Big Bend National Park

It was a long drive from Austin to Big Bend National Park. It took us almost 10 hours, with a few stops. The drive was beautiful! It started with ranches and cattle, and turned into plateaus and mountains. We took I-10 most of the way, and the speed limit was 80 mph! Unfortunately we couldn’t really take advantage of it while towing the trailer.

Big Bend National Park is really out there. About 100 miles north of the Mexico border there was a border control checkpoint. Going south I think they just scan/take photos of each car, but going north we will need to stop. That seems strange to me, since we aren’t crossing a border. After this, we started seeing more wildlife. We stopped for a group of about 5 deer crossing the road, and slowed for about a dozen javelina (which look like pigs, but aren’t) near the road. A jackrabbit darted onto the road, and we had no choice but to hit it. It was awful! It left carnage on the front of our trailer, that Brian washed off the next day. Now we know what roadkill with a trailer is like. Considering the number of rabbits we saw near the road during our visit, it’s amazing we only hit one.

Big Bend is one of the many National Parks that I had never heard of until we started this trip. It is on the Rio Grande River, which is also the border with Mexico. It is one of the biggest national parks in the lower 48 states, but also one of the most remote, so it is one of the least visited. It feels like the middle of nowhere. We are staying in Terlingua, which is barely a town, and the nearest real towns are at least 70 miles away. It’s a little unsettling being so far from civilization. Because it’s so remote, I doubt we ever would’ve come here if we weren’t on a very long trip.

The Chisos Mountains are in the middle of the park, and the south of the park is the Rio Grande river. On each side there is a canyon, the Boquilla Canyon on the east side, and the Santa Elena Canyon on the west side.

It’s very beautiful, but I feel like we really need to work for it! There are a few roads running through the park, and the views are beautiful from the road, but hiking here is steep and hot! It was in the mid-80s, with direct sun, and so dry. The first day we did a couple short hikes in the sun, to a lookout point over the Rio Grande and into Boquillas Canyon. A lot of the hikes here go up some decent elevation, but that means the views are incredible! The first day of hiking we were pretty much in awe.

After that, the next few hikes we did were at dusk, to beat the heat. They say, “half the park is after dark.” I think they are referring to the stars, but the wildlife comes out at night, too. We were really looking forward to the stars, because this area is so dark, but we hadn’t planned on the moon being so full and bright while we were here.

We hiked to the Santa Elena Canyon just before dusk. The trail was one of our favorites.

First it went up a ways, with concrete steps and slopes, and then gradually down until we were in the canyon. Since we went pretty late, we were the last ones there. The way the rock layers slanted into the water made it look like the water went uphill.

We spent some time in the canyon, taking pictures and hanging out on a rock that juts out into the river, when we heard a “plop”! A rock fell right off the Mexican side of the canyon and into the river! After that I didn’t feel as safe in there! Climbing out of the canyon it got dark on us, and just before we pulled out our headlamps to light the way I noticed the moon was so bright we had shadows.

After the hike we took the Old Maverick Road out of the park. There are signs that say not to take it if you don’t have a 4×4 high clearance vehicle. It was a pretty bumpy road, that went over a dry river bed three times. We saw a few Javelinas, and just after we got out of the park we saw a couple coyotes. Brian shined his flashlight into the field, and there were at least three more sets of coyote eyes looking back!

We also hiked the Grapevine Hills trail across a flat plain to a steep rocky bit, ending at a rock feature called Balanced Rock (for obvious reasons). We had the place to ourselves again. Hiking in at dusk and out at night really pays off on the popular trails. We scrambled down off the rocks as the sun was setting, and walked back through the plain by the light of headlamps. On the way back we saw a black widow spider! Brian was pretty excited to see its red markings so clearly. We continued on the trail and saw a red spotted toad.  A little later Brian freaked out a bit when he rounded a corner and saw two glowing eyes staring back at him. It turned out to be a deer, a fairly small one too.

We saw road runners! The first one we saw was in the road, and we slowed the truck down as we got close, and it noticed us and ran off, so fast! I think I heard it say “Meep Meep!” We saw a few of these before finally catching one on camera. They are elusive. With coyotes and road runners around, we were careful not to step on any X’s and avoided falling anvils and Acme products.

We had one day that was kind of a bust. We planned to visit the McDonald’s Observatory for a “star party,” and stop by a few towns on the way there. It’s about an hour and a half away, and we bought tickets to the star party a couple days earlier. Only it was a Tuesday, and we learned on the way that nearly everything in Marfa and Alpine are closed on Monday and Tuesday. We went to a saddlery store and Big Bend museum in Alpine, and then got lunch at Marfa Burrito. The burritos were really great, and it was basically like eating in someone’s kitchen! Then we drove the Davis Mountain scenic loop before the star party started. It was a clear, beautiful day, and the scenic drive was nice. But then smoke rolled in from wildfires in the Texas panhandle (really far away!), and we couldn’t see anything! The smoke plus the bright moon led to less than great stargazing, but we still had fun. They had about 9 telescopes pointed at various things, including Venus, the Orion nebula, and features of the moon.

