Big Bend National Park is quite possibly our all-time favorite national park. We’ve visited the park several times over the years and our last visit at the beginning of January 2022 re-ignited our love of this breathtaking area.
Many things have changed since our last visit in 2017. Over the past several years, the National Park Service has revised some of its policies regarding camping. It has become increasingly difficult to travel without reservations. (A mode of travel we prefer due to the flexibility it offers) We liked the fact that Big Bend NP used to offer first come/first serve options for camping – both in organized campgrounds and in dispersed camping. Unfortunately, one can no longer travel to Big Bend without reservations if you plan on camping. It used to be one could not reserve dispersed camping sites in advance. Now you have to reserve them up to 6 months in advance! We prefer the dispersed camping in Big Bend but when we arrived without reservations for this visit all of the sites that would accommodate us were taken. I was lucky to find a “cancellation” in Cottonwood Campground while searching online several days before our anticipated arrival. I grabbed this spot for several nights.
The park has also seen an increase in visitation over the past several years (like all national parks). What was once a hidden gem is no longer. 😦 For this reason, we opted to focus our adventures in the western, desert section of the park near our camping spot at Cottonwood Campground. It meant less traveling in the truck and more time on the trail with less people vying for trailhead parking spaces!
We arrived at Cottonwood Campground in the early afternoon and set up camp. Since our stay here in 2017, they have done some major maintenance in this campground – leveling up sites and taking down old, hazardous cottonwood trees. We were sad to learn of a disastrous fire that engulfed the area in May of 2019. Some of the historic buildings (including the one that housed the visitor center) in the Castelon Historic District were destroyed along with over 900 acres of surrounding land. We also learned that in May of 2021, the South Rim Fire engulfed nearly 1,300 acres of forest in the beautiful Chisos Basin area. Although sad to think about the destruction it caused, rangers noted the importance of fire to the ecology of the natural landscape and the assurance that the forest will bounce back and thrive.
Cottonwood Campground is a small out of the way spot and much quieter than the other two campgrounds in the park. The sites generally do not accommodate large RV’s and it is dry camping with no dump station nearby. There are pit toilets and a fresh water source for filling up gallon jugs. We always arrive with a full tank of fresh water and empty gray and black water tanks!
As we were setting up camp, one of the camp hosts insisted we come with her to see the “resident” Great-horned Owl that was perched in one of the cottonwood trees in the campground!
After we were settled in, we had time for the short drive down to Santa Elena Canyon. It was fairly busy and since we did not have water shoes with us to cross over and hike the short trail into the canyon, we just bushwhacked along the wash for a spell to stretch our travel-weary legs and headed back home to our site. We developed a plan to come back for the sunrise in the morning.
Last night I decided to get up in the pre-dawn hours and attempt some “star” photography. My camera lens is not really fast enough to get clear, crisp photographs of the night sky but I like to practice anyway! The sun was just starting to rise on the horizon when I went outside but the stars were still very bright.
I wanted to get over to the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook before sunrise, so we brewed a quick cup of coffee, grabbed some breakfast biscuits and headed out for the 8-mile drive to the overlook. We were the only ones there so I had my pick of spots to set up the tripod. It was amazing to watch the changing light on the canyon as the sun rose in the sky.
On our way back to the campground after sunrise, I wanted to stop at the Dorgan House trailhead to take some pictures. Before we reached the trail, we passed by some cattle crossing the road! What!! Cattle grazing in a national park?? I was shocked that this was happening. We found out later from the camp hosts that these are renegade cows who crossed the border illegally from Mexico! Every now and then, the Mexican ranchers come over and retrieve them while the park rangers look the other way! 🙂
At the ruins near the beginning of the Dorgan House Trail, I sought to capture the early morning light as it was settling over the desert. It is such a magical time of the day!
Our morning romp in the Santa Elena Canyon area proved to be the start of a very busy day! We fixed ourselves a more sustainable breakfast back at camp and headed out to hike the Mule Ears Trail. Here’s a link to a short description of this trail as well as many other popular Big Bend NP hikes. We have hiked this trail on previous visits but today I wanted to extend the hike by hooking up with the Smokey Creek Trail that intersects the Mule Ears Trail. It was an out and back 5+ mile hike.
