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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

A day of hiking in Big Bend National Park ends most perfectly

The best echoing I’ve ever encountered is in the Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park in Texas. Mark and I hike 1.7 miles in along the U.S.-side of the Rio Grande. At the end of the trail, the canyon walls are only 25 feet or so apart. I shout “Ruth,” and listen to it bounce back and forth. “Bruce” is another good name for echoing.

The Rio Grande isn’t as grand as we had anticipated, at least not at this time of the year. This area gets about 10 inches of rainfall annually but frequently floods because it lacks soil to soak up the rain. The rainiest months are July, August and September.

A fairly easy hike is across the desert to Mule Ear spring. Appropriately named, the rocks stick up, are pointed at the top and are perfectly spaced and slightly curved in toward one another to resemble the ears of a horse. In my opinion, they are not tall enough for a mule’s ears.

The spring, about the size of a big hot tub, is an invigorating temperature for this desert heat—even in February—and clear. Two frogs sit at the edge, and two jump in. Mark and I wonder how many cowboys stopped to refill and refresh here at this ideal oasis.

Surprisingly, this desert has many springs, or, if not springs, nice, moist areas that the leafy, green trees spotting the desert make evident. Trees require more water than cacti, which is why deserts are not full of trees.

The hike to Mule Ear spring—our third of the day after the hike into Santa Elena Canyon and our early morning, 2 miles round trip to Burro Mesa Pouroff—pushes me to my poop-out point. I sleep the half hour drive to Chisos Basin visitor center plus another 20 minutes in the lot while Mark reads.

Somewhat refreshed, in the visitor center we ask for advice for how to spend our last few hours in the park. I tell a ranger we are thinking of hiking the Window trail. She says that both the upper and lower Window trails are 4–5 miles and asks if that’s what we have in mind. I tell her we’d hiked more than we’d planned that morning, 9-plus miles, but I say yes, that’s about what we were looking to do.

I imagine her sizing us up and deciding we don’t have 4–5 miles left in us; she suggests the Lost Mine trail at 2.4 miles. It’s her favorite hike in the park, she says. To me, 2.4 miles sounds perfect.

Mark drives the mile to the Lost Mine trailhead. He loads the backpack with water while I read the trail guide. “Pack some energy bars too,” I tell him. “It’s 2.4 miles, one way.”

The trail guide suggests the tired attempt the first mile only. I consider this. However, after a mile I feel strong enough for another 1.4-mile climb. We pass a man resting who tells us “It’s worth the effort.”

The trail is steep, and with more than half a mile yet, I am not sure anything could make this effort worthwhile: My lungs are burning and my legs feel as heavy as cinderblocks. Mark tramps ahead, which motivates me to, if not keep up, at least keep him in site.

Finally, at the top the trail flattens and opens to a lookout. I collapse on a rocky outcropping, out of breath and gumption. Looking at my surroundings, I realize the climb was worth it. The panoramic view is spectacular this clear day: the reddish-brown mountains across from us, the views to the left off to distant peaks, huge rocks jutting out all around, the comfortable, refreshingly light breeze. I’ve never been more perfectly rewarded.

This has been the most unique hike for our ultimate day in the park. I understand why it’s the ranger’s favorite. Despite the climb, it’s my favorite now too.