The Chisos Basin is at the heart of Big Bend National Park, and it provides something that’s essential around these parts — a break from the intense West Texas heat, especially during the sweltering summer months. The Basin is at 5,400 feet (1,646 meters), a full 1,400 feet higher than the elevation at the Chisos Mountains Basin Junction, where the only road into the Basin turns off the main park road.
The basin is sort-of a bowl, surrounded by higher peaks, so hiking out of the basin is almost guaranteed to lead to some place cooler. You’ll get a good look at those mountains as soon as you turn onto the Basin Road. I think this is Pulliam Bluff, which tops out at Pulliam Peak (6,870 feet).
The Basin is high enough, and cool enough, to support an entirely different ecosystem than you’ll find in the surrounding desert. A sign along the road provides fair warning: there are bears and mountain lions living in the basin.
The road appears to be headed straight towards these jagged peaks in the Chisos Mountains, as it makes the quick climb up to Panther Pass — the high point along the road, at 5,679 feet.
Just after driving over the pass, traffic on the road had come to a standstill. Someone had spotted a black bear, a few hundred yards away from the highway. This was only the second time I had seen a bear in the wild — who would have guessed that I would have seen one in Texas?
The road comes to an end at Big Bend National Park’s only motel and restaurant. There’s also a small general store in the Basin, along with a ranger station and campground. Staying here is a more convenient option, but you will probably pay at least $50 more per night than you would staying in Terlingua. Of course, you’ll save a lot of time and gas, avoiding the drive into and out of the park every day.
Clearly one of the park’s most popular trails, the Window Trail does something you wouldn’t expect, when hiking in the basin — it goes down, instead of up, from the trailhead. There’s a good reason: you’ll be hiking towards the basin’s pour-off. It’s the point where water drains out of the “bowl”, and into the desert below.
There are two trailheads for the Window Trail. I found the one that allowed for the shorter hike, beginning at the basin campground. From there, the hike is 4.4 miles round-trip (7.0 kilometers). Yes, the trailhead sign does say it’s 2.6 miles, one way. This isn’t the only sign I noticed in Big Bend that overstated the mileage.
You can also choose to begin your hike at the Visitor Center, where parking is more plentiful. However, you’ll add 1.2 miles (round-trip) to the hike, and double the amount of elevation you must lose, then gain on the return trip.
The trail wastes no time heading downhill. From the campground trailhead, you have about 500 feet to lose. In the distance, you can see your destination. That jagged tooth-looking mountain is Carter Peak, which is just to the left of The Window.
As you hike, there will be other interesting hills to stare at, as well as an abundance of plant life along the side of the trail, ranging from cactus to full-size trees.
One kind of tree in particular was in full bloom during my mid-March hike. Every time I passed by one, I heard the buzzing of dozens, maybe hundreds of bees.
Morning is a great time to hike this trail, since the sun will be at your back (on the way down, at least), illuminating all of the mountains in front of you.
You’re getting near the Window when the canyon starts to close in around you.
After two miles of hiking this metal sign tells you you’re almost there. Detouring onto the Oak Springs Trail will take you below The Window, all the way down to the desert floor (and if you kept walking beyond the spring, you’d end up on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive). At this point, you can take the Oak Springs Trail just briefly, and it will lead to a nice viewpoint overlooking the Window Trail (I saw other people doing it, but I didn’t).
For the final stretch of the hike to the Window, it’s obvious you’re in an area that’s been shaped by some seriously powerful flood waters. The floor of the canyon is smooth — having been carved out by water on its way to pour out the Window.
You might even spot some water in this tiny tank. Someone told me that the last rain in Big Bend National Park had been two months prior to my visit.
Steps carved into the rock help you navigate around some of the bigger drops in the wash, but they also lead to some extra up-and-down climbing.
At long last, there’s the Window! Expect a traffic jam, as everyone lines up for a picture while standing in the middle of the slot.
Looking out the window, towards the west, there’s an excellent view of the desert surrounding the Chisos Mountains.
Someone was nice enough to offer to take my picture, while standing in The Window. This is as far as you can go, without falling off the cliff, and to get to this spot, you’ll probably need to slide down on your rear, then stand up again. The rock is smooth and slick here, so be careful.
The hike back to the trailhead is definitely the most tiring part of this hike…
… but at least you have plenty of beautiful mountains to look at, as you go.
Here’s the time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive into, and out of, Chisos Basin, then on to Boquillas Canyon.