Big Bend National Park

Since moving to Texas, we’ve had the itch to see the Lone Star State’s crown jewel, Big Bend National Park…

As a longtime flatlander, being at the feet of mountains is something of a religious experience. You, a small bag of flesh and bones standing before thousands of feet of sand and rock and time.

The Chisos Mountains

The drive into the park was surreal. It’s mostly over flat desert, with distant mountains populating the horizon.

Crossing into the Chisos Moutain Basin surprised us; you went from dead sands to a beautifully wooded oasis with colorful, lichen-coated mountains.

Once inside the park, we came upon the Fossil Discovery Site, a sustainably built structure showcasing the ancient flora and fauna of the once-coastal ecosystem.

As a dinosaur fanatic, this was the best of omens for our trip.

Cretaceous Big Bend mural | Julius Csotonyi and Alexandra Lefort

The Big Bend of the Cretaceous period was home to some of the most incredible animals to ever grace this Earth. From the mighty Tyrannosaurus to the queen of the skies, Quetzalcoatlus with her wingspan of up to 33 feet.

Above you’ll see an odd image where this dark scope covers the view of the flats. This contraption is actually highlighting something quite amazing. Inside of that small circle is the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary (once called the K.T. boundary).

It marks the precise time in geological history when the Earth was struck by an asteroid just over seven miles in diameter, triggering a sudden extinction event that ended the reign of the dinosaurs and killed 75% of all species on Earth.

Outside, there is a path you may take to a small hill’s crest overlooking the once lush and vibrant flats. From here, 66,000,000 years ago, you might not have seen the asteroid coming down to Earth, but you would’ve immediately seen the fireball.

Blinded by the light, it would’ve grown so hot that your clothes would have ignited before even 30 seconds had passed.

Through the Glass

Inside the basin is the modest Chisos Mountain Lodge, with a restaurant and camp store as well. We spent out first night in the lodge, as we made Big Bend close to sundown and the NPS recommends against hiking at night.

While we waited for a table to open up, I snapped some pictures of ‘The Window’, a gorgeous pass between two mountains allowing you to peer out over the vast and arid West Texas lands.

Once the sun went down and we settled into our room, I dug out my tripod and took to the parking lot to get a view of the night sky.

We chose the first week of March as it would be a new moon, and Big Bend is legendary for its dark skies, free of light pollution.

Orion’s Belt

I don’t have much experience with astrophotography, and I came equipped only with a few lenses and a lightweight tripod.

Nevertheless, even exposures of five seconds revealed a sky absolutely teeming with stars and planets and the dust of our own galaxy.

Chisos Trails

We woke up early and began to plan our trek to our backcountry site.

Boulder Meadows #3

We weren’t sure how long it would take, and once again we had packed our bags a little too full. The bags with the additional weight of several gallons of water became excessive, so we decided to take the hike in two trips.

The first hike crawled by, though it only took one hour and eighteen minutes.

The whole way up, Casa Grande, Toll Mountain, and Emory Peak continue to grow and surround you.

Thankfully, agreeable weather and taking frequent breaks made the hike enjoyable.

Emory Peak Backdrop

Finally, an hour and change later we came upon Boulder Meadows #3.

We unpacked the essentials. Tent, sleeping bags, cooking stove. We’d left the non-essentials like the camera, books, and some of the snacks back in the car for the second sojourn.

The desert weather meant the days were warm, around 75F° but dipping close to 40F° at night. Being a human furnace, I welcomed the cold. For my partner; quite chilly. Always check the weather and be prepared for primitive camping.

I used to own a Jetboil camp stove. But, it broke I broke it. For this trip, I opted for the cheaper Wild-Wild stove on Amazon for half the price of a Jetboil, and boy howdy: good call.

The Window by Day

On this trip, we were determined to summit Emory Peak. It’s not Killamanjaro but I’d never summited a mountain of any size. Today would mark the dipping of the toes.

Four hours up, fours down. Winding switchbacks carry you from the floor of the basin all the way up Toll Mountain’s incredibly steep walls.

The entire trek, you walk with rock faces more than one hundred feet high to one side, and treacherous slops to the other. One wrong step could put you in a bad way, far from help.

Over the Top

We thought it was step on the first 75% of the trail. The final stretch was a challenge. The path soon vanishes, and you begin a long clamber up loose rocks and boulders ever closer to the peak.

Finally, you reach this. That solar panel marks Emory Peak’s highest point.

But to get there, you must free-climb approximately 30 feet higher with no rope and no path.

It wasn’t so bad, just don’t look to your left or you’ll the hundred-plus foot drop between Emory Peak’s two highest bits.

Four hours after leaving camp, we felt genuinely accomplished making it to the top. There were some other hikers we spoke to as well while we took in the majesty of the basin. Behind you in the distance, you could see Mexico, though the Rio Grande was hidden from view.

Ernst Tinaja

On the last leg of our trip, we drove closer to the border to explore the exposed ancient rocks inside a small canyon bearing a rock pool, the Ernst Tinaja.

“The Cretaceous Buda limestone was formed at a time when dinosaurs were walking the Earth and this part of Texas was likely a carbonate shelf.  Above the Buda lies the more thinly bedded Boquillas Formation.  You can see the wavy bedding of limestones, shales, and less common volcanic ash beds. The Boquillas Formation contains abundant marine fossils including the extinct bivalve fossil seen below in Figure 2.  Also present with the fossil is liesegange banding, where iron-rich fluids (possibly from local volcanic rocks) have caused secondary alteration of the rock.”


The canyon is littered with the fossilized remains of ancient ocean creatures, some as big as a human hand. We’d heard you can sometimes find ammonite fossils as well, but we didn’t encounter any. We did find several small caves tucked into various parts of the canyon.

It was surreal to see the wrinkles and folds in the Earth. To imagine the power it must take to shape rocks like that is unimaginable. It felt like you were walking on Tatooine.

Ernst Tinaja was a bittersweet ending to our trip. From there, we began the long drive home. More than six hours on the road. We were happy to sleep in our beds and see our pets again.

That said, Big Bend National Park has convinced me that it must be one of the most beautiful places on this planet. It bears not the tallest mountains nor the lushest forests.

Nevertheless, staring up at the star-powdered sky, with its pitch-black giants silently surrounding you and only the sound of the wind in the trees to accompany you, Big Bend will leave even the most stoic among us with an unshakeable understanding of how small our place in the universe is.

Where will we end up next?