Darkness had long since fallen by the time we rolled into Big Bend National Park.
The black outlines of rolling hills soon turned into mountain peaks. We knew they surrounded us, even though we couldn’t yet see them. Those views would have to wait until morning, but the moon’s glow teased us plenty about the treasures that surrounded us.
Anyway, mountain views can wait when you’re being treated to one of the clearest night skies you’ve ever seen. It says a lot about a national park when some of its greatest beauty is found after dark. That’s the case with Big Bend, however. It’s proud of its designation as an “International Dark Sky Park” with the darkest night skies in the lower 48 states. Some of the best stargazing in the United States takes place at Big Bend for that very reason, and we were blessed with a clear, star-lit sky on the drive in.
By the time Erin, Katie and I checked into our cottage at Chisos Mountain Resort – the only non-campsite lodging available in the park – it was 10 p.m. and we were exhausted from about nine hours on the road. We went to bed anxious, however, knowing that the only thing more beautiful than the stars that night would be the sunrise we planned to wake up early for.
Alarms weren’t set, but we all woke up around 7:20 a.m. That gave me enough time to brush my teeth before we headed outside to see the sun rise. Morning at Chisos is an interesting thing. The lodge is situated in a valley at about 5,500 feet in the middle of the Chisos Mountains. As a result, the sky starts to lighten quite a bit before you actually see the sun. That helps build the excitement while anticipating seeing the sun’s rays explode in an orange glow of the rock and mountain walls.
That’s the real treat, seeing the colors erupt all around you.
After about 40 minutes of sun-seeking, we were rewarded for our efforts as the rock faces to the west began to glisten, just a tiny bit at first, and then the whole thing. After about 10 minutes, all of Chisos was painted in sunlight.
It was time for breakfast.
We chowed down in the lodge restaurant, and picked the brain of our server for spots to explore. Big Bend encompasses 1,252 square miles, so seeing all of it in a weekend is impossible. Our options also were limited since I would be running the Big Bend Ultra 50K the next day and Katie would be in the 25K so we wanted to rest our legs.
Our plan was established at breakfast. The races were on the east side of the park, so we’d head west to try to cover as much ground as possible.
We drove about 25 minutes, and then stopped for a quick 2-mile hike at the Upper Burro Mesa, and then returned to the road and drove to the Santa Elena Canyon that was carved by the Rio Grande. The canyon walls form a natural border between the United States and Mexico, although only Spiderman could really navigate a border crossing there.
The canyon was beautiful, and its best views came from hiking a trail up one of the canyon walls and then looking back into the park the way we’d come for a panoramic view that extended for miles.
That was all the time we had for exploring before heading back to the lodge for packet pick-up and the pre-race dinner, but it was just enough of a taste to leave us wanting to make a return trip.
Most of Sunday was occupied by the race. I awoke at 5 a.m. for coffee and breakfast since my race started at 7:30. The girls got up an hour later since Katie’s 25K started at 8:30. I caught a ride to the starting line with two guys staying at Chisos, and the rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent on the run.
We were at Rio Grande Village for most of at afternoon and evening. That’s where the post-race meal was, as well as showers and the medical tent. Katie and I both were in pretty bad shape from the race. I was torn up from 14-plus miles of calf cramps, and her stomach wasn’t good.
The sun had set by the time we hit the road.
Just as we’d arrived, we left in darkness. The absence of light pollution meant the sky is clear and lit up by the moon and stars. All around us we could make out the formation of mountains, then rolling hills before the park disappeared behind us and we rolled back toward civilization.
Big Bend was beautiful, and left us wanting more.