Monday, November 11, Sean and I had the morning to spend exploring the southwestern portion of Big Bend before we broke camp at Cottonwood and hiked into the Chisos in the afternoon. There were still many things to see in this part of the park, but it was time to pick just one or two.
We grabbed our day packs, water, and snacks and headed toward Burro Mesa.
Mule Ears Peaks
After our day of exploring three canyons, visiting hot springs, and lunching in Mexico, it was time to head back to our campsite at Cottonwood Campground. The sun was setting in earnest as we passed back around the great bulk of the Chisos Mountains at the center of the park. On the western slopes, the dramatic light of the setting sun caused us to pull over and take in the vista.
Perhaps the most striking elements of the western face of the Chisos range are the lines of igneous rock that cut like huge, ancient stone walls across the slopes. These are lines of magma that pushed up and cooled beneath the earth. The hard igneous rock that forms them was left standing when the softer sedimentary deposits eroded away. In the light of the setting sun, they were particularly striking.
After our visit to Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico and Boquillas Canyon, there were still two major sights we wanted to see in the eastern part of the park before returning to our campground: Ernst Tinaja and the Hot Springs. But first, we drove down to the Rio Grande Village visitor center. At the center, we paid our backcountry fee an reserved a primitive campsite in the Chisos Mountains for our backpack the next night. This season, the park has switched over to a computerized system for backcountry reservations, and ours was the first that the ranger at Rio Grande Village had processed.
Both to and from the short drive to Rio Grande village, we were afforded breathtaking views of the Sierra del Carmen across the river in Mexico.
Sierra del Carmen
From Tuff Canyon, we followed the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to its terminus at the main park road. We headed east, north of the great bulk of the Chisos Mountains. We passed the park headquarters at Panther Junction and continued southeast, windows open to the glorious fragrances of a cloudless morning.
Nugent Mountain (foreground) and the Chisos Mountains
From Santa Elena Canyon, we headed northeast on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive past Cottonwood Campground and Castolon to the pull off for Tuff Canyon. There are many washes in the desert of Big Bend National Park, but perhaps none so dramatic as Tuff Canyon. It was carved by Blue Creek, which originates in the Chisos Mountains. The rock that comprises the canyon is volcanic tuff, formed when a volcanic explosion blew tons of ash into the air, which eventually hardened as it was compressed by overlying layers of rock.
In the photo above, the darker rock on the canyon floor is trachyitic lava, and the light gray rock of the walls, which eroded away much more quickly, is the tuff.
The signage at Big Bend National Park is very impressive, utilitarian for the desert elements, but also created with striking design in mind. Well done, NPS!
Sunday morning, November 10, Sean and I climbed into the car and turned left out of Cottonwood Campground. We headed down the final, westernmost eight miles of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive toward Santa Elena Canyon. The road curved through scrub land on a bench above the river’s floodplain, which was green with plant life below. A roadrunner ran across the road and then flew to some nearby branches.
Cerro Castellan from Cottonwood Campground
Sean and I flew from Chicago to El Paso on Friday evening, November 8, after work and after having both taken our gear to work that morning. There’s something fun about wearing a full backpacking pack on the CTA during the morning commute. I had been a bit nervous that our backpacks would surpass the 50-pound limit, but without water, they didn’t. It was the first time we’d checked our big packs.