As a followup to a June 2016 trip, I needed to make a Chisos Mountain Summer Hike Loop. My June trip left me wanting more. August is still a great time to go to Big Bend. There are no crowds, and it is the rainy season. The higher elevations of the Chisos Mountains are cooler than the desert and cooler than Houston – my home. I planned on an extended version on my June hike, extending to 3 nights in the back country. I would spend most of my Chisos Mountain Summer Hike Loop over 7000′. Three different campsites on each of the three nights. Relaxation, photography and solitude were my objectives. As you read on, I think you will agree that I met the goal.
I again had an activity in Sonora, Texas last weekend and decided to extend that trip again. Big Bend National Park is a 10 hour journey from my home in Houston. Sonora is 6 hours. It was the perfect excuse to tack on the additional four and continue farther west.
After finishing the weekend up in Sonora, I headed west on Sunday and on arrival, picked up my entry permit and back country permit at the Persimmon Gap Ranger Station. Cruising the last miles to the Chisos Basin, I arrived at a campground that was mostly empty. I snagged campsite #2 again and setup in the afternoon.
My plan was to head out early Monday morning with enough water for at least 2 days. The rangers would not confirm the availability of water in the high Chisos, so I counted on water from Boot Canyon to allow me to complete the full 4 day/3 night outing. Water is the heaviest thing I carry, and I loaded up 7 liters. This is about 15 1/2 pounds and is about the limit I could carry. There is a significant amount of total elevation change on my planned Chisos Mountain Summer Hike Loop. With food, camera and necessities, i think my pack was about 40 pounds. After a quick trip to the lodge for dinner, I retired to my campsite and settled in for the night.
It was quiet and cool the next morning. The low temperature overnight was about 62 degrees as I parked near the Basin Store near the trail-head. It always takes me about 1/4 mile to get in rhythm at the beginning of my hikes. This day was no different as I headed up the Laguna Meadow Trail. My destination was Laguna West 1 campsite. I planned to arrive early and rest that afternoon. Laguna West or Laguna Meadow is a good staging point for the High Chisos. It’s only about 4 miles from the trail-head and has good views of Emory Peak. In addition, there is sometimes water to be found in the Upper Cattail Canyon drainage. I was passed by 2 day hikers in the first mile and did not see anyone else that day. After a final series of thigh burning switchbacks, I crested the saddle and cruised down and then up again to Laguna West. Although everyone agrees that the Laguna Meadow Trail is the gentlest grade to reach the high Chisos, elevation is still elevation. Achieving elevation with a 40 pound pack takes its toll and I pretty much lazed away the rest of the day. I wandered the hills above my camp, napped and listened to an audiobook.
Later, after a hearty Mountain House meal and a cup of hot green tea, I slid off to sleep under the stars. It was a clear night with no moon and the Milky Way blazed overhead. Life was good.
I awoke to a cool (low 60’s ?), slightly foggy morning and washed down 400 mg ibuprofen and a cold pop-tart with a quart of water for breakfast. Today’s plan was to cross the Colima Trail to Boot Canyon to replenish water. Finding water was crucial to be able to complete my full Chisos Mountain Summer Hike Loop. Without it, I would probably have to bailout after 2 nights and head back to the Basin. I was confident that there would be water in Boot Canyon. Hopefully the spring would be flowing. If not, there is usually some water in pools above the spring. Depending on recent rainfall, the water ranges from excellent to stagnant. I had a pump/filter and Cl O2 tablets with me for any situation.
It was a cool beautiful morning as I headed out of Laguna West toward the Colima trail. The Mexican Jays (Gray Breasted), scolded me as I left Laguna West and the sun was burning off a very light mist. As I passed the boulder field on the southwest side of Emory Peak, I considered looking for the Quaking Aspen trees that are rumored to be there. This has been on my bucket list for a long time, but I cruised on past with just a glance through the trees. Hold that thought…..we’ll get back to that later!
My legs were warming up by the time I reached the Colima trail Junction. I observed a lone Band Tailed Pigeon near the trail. Normally these birds are a bit gregarious, but I haven’t seen one in years, so it was a welcome sighting. I like the Colima trail. It climbs sharply for a bit through some really pretty forest and the descends slowly through a shady gap to the Boot Canyon trail. I rarely see anybody on this trail. I stopped for a few photos before arriving at Boot Spring.
