Last week, I had the opportunity to return to Big Bend National Park with a hiking buddy, Ross. Ross is one of those people you can count on to get moving in a timely manner when the alarm goes off well before 5:00am - this time for a hike in the dark to reach a remote location for sunrise. And he’s not even a photographer. As he told me, “I’m just along for the ride, and we usually get somewhere at the best times of day." So, we headed away from our families and kids and homes in the hill country to explore the Big Bend.
My goal was a return to Emory Peak. I’ve hiked up to this highest point in the park a few times, and both trips saw me awaken well before sunrise in order to reach the summit – only 5.3 miles and 2,700+ vertical feet away – by first light. And both times, by the time I arrived, the fog was thick as soup. So while I’ve been up there, I haven’t actually seen anything. This time, if I could photograph the landscape from Emory Peak with a decent sunset on this trip, everything else would be icing.
We had a favorable weather window for our trip, and after a 7.5 hour drive, we checked into our spartan room at the Chisos Lodge. We had two sunsets and two sunrises to make the most of this quick adventure.
All that said, listed below are our four shooting expeditions. Each was good, but I’ll list them in order of enjoyment, saving the best for last.
Sunset at the Window Pouroff
I’ve photographed the low hanging fruit of the iconic Window many times, but I’ve never made the trek down 3 miles to the pouroff. The trailhead starts at the Chisos Lodge parking lot and winds its way through the descending valley, first through a series of switchback, then through a small canyon-like area with trees and shrubs, eventually dead-ending with a 600 foot drop into the foothills below. As we made our way down the easy trail, a few glimpses of Autumn colors added a vibrancy to the path.
Near the end of the three miles, a small stream appeared and trickled downhill. We crisscrossed the water several times, and I appreciated whomever had built the stone steps that made the ups and downs much more navigable. After a little less than an hour, we reached the rock worn smooth by a million years of erosion where the mountains and small canyon end and the Chihuahuan Desert appears far below in the distance.
After the last colors of the evening had faded, we made the walk back up the three miles. On the way up, we ran into what looked like an adolescent Mexican Black Bear. He was as scared of us as we were wary of a mother bear nearby. About twenty minutes later, with Ross in front, my friend stopped in his tracks, said, “$*&%, $*&%, $*&%.” As we both recoiled, and with me thinking he seen a hungry mountain lion, I caught a glimpse of a long black and white mammal with a huge raised tail. I told Ross if he got sprayed, he wasn’t riding back in my car! We gave Mr. Skunk plenty of room. I’m still amazed at the size of this nocturnal and pungent beast. We escaped this trap and made our way back to our room. As daylight savings time had kicked in just the day before, our 730pm arrival time back in the room in the complete dark made it feel more like 11:30pm. It still takes me a while to become accustomed to darkness coming on so early.
Lenses used on this night: 16-35L, 24-105L
Lone Mountain Trail
Lone Mountain Trail is the newest trail in Big Bend. The turnoff for the dirt road sits about a mile north from Panther Junction (well labeled), then it is about another mile or so to the trailhead. I don’t know how many times I’ve visited Big Bend, but I can say I’ve never noticed Lone Mountain. It is a nondescript bump to your right when driving south about a mile from the main park road (and Panther Junction). And now there is a three-mile trail that encircles the small hill. The trail is relatively flat and makes for easy walking. While shooting that last morning of our trip, we even saw a few joggers go by on the trail. The path did have nice views of the Chisos and made for an easy location to access combined with an early morning exit from the park.
While exploring a little off-trail, I did notice bluebonnet rosettes, and that gives me hope of a decent showing of these blooms in February and March.
After finishing here just after sunrise, we spent 20 minutes looking for Ross’s new fancy sunglasses he’d set on the ground while waiting for me. Fortunately, I was able to look through my photos, match up where I stood, figure out where he was sitting, and we located the glasses. A short walk back to the car later, we headed north to Fort Stockton, then east towards home.
On this last morning, though, the sunrise made Lone Mountain special. I just looked for something to use as foreground.
