The next morning, we were pretty worn out. Between the Big Bend Blowout and the hot weather hiking, we were ready for a quiet day. It had cooled down, and was even raining a little bit, so we decided to make it a driving day. We figured that would be a good way to explore the west side of the park on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. (This time, though, we’d be sticking to paved roads.)
After a hearty breakfast and some map review, we hit the road. Our first stop was the Dugout Wells. This was one of the few water sources scattered throughout the desert, and it had created a beautiful oasis of water and greenery in the middle of the desert floor. There were full-sized hardwood trees, and a beautiful nature trail winding through the area. The well pumps the settlers had created used windmills to generate a steady water supply, and the windmill was still in place and operating, which was cool to see. We were much closer to the Chisos Mountains here than in our campsite, and the views were tremendous.
We continued on to the main park visitor center, which we hadn’t visited yet — very unlike us, as National Park visitor centers are usually our first stop in a new park. This one had some really nice displays, and another great National Park video, which we really love watching whenever we get the chance.
This was also where Rebecca found and fell in love with the National Park Passport. She kept going back to it and looking through it, but was adorably sheepish about it, trying to convince herself it was silly and unnecessary. So of course, when she went to ladies room, I picked one up, and gave it to her before we left so she could get her first set of stamps. I didn’t think much of it, but she told me a month or two later that it’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten her.
We got back on the road, and headed west. We stopped next at Paint Gap, a backcountry campsite with a trailhead going back into the Paint Gap hills. We parked and hiked back up into the hills, following the river bed and enjoying the hazy views and the fresh smell of the rain in the desert. The trail would have been hard to follow, but some very creative trail markers kept us safe:
Continuing driving the park’s western loop, we stopped next at two old desert homesteads. First was the Sam Nail Ranch, a beautiful area in a small valley with a running well and lots of hardwood trees and greenery. We could just imagine what a pleasant spot this desert oasis was for the settlers trying to build their homes in this unforgiving land. Next was the Homer Wilson Ranch, where we encountered a number of backpackers eating lunch under the porch. One fascinating thing we learned about the desert is that the dry air slows degradation and rot, so this 150-year old abandoned ranch was in incredibly sound condition.
As the road wrapped up into the foothills of the Chisos, the views just got better and better.
We hadn’t really paid attention to Tuff Canyon on the map, but when we drove past it, I immediately pulled over so we could check it out. We walked over to the edge, and decided to hike down into the canyon to investigate further. We were a little nervous about mountain lions — it looked like a perfect place for one to make its home, and could just imagine one stalking us from the cliffs and crags — but thankfully we didn’t encounter any wildlife as we explored the canyon floor.
After exploring the canyon for about an hour, we were off to our ultimate destination for the day: Santa Elena Canyon. Located on the park’s southwest border, the Santa Elena is a dramatic canyon carved out by the Rio Grande. We arrived shortly before sundown and were greeted by staggering views and peaceful silence over the water.
After watching some kayakers come through the pass, and hiking to the end of the canyon trail and back, we were utterly starving, and started heading back towards camp. As we drove back towards the east side of the park, the sun decided to peek out of the clouds for the first time all day just as it was setting, and we were treated to hands down the most spectacular sunset either of us had ever seen. The pictures only hint at the majesty of that desert sunset.
After enjoying the glorious colors from my photo-perch on the roof of the truck, we knew we were far too hungry to wait another hour and a half to get back to our campground for dinner. So, we stopped halfway at the Chisos Mountain Lodge for our first dinner out in almost a week. As we enjoyed a delicious meal we were treated to a stunning lightening storm over the desert, watching lightening jumped from cloud to cloud. Just another perfect day in Big Bend!