Big Bend: The Desert

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Sunrise from Nugent Mountain #1

Ocotillo  

The ocotillo

Standing tall in the desert

Greets the rising sun.

We were introduced to the idea of dispersed camping within Big Bend NP on our prior visit to the park.  At that point, we were taking what would be our final trip in our old Coleman pop-up trailer.  Very nostalgic trip!  We had many fond memories and enjoyable trips in that trailer with our sons over the years!

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Camped in Chisos Mountain Campground in March 2014 – the final nostalgic trip with our precious Coleman pop-up!

We stayed for two weeks with the pop-up in the Chisos Mountain campground and loved our spot there, so we opted not to move and try any of the dispersed campsites at that time.  We did scope out some of the sites on our travels to various hiking trails however.

 

DISPERSED CAMPING

Our major goal on this trip was to take advantage of the remote, dispersed camping in the park.  The way it works is simple.  You can request a backcountry permit 24 hours in advance of the day you wish to enter the backcountry.  These permits are available at any of the visitor centers in the park, and you must be there in person to request a permit.  And, there must be a site open that can accommodate your rig if you are traveling in an RV and wish to take advantage of this type of remote camping.  The cost is $12.00 for 14 days.  A bargain any way you look at it.

A cautionary tale is in order here.  We initially requested this permit at the Castolon Visitor Center, and a volunteer employee issued our permit.  Before we moved to the first site he gave us, we drove the truck in to see what the conditions were like on the access road and at the site.  We quickly realized there was no possible way we could have brought our trailer back here to this site.  We stopped in at Panther Junction Visitor Center and showed our back-country permit to the ranger there, and she immediately said that we were actually not allowed on that site with a trailer.  It was designated as a one-vehicle site only.  Since the back-country sites were filling up each night, we were a tad concerned we would have to stay at Cottonwood longer than anticipated.  But, luckily, she found us a spot and, with some slight alternations in our back-country itinerary, we were able to stick to our plans.  She indicated to us that she was going to talk to the volunteer at Castolon and make sure he was understanding the system.  In all fairness to him, we did mention to her that he was unsure about that site, and had called someone with more knowledge on what the limitations were for vehicles.  He had gotten the thumbs up from whoever he talked to that the site would accommodate us.  Not entirely his fault!  I, therefore, suggest that if you are unfamiliar with the area you will be camping – always check out your assigned site without your trailer!  We’re glad we did.

Our itinerary went something like this:  Hannold Draw for one night, Nugent Mountain #1 for two nights, and Grapevine Hills #1 for the remaining 9 nights (also known as the Government Springs campsite).

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Hannold Draw campsite – we backed the trailer up to a hill and in near the corral

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Corral area for horses

Hannold Draw Dispersed Camping

Our first night in dispersed camping was at a campsite called Hannold Draw.  The access to this site is right off the main road into Big Bend from the north about 4 miles before the road ends at Panther Junction.  There is a notation for this site on the park map, but there is no sign indicating the turn-off for this campsite on the road.  We used google maps to locate the approximate location of the site, and turned on the road that seemed right according to the map.  It led to a park maintenance area, and at first we thought we had taken the wrong turn.  Further investigation on foot revealed the campsite location.  You continue past the maintenance area, down a small dirt road to the site.  I was not thrilled with being near the maintenance area, but you cannot see it from the campsite.  And it is clearly not an area used on a daily basis.  We did not see a single person back there during the time we were camped here.

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Settled in at Hannold Draw

This site is the only campsite in the park designed for those trailering horses.  There is a corral and PLENTY of room to maneuver you rig.

Any size rig would be able to fit in this site, and reach it from the road, making it a viable choice for long fifth-wheelers and large Class A’s.

 

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View of Hannold Draw site with hill behind – a somewhat protected site from winds, which was nice as it did get windy while we were there.

It suited us for one night, and was an easy, level site.  I don’t think we had to block any of the wheels!  Not sure I’d stay here for more than a day, though.  Since we were moving to the Nugent Mountain #1 campsite the next day, we decided to scope that site out by heading to the Pine Canyon Trail to hike while we were camped at Hannold Draw.  We would have to drive right by Nugent Mountain to get to the trailhead.