Brian wanted to do a hike that was challenging for us, and a ranger recommended a 12 mile loop hike in the Chisos mountains. That’s farther than I’ve ever hiked in one day. We took the Pinnacles Trail to the Boot Canyon Trail to the South Rim Trail to the Laguna Meadow Trail. The Pinnacles Trail climbed about 2,000 feet in 3 miles and was pretty tough. After that it was mostly flat or downhill. The South Rim Trail was the highlight, the views were incredible. We met a nice couple and chatted for awhile about where to travel in the area. The weather was great for hiking that day. It was cloudy and in the mountains the air was cool. It was fun to see the plants change as we went up in elevation. From scrubby desert plants to actual trees. We were hiking in bear and mountain lion country, but didn’t see either. The last 4 miles were pretty tough. Even though it was downhill, I was so tired by then! It took us about 9 hours to hike the whole loop.

The next day we didn’t really want to use our legs, so we drove from Lajitas to Presidio through the Big Bend Ranch State Park. This was cool because for most of the drive the road winds along the Rio Grande, so it’s very beautiful. At one place we stopped near the mouth of a canyon and walked over to take a picture. It turned out there was a trail that went all the way through the canyon! That was an unexpected treat. We walked almost all the way through before turning back, because it was actually raining a little bit and the canyon floor was getting slippery. It turned out to be the Closed Canyon trail, a popular hike on the route. As much as I like doing travel research, it can be even more fun when we find something I didn’t know was there. When we got to Presidio we ate some delicious Mexican food, and then did the drive in reverse.

We stayed at Big Bend Resort and Adventures which is very close to the west entrance of the park. It’s okay. The spots are still close together, in spite of the vast space in this region! And there’s no picnic table or fire ring (which wouldn’t matter due to a burn ban right now). Also, they charge $2 for 6 minutes of a shower. So, we used the shower in the trailer for the first time! Previously we were using campground showers with varying degrees of cleanliness/water pressure and temperature/enjoyability, but I guess I draw the line at paying $2. We have full hookups here (electric/water/sewer) and it’s a dry area, so using our shower is no problem.

We eat so much simpler when we aren’t visiting a city. We didn’t put a lot of effort into food here, but Brian did make a great brunch one day!

The campground we are staying in is in Terlingua, which was a quicksilver (mercury) mining town in the 1800s and early 1900s. When the mines dried up, the town became a ghost town. The general store, church, mine shaft (covered for safety), jail, homes, and cemetery are still there, in varying degrees of ruin. We checked out the area and we think it was probably not fun mining for mercury in the desert.

I thought a full week here would be enough to enjoy the park and slow down a bit, but we still felt rushed. There is so much to do at Big Bend National Park! It would have been nice to have a few more days here, but the last full day of our visit was also the first day of many schools’ spring break. It got so much busier! That’s relative though, it’s still not nearly as busy as many parks. We tried to avoid the crowds by doing some more remote things. We visited the fossil exhibit, and then drove the Old Ore Road. I thought it would be similar to the Old Maverick Road, but it was so much rougher! Turns out Old Maverick is labeled “unpaved road,” Old Ore is labeled “primitive road”. I held on for dear life while Brian had a great time. We stopped when we found good cactus specimen and for one quick hike to Ernst Tinaja, which is a rock formation in a small canyon made by water. It was really beautiful, with wavy red rock layers, and there were oyster fossil imprints in some of the layers. It was hot though, back to 85 and sunny!

The last thing on our to do list for the park was to visit the hot spring. It is next to the Rio Grande, and stays at 105 degrees. There is the foundation of an old bathhouse remaining to soak in. We were worried it would be very crowded, but just as we arrived a storm rolled in. We waited it out in the parking lot, and after maybe an hour we saw a rainbow! So we headed to the spring, and there were some people there, but it wasn’t packed. We stayed awhile as the sun set and met another couple that is traveling full time. It was really fun to talk about where we’ve been and where we are planning to go. It was a great end to our time at Big Bend!

The plant life in Big Bend is very different from what we are used to in the Midwest. The desert looks uninviting, since nearly everything has large spikes. Everywhere the plants are spaced pretty far apart. Space seems to be a theme here. Without fungus, Brian occupied himself taking pictures of cactus, and the occasional flower or desert plant. He especially liked the Prickly Pear Cactus, which come in many varieties and live all over the park.

Brian’s Cactus Corner:

Day 164 | Mile 16,888


2 thoughts on “Big Bend National Park

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