Christmas and Chanukah on the South Rim

The South Rim in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park is our favorite site at any national park that we’ve visited to date, and we’ve certainly traveled to many a beautiful place. We often describe it as being on top of the Grand Canyon, except there’s no other side and no people. You’re on the edge of a steep cliff looking out over the desert floor and mountainous topography thousands of feet beneath you. Breathtaking. Majestic. Inspirational. Desolate. All these words, and so much more. The first time we camped on the rim, we spent a glorious hour watching two golden eagles soar and plummet and glide through the desert below. When we planned our trip to Big Bend, it was no wonder that we decided to stay on the rim for Christmas and the first nights of Chanukah. We didn’t exchange presents or light any menorahs, but the days were festive enough being in our favorite place.

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A view of the south east section of the rim where we had camped the previous night.

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The crow (raven?) with the hazy Sierra Del Carmen behind.

We had decided to build in a zero day on the rim where we could just chill and take in the scenery. We read and chatted with the other backpackers about hikes we’d been on or wanted to go on and about life in general. In fact, we spent our Christmas morning watching the sun rise with a young engineer and his soon-to-be-neuroscience-Ph.D.-pursuing brother, and an art teacher nearing retirement. Although this trip lacked any golden eagles, we were visited by a talkative crow that flew overhead repeatedly before deciding to alight on a branch near us and click his disapproval at us for taking his pristine spot.

The one thing this trip to the rim did have in abundance was wind. Lots and lots and lots of wind. Our first two nights in the park, we had stayed at the Boulder Meadows campsite to do some day hikes (Lost Mine and the Burro Mesa Pour Off), and the skies opened up into quite the thunderstorm on our last night before we were to hike to the rim. The winds were furious, as was the rain, thunder, and lightning. We were grateful to be snug in our tent. While the storm passed quickly, the winds never really died down. We spent our nights on the rim  listening to wind gusts in our tent, so we didn’t get the quality of sleep. The winds were high during the day too, making it colder than we’d have preferred, but still enjoyable all the same. The views of the mountains were hazier than our last trip, but this too was likely due to the desert winds.

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A hazy morning view of Elephant Tusk (mountain left, center)
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A nice outcropping along the South Rim the morning we hike out.

As a backpacking destination, the South Rim has few equals depending on your preferences. The trail is well maintained and steeper with many switchbacks via the Pinnacles trail. We like to go up the Pinnacles trail and down the Laguna Meadows trail because Laguna Meadows has a more gradual descent, which we prefer for our knees, especially as we’re lugging around our backpacks filled with gear. Our favorite campsites are NE5, SE4, or SE3, though SE 1 looked promising too (we have camped at SE3 and NE4). We like these destinations because they are adjacent to a large rocky outcropping with a clear and wondrous view of the Sierra Del Carmen to the East; you have a spectacular sunrise view waiting for you in the morning and can catch a decent view of the sunset, especially in the winter when the sun sets farther South.

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Elephant Tusk (center) at dusk from the south east rim.
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Sunset form the south east rim.

As a day hike, the trail is 12-14.5 miles long (depending on whether you do an out and back or a loop) and ascends about 2,000 feet. Many day hikers opt to hike to Emory Peak, which is 10.5 miles round trip, rather than the rim, but I strongly encourage everyone to hike those extra miles to the rim for a grander vista than that of the Chisos Basin (though admittedly grand, you have views of it the entire way up to Emory Peak). On our hike up, we convinced two groups of day hikers to skip Emory Peak and push onto the South Rim instead. Mission accomplished.

If you’re planning to backpack or hike the rim, you should note that some portions rim are closed during the Peregrine Falcon nesting season (approximately February – May). And, of course, no water is available on the trail, so you to haul up everything you’ll need for your permit. If water should be available, park rangers ask that you not drink from it wherever possible to preserve the limited water available for wildlife in the park.

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