This was my second hike with the Dallas Sierra Club, and while I had backpacked in Big Bend before, this trip was unique. The 4 day hike was being led by someone extremely familiar with the Mesa De Anguila.
The Mesa is an isolated and unforgiving part of the park that you do not journey into without being knowledgeable of the landscape. So having a guide to show the way, and to reveal the hidden water sources was a rare opportunity.
We left from the Barton Warnock Visitors Center in Lajitas late morning. The sun was already giving off an unrelenting heat as we set off across the scorched and dusty earth.
Despite our backpacks being heavy with water, the excitement of setting out on an adventure kept us moving at a healthy pace. For the first 4 files we followed an old jeep trail that became less and less pronounced until we veered off of it completely and plunged into the wilderness of the Mesa.
Early in the afternoon we came to the Tinaja Grande. Tinajas are holes in the rocks that collect water from rainfalls or spring run offs. The tinajas that sit within a cool dark canyon can harbor water for months, and knowing their locations are critical for survival in the desert, for animal and humans alike.
The Tinaja Grande is one of the most reliable and deepest tinaja’s in the Mesa. It also is very accessible with only a short hike inside a canyon to reach its pools, making it an ideal place to camp.
After a quick breakfast and filling our water bottles with water from Tinaja Grande, we set out for a day hike from our campsite. The day was hot and the terrain difficult to navigate without trails. The rocks were sharp and multiple species of cactus formed tangled barriers we needed to remain vigilant against.
After lunch on top the Santa Elena Canyon, we turned back along the Canyon to make the long hike back to camp. But the heat of the day and the inescapable glare of the sun began taking its toll. A couple people in our group began to exhibit signs of heat exhaustion, including vomiting. As a result we had all gone through almost all our water and still had a long hike back to our campsite.
Our guide knowing the terrain well detoured us back to a tinaja that was close by. It was mostly dry except one very small pool of water that we eagerly collected into our water bottles. It looked and tasted horrible, but it was enough to get us back to camp, exhausted and thankful for the cool of the evening.
We packed up our camp in the morning and began hiking along the Mesa in the direction of the Rio Grande River. About 2 hours into our hike we stopped at a large sinkhole that plunges down in rocky caves 200 feet below the earth. We spent a good deal of time climbing down into the caves as far as we dared without ropes. The cool dark air was a welcome relief from the heat and sun.
After a long day of hiking we arrived at another tinaja and set up camp. The water was scummy and infested with wasps, but one cannot be too picky about your water source in the desert.
We decided to not set up tents, and to just toss our sleeping bags on desert ground. As the heat of the day gave way to the cool desert night we were treated to a sky bright and alive with the stars vividly painting the Milky Way.
The prospect of heading back to civilization, of ending our time in the Mesa made me sad. I would have been content to spend many more days in the Chihuahuan Desert wilderness. Yet the thought of a hot shower, and a cold beer was starting to sound really good.
We connected with an existing pack trail, which lead us out of the Mesa and back into Lajitas. We were picked up in a dusty parking lot, and drove to Terlingua for burgers and beer.
Justin McCormick grew up in the Yukon Territories in a cabin on Nisutlin Bay. Being surrounded by the majestic and harsh wilderness of the north, he developed a passion for canoeing, hiking, mountain climbing and skiing. He currently resides in Texas and is trying to impart his passion for the outdoors to his four children.