Texas Traveler: The South Rim and Emory Peak
Saturday morning we wake up with a thin layer of frost on our tents. Texas Traveler's Christmas gift to herself was a mummy-style 10º sleeping bag from R.E.I. -- this first real sleeping bag she's owned since the NKOTB rectangle she used to lug to sleepovers. It's a good thing too -- the nights camping in Grapevine Hills, without the protective shield of the Chisos Mountains surrounding us, are very chilly. The condensation from our breath inside the tent plus the cold air outside results in a sheet of ice that comes off in one piece when we crawl out in the morning.
Texas Traveler has never camped in the desert before. And as she's pointed out already, Big Bend is way the hell in the middle of nowhere, and Grapevine Hills is one of the park's most secluded campsites. Our first night of camping is spectacular. After sunset, the Milky Way and more stars than sand on the beach are visible overhead. A few hours later the moon rises. It's almost full, and it's so big and bright I don't need to use my head lamp when I sneak out into the cactuses for a nature break.
But seeing the bear that afternoon has freaked me out. I put basically everything we brought into the campsite's bear box, and half expect our things to be ransacked in the morning.
There's no sleeping in when it's winter in the desert. We're awake and shivering before the sun comes up, which is a good thing because not only do we get to watch the sunrise over the Sierra del Carmen-Santiago Mountains but we also get an early start to the day. Our goal is to hike to the top of Emory Peak, the highest point in the park.
Texas Traveler's geologist friend laid everything out on the map the night before. "I think I have come up with a plan by which we can hike almost every trail in the park," he said. The planned route? Fourteen miles.
We start smack dab in the center of the park, the so-called Basin, where campsites are reserved months in advance due to spectacular views and the fact that the area is protected on all sides by the dramatic Chisos Mountains. The center of Big Bend National Park is a caldera, a gigantic collapsed volcano, which forms a huge bowl. Above us are the rims of the volcano, eroded on the north side. Our first destination is the South Rim, a somewhat strenuous 6-mile hike to the extreme southern cliff of the caldera. It's a popular trail for backpackers, who hike halfway up with all their gear, set up camp overnight, and finish the hike the next day.
Mexican Blue Jay
Before we start the hike we pose for a group picture, while we're still happy and fresh-faced. Who knows what we'll look like or feel like 14 miles later. I have on brand new hiking boots, worn only twice before, and I know this is a big no-no but I have never owned hiking boots before, so I had to buy a pair. I hope they'll be kind to me.
The trail to the South Rim starts in a high plain called the Laguna Meadows. Here I stop to partake in a homemade granola bar, and I immediately draw the attention of the LARGEST bluebird I have ever seen. You know those huge fat city pigeons? He was bigger than that. And so pretty. And adorable. Apparently this is not an unusual phenomenon. I resist the urge to feed him a bit of my breakfast, though I do add him to my mental tally of Big Bend wildlife sightings. Before the day is up I'll also add several deer to the count.
The deer are abundant