A Walk on the Wild Side: Hiking with black bears in Big Bend

Black Bear at the Lost Mine Trailhead. Photo courtesy of Brooke Barker

The place is crawling with bears. And that’s just the way it should be.

It’s a Monday in late October and I’m finishing up two days of hiking in the Chisos Mountains. This relatively small but ruggedly beautiful volcanic mountain range in Big Bend National Park enjoys at least three distinctions: it’s the southernmost range in the continental U.S., it’s the only range that lies fully within the boundaries of a U.S. national park, and it’s the best place to see black bears in Texas.

For those who have spent time in the Chisos Mountains but have not had the fortune (or fate, if you prefer) of seeing these bears, let me assure you: they’re here. At this point I’d already seen eight black bears over some 20 miles. And I would soon find myself in a precarious situation between bear number 9 and bear number 10.

Below the Chisos Basin campground, I followed a utility road down to a densely forested creek bed, a popular spot for birders that I was curious to see. And that’s where my little walk in the woods got spicy.

A little more than 50 yards away, I saw an oak tree branch begin to shake violently. Spotting a large black furry figure through the foliage, it was without a doubt bear number 9. The bear seemingly went from trying to knock acorns down to trying to get my attention. It worked. I stopped in my tracks.

As quickly as I stopped, so did the shaking branch. And what was clearly an adult bear began to watch me with a focused intensity. We stood there, eyes locked, looking at each other for maybe 10 seconds before the bear suddenly descended the tree. Even at a safe distance, I soon realized there was a problem.

Whenever a bear stops what it was previously doing, it’s a sign that we’re too close. But as I’d soon learn, it wasn’t so much that I was too close to the bear in question. I was too close to the bear directly behind me, which I had no clue was even there. Uh oh.

Number 9 began circling the base of the oak tree and started breathing heavily, which I took to be a sign of some kind of nervous aggression. I knew it was time to end my hike and call it a day.

As I began to backtrack up the road, I looked behind me, and there it was, just 30 feet away: bear number 10, clearly a young cub in a vulnerable situation just a few feet up a tree, nervously climbing down. Then everything made sense.

Between a mama bear and her cub is not a great place to hang out. As I hastily walked back up the road, I couldn’t help but glance over my shoulder a few times. Whew.

In Texas, hiking among black bears is a uniquely Big Bend experience. With rare exceptions at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, there simply aren’t many public lands outside of Big Bend National Park, and to a lesser extent Big Bend Ranch State Park, where visitors could have a chance to see bears.

Encounters with black bears can elicit a wide range of reactions from fear to excitement to endearment, but rarely nonchalance. In bears we can see a sort of wild and furry reflection of our human selves. Similar in size to us, they’re capable of standing upright and walking on two feet. They’re omnivores, and generally whatever they can eat in the wild, for the most part we can too (perhaps with some better methods of preparation). And like many of us, they’re always thinking about food, especially this time of year.

But we also know that bears are generally bigger, stronger, faster and are overall more physically capable in their environment. This evokes a respect for their general prowess in the wild when we find ourselves sharing the same space. Despite being mostly docile and shy, bears get our attention. That mama bear certainly got mine.

On my first day of hiking up to the Northeast and South Rim trails, the first three bears I’d seen were hanging out in the heavily-forested Boot Canyon, the water holes there being a mainstay for bears. I then walked past the old Boot Cabin, the walls of which are thoroughly scratched up, a telltale sign of decades of bear activity. Bears 4 and 5, a mother and cub, and later a young adult male, number 6, were a bit further up the canyon on my way to the rim of the Chisos.

After catching a magical sunset, I trekked on with two miles to go to my reserved campsite on the western edge of the Chisos. As darkness set in, I flicked on the dull light of my headlamp which I soon realized was in need of two fresh AA batteries that I had forgotten to stash in my pack.

I decided to supplement my fading headlamp with my phone’s flashlight which thankfully alerted me to bear number 7. I heard its movement in the brush and caught the reflection of its eyes just to the side of the trail. It was upright next to a tree, standing about five feet tall. Given its height and size, it was likely a male. A big one. And it wasn’t giving up any ground. It was a standoff.

After more than a few minutes unsuccessfully persuading this bear to move, I decided to make an off-trail maneuver. Taking the uphill side of the trail, I negotiated the steep terrain and bypassed the bear uneventfully. I made it to my campsite for the night, where I was sure to place my food and toiletries inside the bear-resistant storage locker, an important amenity provided at every established campsite in the Chisos. Despite my recent surge of adrenaline, soon after setting up my tent and eating dinner, I crashed hard.

If there is a national park that could serve as a model for fostering responsible recreation among black bears, it’s Big Bend. When black bears began returning to the Chisos in the late 1980s after a 50-year absence, now-retired wildlife biologist Raymond Skiles led the way in bringing the park’s infrastructure and public messaging up to speed with the quickly growing bear population. Learning from the mistakes and successes of other national parks, Skiles implemented several best practices that would keep both bears and hikers happy while minimizing chances for conflict.

