There are days when you’re full-time RVing that are well planned out and there are those that just work out spur of the moment. And then there are the days where a last minute decision to do something can turn into a little bit of an ordeal. The day we decided around noon time that we wanted to pursue the Mariscal Canyon hike in Big Bend was an example of the latter.
It was one of those days where we had been actively sightseeing and hiking for a good number of days straight and we couldn’t decide whether to take it easy that day or not. We had planned to do the Mariscal Canyon hike, which supposedly contained the best scenery in all of the park, but required a 2 hour drive on high-clearance four-wheel drive roads to get to the trailhead. After eating lunch we figured, “Well, it’s a late start, but the hike is only like, 3 or 4 miles roundtrip and, um, maybe 600 feet in elevation gain. If we get there by 2 or so we can pump it out in an hour and half and be back by dark.”
So off we went in our trusty F-150. As we turned left toward Hot Springs and continued on unpaved River Road East, the four-wheel driving seemed to be a piece of cake.
As we continued, however, the road got significantly rougher and large pot holes popped up that slowed us down (not that you can ever go super fast on these roads anyway). We eventually noticed that it was taking us a little longer than anticipated. I honestly hadn’t bothered to check if it was supposed to be two hours round trip or each way – just figured we’d be fine regardless – but as time ticked by, it became apparent which it was. We made an incorrect turn down a spur that led past backcountry sites (named Solis) and to a trailhead that I thought was the eastern end of Mariscal but upon closer look was instead intersecting Cross Canyon trail. We certainly could have taken it, but these few additional miles would have added a good amount of time to our already strained-for-time itinerary. We would have loved to been able to justify that turn, too, as it had resulted in some unavoidable scratches on our 2016 model truck from some overgrown and very stiff branches and me kicking myself for looking at the smaller of the two maps we had of the area. But alas, off we went towards Mariscal Mine.
We made sure to stop at this still largely intact mercury mine to explore for a few minutes.
When we finally arrived at the trailhead, already a little tired from the drive, another look at the trail map led us to the realization that the hike was actually 6.6 miles round trip and 1800 feet in elevation gain – a little different from our previous estimation that we got from God knows where! Usually, this wouldn’t be a big deal but with sunset coming earlier in November and it already being around 3 o’clock, we realized we’d either have to turn back, miss the scenery and squander the long drive we’d already done (which was scenic but a little repetitive and resulted in some damage to the truck) or do the hike and probably drive back on sketchy roads in pitch darkness. Of course, we decided on the latter.
The beginning of the hike was pretty flat with a loose gravel and rocky surface that took some careful footing and didn’t exactly help with our trying to make really good time. With temperatures in the low 80s and what the desert can muster along the lines of humidity (or what felt like it at least, maybe from it being overcast?) hanging in the air, this terrain made us break a good sweat, too. We also realized early on that the trail was a little tricky to follow, but that rocks had been stacked along the way to help make it easier to find. The terrain got increasingly rockier but there continued to be little elevation gain until we reached the last mile of the way in on this out and back hike.
The game was definitely stepped up at this point as this last mile consisted of loose, fine gravel and larger rocks and we gained most of the 1800 feet in this stretch. We had to feel for a family of backpackers with young kids and a hefty amount of gear who had to stop every few yards to catch their breath. I definitely had to stop to catch mine a couple of times, too – convenient to combine with photo taking, I always say. As we climbed though, we certainly started to see why this was declared to be the best scenery in the park (and felt good knowing that the family was handsomely rewarded for their hard work).
Near the top, we passed a couple who told us that once you reach views of the canyon, you can go farther but the views are just as good, if not better, at first glimpse of the canyon. Once we reached the top, pretty spent and watching the sun get closer to the horizon, we decided that this was a good spot for us to take it all in, too. Mariscal Canyon itself was very pretty, especially if you were able to get close enough to the edge to get a good vantage point. It was really the views outward overlooking the Rio Grande and surrounding scenery though that were most breathtaking.
We took this in for fifteen or twenty minutes as we snacked and gave our wobbly legs a rest (we’ve realized it can be even harder to complete a hike on a day when you’re not really expecting to). We then continued to enjoy the view outward as the sun painted a gorgeous scene in the sky and cast pretty pink hues on the surrounding scenery the whole hour before sunset.
Right after watching the sun sink below the horizon, we set out on our adventurous drive home. We wound up going back the way we came as the map stated that the possibly slightly shorter Black Gap Road was not maintained. Having already encountered the overgrown spur that wasn’t labeled as such, there was no way we were touching Black Gap, especially in the dark.
We navigated carefully with our brights on as the sky grew darker and darker and engulfed us in a rich, pitch blackness save for a few headlights miles off in the distance. The skies were overcast, otherwise we would have had a starshow for the ages given that the views we had gotten at the campground the night before looked straight out of a magazine and validated Big Bend’s claim to have the best night skies in the lower 48.
As we drove, we came to appreciate how much the desert teems with life at night. Countless jackrabbits crossed our path as we also encountered deer, bats and even desert rats!
The drive took us about two hours and we were able to get enough reception to call John’s parents and entertain (and probably slightly frighten) them by showing them our current view by video chat. We were able to breathe a sigh of relief once we reached the main road, not only because we were close to our destination but also because we had been wondering the whole drive whether the gate at this junction was left unlocked at night (had it not, this might have rivaled our Yellowstone lockout story). We then drove the short distance back to Rio Grande Village Campground to end our little adventure, swearing to double check the maps next time but also secretly glad we hadn’t that day.