MilesOfTexas News

Scouting Trip To Big Bend National Park


Friday, December 25, 2009


After driving in from Austin, Texas, I finally reached the entrance to Big Bend NP and I was very excited.  The initial entry station is closed and it said to go to various different locations if it is closed.  I got out my map and one of the locations to go to is 'Panther Junction', which is the park headquarters, so I headed that way.


The road to Panther Junction from the park entrance was long and flat, but I was surrounded by gorgeous mountains in all directions.  The speed limit in the park is only 45 MPH, and from the park entrance to Panther Junction was over 25 miles.


I finally reached Panther Junction at 9:30am, so the trip only took seven hours, which was hard to believe.  I went into the headquarters building to see about getting a campsite and talked to a very friendly park ranger, and he informed me that I pick out the campsite and pay for it at the campsite itself.


Because the entry station was closed, I paid for my vehicle fee there, which is $20 for seven days.  Instead of that, I went ahead and purchased a yearly pass for all national parks, which is $80.  After everything I had seen just on the drive in, I knew I would be back many times.  They do sell a yearly pass for just Big Bend NP, but I figured I might as well get the pass for all of the national parks, monuments, etc...


The park ranger then pointed out some camp sites that had vacancies.  I decided on pitching camp at the Chisos Mountains Basin, because it was central to the park.  The 'basin', as it is referred to at Big Bend, is 9 miles from Panther Junction (PJ).  Six miles from Panther Junction, at the intersection to turn left to go to the basin, I found cell phone reception, so if I needed to call anyone, that is where I would do so.


I then went to the basin, picked out a campsite, paid the fees for three nights at fourteen dollars per night, and set up the tent.


Prior to heading to Big Bend, I chatted with some regular 'Benders' via an online forum called 'Big Bend Chat'. (  They had recommended some places to visit.  My list was as follows:


Sotol Vista
Rio Grande Village Nature Trail (Chisos w/Rio Grande FG & Sierra Del Carmen mountains)
Window Trail in the basin


Pull-outs between Panther Junction and K-Bar
Santa Elena Canyon


Daytime stuff:
Lost Mine Trail at minimum to saddle overlooking Juniper Canyon
Maxwell Scenic Drive to Castalon and Santa Elena Canyon (look for Casa Grande & the Window)
Grapevine Hills


So, for today, I decided upon shooting the sunset at the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail.  Because it was only just after noon, and I had a few hours to spare, I decided to explore where I would shoot tomorrow's sunrise.  The pull-outs between Panther Junction and K-Bar were along the way to Rio Grande Village, so that is what I decided to scout first.


Thankfully I had printed out a document that listed the sunset/sunrise times and compass bearings from before I left, so I spent a couple of hours trying to decide where to shoot at.  I also took some daytime 'reference' photos to look back at when planning my next trip.  By reference photos, I am implying that I wasn't being careful with composition, so they aren't anything that will wind up on my website.


The problem I had with Big Bend is that EVERYTHING looks awesome!  Just when I thought I found 'the place', I would drive another mile and say, no this is the place, and on and on it went.


I finally decided on shooting the sunrise just south of mile marker 14, halfway between the mile marker and the curved road warning sign that I kindly refer to as a 'squiggly'.


It was getting close to 3pm now, and I wanted to allow time to get to the sunset location, so I headed down to Rio Grande Village and stopped in the store to get information about the Nature Trail.  I'm sure glad I did because it turns out that part of it was washed out due to a storm, and they were able to show me how to hike around that section.


I headed up the nature trail, which took me to the top of a 'hill' that put me way up overlooking the Rio Grande.  The Rio Grande took a hook around that hill so that it came from the Northwest on my right, then South in front of me, hooked round the hill back to the North, then on to the Northeast.  The river actually flows the opposite direction, but that was my perspective from the direction I was facing.


This gave me a great shot at the Chisos Mountains across the Rio Grande, with the Sierra del Carmen Mountains in Mexico behind me.  It was breathtaking in all directions!


I got to the hill top pretty early and had quite a wait for the sunset to come along.  There was almost no wind and no clouds except for some very high cirrus, and despite it being only in the 50's, it felt a lot warmer than that!


When the sunset came along, it didn't look like it was going to be much from the side the sun was setting in, so I took some shots of the Sierra del Carmen Mountains.  I waited until I was pretty certain that the sunset had finished, because the few clouds that showed up just before sunset had turned black, and then packed up my camera.  No sooner than I did that did the sky over the Chisos light up an awesome red!  I got my camera out of my pack in a rush, but the fiery red only lasted moments, and I missed it.  This was my fault, because I didn't give it time for what I call the 'secondary sunset'.  I knew better and I paid the price.  I chalk it up to being extremely tired.