Pine Canyon Trail

We hiked the Pine Canyon Trail three years ago, and since it was one our favorite hikes we decided to walk it again this time around – as a good, relatively moderate trail to get our hiking legs back after being at Padre Island for two weeks.  The trail is accessed via the Glenn Springs Road, a few miles south of Panther Junction.  You travel 2.3 miles on Glenn Springs Rd. and turn right onto Pine Canyon Rd.   It’s another 4.1 miles from this junction to the trailhead.  There is a very small parking lot here. The  road is a decent dirt road, but it does get narrower and rougher a couple of miles onto Pine Canyon Rd.  Most vehicles should make it with good clearance – Subaru worthy for sure.

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Pine Canyon hike gradually climbs and winds through a sotol-laden high desert

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And then starts to enter the canyon bringing a gradual change to the plant life –  pines, oaks and maples – a real forested environment!

The trail is a very gradual ascent through the desert.  As you climb, the habitat shifts to a higher elevation forested environment rich with pines, oaks, and maples.  Eventually, be prepared for a short, but very steep climb to the end of the trail at the face of the canyon cliffs.  The waterfall was just trickling when we were there in January.  During the rainy season, it does actually flow much more noticeably (or so I’m told).

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Leaving the desert and transitioning into the forested section of the trail

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Evergreen Sumac – Rhus virens

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Pine Canyon waterfall – at trail’s end

We were hiking the trail towards the end of the afternoon, so the hike out offered some great opportunity for photographs due to the late afternoon light.

Nugent Mountain #1 Dispersed Camping

The next day we moved on over to the Nugent Mountain campsite.  We were really psyched to be at this site.  It was a great location, and very scenic.  This site is 1 mile back on Glenn Spring Rd.  and offers a commanding view of Nugent Mountain.  There are no other campsites nearby so you really feel as though you are out in the desert all alone!

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Tucked into Nugent Mountain #1

We had some amazing sunrises and sunsets while we camped here.  And it was so quiet at night.  Two things that are incredibly unique about Big Bend National Park.  It is Quiet!  The park is so far removed from any urban areas that there is virtually no noise – air traffic or automobile.  In addition, there is no light pollution from urban centers to interfere with the night sky.  Star-gazing is a spectacular evening event.  The following photos were all taken right at the site – either at sunrise or sunset.

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Sunrise on Nugent Mountain

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Second sunrise – love the reflections of light on the Airstream!

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Sunset was often more subtle – with monochromatic shades silhouetting the mountains

We spent two days at this site, and managed to fit in two separate hikes.  Our  first day, we opted to just bushwhack up a wash that was adjacent to our site.  This was so much fun just following the wash.  We saw quite a few animal tracks along the way.  Coming back we almost overshot our campsite!  The wash was down in a small canyon, and we could not see the campsite from there.  Luckily, our navigational skills are such that we knew we needed to start heading up out of the wash and we found that we were just about past the campsite!

Juniper Canyon Trail

I thought it would be fun while we were camped here to travel some of the dirt roads further into the desert and we decided to make our destination the end of Juniper Canyon Rd where there is a hiking trail.  The trailhead sits at the end of this road and is a loooooooong drive on some not so nice dirt roads.  Juniper Canyon Road is definitely one of the more remote roads in the park, and one of the least improved.  From our Nugent Mountain #1 site, you continue on Glenn Spring Rd towards Juniper Canyon Rd.  It was 10 miles on a 4-wheel drive only dirt road from our campsite to the trailhead.  Very slow going!

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Juniper Canyon Rd – it was like this for miles!

You literally cannot travel more than 5 – 10 miles per hour on this road, so allow plenty of time.  We really started to wonder if the wear and tear on the truck was worth the effort.  But, once we started hiking on the Juniper Canyon Trail, we knew that it was.  We saw only one other person the entire day we were hiking – a backpacker who had come down onto the trail from the Chisos Mountains.  The trail winds through the normal desert environment, but punctuated with more grasses than other places we’ve hiked within the park.  The rock formations visible from the trail were unique and the views of the Chisos were outstanding.  This trail is part of a network of trails mostly used by backpackers and is considered part of the popular Outer Loop backpacking trip.

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Road sign at junction of Juniper Canyon and Glenn Spring Rd.

