When I think of adventure, I think of Big Bend National Park.
Nestled in the “big bend” on Texas’s southwest border with Mexico, Big Bend is the 7th largest national park in the contiguous United States. Despite its size, its remote location (4.5 hour drive from El Paso, 7.5 hour drive from Dallas) helps it remain a well kept secret. It sees less than 4% of the annual visitors that Great Smoky Mountains National Park does, and ranks only 40th in visitors among National Parks in the contiguous US. In other words: It’s a hidden gem.
Our visit in early 2018 was marked by a peaceful, quiet, lonely feel. Like we had finally found wilderness. Isolated enough to feel free and away-from-it-all, but developed enough to feel safe.
Even more than the feeling of escape it offers, we were struck by Big Bend’s variety and other-worldliness. 7000+ foot mountains, strong cold wind blowing around each corner. A hot, dry desert floor only a quick drive away. Animals everywhere: Coyotes and road runners, deer, birds. The one we didn’t get to see, despite warnings posted everywhere, was the mountain lion.
The views from the top of the Chisos Mountains were just magical. “Other-worldly” is really the only term I’ve found to do it justice. Especially from the mountain range’s “South Rim.” (Don’t miss the South Rim pictures/videos, about halfway through the pictures below!)
Big Bend is also known for its completely dark night skies. You can see the stars and the Milky Way like almost nowhere else. And OMG the sunsets!!!
We went in late February, and it was absolutely perfect weather. If you visit, make sure to read up on the difference between Big Bend in the winter and summer. It gets hot.
We flew through Dallas and rented a small SUV with unlimited miles (thank you Enterprise!) for the 7+ hour drive. We ended up loving the drive across Texas. Long, quiet, and very unique. High winds on the roads and what seemed like dare-devilish semi-truck driving led to a few close calls and left a confusingly high number of over-turned semis along the highway (. . . to any locals–what is that??? . . .). We stayed at a beautiful Airbnb in the awesome little city of Alpine, giving us an hour’s drive into and out of the park each morning, along big mountains and under big sky.
We spent two days at Big Bend National Park. The first day, we explored the mountains with a roughly 17-mile hike (almost 8 hours), ascending over 3000 feet. We hiked up to Emory Peak (the highest point in Big Bend at over 7800 feet), down through Boot Canyon, and then up around the South Rim with its jaw-dropping views.
The second day we drove the long Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to the park’s southwest corner, stopping at the Mule Ears and the Lower Burro Mesa Pour-Off for some quick desert walks, and arriving at the end of the road for a hike along the Rio Grande through the Santa Elena Canyon. We finished the day with a long drive toward some breath-taking mountain ranges on the park’s southeast corner at the Rio Grande Village.
We left feeling like we could have spent another two weeks there and still not explored everywhere we wanted to explore.
Guys, if you’re looking for adventure, make the flight and/or the drive to Big Bend. You will NOT be disappointed!
Below are some highlights and pictures to share with you!
On a personal note–friends, nature is inspiring and healing and so happy. And usually we can go explore. Today, all across the world, people are experiencing some version of “shelter-in-place,” or quarantine. Nobody is going on adventurous travels, as we join in solidarity to make it through the Coronavirus Pandemic as safely as we all can. But at some point, all this is going to be over. And beautiful nature will be there for us on the other side. And the great outdoors are not hard to get to. Take a hiking adventure as soon as you can! If you need any tips, let me know! In the meantime, I hope these pictures offer you some inspiration, healing, and happy while you’re being safe at home. :)
(Shout out to Foundation Training for keeping us feeling good and strong on our long adventures with long flights and long drives!)
(And shout out to Lyssi, the greatest adventure buddy I could ever ask for!)
“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” ~ John Muir
If there were one thing I could convince everyone to do more of, it would be going outside and being in nature.
In the great outdoors you can find peace and rest, freedom and clarity, challenge and excitement, beauty and awe.
So in the interest of inspiring as many people as I can to go find their adventures, here is the little story of another of Lyssi’s and my biggest adventures: The Colorado Rockies.
August 2018, Lyssi and I took a 5 day roadtrip to Colorado. We booked the coziest Airbnb suite in Boulder. Days 1 and 5 were long drives from and back to Minnesota (14ish hours both ways!), leaving us 3 full days to explore! Here are the highlights for you.
Enjoy! I hope that you get to find beautiful, happy places to visit. And if you can’t right now, I hope the pictures from our adventure bring you some of the happiness and wonder of nature! :)
BEAR LAKE TRAILHEAD, ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
After arriving in Estes Park at dawn, we kicked off our first hike in the chilly morning air. We started at Bear Lake Trailhead with an 8-mile loop planned, taking us to a bunch of pretty lakes and waterfalls. No strenuous hiking this day, though the first hour or so we definitely felt the effects of the elevation!
NYMPH LAKE, ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
Our first stop was at Nymph Lake. Aptly named, it looked like a scene from a fairy tale. The next leg of our hike took us to an overlook directly above the little lake, and it couldn’t have been prettier!
DREAM LAKE, ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
Dream Lake is the second of the three lakes in a row along Emerald Lake Trail. It’s a long picturesque lake with the trail running right along the edge.
EMERALD LAKE, ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
Emerald Lake, the end of its trail. You can see where the Rocky Mountains get their name.
DREAM LAKE AGAIN
Once past Nymph Lake, the trail to Emerald Lake becomes an out-and-back, which means you get to hike by Dream Lake again on the way back.
