At the heart of Big Bend National Park resides the Chisos Mountains. They extend nearly twenty miles from the Punta del la Sierra in the southwest and then to Panther Junction in the Northeast. This is the only mountain range to be totally contained within a single National Park. A forest of piñon, oak, and juniper cover the crowns and crags, but at high elevations, you can find quaking aspen, douglas fir, drooping juniper, bigtooth maple, and ponderosa pine. This creates a splendid habitat for a multitude of animals and insects, but bears and mountain lions are the most notable inhabitants. Such apex predators indicate a healthy well-protected wildlife environment, mostly thanks to forest regrowth and a community that supports wildlife protection.
Chisos Basin Junction Road
For our second week, we drove along the six-mile Chisos Basin Junction Road. Starting at Gano Springs road in the desert, we turned southward on Basin Junction road. At a decent pace, we saw the gradual transition between arid desert and cooler mountain habitat as we traveled. By the time we passed Maple Canyon, majestic rough rocky peaks come into form. Before we knew it the sotol, lechuguilla, and yucca were gone — replaced with junipers, pines, oaks, and Texas madrones. After our passage through Panther Pass, the winding road rose to over two thousand feet above the desert floor. We then descended into breath-taking vistas of mountain summits and an incredible erosion-formed basin covered in vibrant greens.
Lost Mine Trail
Just as we sank into the basin, we passed the Lost Mine Trailhead and parking lot. The Lost Mine Trail is perhaps the most important hike to undertake if you only have a day to spend in Big Bend. If you go the distance, you’ll cover five miles and gain 1,000 feet. You can even take a paper interpretive guide with you and discover all sorts of plants, animals, and geological formations. Check the ranger schedule and join a guided hike up the trail, you’ll learn even more. Near the end, after the switchbacks stop, the trail continues up a relatively gentle slope through a clearing and to what appears to be the peak. If you look back towards the trailhead, you’ll see Casa Grande and Chisos Basin — a view totally worth the day hike.
Down into Chisos Basin
After Panther Pass and Lost Mine, the Junction Road weaves downward. Here we took a stop at the last bend to take in the amazing views of Chisos Basin. We could see a ridgeline that encircled the area: to the southeast, Casa Grande rose up into the sky like a castle. To the west, the ridgeline breaks and dips down into v-shape called The Window, before it turns southward toward Emory Peak.
Mountain Lodge & Visitor Center
We hopped back into the truck and continued our way into the heart of this natural splendor. Just past the camping ground turn off, the road ends in a parking lot and a set of buildings which house a lodge, the visitor center, and convenience store. To satisfy my curiosity, I took a quick dip into Chisos Mountains Lodge: for about $140 a night you can get modest accommodations with decorations set solidly in the 1980s era. We then made our way to the visitor center, we thought it important to learn about the area and wildlife. In a corner, we stared at a map indicating over 100 bear and 10 mountain lion sightings for the whole of the park — most of them concentrated in the Chisos Basin. When offered by a ranger, we immediately agreed to a lesson on how to avoid bears and cougars while on the trail before heading out to Window Trail.
Chisos also happens to be the central hub for many of the trails leading up and around the Chisos Mountains. Each range from easy short and accessible hikes, to multi-day backpacking routes.
Window View Trail
The shortest and easiest is Window View Trail at less than a mile round trip and provides excellent views of the mountain peaks surrounding the Chisos Basin, and a view through the window. We sat on one of the benches along the trail and enjoyed a classic Big Bend view.
This nearly 6-mile trail descends through Oak Creek Canyon to the Window pour-off which frames panoramic desert vistas. Luckily during early November, there wasn’t much water, but sometimes during wetter periods Oak Creek can flow with water, so be prepared for a bit of wet trekking. I should say that this trail can get tricky: the top of the Window pour-off is the slick rock with no railings, watch your step.
South Rim Trail, Up Laguna Meadows Trail, and Down Pinnacles Trail
If you got the time, I cannot recommend the South Rim Trail enough. This challenging trail is well worth the 2,000 foot gain, as midway are the stunning vistas from the South Rim. You can ascend by way of the steeper Pinnacles Trail, but I suggest the more gradual Laguna Meadows Trail for your up-route, then take Pinnacle down. This is a 13-mile round trip, so bring your gear, lots of water, extra food, and of course watch out for bears and cougars. The views along South Rim are stunning and you will not regret your hard work.
Farewell to Chisos Basin
As the sun made her way down into the V-shaped gap of The Window, we heaped ourselves into the truck and basked ourselves in the blessedly cool air conditioning. This time we headed back to Lajitas with the sun to our backs and arrived to our Airstream under a brilliant star spray of the Milkey Way.