Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Caves, sand hills await in Boquillas Canyon

Boquillas Canyon Trail
Caves the size of auto show rooms and grand views overlooking the Rio Grande await intrepid travelers who hike the Boquillas Canyon Trail in Big Bend National Park.

The park preserves more than 1,200 square miles of the Chihuahuan Desert along the international border with Mexico, marked by the Rio Grande. The trail takes you right up to the river border through Boquillas Canyon, one of park’s three largest canyons.

There’s a narrow window for visiting the park. During late spring, summer, and early fall, midday temperatures often climb above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, though even then walks can be comfortably taken during early morning hours. March typically is the driest month, and the days just before April typically are the best to visit.

Descending to Rio Grande
The trail sits in the park’s eastern side. From U.S. 385, take Park Route 12 to Rio Grande Village (where there’s a visitor center, though it’s closed during the summer), then turn onto Boquillas Canyon Road. There’s a viewing point on the way to the trail that is worth a stop. The parking area is at the road’s end. You’ll find the trailhead at the parking lot.

The easy 1.4-mile long trail largely is a fine sand surface and takes you back into Boquillas Canyon. The beginning of the trail consists of wooden planks and heads through flat desert scrub. Look for yucca and prickly pear cacti with its fruits.

The trail then heads over a low limestone hill, descending to the Rio Grande’s banks. Watch for the Indian mortar holes. There is also archeological evidence of pre-historic human inhabitation in the canyon.

This riverside section of the trail is lush and green, a respite from the stark desert that you drove through to reach Rio Grande Village and the trail. A variety of birds call the river shore home, and with the area’s remoteness, you’re certain to hear any number of songs, including those of the ash-throated flycatcher, black phoebe, black-throated sparrow, blue-winged teal, canyon towhee, cactus wren, chipping sparrow, common raven, house finch, Inca dove, ladderback woodpecker, loggerhead shrike, meadowlark, mockingbird, rock wren, rough winged swallow, turkey vulture, vermillion flycatcher, verper sparrow, white-wing dove, and the yellow rumped warbler. And yes, you’ll likely spot a roadrunner.

The trail from here largely skirts the river. The clear water offers inspiring reflections of canyon walls. Don’t be surprised if you also catch sight of a river rafting group navigating its way into the canyon or a rider stopping to let his horse drink from the river.

At the trail’s end is series of wind-driven sand hills and a shallow cave. Your feet will sink in the sand hills, which can make for some fun sliding. The cave is a boca, or a weathered cliff, and stretches several stories high in sediment laid down over tens of millions years when this area was under a shallow sea.

Be forewarned: You are in a very remote area. There is no cell phone coverage. In addition, you’re walking through the desert. For half-day hikes, you should carry at least 2 quarts of water per person. Springs and tinajas – the depressions in rock where water collects – typically are unsafe to drink from.

The good news is that if you should be injured, someone likely will be along soon. Locals from Mexico often cross the shallow river to sell trinkets and handiwork. Technically, it is illegal to purchase their goods. It’s also illegal to cross the border into Mexico by fording the river (and in any case, fording a river with children is unsafe).

Learn about other great national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.