below, a trip requiring veteran desert hiking experience, knowledge of intermittent springs, and good route-finding experience:

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As I sat near the edge of the rim, preparing to eat my wife’s meatloaf sandwiches prepared for me for dinner, I was visited by a tiny rock wren, somewhat disappointed that I would not throw some crumbs his way:


A look off to the southeast, the 8000′ high cliffs of the Sierra del Carmen mountains loom up from Mexico, across the Rio Grande River, about 30 miles distant:


The colors spread across the sky and frame the highest point in Big Bend National Park, Emory Peak:

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As the sun sets to the southwest, the desert floor below fades into darkness and the colors fade to purple and blue as the silence intensifies:


I sit on the edge of the south rim as a full moon rises over the Sierra del Carmen escarpment:


With this moon above, no headlights needed to find my way around camp after dark:


The next morning, the fog has settled into the lower desert floor, creating “islands in the sky” that are ruled by Elephant Tusk Peak, silhouetted in the foreground:



More vistas from the rim, with the vertical cliffs:


A visitor to my camp, this Carmen whitetail buck frequents the campsites on the south rim. He was sporting a beautiful rack, and a thick, healthy neck in full rut:


Some of the beautiful grasses lighted by early sun along the trail:


 Along the trail heading back to the trailhead, these Carmen deer are puzzled by my appearance on the trail at this early hour. These are small deer, and have evolved right here in this tiny ecosystem:


More color from the oaks and maples along the trail at the higher elevations, leaves still hanging on very late up here:


After 16 miles of hiking, and elevation gains of nearly 3000′, I was glad to be back in the mountains. I met a veteran hiker on the trail, one of only 5 people I saw in two days, and hopefully we will be able to put together a future trip. The desert is such a special place, not only for the environment, but for the people you meet here. Come visit, and you’ll see what I mean.

Published by texasflashdude

Photography and Travel, specifically adventure travel and backpacking in remote North America, give me an excuse to stay outside. If kayaks, bikes, backpacks, Jeeps, archeology, geology and wildlife can be included, all the better. Having spent my life working in the fashion and photography industries, I love the unusual, the spectacular, and the beautiful. God has given us a wonderful world in which to live, and I try to open others’ eyes to its wonders. I have shared nearly 50 years of this indescribable wonder with my wife, Jodie, and we go everywhere together. I hope you will share some of our journey with us.

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