I then donned my headlamp and hiked back to my car and proceeded to drive the hour back to my campsite.  As soon as the sun went down, it got bitterly cold.  I ate a can of cold ravioli for dinner in the car, and then headed into the tent.  While earlier I had pitched the tent, I was in a hurry so I had only tossed my stuff into the tent, but hadn't organized it.  Now in the bitter cold, I wish I had set it all up.  I froze my tail off as I changed into warmer clothing and got everything organized.  I had two sleeping bags, one a 50 degree bag and the other a 20 degree bag.  I put the 50 degree one inside of the 20 degree one and once I got inside, it was toasty warm.  The only problem I had was that the lining on the inside of the 50 degree bag wasn't slick (was a cotton type texture), so it kept sticking to my clothing every time I tried to move.  This made moving a real pain in the butt, and annoying, but to stay warm I just lived with the inconvenience.  I set my alarm for 5:30am to give me enough time to get to the sunrise location.




Saturday, December 26, 2009


I woke at 5:30am and immediately got going to get out to the sunrise location.  I got my stuff together that I needed from the tent for the day, such as my coat, sweatshirt and some other odds and ends, and put them on the picnic table as I was getting them together.  Then with arms loaded up, I stepped of the concrete pad onto the ground, and stepped directly onto a ^ shaped rock, which rolled my left ankle hard and sent my flying.  I came down on the rock with all my weight, and it hurt so bad I became nauseous.  I just told myself to get up and start walking right away.  I cannot begin to tell you how bad that felt!


I decided that I wasn't going to let my ankle injury ruin my trip just after getting there, so I proceeded to get my stuffed picked up off the ground, get in my car, and make the drive out to the sunrise location.


I arrived with a lot of time to spare, so I got my tripod out, got the camera mounted and setup using a GND filter (Graduated Nuetral Density) and remote shutter release, then sat in my warm car until I could see the morning light making its appearance.


I had planned the sunrise, like sunsets, in two segments.  Segment one is towards the rising sun and segment two is what the sun illuminates at first light.  The first segment depends on cloud and sky conditions.  If there are clouds or dust in the air, the light of the sun before it crests the horizon can make the sky and clouds look awesome.  If neither clouds nor dust are present, then the sky will just turn a very deep illuminated blue, which can be great depending on the silhouette of the horizon.  The second segment depends on how the subject reacts to the red light waves from the early morning sun.  In this case the subject is desert mountains.


For segment one, I was able to determine early on that the sky was going to be very uninteresting, and I had picked a location that made for a boring silhouette.  There were no clouds in the sky and no dust to affect the color, so I knew that I would be focusing on segment two.


Just before the sun peaked over the mountains, I set up my camera to shoot the mountains as the sunlight first hit it.  It was extremely cold, in the lower teens, and I found it very hard to make changes to my camera with my gloves on, so I found myself taking them off and putting them on very frequently.  I did manage to get some shots that turned out ok, but they would have been a lot better with some dust in the air.


Because I planned to shoot the sunset at Sotol Vista, which is on the southwest side of bibe, and also planned to shoot the sunrise for the next morning at Santa Elena Canyon, which is on the far southwest tip of bibe, my plan for the rest of the day was to do things on the west side of the park.


So, I decided I would drive down Maxwell Scenic Drive to Castalon and Santa Elena Canyon, and stop at Sotol Vista Lookout along the way.  While driving, I initially missed the turn to the left at Castolon/Santa Elena Junction to head down Maxwell Scenic Drive.  I saw that Study Butte/Terlingua just outside of the southwest entrance to the park wasn't far away, so I decided to check it out.  There wasn't much at all there to check out, ha-ha.  But, I was able to find a hard to get cup of coffee and a heated restroom to have a seat in at the general store!


With coffee in hand, I headed back into the park and had no problems the second time in finding the turnoff to Maxwell Scenic Drive.  Let me tell you folks, this was a scenic drive unlike anything I have ever seen.  I have never been in and out of my car so much in my life.  I wouldn't drive more than a few hundred yards before stopping again to shoot another photograph, and that section of the park alone is 22 miles!


I then stopped at Castalon and bought me a sandwich, chips, small carrot cake square, and a Dr. Pepper (almost $8 !!!) and enjoyed eating it on a picnic table while befriending a guy named Mike from Ontario, Canada.  Mike seemed like a really nice guy and his story reminds me of a country song because he said he just got fed up and decided to take a drive and see where it took him.  He had a pretty nice travel rig, so I doubt he is 'on the lam', ha-ha.


After finishing my lunch, I headed over to Santa Elena Canyon, which is eight miles west of Castalon.  The Sierra del Carmen Mountains are huge, towering and sheer vertical mountains, and an awesome site to see.  At Santa Elena Canyon, the Rio Grande river cuts through the mountains and the Park created a trail that takes you up the side of the mountain and into the canyon itself.  It is almost like an oasis in the canyon, and has very neat formations and vegetation.  I spend around three hours exploring the canyon and had time not been a factor to get back to Sotol Vista for the sunset, I would have stayed longer.


On my way back to Sotol Vista Overlook, I stopped at a place not listed on the map called Desert Mountain Overlook.  It had a fantastic view of the mountains and is a great place to shoot the setting sun with the sun to your back.  I definitely will shoot a sunset from there in the future.  As a reference, the overlook is at mile marker number one heading towards Santa Elena Canyon from Castalon.