In the parking lot at the Mule Ears Overlook, we met a gentleman who was gearing up to do a multiple night camping trip in the back country. He told us his nickname was “Fonzie”! (as in the Henry Winkler TV personality) He then added that his real name is Christopher Reeves. “Really!”, he said! He has been backpacking in Big Bend NP for over 25 years and gave us a ton of information on the process involved in securing a permit. He was a very entertaining conversationalist! He obviously is enamored with the park. I loved his comment about how he gauges whether someone is deserving of his friendship. He takes new acquaintances backcountry camping in Big Bend and, if they are not completely enthusiastic with the experience, he deems them unworthy of his friendship and time! Not a bad litmus test I suppose! 🙂
We mentioned that we were going to hike a portion of the Smokey Creek Trail so he said he would show us one of his favorite backcountry camping spots. It meant we had to hike all the way to the high point of the trail before it descends down into the valley below. We committed to hiking that far. He would probably pass us on the trail but would take a break and wait for us near the camping spot.
The Chihuahuan Desert is one of four major desert regions in the United States. Each desert region is unique with regard to both flora and fauna. The Chihuahuan Desert is considered to be one of the most diverse deserts in this area of the world. The park service has a great, succinct description of the special place. It’s no wonder I find this park so incredibly fascinating!
As we started our hike, I was enthusiastic about familiarizing myself with the southwest flora. On our hike, I paid special attention to the plant material we encountered along the way!
This sweet little cactus was growing all along the trail. The multi-color stems of this tiny cactus are what gives this cactus its name – Texas Rainbow Cactus.
The light was catching the cream-colored spines of this hedgehog cactus creating a glow I could not resist photographing! I believe this is a Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus. There are a few related species but this one is listed as common across the lower desert elevations. I’ve included two possible species for this plant but I believe it is the “stramineus.”
There are close to sixteen species of Opuntia (Prickly Pear cactus) in the Big Bend ecosystem. They can be hard to identify due to extensive natural hybridization. Prickly Pear are a common nesting site for both Cactus Wrens and Curve-billed Thrashers. The cactus wren nest is a football-shaped nest with entrances on both sides – easily distinguished from the thrasher nest which is more bowl-shaped.
Among the many other plant species I re-discovered are the creosote bush, lechuguilla, mesquite and ocotillo.
At about the time when I thought we should be approaching the furthest point of our hike, we found Fonzie waiting for us along the trail enjoying the scenery. He escorted us to his favorite backpacking campsite that was just up and over a small hill rendering it invisible from the trail. Can you imagine what it would be like viewing the sunrise or sunset from here??!! Or, star-gazing late at night? This destination for an overnight has been added to my bucket list! 🙂
After meeting up with Fonzie, he continued on into the valley to look for a camping spot and we reversed course and headed back to Mule Ear’s Overlook parking area. Along the way, we took the short detour to the Mule Ear’s Spring.
The Mule Ears Spring is a tiny oasis in the desert. These bright green maidenhair ferns were growing along the spring and rock walls surrounding the area.
As we were investigating the spring, we noticed these tiny green frogs all over the place! I think these may be Rio Grande Leopard Frogs – Rana berlandieri. They are listed as common in Big Bend from the Rio Grande River to the mountain foothill springs.
There was an interesting shrub growing near the spring with these orange seed pods. The species is Guaiacum angustifolium – Texas Lignum-vitae or Soapbush.
On the trail back to the parking area, the Christmas Cholla was showing off it’s red fruit and a “grove” of lechuguilla was growing among the volcanic rock.
After our hike, we headed back to the campground for dinner and got ready for our final activity of the day – taking star shots at a desert overlook near Santa Elena Canyon. Even though, as I mentioned before, my lens is not really fast enough for great night photography, I keep practicing with the settings and editing of night photographs. Someday I will take the plunge and spend the $$ for a faster, wide-angle lens.
Day 3 and Day 4 will be on the next post!! We are visiting our son in California right now and have access to high-speed internet so hopefully I can get caught up on our adventures while I’m here before starting the next leg of our journey!