Lens used: 16-35L
Sunrise at Balanced Rock
Ross had not visited Big Bend prior to this trip. Since we had planned to hike Emory Peak on the second night, I figured a quick walk to this well-known landmark would be an easy and interesting place to visit. Always easy-going, Ross agreed and the alarm on my phone chirped about 4:50am. After a quick caffeine bar, we made our way to Grapevine Hills Road, bumping along fairly quickly in the dark. The 4WD road wasn’t as bad as I remembered, and we made the 6 miles in about 15 minutes. Still completely dark and rather cold (in the low 40s), we walked the quiet 1.25 miles to Balanced Rock beneath a quickly setting nearly-full moon. It should be noted that the last .2 miles are uphill, but nothing to worry about. We arrived as a faint orange glow began to appear in the eastern horizon.
The wind was absolutely still, and that allowed me to take long exposures even with the wiry ocotillo framing the photos with no movement whatsoever.
From then until just after sunrise, we watched the oranges, pinks and blues slowly evolve, change, and spread across the sky.
I’ve visited Balanced Rock several times, all for sunset. After this experience, I’d say Balanced Rock was incredible on this morning.
The orange morning glow that gave life to the scattered boulders as big as Volkswagens and the quiet solitude made this a memorable time. And while I was hopping all over and enjoying different perspectives, Ross had released his inner little kid and was rock climbing all over the place.
Lenses used: 11-24L, 16-35L
Sunset atop Emory Peak
At 7,825’, Emory Peak is the highest point in Big Bend. The hike up the Pinnacles Trail winds uphill about four miles, then the Emory Peak Trail punishes your feet for another mile over a rock-filled path. This wear and tear my soles I did not notice until the long walk back. Alas, the hike up was uneventful and fall colors showed off their reds and golds in a few places.
I work out every day at home, and I was pleased that I never got out of breath or had to stop and rest along the way. At least that sweat back home paid some dividends!
That said, I’ve worked hard over the years to overcome acrophobia. I’ve climbed 31 14,000’ peaks in Colorado. And still, if there is a class three climb (one where exposure exists above a precipitous drop), my hands sweat and anxiety kicks in. For a month, I worried about one section of this hike – the last 100+ feet. To reach the summit, we had to face some exposure. A few sections exist where if one of us slipped, death would likely be the result. Here is a photo of Ross just before the trail became a scramble.
We each had backpacks, and slowly, I faced my fear. Ross is taller, and with his reach, the climb was easier, I think. It helps that he can climb like a ring-tailed lemur. I followed his lead, and eventually we summited. As I looked down when gaining the final large rock face leading to the top, my thoughts immediately reversed – How am I going to get down?
Oh well. I’d worry about that in an hour.
I think that most folks don’t want to be out in these remote locations in the dark. Because of this, we had each of our four excursions all to ourselves. Emory peak was no different. While we passed folks on the trail on our way up, we did not see another person for the last 1.5 miles of the hike nor for the entire hike back.
The sunset was amazing, and I couldn’t really hope for anything better. It even rivaled a sunset I had enjoyed at the top of the Lost Mine Trail many years earlier. One view from Emory Peak faces southwest where Chisos seemed to rise from the landscape like small volcanoes from a forgotten time.
Looking back to the east, the full moon slowly rose into the pale and darkening sky, and later light from this moon would illuminate our path down the mountain.
Ross thoroughly enjoyed the light show put on by the sunset sky, and I tried as best I could to capture its fleeting beauty.
With the light receding, the time arrived to again face my anxiety. Surprisingly, the downhill climb on the Class 3 terrain wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. I down-climbed and butt-scooted the entire drop, but it worked. Shortly after, we swigged Gatorade and were on our 5-mile descent.
On this day we’d covered 14 miles with about 36,000 steps.
Lenses used on Emory Peak: 11-24L, 16-35L, 24-105L
Overall, we hiked 20+ miles in our 40 hours in the park.
It was a successful, productive, and very enjoyable trip, and I always enjoy my time in this remote, rugged, and challenging land. I look forward to returning in late February for what will hopefully be a colorful bloom of bluebonnets.
Safe travels, fellow explorers!
Images from Texas