BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK, Tex. — Most of Big Bend National Park's 700,000 acres is Chihuahuan desert: creosote-dotted flats and low, hilly grasslands punctuated with prickly pear. It is hot and dry, and there is no shade. Understandably, people and animals tend to seek out the park's remaining 2%--the Chisos Mountains.
Centered in a trough 40 miles wide, the Chisos rise a mile above the desert. From the flats below they look rough, threatening. But climb to the upper canyons, and from the cool shade of a sugar maple you can gaze over thousands of square miles of barren, blistering-hot land--what the Spaniards called el despoloblado , the uninhabitable.
The Spaniards were wrong about the Chisos--they were inhabited by Mescalero Apaches whose ancestors had arrived 12,000 years before.
The Indians had joined the plants and animals that were left on this high oasis, which is twice as wet as the surrounding desert and 10 to 30 degrees cooler, at the end of the last Ice Age.
It has remained a pleasant retreat ever since--for animals, Indians, bandits, and, more recently, hikers, bird watchers and tourists.
Whether you backpack or simply take day outings from Chisos Basin, where comfort and adventure seekers can find lodge rooms or cabins, you'll find two ways of exploring these mountains.
The south rim trail (high road) climbs from Chisos Basin to wander among the oblong cluster of the upper Chisos. It passes the park's apex, 7,835-foot Emory Peak, dips into verdant canyons and skirts the edge of the south rim, a 2,000-foot drop.
Less than 14 miles long, this loop can be done in a day. But it's good to spend at least one night outside, to watch darkness rise from the valleys and sleep under the oaks. In the morning you can explore the canyons and side trails or climb Emory Peak.
A lower route, the Outer Mountain Loop, drops from the upper Chisos to meander through the rugged hills below the south rim.
This 33-mile route, much of it vague and unmarked, winds through ankle-twisting terrain, at times passable only with map, compass and good navigation skills. Goats made some of these trails, and when you walk them you can believe it.
Water is scarce, and the route, being at low elevation, is too hot to take in the summer. But for the hardy, extra care and effort pay off in shares of solitude.
Not feeling hardy, we took the south rim trail, camping first among the junipers and live oaks in Boulder Meadows. This small plateau takes its name from the huge volcanic boulders dropped onto it from the pinnacles rimming the basin on this side.
Higher and Higher
From Boulder Meadows we climbed a series of switchbacks, slipped between pinnacles of lava and stepped into the upper Chisos. Here the junipers of the lower slopes give way to pinon pines, maples and oaks.
Birds suddenly were everywhere--titmice, nuthatches, Mexican jays and the acorn woodpecker, a busy bird with a brilliant crimson cap. We had entered the upper mountain canyons, where the relative coolness and moisture support an astounding variety of life.
Big Bend is visited by more bird species--at least 385 have been recorded--than any other national park. The eastern and western migration routes pass through, bringing birds from both sides of the country.
In addition, many Mexican birds reach the northern edge of their range here. The Colima warbler, for instance, visits the United States only in the upper Chisos canyons, where it nests in summer.
Bigger animals like the canyons, too, and the Chisos shelter some unusual mammals.
Perhaps strangest is the collared peccary, or javelina, a wild pig common in Mexico and Central America but only found in the United States in Southwestern deserts. While the javelina is something of a tough hombre (its main diet is prickly pear), its ferocious reputation is undeserved; people who think they're under attack are usually just getting a closer look by nearsighted, curious beasts who would rather run than fight.
The javelina, like its fellow Chisos residents the gray fox and the coyote, is mostly nocturnal. The park also contains bobcat, badger, mountain lion (rarely seen), and many smaller mammals that are hunted by slightly bigger snakes and lizards.
Trees Offer Shade
Plants thrive in these canyons, especially large trees. Maples, Ponderosa pine, a variety of oaks and Arizona cypress give shelter from the sun.
In their shade grow the smooth-skinned Texas madrone, drooping juniper, and pinon pines, with short trunks and spreading lower branches.
Among the grasses grow prickly pear and yucca, reminding one that this is desert, the lushness a marginal concession.
Boot Canyon is such a place. Set below Emory Peak, with two trail intersections and a reliable spring, it is the rough center of the south rim trail system.
A prime bird watching area, it also affords photo prospects--of the peak, "the boot" (a rock tower resembling an upside-down boot), and, east past the canyon's mouth, the slopes of Juniper Canyon.