To my delight Boot Spring was flowing clear, cool water from the pipe at about 1/4 gal per minute. The pour off just above the spring was dry. After topping back up to my full 7 liters, I hydrated well and had lunch at the picnic table near the old cabin. I lingered at Boot Spring for quite awhile. Boot Spring is one of my favorite places in the Chisos.
As I finally headed away from Boot Spring, I saw numerous accessible pools before I reached the Northeast Rim Trail. There was very little flow between the pools, but the water still looked pretty good. The Chisos are a little on the dry side for this time of year, and the pools are going to get nasty if it doesn’t rain pretty soon.
After about 8/10 mile, I reached the Northeast Rim Trail junction. I hadn’t been on this trail for years and didn’t remember it well.
The trail immediately is very rude! A steep, rocky, uphill beginning was my reintroduction. The trail climbs through some shade and breaks out into an exposed section of sun. There is a good view into Juniper Canyon but the last 1/4 mile before reaching NE1, is hot and steep. I was pretty bushed as I traversed the rest of the trail toward my destination – NE4.
NE4 Campsite is about 1/10 mile off the Northeast Rim Trail and offers views into Juniper Canyon and also a south view of the desert below the South Rim. After setting up my meager camp, I rested in the shade, re hydrated and enjoyed the cool breeze. Although the temperature was only about 80ish degrees, the sun was hot. I sat on the rim for a long time resting. I had a lizard friend for awhile and we both enjoyed our quiet spot for the rest of the afternoon.
After a Mountain House Lasagna dinner, I headed back to the rim for sunset. Photos and enjoying the breeze were in order and I headed back at sunset with a thunderstorm moving in.
I hunkered down, just in case of rain, but the storm fizzled out at sunset with only wind and some lightning and thunder. The clouds eventually disappeared and gave way to a brilliant sky. The Milky Way was amazingly bright and meteors kept me captivated until I finally drifted off.
I awoke early the next morning to catch sunrise on the rim. It was chilly that morning, and I was reluctant to get out of my bag.I only had shorts and a short sleeve shirt and I believe it was sub 60 degrees that morning. I snapped photos at sunrise and then headed back to my campsite for breakfast. After more ibuprofen, another pop tart and a cup of coffee, I packed up and headed out.
My hike today was short. I was only going as far as SW4. This is only about 2 miles, but it would give me the best opportunity in a long time to be able to “stop and smell the roses”. It was really nice not to have to rush and head back to the Basin. I had all day to wander, rest, and catch the sunset.
I finally arrived at SW4 and set up camp. After a brief rest in the shade and lunch, I headed back to the rim and found a shady spot in the cool breeze. I watched Vultures, Ravens, Red-tailed Hawks, Violet-green Swallows, and White-throated Swifts navigating the breeze. I also saw numerous Broad-tailed and Lucifer’s Hummingbirds, a female American Redstart (early migrant?), and a Virginia’s Warbler (also an early migrant?).
It was then back to camp for dinner – Mountain House Spaghetti and Meat sauce. A nice cup of hot green tea and a short rest were in order before heading back to the rim for sunset. It is about a 5 minute walk back to the rim from SW4 and it is very convenient.
I arrived back at the rim about 2 hours before sunset and set up in the shade.
The ravens started making quite a racket that got my attention. They were being brutally harassed by a Peregrine Falcon about 300 yards east of my position.It was like watching a dump truck versus a Lamborghini. The Peregrine is the King of all birds, in my opinion. There are three subspecies of Peregrine Falcon found North America. Falco peregrinus tundrius is found in the Arctic tundra. Falco peregrinus anatum is found south of the tundra into northern Mexico. Falco peregrinus pealei is found from Washington state north through western Alaska. In Texas the resident population is Falco peregrinus anatum in Big Bend. Migrant birds throughout the state are both Falco peregrinus tundrius and anatum.
