A Comet Chasing Expedition in Big Bend National Park

A Comet Chasing Expedition in Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park

One of the more scenic overland destinations in Texas is located within Big Bend National Park in the Texas mountains and basin region. By stitching together a route from the network of 4x4 park roads, a sightseeing overland trip with multiple nights of backcountry camping without ever leaving the park can be formulated. Because I was chasing a comet, BBNP was an ideal destination as it hosts some of the darkest skies in the Lone Star state.

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At the beginning of 2015, Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) was at its brightest as it passed earth and headed toward the sun. To photograph the comet meant hauling photography and astronomy equipment. This didn’t leave much room for camping gear in my 2007 4Runner. Thankfully, an opportunity arose for me to try the roomy XVenture XV2 off-road trailer, equipped with a James Baroud hardshell roof top tent. The XV2 cargo space is triple that of a typical bucket trailer. A review of this very capable trailer will appear in the next issue.

It was mid-January and the Moon was safely tucked away, ensuring my dark sky pursuit. A spectacular forecast of clear skies, Spring-like temperatures during the day, and high 30s at night added to my excitement. My planned overland route was to start at the northern end of Old Ore Road, a 26 mile 4x4 trail. As I approached the BBNP Persimmon Gap entrance, the Chisos Mountains emerged into view. Within the park’s 801,163 acres, BBNP contains an entire mountain range. At 7,825 ft., Emory Peak towers as the highest point. 

Upon arriving at the visitor center, I learned I had to identify and reserve all of my backcountry campsites right then. Not familiar with the 4x4 roads, I abruptly plotted a rather ambitious route that involved 13 miles on Old Ore Road to my first campsite, and then another 33 miles the next day across 3 different 4x4 roads. Fourteen miles lay between the visitor center and the Old Ore Road entrance, and with only 4 hours until sundown, I wasn’t worried because I was fairly sure Old Ore was simply a dirt road.

The XV2 trailer is very rugged. I discovered this when I encountered the difficult terrain on the northern half of Old Ore Road. A simple dirt road, it was not. Twists and turns accompanied the many elevation changes. It was never a dull moment as I crawled over the many large steps and rocks, affirming my decision to air down at the start. The trailer rolled over the obstacles with ease thanks to the 32-inch trail tires and multi-directional hitch system. Much of the terrain kept my speed below 10 mph. There are no bypass routes on Old Ore, and park rules are explicit:  do not go off the trail. The vehicle must be able to conquer each crux. While I was enjoying my legitimate off-road adventure, I was growing concerned about reaching the campsite before dark. While I blamed the terrain, the real culprit was me stopping at least 20 times to shoot photos along the way. 

The park is sprawling with geological wonders. Every mile brings about new visual treats and intrigue as the landscape changes frequently. It was January, yet yellow flowers and rainbow cacti in full bloom decorated the roadside. Large valleys in the foreground shadowed by distant peaks and the winding road ahead all laid out a captivating scene. As the sun positioned itself to cast light and shadows, I had to stop to take it all in. I knew my photos were taken in vain. There was no way to absorb the moment into a digital image.

I arrived at Telephone Canyon campground just as the sun was setting. The amber glow sufficed for setting up camp and grabbing some photos. To the southeast, a large walled rock formation changed colors rapidly as the sun presented its final light. Setting up the tent was easy:  release 4 latches and watch the tent rise. I attached the folding metal counter to the side of the trailer, hooked up the stove for a quick dinner. As darkness crept in, so did the clouds, dashing my hopes of capturing the comet. 

Tent camping alone in a desolate wilderness area presents discernment challenges for the senses. Did that growl come from my belly, or outside the tent? More sounds soon followed, only because my brain and ears were now on alert. I tried to reassure myself that it doesn’t matter what fierce critter might be trouncing about because I’m in a tent 6-feet off the ground.

The next day I experienced the tamer southern half of Old Ore. The road did wind and change elevation, but gradually and with a broader span. Off-road clearance was still a vehicle necessity for certain spots. 

I finished out the trail and arrived at the busy Rio Grande Village where a Wi-Fi equipped store offered gasoline, showers, and laundry facilities. My one regret was not being able to cross the border, via a 

small ferry a few miles away, into the little Mexican village for some shopping and dining. After 9/11, the border crossing was closed. It reopened in April 2013, and now requires a passport. While I had my passport, I was unaware the border crossing is open only on certain days of the week, and it was not one of those days. 

Gassed up and emails updated, I headed to my next route, which involved taking the River Road East dirt trail 9.6 miles and turning onto the Glenn Springs 4x4 road for another 10 miles to my reserved campsite. While Glenn Springs Road was rather tame, technical hurdles were plentiful. In the distant west, the Chisos Mountains provided a beautiful scene in the mid-day light. 

The Chisos view remained prevalent at the Rice Tanks campsite, but a hill in my immediate background blocked eastward views. The surrounding hills would block out wind, providing me with a stabilized telescope for imaging, but I suspected I was missing something scenic in the east. I cooked a quick meal and set up the telescope.

With the sun setting, I decided to drive out north to see what I was missing. As I went up in elevation, I was able to view the multi-mile long cliff wall to the east just as the sun painted it in pinkish colors. Note to self:  get the Chilicotal campground next time, as that site sits high on a hill with a perfect view of the scenery in all directions.

As daylight departed, clear night skies permitted me to capture the bright green comet. As the images appeared on my laptop screen, I knew the chase was complete. The next morning I continued north on Glenn Springs until it intersected with Pine Canyon Road, and headed east back to pavement where my 51 mile route of 4x4 roads came to an end. I plan to return to conquer the other 4x4 roads, hike some of the many designated hiking trails, and relive the existential moments generated by the beauty of Big Bend.

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