LAKE HAIYAHA, ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
Here’s where the trip got fun. Or . . . interesting. ;)
Lake Haiyaha was just to die for. I’d go back and just sit there for hours. Halfway back to the trailhead from Emerald Lake, you can turn off onto the longer Glacier Gorge Trail which eventually loops around past Alberta Falls back to Bear Lake Trailhead. Somewhere along the way you can take Haiyaha Trail out to the sprawling Lake Haiyaha. Its shore all around is made up of big rocks and boulders to clamber over and hide behind. I think this was the most peaceful spot we found all day.
We found our way to another side of the lake and found a quiet spot to just be alone and happy for a while.
Video credit: Alyssa Elbridge
The thing is, to get to and from the trail takes some climbing over rocks, and when we left the lake, there was a little hiccup. Without looking up to see what was above the brim of my hat, I launched myself up onto a rock to hop over it, and I could just feel and hear this CRACK run straight through me. I’d slammed my head directly into a giant rock-solid tree branch hanging over the trail. Blacked out and sat down hard. Said a choice word–sorry families with little kids that were there! I could immediately tell I’d done something legit.
Not only did I give myself whip lash, but it turned out I’d gotten a concussion as well. Which explained the foggy and emotional state I was in for the rest of the trip, and the fact that I couldn’t walk in a straight line too well for a while. But we were four miles out, so we kept on trekking, in between pretty frequent sit-down-and-feel-dazed breaks. And my whole shoulder and arm weren’t too happy. My epic best friend Lyssi insisted on carrying both of our backpacks for a while–and these were heavy backpacks, loaded for an entire day on the trail. Thanks Lys, you’re a champ! ;)
THE LOCH, ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
A ways past Lake Haiyaha Trail on Glacier Gorge, you can turn off on The Loch Trail to head up past beautiful green hills with streams and falls. Eventually you get to another big, picture-perfect lake, The Loch.
ALBERTA FALLS, ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
The rest of the day as we finished the loop back to Bear Lake Trailhead, we got to see some beautiful mountainous views, some beautiful streams, and Alberta Falls.
SOUTH SAINT VRAIN CANYON
Day 2 we started by driving South Saint Vrain Drive along South Saint Vrain Creek in South Saint Vrain Canyon. Memorable names. Just a beautiful drive, roads winding through brown cliffs and boulders, rushing creek on the side of the road. We hopped out at one spot and enjoyed the rushing water.
Video credit: Alyssa Elbridge
PEAK TO PEAK HIGHWAY
At the end of South Saint Vrain Drive begins one of the most beautiful scenic byways we’ve ever driven: Colorado’s “Peak to Peak Highway.”
After we reached the south end of Peak to Peak Highway, we headed down to Mount Evans. Absolutely worth it, but hands down the scariest road I have ever driven in my life. Up to the peak of the 14,265′ Mount Evans runs the highest paved road in the United States.
A mixture of fast elevation gain, concussion symptoms, and just generally being halfway to space, meant I almost passed out on the drive back down. It was rough. And scary. But man alive what a view! In the picture above, you can see in the upper right corner the road cut out of the side of the mountain. Right along the edge of the road the entire way was just a steep mountainside that just kept going and going and going.
Mount Evans was just . . . massive.
PEAK 12,150, ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
Video credit: Alyssa Elbridge
We got to see some Elk sparring at dawn across from Poudre Lake at Milner Pass. We arrived to the trailhead just as it was starting to get light, and the drive there was absolutely incredible. It was foggy, dark, and stormy as we drove Trail Ridge Road from one side of Rocky Mountain National Park to the other. The Alpine Visitor Center lies at the top of Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved through-road in the United States. When we pulled into the Visitor Center at around 5 or 5:30 AM, there was lightning all around us. The fog all around us was flashing yellow and pink. Up above the treeline, where the world is huge. What a morning!
Video credit: Alyssa Elbridge
Our plan had been to hike from Poudre Lake Trailhead to Mount Ida, but more incoming thunderstorms meant a last-minute change of plans. We would have just enough time to get as far as Peak 12,150 and back down below the tree line before the rain started. The mountain we hiked is called Peak 12,150 because it’s not considered its own mountain. Because of the saddle between it and Mount Ida, Peak 12,150 just lacks its own distinct prominence just barely enough that it doesn’t get its own name. However, at 12,150 feet, it is an epic spot!
To this day, I think this was the most awe-inspiring place I have ever had the pleasure of walking. Above the treeline in the Alpine Tundra with the occasional marmot or glacier, and endless views of the Never Summer Mountains to the east. A long, beautiful walk. Very uphill. What a picturesque path!
Oh man, the colors! Other-worldly.
In the picture above, you can see Mount Ida on the right. And on the left is Lyssi taking the last few steps up to the tip-top of Peak 12,150.
Video credit: Alyssa Elbridge
Back below treeline just in time for the rain to start!
ALPINE VISITOR CENTER, ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
Glaciers in the fog at 11,800′.
OLD FALL RIVER ROAD, ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
Pretty stream along Old Fall River Road. The road is a one-way precarious drive on dirt and gravel from the east side of the park up to the Alpine Visitor Center. Very beautiful!
TRAIL RIDGE ROAD, ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
Near Forest Canyon Overlook on Trail Ridge Road. Goodbye, Rockies! We miss you!
Happy adventuring, everyone!
There’s lots of beauty out there, and lots of thrill! Chase it down!
P.S. As always, thank you Altra Running for being a big reason my feet love hiking miles and miles up and down mountains! :)
P.P.S. And thank you Airbnb and Enterprise Car Rental for making so accessible a life of exploring our big, beautiful world!
P.P.P.S. And thank you Panic! at the Disco for great tunes to sing on our 14 hour drives and thank you Neil Gaiman for writing and narrating Norse Mythology to keep me awake and enthralled for the drives before sunrise. :)