The Chisos Basin: Timeless Beauty and a Changing Texas Landscape

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Tony Maples Photography


Ten hours in the car makes for a long journey from Dallas, but at the end of that trip awaits unique enchantment. The Chisos Basin in Big Bend National Park is familiar to us after many visits, but it’s never quite the same place.

During our recent arrival in late August, thanks to rains a few days before, vibrant purple and lavender sage blossomed throughout the park. When we visited a year ago, a crowd of blooming century plants, which bloom only once, lined the road up the mountain to welcome our one-car parade.

The Chisos Basin: Timeless Beauty and a Changing Texas Landscape

Photo: John Spaulding. Providing a colorful trail, purple sage lines portions of the last six miles up to the Basin.

The Chisos Mountains, the southernmost range within the U.S., form part of the topography impacted by volcanic activity. Combine that with the uplifting and subsequent erosion of the land, and you have a geologist’s workbook. The Chisos range hosts hundreds of plant and animal species, which vary with elevation and habitat.

From where the main road of the park connects with the Panther Junction ranger station, it’s still quite a drive to the basin. The path before us twists an extra six miles of rugged scenery and increases another 1,700 feet in elevation. As we ascend, we watch in anticipation for the car thermometer to drop degree by degree. Our blood pressure will no doubt do the same. As we make one of the last 10-mph turns (and pass caution signs featuring a black bear), we finally see the basin, at 5,400 feet in elevation, nestled in a ring of mountains with “The Window” rock formation view to the west. The Window is the park’s most famous view, fostering extraordinary sunsets.  We are here at last — to breathe deeply once again.

The Chisos Basin: Timeless Beauty and a Changing Texas Landscape

Photo: John Spaulding. Your back porch view of The Window from one of the stone cottages.

Stepping out of the car, the first thing you notice may be the refreshing absence of sound. Portions of the basin only acquired wireless service earlier this year. Your choice of accommodations depends on your preference for adventure or comfort. The campground includes 60 sites with lavatory and shower facilities nearby. (If you’re looking for primitive camping, you’ll want to go to other reaches of the park.) The air-conditioned lodge offers 58 tidy rooms in six buildings, many with an appealing view of the Window.  Just a bit further up the road are stone dwellings built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Franklin Roosevelt administration. They comprise eight rooms plus five individual cottages/duplexes offering heat but no air conditioning—the latter is rarely needed at this elevation.

The Chisos Basin: Timeless Beauty and a Changing Texas Landscape

Photo: John Spaulding. Settle into the cozy accommodations of a stone cottage.

The basin serves as the trailhead of several of the park’s hiking options, including the Lost Mine Trail, Windows Trail, and Emory Peak, which reaches over 7,800 feet in elevation. Trail distances range from .3 miles to over 14 miles, appealing to hikers of any fitness level. For full descriptions of each trail, check with the ranger station. Hikers can definitely work up an appetite, and the basin restaurant serves hearty breakfasts, light lunches, and satisfying dinners. If ordered ahead, sandwiches can be ready for those planning an all-day hike. For basic provisions, the camp store is located next to the ranger station.

Popular times to visit are spring and fall, plus Thanksgiving and Christmas. We enjoy visiting in late August and early September, after school resumes. Hint: Don’t let the idea of late summer in the desert scare you. While it can be over 100 degrees on the Rio Grande River, average high temperatures in the basin are only in the low- to mid-80s. Sometimes, thanks to the summer rainy season, a passing shower can produce rainbows and playful waterfalls that appear and disappear in the mountains. Bring your binoculars!

The Chisos Basin: Timeless Beauty and a Changing Texas Landscape

Photo: John Spaulding. A Roosevelt-era stone cottage nestles in the trees.

It is possible to obtain lodging without reservations, but it’s advisable to call ahead. Many who regularly return to the park call on New Year’s Day to lock in desired times, especially for one of the Roosevelt stone cottages.

We enjoy staying in one of these cabins, which offer two to three beds, in-room microwave and refrigerator, porches/sitting areas (some covered), and breathtaking views of the woodlands or the mountains. Even if you’re not a hiker, just sitting on the porch or outside the room is a treat. While you have your morning coffee, listen for the screech of the Mexican Jays or the whir of a migrating hummingbird. On one visit, a pair of deer lingered by our stone porch. On another, a cabin neighbor alerted us to view a family of black bears on the distant hillside. And the night sky? Just step outside and look up for an unobstructed view of the Milky Way. Upon bunking down for the evening, listen to the cool night wind passing through the window screens.

The Chisos Basin: Timeless Beauty and a Changing Texas Landscape

Photo: John Spaulding. Casa Grande Peak provides a backdrop to a portion of Chisos Mountains Lodge.

The Chisos Basin and surrounding Big Bend National Park never fail to enchant us as we conclude our too-short reunion with this place. While the basin tantalizes us each time with new clues, many stories of its land and people remain mysteries. Who knows what surprises it will offer us next year?

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