The Chisos Basin

The Chisos Basin is the heart of the Big Bend National Park. It’s an ancient caldera formed by a violent, cataclysmic explosion similar to the one Mount St. Helens experienced in 2008. Today it is quiet, and one of the places in the park away from the river that can actually support a wide variety of animal and plant life.

When early settlers moved into that area, they drilled for water and found at least three sources. If you think that means that water is abundant for campers, you’re wrong. In fact, this is the camping location where we were told there would be NO showering, and were offered wet wipes. (Most of us were smart enough to carry our own anyway). Since we hadn’t had a “homestyle” shower with plenty of water yet, this wasn’t a tremendous hardship. Or maybe it was for those who were sharing tents, but for those of us in solo bunks, no problem.

There was plenty of water for cooking and refilling our stores, but the NPS demands high discipline as to ‘gray water.’ And why?

Because this is one of the few locations in the world where bears have recovered as a species naturally — all on their own. The Mexican Black Bear was feared to be completely vanished in 1944 by the time the park was established. But in 1988 a visitor took a photo of a female with three cubs. Each year since then more and more sightings have occurred to the point now where over 500 sightings per year area common.

The restriction on gray water is enforced in order to try to keep the bears from being interested in human activity. Whatever we wash off our bodies smells good to them, like potential food. Every camp site there has bear boxes and we were warned to put anything that might smell attractive in them – everything from actual food to toothpaste to deoderant.

We didn’t see any bears this trip, but it was nice to know they’ve recovered on their own and NPS is working so hard to allow people to experience the park but not at the expense of the bears. Here’s the story of them:

And here’s an NPS photo by Lillie Cogswell:


We were told there are also mountain lions in the area. The board at the ranger station had many sightings posted, with each date they were made so one could get a sense of the bear/lion movements.

After a lovely evening serenade by a visiting Lutheran School from Austin, Texas (not specifically for us – they were having a service nearby), we weren’t as charmed by their early morning antics getting ready to go on a hike. The shrieks of teen boys and girls were a bit jarring at 5:30 in the morning, but hey, we were awake anyway, right?

One thing I want to mention about this trip that was the highlight for me was seeing absolutely BRILLIANT night skies. The entire Big Bend area is a Night Sky heaven, with Marathon being a specific Night Sky community. I inevitably had to get up at some point during the night (drink tons of water, ride a bike, and see how you do all night). The discomfort of having to get up and out of the tent was always overcome by the sheer beauty of the night sky. I couldn’t figure out how to make my iPhone capture it, so here’s a photo someone else took:


We had a waxing gibbous moon to full moon while we were there, so we didn’t even need flashlights or headlamps to walk around at night. But even with that bright moon, the sky was absolutely stunning. I wish we’d had an astronomer in our group. The only night we were at the McDonald Observatory was the day it had rained and the sky was still very overcast. I would have loved to have a star party in the basin. I would have wrapped myself in two sleeping bags and sat up listening to and telling stories.


Our next destination for Day 5 of riding was Lajitas, a small settlement that’s actually a golf resort! It was Mike and my night to cook and we were very concerned about getting in on time. We decided to make burgers on the grills we were promised were available at the RV park. Well . . . yeah. The grills were small hibachi type without any fuel or briquettes. We got some mesquite from the office, but it was touch and go as to whether we’d ever get them going. Mike fried up bacon on our camp stove and I mixed the burger meat and started throwing them down. If not for some of our teammates, we’d still be waiting for those things. Everyone was really grateful for the protein injection though. We had one vegetarian in the group so up to then all the meals had been “side of meat”. That night, the carnivores prevailed and it was GOOD.

To get to Lajitas we rode through Terlingua … which is an artists’ outpost and a whole story in its own. They call it a living ghost town. After dinner that night some of us went to Terlingua to the Starlight Theater to have a beer and watch the locals and listen to some GREAT music.

The Starlight was established in the 20’s but fell into near ruin before some enterprising souls saved it. I was looking at the line where the tops of the walls and the roof met and it looked like a very creative use of concrete or stucco atop where the original stucco had worn away, and the roof was suspended so as not have all the weight on the walls. An architect could describe it better but trust me, it was cool.

On the wall where the screen would be was a huge painting of the Buffalo Soldiers who patrolled this area in the late 19th Century. Many were of mixed African American and Indian parentage, and the artists did a good job portraying the variety of colors and features that might have presented on their faces.

This whole area was once famous for mercury mining, but when the mines closed, the ghost towns arose. Now the ghost towns themselves are the attraction.

So that day from Chisos Basin to Lajitas the ride was about 45 miles, of which I rode 40. There were some rollers, but it was mostly downhill and the breeze was largely in our favor. A good day riding. And again, when we got back to the campground that night, the stars were absolutely amazing.


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