Big Bend Thanksgiving 2013


After leaving around 1 pm and with two or three stops too many, for ice, cough drops, and food, we arrived very late, pulling into our campsite just before midnight. Fortunately, as always, Rio Grande Village campground had many open spots. We pitched in the no generator zone among the dense mesquite (this time no tent would fly across the river).


I crawled out of the tent around 7 am and checked the wetland where the Green Kingfisher remains, but is often not visible. I spent most of the morning along the service road, which was quiet, but the creosote flats full of seeding grass from the wet summer and fall was chock-full with birds, including throngs of singing White-crowned Sparrows, flocks of Lincoln’s with a smattering of both, Swamp and Song Sparrows. Some pishing brought in a single White-throated Sparrow, possibly the first for me in Big Bend.

One of at least two Le Conte's Sparrows in Rio Grande Village Photo Stephan Lorenz

One of at least two Le Conte’s Sparrows in Rio Grande Village Photo Stephan Lorenz

The campground cottonwoods held the usual Ladder-backed and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, along with Northern Flickers and sapsuckers. The expected Black-throated Gray Warbler was mixed with the yellow-rumps of both Myrtle’s and Audubon’s. A little less expected was a Pine Siskin among a handful of American Goldfinches in the top of a cottonwood near the store.

In a small flooded are towards the fish pond I discovered two or three Wilson’s Snipe. Of course flycatchers were there with Eastern, Black, and Say’s Phoebe all present, among half a dozen Vermillion Flycatchers. A pair of Ash-throated Flycatchers near the tent on another morning rounded out the list.

We decided to explore a shorter tail and based on the ranger’s recommendations hiked the beginning of the Marufo Vega Trail, cut back along a section of the Strawhouse Trail to make loop through a small canyon with a few pictographs. Nothing unusual in the desert, except a flock of 40+ Mountain Bluebirds, the first I have ever seen in the park. On the return, we followed the Old Ore Terminal Trail, but not to its end.

nearly 40 Mountain Bluebirds along the Marufo Vega trail here a male Photo Stephan Lorenz

nearly 40 Mountain Bluebirds along the Marufo Vega trail here a male Photo Stephan Lorenz

Getting back to the campsite, we were already four and finished the evening with a delicious Thanksgiving dinner.


We started relatively early, after the obligatory cup of coffee and headed towards the Chisos Mountains. Thorsten and I had our mind set on finally climbing Casa Grande, the imposing mountain creating the perfect backdrop to the Chisos Basin. At 7325 feet Casa Grande has a lower elevation than Emory Peak, but a much more spectacular profile.

Casa Grande Peak Big Bend National Park heading up Photo Thorsten Lorenz

Casa Grande Peak Big Bend National Park heading up Photo Thorsten Lorenz

I had some difficulty in finding a good route description online, but with the help of blog posts and Geocaching coordinates, we reached the top after nearly 3 hours of steady climbing. I’ll provide a route description for anyone wanting to climb it. As suggested in many other posts, it is best to start hiking up along the Lost Mine Peak Trail towards trail marker ten. From here, a fairly obvious trail leads west along the ridge directly towards the peak. The trail is quite clear along the narrow ridge, but quickly drops to the right (north) of it and goes a bit down, then up. At some point we saw the actual Lost Mine Peak Trail just fifteen feet below and marker 8. So it is possible to hike only to marker 8 and then head straight up the slope for less than 20 feet to reach the trail (which is not visible from the actual trail, but quite obvious once standing on it). Turn right, or if coming from marker 10, follow the good dirt trail.

view on the way up Photo Thorsten Lorenz

view on the way up Photo Thorsten Lorenz

From what I had read, it is important to bear right, past the first hill with obvious rock towers (this is where the hole in the rock is visible). For some reason we failed to head right and found ourselves between the rock towers, climbing a steep chute, but in retrospect this was a good route since it avoided a lot of loose scree and the scrambling was easy and fast. We reached a surprisingly flat and grassy area with low trees and reconnected here with the main trail, which heads straight up the eastern flank of the mountain towards a clear break in the cliffs.

enjoying the view from top of Casa Grande Photo Stephan Lorenz

enjoying the view from top of Casa Grande Photo Stephan Lorenz

From this point on, the trail was easy to follow all the way to the top. There were a few section of steep scree, but nothing too difficult. The path winds to the left of the cliff and reached the flat summit area and then bend right to the highest point. We did not find the cache on top, but had slightly wrong coordinates. The views were incredible though and it is worth to wander about a bit to take in all angles from the several high points. The only birds on the way up and down were two Townsend’s Solitaires.

Casa Grande top view Photo Stephan Lorenz

Casa Grande top view Photo Stephan Lorenz

During the hike down we followed the scree path, but in the flat grassy section took a right too early and ended up hiking straight down the mountain, reaching the Lost Mine Peak Trail far below marker 10 or 8. While this option worked well for the return trip, I would not recommend hiking up that route, since all of it was scree. Looking back up at the mountain we had just stood on less than an hour before, I spotted a pair of Golden Eagles soaring high.

We whiled away the rest of the afternoon in camp and watched the sunset from the comfort of the hot springs.


I wandered around Rio Grande Village, again exploring the grassy flats behind the campground and found a Le Conte’s Sparrow that flew up out of the grass and showed well, a species listed as accidental in the park. The picnic area was quiet, except for an intriguing sparrow that flushed near the settling ponds, Baird’s??

Today, Thorsten, Claudia, and I explored a side canyon just past the tunnel, hiking through a brush filled draw into a beautiful limestome gorge. Birdlife was scarce with only a few Black-throated Sparrows and Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, along with the ever-present Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Orange-crowned Warblers.

side canyon near Rio Grande Village Photo Thorsten Lorenz

side canyon near Rio Grande Village Photo Thorsten Lorenz

We reached a drop-off that we climbed around, but the canyon continued for a long ways and we decided to turn around, leaving time to hike to Cattail Falls. It took about an hour of driving to reach the trailhead in the late afternoon. Interestingly, I almost never see any birds along this hike, except for a Peregrine Falcon that made several passes high up along the cliffs. The falls had more water than I had ever seen and we lingered in the shade for at least an hour, hiking back around sunset.

hiking out from Cattail Falls looking back at the Chisos Mountains Photo Stephan Lorenz

hiking out from Cattail Falls looking back at the Chisos Mountains Photo Stephan Lorenz

After dinner, we garnered all our remaining energy and returned to the hot spring, which by 9 pm we had all to ourselves, watching the shooting stars above.


I spent an hour in the morning checking the spots around Rio Grande Village, turned up three Fox Sparrows in the thickets near the wetland, came across a Winter Wren, maybe the same from last year a sit was in the exact same spot, and flushed another Le Conte’s Sparrow in the grassy patch, which showed really well. Also got on another Green-tailed Towhee, which were numerous at least by call. The drive home with few interruptions got us to Houston around 8 pm.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Andy Garcia on December 3, 2013 at 9:00 pm

    Gee, no lions or bears? Maybe next time. AG SATX.



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