Shortly after, a Red-tailed hawk floated by my vantage point and suddenly a Peregrine popped up and drove him off. He passed about 40 ft from where I was standing. Unfortunately I don’t haul a long lens up the hill. I did manage to get 2 photos with a 24 mm lens. While the wrong tool for the job, the highly cropped result is below. Nonetheless, a great close encounter of the best kind.
As sunset approached, so did a few isolated thunderstorm cells. It was a beautiful evening and after getting these shots i retired back to SW4 for the night. The skies cleared and it was another dazzling night of the Milky Way and more meteors.
The last morning of my Chisos Mountain Summer Hike Loop came cool and quiet. I think this was the coolest morning of the trip. I didn’t have a thermometer with me, but it felt sub 60 degrees. I wandered over to the rim about 30 minutes before sunrise and took a final round of photos before packing up and completing my journey.
My pack was much lighter as I headed down the Laguna Meadow Trail toward the Basin. I had 1 1/2 liters of water left and only a few snacks left for the journey. I always enjoy the section of the trail that overlooks Boot Canyon on the way. As I worked my way closer to Laguna Meadow, I slowed and re-looked at the boulder field below Emory Peak. I felt light and spry and decided to revisit the idea of finding the elusive Big Bend Quaking Aspen trees.The boulder field is a jumble, and I climbed up through the woods on the east side of the boulders until I was about the same elevation as the lowest aspens. I then cut across the field until I finally reached my goal. There are quite a few trees, some dead and some living. The largest of the trees are the highest upslope and a scramble is required to reach any of them.
I have been meaning to check out these trees for years, and FINALLY it’s been done! This small grove of Texas quaking aspens, is the southern-most stand in the United States. These trees are the last few remnants from ancient, wetter times thousands of years ago. Texas quaking aspen trees are only found in a few places in the state – only in the high Chisos, Davis and Guadalupe mountains. Aspens may be North America’s most widely distributed tree. They are found from the arctic to Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains.
These trees have shallow roots and reproduce vegetatively. Roots throw up young shoots which can become individual trees. All the trees from a common root system are clones. This area of cloned trees can cover many acres with varying sized trees. Individual aspen trees are known to reach 200 years in age but some clone parents in Minnesota are estimated to be up to 10 thousand years old. In the Rocky Mountains, some of the clone parents may be up to 2 million years old. I wonder how old the Big Bend Quaking Aspens are?
I was really pleased to finally get a closer look and headed back towards the Basin. Shortly after cresting the pass on the Laguna Meadow Trail i spied a very unusual flower(s) close to the trail. I don’t know what they are. They appear to be an Lithophyte. Possibly a wild orchid or a succulent of some type. If anyone recognizes this species, I’d appreciate any info. I have found wild orchids in the park before. You never know what the next turn will show you.
UPDATE: After some research, I have determined that this plant is Echeveria strictiflora – The Desert Savior. It is a native succulent limited to 3 counties in the Big Bend region – Jeff Davis, Brewster and Presidio. It is also found in Chihuahua, Coahuila and Nuevo León Mexico
I arrived back in the Basin, hot tired and hungry. But mostly I needed a shower. Headed to Study Butte and spent $4.00 at the Motor Lodge showers and got some ice and a big bottle of Topo Chico. I returned to the Basin and scarfed down a bacon cheeseburger and about 4 glasses of iced tea. That evening I snagged a campsite in a virtually empty campground. After taking some not so good night sky pictures, I slept on the ground in the open and left the next morning for home. UPDATE: I decided to add one of the night sky photos – This was taken with an 8 mm fisheye lens.
I managed a few pictures on the way between Marathon and Ft. Stockton. The Hawk is an Intermediate morph 1st year Swainson’s Hawk. According to Sibley, less than 10% of Swainson’s are the dark intemediate morph.
The long way home was uneventful and I arrived home in about 10 hours. I was road weary but mentally refreshed. I’m planning another trip this year, but waiting for some cooler weather to hike the desert.
Chisos Mountain Summer Hike Loop mileage – 16.68 miles + wandering around
For those who are interested in these things
$1.95 in Ft Stockton
$2.48 in Marathon
$2.78 at Panther Junction
The campgrounds and lodge were VERY empty.
Below is an elevation profile – Total elevation change = 6860′
Thanks for reading and feel free to comment or question.