At Sotol Vista Overlook, because the sky was clear of any clouds at all, I was really wishing I had gone with my gut instinct and shot the sunset from the Desert Mountain Overlook, however because the winds had picked up pretty strong through the day, there was enough dust in the air to make for a beautiful sunset about twenty minutes after the sun had gone down over the horizon.  The problem I ran into though, was that I needed a stronger GND filter than the one I had so I could expose correctly for the sunset, and still have some of the mountain features visible.  The horizon silhouette wasn't exciting for a silhouette type of shot.  I haven't found a stronger GND filter than what I currently have, which is a GND-8, so perhaps I need to use two instead of one.  That or take several varied exposures and create an HDR image.  In this case, because it is just a scouting trip, I opted to try using my NDX-400 eight stop ND filter to see what I could get from a super long exposure.  Here again, I messed up because I left my light meter at home by accident, so I wasn't able to calculate the exposure time correctly and was guessing, and because it was getting darker by the moment, the amount of exposure time changed rapidly from three minutes to over seven minutes, and I never got it right in the limited time I had to work with.  But that's ok; I wasn't planning on perfect photos this trip out.


After the sunset, I took the long trip back to the campsite.  I am happy I was taking it easy because some feral hogs ran out in the road in front of me and I was able to stop in time.  There were a bunch of them in single file, so there wouldn't have been a way to swerve to avoid them.


I arrived back at the campsite and had a cold can of ravioli for dinner again.  Because the fire danger is high, wood fires are not allowed in the park right now.  Next time I am bringing a camp stove, which is allowed as long as it is used with caution.


This time I prepared for the next morning by putting everything I needed, including my coat, in the car ahead of time.  Travelling the park is slow, and where I planned to shoot the sunrise the next morning was over thirty miles away, so I needed to allow myself an hour and half to get there.  I set my alarm for 5:00am and got crawled into my sleeping bags.


Around 3am I couldn't take the sleeping bag sticking to me anymore.  I got up and went to the restroom, and as I was about to get back into the tent I heard a loud growl that sounded very close to me.  I literally dove back into my tent, and moments later realized that the growl was actually someone's snore in the campsite next to mine.  I have never heard anyone snore that sounded like a growl, and that loud!  I then pulled the inner sleeping bag out, unzipped it completely and used it as a blanket over the other sleeping bag, and slept really great finally.




Sunday, December 27, 2009


My alarm woke me at 5am as planned.  My ankle was really stiff and sore, but I got up and moving anyway.  I headed down for the sunrise location and decided to do the sunrise in two locations, with segment one (as explained above regarding how I define sunrise segments) at Desert Mountain Overlook and segment two at Santa Elena Canyon.  This meant that I would need to not waste any time transitioning between the segments. Thankfully they are only seven miles apart, and no traffic or traffic lights to slow me down.


There were some clouds in the sky and it appeared there was some dust in the sky from the previous day's winds, so segment one was quite beautiful, and I had some great shapes for silhouettes!


Realizing I better hurry, I took off for Santa Elena Canyon.  I got down there and realized I was too close to the canyon walls for what I needed, so I took off back towards Castalon and found a road heading down to the river.  I shot the second segment from down there.  They were ok shots, but I planned it wrong.  Next time I will plan to shoot it further east of the canyon.  But again, this is ok because it was just a scouting trip, and I am still very much learning how to pick and choose locations for shooting things for the very first time.


The rest of the day I had originally planned on hiking the Lost Mine Trail and Grapevine Hills, and finishing with a sunset at the Window Trail basin.  The problem with this was my ankle.  It was way too tender and way too limited on range of motion for hitting any trails.  I also badly needed some rest.  I felt that if I was staying another two or three days that I could have just gone back to the campsite and just relaxed for the rest of the day and then hit those trails over the next day or two, but I was only staying one more night.  So, I decided to instead call it a trip and head back home.


Because I had been getting back to the basin when it was dark, and leaving when it was dark, I hadn't really had a chance to take any photos of it, so I stopped and took a few.  Some dense high clouds had moved in which caused the sky to have blowouts when exposing for the shaded mountains in the basin, so they weren't what I had hoped to get before I left.  I'm sure later in the day would have been a lot better.


After packing up camp, I headed out of the park, stopping a few times to take a few photos from the Fossil Bone Exhibit and from the flats with Santiago Peak in the background.


I learned a lot from this trip, and the only thing I regret about the whole trip was injuring my ankle.  I can't wait to get back out there and will take all that I have learned this time to plan a more effective and enjoyable time next trip.


As far as my drive back, all I can say is if you take 290 like I do, please take note that there is a 'Texas 290' off of I-10 and a 'US 290'.  I took the Texas 290 by accident which took me on a 22 mile scenic drive that looped right back to I-10, but don't take it if you are in a hurry or low on gas.  On the upside, at least it takes you back to I-10 and it is a beautiful drive.  It sure beats looking at miles and miles of wind farms =).


All in all, I drove nearly 1400 miles.  My house to bibe is almost exactly 500 miles, so that means I drove nearly 400 miles within the park itself.  Man is that place big!!!


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