The Importance of Getting Out There
Darkness was quickly falling; our ragtag group would need to make camp soon. We had just illegally crossed the Mexican border; two members of our party had been swept down the Rio Grande and were on the brink of exhaustion after a long day on the move. The next two days promised to be equally exerting; rest would come easy that night—with many of us passing out directly beneath the star-studded blanket of black.
In our defense, with their wide swaths of sand and river-smooth rocks, the beaches on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande looked like a much more appealing place to camp than the ones on the US side; the labyrinth walls of Big Bend National Park towered 1,500’ above us on both sides—the only place we could escape to would be the pull-out, a ten mile paddle down river, in the USA.
"Caves dotted the upper walls. Many have likely never been explored."
Our second campsite was even better than the first. An oasis located in the heart of Santa Elena Canyon’s maze on a big bend, the refuge offered a 180-degree view of the river unfurling before us. The walls were steeper and more dramatic than ever before. The water’s caramel color was punctuated by the most vivid greens I had ever seen—as grasses, reeds, and trees shot up from the banks on each side, enveloping everything. Caves dotted the upper walls. Many have likely never been explored. A slot canyon nearby drained into the main river, inviting further exploration.
Almost immediately after landing, the entire crew headed south into the slot, scrambling over boulders, hiking up drainages, and wading through pools as the terrain became more and more technical and committing—whittling our group down until only three of us remained.
Soon, we were climbing overhanging slabs, swimming through cold, dark pools, and free soloing pitches of technical rock over deep water—until we could go no further together with our lack of harnesses and a rope. Back at camp, beers were cracked, dinner was served, music was played, and stories were shared. Cumbaya.
Admittedly, I only vaguely recalled hearing the name Big Bend before my good friend Andy sent me an email teeming with excitement about the trip, but upon further investigation, my anticipation grew to match his.
"A blithely stark and welcome contrast to what one will find at Yosemite, Zion, or Rocky Mountain, there weren't a ton of people milling about."
Located in one of the southernmost parts of Texas, Big Bend National Park is remote. The nearest major airport is located in Austin (where we flew into,) a seven hour drive to its northeast; the park is about a 10 hour drive southeast from Santa Fe. In a blithely stark and welcome contrast to what one will find in Yosemite, Zion, or Rocky Mountain, there weren’t a ton of people milling about in Big Bend. In fact, in 2015, the park only saw 380,000 visitors, compared to Yosemite’s 4,150,000—undoubtedly due in part to the park being well off-the-beaten-track.
"Simply put, the park is a seldom-sought gem."
In addition to the canyons that we padded through on the Rio Grande, the park is characterized by its high desert and sub-alpine landscapes (the park’s highest point is Emory Peak, whose summit rests at 7,825’ and is defined by boulder piles and twisted pines.) Thousands of prehistoric fossils (including multiple species of dinosaurs) have also been discovered or unearthed in the area, which was entirely covered in seawater until 70 million years ago. Put simply, the park is a seldom-sought gem—lying in wait for anyone who wants to drive down and take advantage of its splendor.
The sad truth is that most people won’t venture down to Texas and have the experience of a lifetime at a place like Big Bend, simply because there’s no “Tunnel View”—that is, the widely-publicized views most park visitors seek. According to 2015 US NPS statistics, only a small fraction of US National Park visitors backcountry camp (defined as overnight in wilderness areas.) Most of those people not backcountry camping are only seeing Yosemite’s Tunnel View, Zion’s Virgin River Bridge, Rocky Mountain’s Trail Ridge Road—or for our friends to the north in Alberta, Banff’s Lake Louise.
"Try to get out more than a mile and a half away from the parking lot, that's for sure."
So where should you go? Try to get out more than a mile and a half away from the parking lot, that’s for sure—even if the views near the parking lot are great. When John Muir penned, “The mountains are calling and I must go,” he really did go. He was responsible for discovering untold amounts of wilderness in the Sierra Nevada, on up to the Cascades—often venturing out solo for weeks, or even months at a time.
"Educate yourself. Get out a map and go to places you haven't heard of."
So what can we do differently? Educate yourself. Get out a map and go to places you haven’t heard of. Chances are, other people haven’t either and they’re right in our own backyard. Then vow to go deep. Real deep. Backpack through Ansel Adams. Climb in the Winds. Kayak Big Bend. Packraft around Gates of the Arctic. Your pulse quickening yet? Good. Go hard. Push yourself. Fail. Recover. Grow.
Or maybe you take it easy—lug in some steaks instead of freeze-dried food, and cook over an open fire (where allowed). Bring a guitar, vow to watch every sunrise and every sunset, every day. Make wishes on shooting stars every night. Fall in love with the moment and the people around you.
Photos 1, 2, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11 taken by AJ Wells. Photos 3, 4, 6, 8 taken by Chris Brinlee Jr.