This was the last full day of our week before 4th of July visit to Big Bend National Park in West Texas. My brother-in-law (Russell), nephew (Bart), and I had been using the Chisos Basin as a basecamp as we did several hikes in the area. To see some more of the park outside Chisos Basin, we planned a short hike – the Windows Trail – and then a drive over to the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon.
We got another early start down the trail, enjoying the shady canyon and the cool down-canyon morning breeze.
Some of the Century Plants were in bloom here too and, as was the case at the others we passed, each was seemingly guarded by an agitated hummingbird. Each plant’s “guardian” would fly right into your face or past your head in a seeming attempt to keep you away from “their” flowers. That flower’s hummingbird would sometimes get into a tussle with yet another hummingbird that was trying to sneak past them to the flower. We would be forgotten while aerial combat ensued between these half-ounces of feathered fury.
The Windows Trail (4 miles roundtrip; 450 feet of elevation gain) descends from the Basin campground into ever narrowing Oak Canyon.
Eventually the canyon becomes so narrow and rocky and slick that a series of steps constructed by the Civilian Construction Corps in the 1930s become necessary to help you negotiate it.
We went past several pools of water, left over from all the recent thunderstorms and cloudbursts,
to some incredibly slick, water-polished rock that leads to the abrupt edge of a 200+-foot drop or pouroff (“The Window”) into Oak Springs below.
There is apparently a trail, one that starts a little up-canyon, that you can use to by-pass the pouroff and descend to Oak Springs. Since this trail wasn’t showing on our maps, and we didn’t want to go to Oak Springs anyway, we turned back up the canyon. After hiking back to the Basin, we drove over to see Santa Elena Canyon, stopping along the way for a short, but hot, hike, through a gravel drainage,
to the end of a narrow box canyon where water has carved a 100-foot pouroff into Burro Mesa. Usually dry, the smooth, polished rock attests to the power of water that floods this canyon during summer rains.
Russell had been expressing a desire to see a rattlesnake – a desire I did not share – and it looked like we’d get through this trip without a reptile encounter. But as we moved forward to get a close look at the pouroff, Russell almost stepped on a small, but feisty, black-tailed rattlesnake tucked in a hole at the pouroff’s base. Buzz, buzz! Run away, run away! Check rattlesnake encounter off the list.
After this bit of reptilian excitement, our next stop was to be Santa Elena Canyon. But that plan was abandoned when we found the road to the canyon closed by washouts associated with the recent thunderstorms. So stopped at Castolon, then at Tuff Canyon (tuff is welded volcanic ash),
then lastly the historic Sam Nail Ranch, the old homestead of Jim and Sam Nail and Sam’s wife, Nena. Parts of the adobe walls of the house and two windmills remain, one which is still in operation. Patricia Wilson Clothier’s memoir Beneath the Window: Early Ranch Life in Big Bend Country (Iron Mountain Press, 2013) gives an intimate picture of what life was like in this hard-scrabble country in the 1930s and 1940s, before the park was established.
After that, it was back to the Basin and to the end of our hiking and road trip adventures in Big Bend National Park. Despite it not being high season, we saw plenty of wildlife (some before it bit us) and did some excellent hikes in warm but not impossibly hot conditions. Although the logistics of visiting this remote park from the Pacific Northwest are a bit daunting, I for one would like to pay it another visit in either the Spring or Fall when hikes in places other than the high Chisos are more practical and comfortable.