The Austin Chronicle

Day Trips

By Gerald E. McLeod, May 24, 2002, Columns

The Chisos Mountains Lodge is an oasis in the desert high above the parched landscape of cactus in Big Bend National Park. Tucked in the Chisos Basin and surrounded by rugged mountains, the lodge's beauty is compounded by its isolation. At more than 6,000 feet above sea level this is one of the coolest places in Texas both figuratively and literally on some summer days.

"If you come here to watch TV then you've come to the wrong place," says Ron Sanders, general manager of the lodge. The little village high in the mountains includes 72 rooms, a convenience store, a world-class restaurant, and even its own post office. The rooms do not have televisions or phones and some don't even have air conditioning, but most have one of the most spectacular views in Texas.

From the steep mountainside one can see for miles. Depending upon the thickness of the haze blowing in the coal-fired smelters of Juarez, Mexico, the mountains of nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park (not to be confused with the national park) can be seen through a V-shaped break in the mountains surrounding the basin called the Window. Every evening the sun drops into the slot between the peaks. The sky seems to burst with bright oranges and reds with the clouds carrying the colors far along the horizon.

The lodging is there to complement the surroundings, not to compete. The accommodations are simple, bordering on austere, but comfortable. Many of the rooms have private balconies from which to watch the colorful sunsets and wildlife. The number of species of brightly colored birds among the tree branches and awesome panoramic views is exciting.

The most popular room in the basin is cabin 103 with an unobstructed, private view across the valley and through the Window. The cabin is often reserved a year in advance when it comes available on every January 1. Built by the Civil Conservation Corps in the 1940s, the six cabins come with three double beds, electric wall heater (no A/C), and a covered porch with a spectacular view. Not bad for $84 a night.

During the late 1950s the National Park Service added three motel-style buildings with comfortable rooms and the restaurant. The Chisos Mountain Lodge Restaurant serves a delicious variety of food in a relaxing environment. The view from the dining room overlooks the basin and is perfect to watch the sunset fill distant gaps in the mountains.

Two stores in the village offer everything from souvenirs to camping supplies including Shiner Bock beer for a touch of home. Next door to the Basin Store the park service operates an auxiliary ranger station; the headquarters is at nearby Panther Junction. Visitors can obtain camping permits and information here. The station also includes a small exhibit on the animals in the park. Although bears and mountain lions live year-round in the Chisos Mountains, sightings are rare and encounters are even more unusual.

Two of the national park's most popular trails begin at or near the lodge basin. The Window Trail winds along Oak Creek Canyon to the Window Pour-Off where the rain in the basin drains to the desert below. This trail is moderate with the easiest path beginning at the Lower Trailhead (2.2 miles) from the Chisos Basin Campground rather than the steeper and longer trail (2.8 miles) from the trailhead behind the convenience store.

The Lost Mine Trail begins a short distance down the road from the lodge and works its way up from 5,679 feet. The moderately strenuous climb covers a little more than four miles round trip. The persistent are rewarded with spectacular views of the mountains and the desert below.

For a beautiful walk that your grandmother could easily accomplish, take the Window View Trail from behind the Basin Store. This quarter-mile, paved sidewalk offers a romantic view of the Window. A park bench at the midway point is a perfect place to enjoy the moment or clutch your sweetie.

Prime season in Big Bend is October and November and February through May, but air conditioning has made the desert park accessible year-round. The basin area is easily 20 degrees cooler than the desert, Sanders says.

Room rates for two people at the lodge range from $75 to $84 for the cabins. Reservations are essential. Cooking is not allowed in or around the lodging facilities. For more information, call 915/477-2291 or visit their Web site at

From the colorful walls of Santa Elena Canyon to the irreverent stubbornness of Terlingua, Big Bend is a place where you can spend a lifetime exploring or learn to appreciate it in a single visit. For information on the variety of Big Bend, call 877/BIG-BEND or log on to

572nd in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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