We did an out and back hike along this trail.  It would be fun to follow this trail all the way up to where it enters Boot Canyon, but we did not have time for this extended hike.  It was still a beautiful hike and worth the effort to reach.

A few days later, when we were in the Chisos and had hiked up to the top of Lost Mine Trail, I realized that we were looking down on the valley where the Juniper Canyon Trail is and I could make out parts of the trail where we had hiked!

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Walking among the grasses

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I just love grasses!  These golden hues really lit up the landscape.

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Love how the textures of the foreground give way to the subtly changing shades of the distant mountains

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One of many back-country campsites we found along this trail

Lovely trail if you can stand the teeth-jarring, back-breaking 10-mile ride in to the trailhead!

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Nugent Mountain – final sunset before leaving the next morning!

One additional comment about the Nugent Mountain campsite.  While it has a good amount of room – a large circular area – for turning around, our truck and 25′ trailer does not have a particularly good turning radius.  We literally had to do what I affectionately call a “30-point turn” in order to get turned around and out of the site!  Just keep that in mind if you have a rig the size of ours or larger 🙂  Oh – and sorry, one more thing – there is NO cell service in this area of the park.  Be prepared to be off-line and out of touch.

Grapevine Hill #1 Dispersed Camping (Government Springs)

Our final resting spot for the remainder of our stay in Big Bend was the Grapevine Hills #1 campsite.  While the scenery at Nugent Mountain far surpassed this site, it was still really nice and had several other positive attributes.  There is outstanding cell phone service here.  It is located in the small section of the park where you can actually pick up a signal.  I have AT&T and it worked beautifully here.  The other bonus to this site is location.  It is just 1/4 mile off the main road, is located just past the road to the Chisos Mountains, and only a short drive from Panther Junction.  I really loved this central location.  From here, we could launch a day trip to the Chisos or ride over to the western desert trails easily.

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View from Grapevine Hills #1 looking over the expansive desert!

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We experienced some ridiculous weather while camped here – the clouds put on quite a display at times

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More cloud action!  This site is very spacious and most RV’s will fit in here.

Our first full day at this site was probably our worst day in the park.  A high wind advisory was forecast with winds to gust near 60 mph.  We were a little worried about this, and it was a nerve-wracking day that we spent huddled in the trailer enduring the winds and watching the dust cloud descend and engulf the desert and us.

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The side of the trailer getting the brunt of the wind was coated with a fine dust the next morning!

Chimney’s Trail

One of the hikes on my bucket list was the Chimneys Trail.  Located in the western area of park, this trail traverses the desert and culminates at a volcanic rock formation called The Chimneys.  This is an archaeologically significant site where Native Americans were known to inhabit.  There are petroglyphs here, as well as obvious evidence that it was a well-used gathering space for prehistoric peoples.  The trail to the Chimneys and back is about 5 miles if you include walking around the volcanic pinnacles and discovering the ancient remains of human habitation.

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We met a young gentleman on this trail who was a recent archaeology graduate .  He really had an eye for finding arrowheads near the Chimneys pinnacles.  Of course, all artifacts found are to be left on site!  Enjoy them and leave them!  We also found many, many old mortar and pestle sites in and around the rock formation.

I had a blast exploring the rock formations and walking all around the pinnacles.  The petroglyphs (and a pictograph) were awesome.  It’s been amazing to find these curious ancient drawings in so many places throughout the west and southwest.

We saw some interesting plant life along the trail that I think I’ve identified correctly. Learning desert plants has been a challenge for this Northeastern gal, but I’m getting better!

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Tasajillo – Opuntia leptocaulis

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Texas Rainbow Cactus – Echinocereus dasyacanthus – I think!

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Guayacan – Guaiacum angustifolium

Absolutely loved this trail!  I would highly recommend getting on the trail early in the morning.  It is in the desert and there is very little shade.

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Chimneys Trail view

Yikes!  This desert post is turning into a novel!  I’m going to end there for now and continue with the rest of our desert adventures here in Big Bend on the next writing.  Until next time…..

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2 thoughts on “Big Bend: The Desert

  1. Looks like you had a great time there, I visited the park in 2015 but I was quite inexperienced and didn’t take enough water to the Marufo Vega Trail. I would like to visit again, especially the pine trail. I’ve done the Vinegrape and the Marufo Vega Trail so far.

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