Islands of the Sky (Big Bend)

The Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park have been described as “sky islands surrounded by desert.” I’ve had an opportunity to delve into those remote volcanic isles, to note their varying temperatures and moisture levels, from the Rio Grande, at 1800 feet above sea level, to Emory Peak, topping off at nearly 8000 feet (2438 meters) above the distant Gulf.

Big Bend National Park, in far western Texas, is renowned for offering splendid isolation and the darkest sky in the continental U.S. The wooded Chisos are surrounded by spectacular desert scenery, and to climb the slopes there is to gather a sense of the incredible diversity of flora and fauna in the region, among the greatest on the continent. Winter and spring are probably the best times to explore Big Bend’s Chihuahuan Desert topography and ecological wonders, for the summer can be brutally hot.

The park’s 800,000-plus acres are a fine place for hikers, birders, fossil hunters, and geology students, and are, in fact, a likely paradise for anyone interested in wild nature and the challenge of escaping into one of the country’s most remote areas. My views of Big Bend’s variable landscapes sometimes made me think of pristine territories in New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. It was great to finish off the final weeks of 2022 at Big Bend in the company of my wife and offspring who made the visit possible.

Looking through the Chisos Mountain notch referred to as The Window, you might get a picture of the American Southwest as it was for eons. The Rio Grande and its limestone, temple-like canyons such as Boquillas and Santa Elena can be felt nearby, and, beyond them, the remoteness of eastern Mexico. Looking through The Window you might see an invisible international boundary line (no artificial man-made Wall) between protected lands– the Canon de Santa Elena on the U.S. side, and the Maderas del Carmen on the Mexican side. Looking through The Window of the Chisos you might get a feeling for the backcountry here– a place for several developed campgrounds and numerous primitive camping sites, for more than 150 miles of desert and mountain hiking trails.

At rest on the islands of the sky, you might gather a sensation of the lower Rio Grande, much of the higher flow diminished by humanity and drought conditions but replenished here by input of a Mexican tributary. Resting on an island of the sky, you might gather an understanding of the region’s archeological sites extending 10 millennia into the limestone and volcanic depths, as well as a recent history of the former ranching and mining life. You will almost certainly get an overwhelming sense of what is presently here: some 1200 species of floral life among the mountains and surrounding desert, plus 75 species of mammals, 56 kinds of reptile, and (yes), some 450 species of birds, including America’s only breeding population of Colima warbler.

All photos (with thanks) courtesy of Brent Franklin. As for this writer, my camera & other valuables were among two suitcases that we lost on arriving at Dallas-Love Airport & couldn’t repossess until the trip’s end, thanks to the great Southwest Airlines debacle that persisted through the holidays. I’ll have more on that madness, soPlease stay tuned. The Rivertop Rambler is recharging for 2023 and will soon relate his humbling but mostly charmed adventures at Big Bend through a series of several posts.

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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10 Responses to Islands of the Sky (Big Bend)

  1. Brent says:

    I like how you introduce the scientific term “sky island” but then transform it into a metaphorical perch for viewing your experiences and lessons from a comfortable distance. Glad the photos were a boon, and really looking forward to reliving the trip through your words!

  2. Indeed, the photos are a boon. Thanks again!

  3. UB says:

    GREAT pictures… oh my! Nicely done Bret! So your luggage was delayed- did you have any issues with arrival and departures? Was a guy that was originally form Michigan, was living out in Las Vegas for past 7 months trying to get back here to the area and he just arrived a day or so ago!? I don’t think you experienced anything like that but, hope any delays you had were mild. Here’s hoping 2023 … I’ll settle for average! Ha! UB

    • We had a helluva time with the airlines, as did thousands of others who were less fortunate than we were. Two of our flights were cancelled (both of them connectors to Odessa), luggage lost for the duration, but at least we had the option of driving a rental 8 or 9 hours to our place outside of the park. From there it was all delightful. Thanks, UB, and all the best for the new year!

  4. Bob says:

    Looks like you made the best day of it. Can’t wait to hear the rest and of it.

  5. plaidcamper says:

    Spectacular, Walt! These sky islands fire the imagination, and the desert landscapes are really quite something – what an adventure for your family (the outdoor stuff, not the airline stuff…) Can’t wait to see and read more once you’re ready to share. Hat tip to Brent, for fabulous photography.

  6. loydtruss says:

    I had not heard of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park until you shared this post. Beautiful images thanks for sharing

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