Monday, April 13, 2015

Hiking Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park: Window and Lost Mine Trails

We were determined to get an earlier start so that we could hike a couple of more challenging trails, so we looked for a breakfast place that opened as early as possible.  While waiting for our table at the Starlight Theater the night before, we cast our eyes in the Posada Milagro, which had a simple café that opened for breakfast at 7:30, and it offered wi-fi (not available at our motel).  Although we were enjoying being so thoroughly offline, we felt guilty about making no checks of our email just in case there were any real emergencies.  We arrived at 7:45, hoping to have a quick breakfast before heading to the park to get out on the trails before they got crowded – what we had not counted on was that the café had only limited staff.  The tables were all located outside, some under a roof but some on a patio in front of the café in the open air.  The café was part of a small B&B operation whose rooms were made out of ghost-town ruins; it might well have been a nice place to stay. 

To order, there was a fairly short line up to the counter, but with seven or eight people ahead of us on line, it took a half hour to place our order, plus waiting time to have it cooked.  Breakfast was nice enough, but it was 9 AM before we were able to leave for the park. 

As we drove into park toward the trailheads for the two trails we had in mind for the morning, we noticed that the parking area for the Lost Mine Trail, which looked by far the most interesting, was completely full, so we continued up the road to the visitors center near the Chisos Mountain Lodge.  Hoping that parking would open up later for the Lost Mine Trail, we decided to do the Window Trail first.  This trail, which begins near the lodge, consists of a walk down the valley to a window in the rock where the two sides of the valley come together; we were able to cut out an extra mile of one-way walking by driving down to the campground where we were able to pick up the trail.

Finally, the sides of the valley closed in and, and the path climbed over stairs cut into the rock

and finally arrived at the Window.

It was, in theory, possible to stand at the very edge of the Window and look at the valley below, but the rock was slick and wet from the rain the previous night, and I wasn’t up for the risk – it is, we has read, a 220 foot drop to the valley below.

We turned around and headed back up the valley, about 500 feet in elevation gain over the two miles back to our parked car.

We drove back down the road and found that the main parking area for the Lost Mine Trail was still full of cars, and indeed there were three vehicles waiting for an opening.  Happily, there was a second parking areas with room for a few more vehicles, and just enough room for our compact car. As we pulled into the spot, a man who was getting ready to do the hike with his 10 year-old son told us that several other drivers had eyed the spot but decided that their pickup trucks or big SUV’s could not fit.  So I was glad that we had a regular car even if it could not do some of the more challenging drives that we had chosen not to try because they were fit only for four-wheel drive monsters with high clearances.  All told, main parking lot and satellite together, there was room for only twenty vehicles, which kept the traffic on the trail to a minimum.  These rock formations towered over our satellite parking lot

The trail climbed quickly up the side of a ridge angling away from the road; after about a mile, we stopped at this bench beside a drooping juniper to eat our picnic lunch. 

As we were eating lunch, a man who looked to be just a bit younger than we were walked by with two pre-teens.  He told us that he had been taking his grandchildren to one national park after another, that this was the 30th that they had visited together, and that this was the final park visit together.

Then the trail turned in toward a ridge

as we climbed toward the top, we had a splendid view of the valley below

Then the valley went up the side of a ridge, climbing on some long switchbacks until we finally topped out

and we could look back at the valley from which we had climbed

A short additional climb brought us to a rock outcropping where we paused for another photo showing the valley below and more mountains beyond.

The photo above was shot by the man who had passed us at lunchtime; he was still hanging out with his grandchildren as we arrived.

Here is one of the lost mines (at the right side of the first photo, about the middle vertically), and a wall of colorful mineral-laden rocks

And here is the view back into the valley where we would return, with the campground from which we had hiked to the Window that morning in the back

We were getting hungry by the time we reached our car, and we figured that it would likely be so late by the time we got back to Terlingua that it could easily be a two-hour wait for dinner at the Starlight Theater, so we decided to take our chances at the dining room for the Chisos Mountain Lodge.  There was barely any wait, and it turned out to be an excellent choice – it was the best food we had our entire time in or near Big Bend. It was a pleasant, open room, with a fine view of the valley below.

We lingered on the porch outside the dining room to enjoy dessert; back above us were Casa Grande, Emory Peak and Ward Mountain

and then hung around to see the sunset from the Window View walkway

Casa Grande and the surrounding cliffs were grand indeed as the sky reddened

The wisps of clouds turned red as well as the sun set over the valley beyond the Window

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