Since then, arguably the best conservation success in the history of Texas has unfolded in the Chisos Mountains. Once a large mammal is wiped out from an entire region, it’s quite rare that they return without intentional relocation. But the park ushered in a miracle.

After packing up the following morning, I descended to the Basin parking lot where I’d started. There I regrouped and refueled, and then secured a coveted parking spot at the small but busy Lost Mine Trail parking lot where signage discourages so much as a picnic due to bear activity. From there I set out to hike up the towering Casa Grande formation, a sheer vertical rock wall standing sentinel over the lower Chisos Basin. Even with the incredible views of the basin below, it’s not a hike I would recommend. The ascent was brutal.

As I followed a steep and narrow unestablished trail up to the sloping backside of Casa Grande, I got out my phone and captured a panoramic video of the golden bunches of Mexican feather grass blowing in the wind and the dramatic views of Green Gulch Road far below. With a stroke of lucky timing, I heard the sudden crunching and snapping of brush in the distance and quickly swept my phone to the right, capturing a bear cub bounding downhill with abandon, clearly startled. To be fair, I wasn’t expecting to see a bear all the way up there either. And that was number 8.

And that sums up my brief account of the 10 bears I saw in two days of rambling through the Chisos. But given the established population of the 40 or so bears, what I managed to see was just a fraction.

Today the Chisos Mountains are the best place to witness black bears in Texas. But it hasn’t always been this way. Once a region literally crawling with black bears, hunting, trapping, ranching, and habitat loss managed to wipe out black bears almost entirely from the Big Bend region by the 1940s. Prior to that, the Davis Mountains, 100 miles north of Big Bend, were the most densely bear-populated part of the state. But westward expansion in the late 1800s began encroaching upon the prime bear habitat.

Back then, two hunting friends in the Davis range were recorded to have shot some 50 black bears in one winter, as the cold season provided an opportune time to harvest bears at their fattest. More than just sport, bears provided warmth from their furs, ample meat for eating, and fat for cooking, baking and fueling lamps. And besides their frontier utility, bears did pose the occasional threat to the livelihood of ranchers.

But after a 50-plus year absence, these bears would prove resilient. Three primary events paved the way for black bears to return to Far West Texas: two acts of government and an act of nature. First was the establishment of Big Bend National Park in 1944 (previously known as Texas Canyons State Park in 1933) which would later grow to provide nearly a million acres of protected habitat for wildlife to enjoy. Second, a legally protected status in Texas afforded black bears the chance to survive beyond the borders of the national park.

Third and perhaps most crucially, it was a female bear that made the long journey down from Mexico’s Sierra del Carmen range, then crossed desert, river, and more desert, and then climbed up into the Chisos Mountains in the late 1980s. Her unlikely journey would come to mean one thing: the bears are back.

Since then, black bears have returned to other nearby public lands at Big Bend Ranch State Park and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area. And by moving further north into the Davis Mountains, bears are beginning to reestablish themselves once again in the prime and abundant habitat of the state’s biggest mountain range. But given our region’s susceptibility to drought and wildfire, along with increasing amounts of car traffic, occasional conflicts with domestic livestock and illegal hunting, only time will tell if the bears are able to continue this encouraging comeback into other bear-friendly pockets in Far West Texas. So how can we help that happen?

It’s actually pretty simple: we can mind our driving, mind our food, and mind our presence in the woods. Driving at or below the speed limit in bear country can help these critters survive. Sadly in September, a bear cub was struck and killed by a vehicle on a 15 MPH road leading up to the Chisos Basin. It was one of three cubs that had been recorded earlier in the summer playfully wrestling with its siblings on the lodge patio in a video that went viral. That endearing footage made news of the cub’s death all the more disheartening.

Minding our food is crucial as well. As the adage goes, a fed bear is a dead bear, as bears will become emboldened once they’ve acquired the addictive taste for human food, leading to inevitable conflict. By following park guidelines, we can prevent bears from getting derailed by human food.

Beyond that, being “bear aware” in bear country is key. While black bears are usually non-aggressive and shy, we do well to provide bears with plenty of space and alert them to our presence in advance (“Hey bear!”). When a bear is encountered, hikers should group together, appear larger, increase their distance from the bear and alert others in the area.

To hike among black bears is to truly experience the wild side of Texas. As their comeback continues to take root in our region, a sort of West Texas welcome is due. Out here that means slowing down, saying hello and giving them a big wave, and allowing them plenty of space to be wild and free.

Until next time friends, keep walking on the wild side.

Tyler Priest is a park ranger and outdoor adventurer in Far West Texas. When he’s not at work, he can be found hiking, climbing, running, paddling or cycling his way across the Big Bend. He landed in Fort Davis in 2018 where he enjoys watching wildlife, catching sunsets and hanging out with his cat Chico while plotting his next adventure.