When I was a kid, I decided I wanted to walk up a mountain. I didn’t need to climb it and risk my life. I just wanted to get to the top and look down. I was pretty sure that driving would be cheating.
I finally did in 2013 when I went to Big Bend National Park and climbed the Chisos Mountains. There was a trail leading all the way up. Tons of people were doing the same thing, which kind of cheapened it for me. I decided not only were cars cheating, but trails were cheating. I resolved to walk up a mountain that nobody else was walking up at the same time.
In February, I made plans with my girlfriend Shannon to take her on her first trip to Big Bend. I’m a planner, so I started researching and making an itinerary. Somewhere in the message boards on BigBendChat.com, some hikers were talking about Casa Grande. There was no trail to the top, but they were talking about an unsanctioned way to get there. I took a lot of notes and put it in our plans.
The hike up Casa Grande begins with the Lost Mine Trail. This is a 20-30 minute walk that goes up to a ridge where you can see the other side of the mountains. Since you start halfway out of the Chisos Basin, it isn’t a very hard climb. It is so heavily trafficked that it might as well be paved.
When you reach the ridge with the overlook, the path turns to the left and climbs up to a higher summit. Instead of continuing, take a right and walk along the ridge toward Casa Grande. There is a slightly defined path. The most important thing to know is that you want to always navigate to the inside (toward the basin) of any ridge. The outside is incredibly steep and could spell death if you slip.
The path is not easy to follow. Near the beginning it had us climbing with hands and feet to stay on the ridge. When we got close to the first peak, the path wandered down from the ridge. Eventually, we found ourselves entirely in the forest. When we would occasionally lose the trail or it appeared to fork, we relied on cairns (small stacked rock formations) as a guide.
We could never see more than one peak looming up in front of us, and it was easy to think that we were nearing the top. But the first two peaks were decoys. Number Three was Casa Grande. This hike can be pretty steep, and Shannon started developing blisters by the time we got past the second peak. We had to climb up some stone washouts when the path disappeared and then find it again at the top.
After the second peak, the path dead-ended at a steep rock-covered slope. It was all loose rocks, called scree, and we had to hike straight up it. For every 3 steps I took, I slid back down 2. It was incredibly tiring, and we had to just lay on the rocks at one point and rest.
But the good news was once we cleared the scree, we were very close to the top. The views are amazing. We spent about an hour just sitting on the peak. Although it’s unsanctioned, this would be a great place to camp. The hike from Lost Mine Trail to the summit was probably around 3 hours.
We ran into two things of note on the way back down. First, it was so difficult to keep from falling on the scree that we both wound up just sledding down on our butts. Once the scree got moving under us, it wasn’t always easy to stop. If we made any wrong turns, we would fall off a cliff. If we went past the trail by 6 feet, we would fall off a cliff. It was pretty frightening when I slid a couple of feet past the trail and had to grab a tree branch above me.
The second thing is that it was difficult to keep track of the trail heading back. We lost the trail pretty quickly, and wound up just going in the general direction of “down.” I was kind of worried we would hit an impassable obstacle and have to backtrack all the way back up the mountain to find the trail, but in the end it was pretty smooth sailing. We ran back into a lower part of the Lost Mine Trail and got back to our car in just over an hour.
I highly recommend Casa Grande for more adventurous hikers. It is by far the best day hike I’ve ever been on.