The Big Bend area of Texas is a magical place. Based on the sheer size of the park, the incredible landscape and most importantly the way fewer yearly visitors, I put Big Bend ahead of the Grand Canyon on the Wow factor scale. Just getting to Big Bend feels like you left the planet or entered a new dimension. The National Park is a long way from any significant size city. After leaving Pedernales Falls State Park and once you pass Fredericksburg, you begin to notice that services are few and far between and you realize that the park is still several hundred miles away. Once we left the city of Del Rio on the Rio Grande, we would not see a Walmart, the golden arches or any other chain store for over two weeks and 500 miles until we made our way up to El Paso.
We had heard that Thanksgiving week is one of the peak times to visit Big Bend. All but one campground in Big Bend National Park are first come, first served and most spots are not suitable for a rig our size. With getting less than 8 MPG, we didn’t want to risk driving the 100+ miles into the park and find that we couldn’t get a camp spot and have to drive back out. We did find BJ’s Campground, a nice little gravel campground in Terlingua for Friday and Saturday. Terlinqua is a cool little town that lies about 10 miles outside the west entrance of the park. Come Sunday, we would gamble that most people would be gone and drive the 50 miles across the park to the Rio Grande Village Campground. The main reason to find a spot inside the park is this place is huge. You can waste hours driving to and from a hiking spot if you stay outside the park. Additionally, the Rio Grande Village Campground is the only camping area in the park that allows generators. Since we were not yet solar equipped, we had to hope we could find a spot in that campground or our stay would be limited to about two, maybe three days in a primitive site (assuming we could find one). To our amazement, when we arrived at the campground around 11:00 am Sunday morning, the place was pretty much empty, most of the people had already took off for home. For the rest of our stay, we felt like we had this immense park pretty much all to ourselves.
While we were waiting to head south into Big Bend National Park, we found the really cool, Marathon Motel/RV Park in Marathon, Texas. The town claims to be a Class I dark city and the owner of the Marathon Motel has been working to make his place a destination for astronomy researchers and enthusiasts.
During our stay we got to go into their research area and talked to a couple of astronomy hobbyists that were working on imaging various stellar items of interest. The clear skies, new moon and the complete lack of city lights made for incredible night sky viewing. It’s been a long time since I was able to see the milky-way. The town itself is very, very small. We were surprised to find the high-end Gage Hotel, that includes a gourmet restaurant, an awesome coffee shop and a beautiful 27 acre garden open to the public. For being miles and miles from a major town, this restaurant filled up on Thanksgiving Day. It must be quite a destination spot. Be sure to make a stop before heading into Big Bend.
On our first day reaching the Big Bend area, we decided to explore Big Bend Ranch State Park. The park is much more rugged and much less crowed to visit than the National Park. If you do nothing else, take the drive along the Rio Grande through the park. The terrain and the views are spectacular. We spotted what looked like a good place to pull over to get a nice overlook of the Rio Grande. As we hiked out a bit, we ran into a couple that were drinking a bottle of Dom Perignon in front of a rock with some graffiti on it. Turns out that a scene from the movie Fandango was filmed at this spot that included a scene where the characters dig up a bottle of Dom that they buried and promised to return to one day. We figured what the heck let’s get a photo.
Since we arrived to our campground later in the day, we only had time to drive the park road for 20-25 miles. No time for any hikes in the State Park. We decided to go into the National Park the next day to check out the areas of interest on the west side before we drove over to the east side to camp. Unfortunately we will have to wait and explore the State Park on another trip.
We went into the park early on Saturday. The crowds were pretty big and when we made our way up to Chisos Basin to hike to the “Window” we nabbed one of the last parking spots in the area. We couldn’t even get close to the Ranger Office, store or restaurant. That would all change the very next day, when the place emptied out.
The Chisos Mountains sit basically at the very center of the park. No matter where you are in the park you can see it. From the road it looks like it could be one very large butte. However, when you drive up to the top it turns out the Chisos Mountains encircles a very large basin.
If you have a small trailer or are tent camping, there is great campground inside the basin. Don’t try to bring a big rig into the area, the roads would have been way too tight for our 33 foot trailer.
I heard about the “Window” from several people as we drove across Texas. It’s a fairly easy hike, probably 4 miles round trip. The area down by the window is pretty tight. We decided to scooch out to the edge for a photo-op. I don’t think I was more nervous about falling in my life. The rock was slippery smooth and it didn’t feel like it would take much to get sliding. You can tell by my face, I’m not too comfortable.
It’s the only place you can see out of the basin unless you hike to the rim. At the time the view was pretty spectacular, but when we returned a few days later to hike up to the South Rim, I would be overwhelmed by the view. Nonetheless, the hike to the Window is very cool.
Since we would be moving to the east side of the park, we decided to check out everything we could on the west side. We ended up driving 150 miles that day and only saw a fraction of the west side of the park. Driving is not my favorite way to experience nature, but I have to admit this place is even spectacular to drive through. You will be smiling non-stop. I can’t remember the last time I was so content driving 150 miles and only going 45 mph (the park max speed limit).
We decided to drive the 46 miles from Chisos Basin to Santa Elena Canyon without stopping. If we had enough day light we would pick up some cool stops on the way back out. We did make one stop to the Cottonwood Campground – a no generator area – where we confirmed we would not be able to park our 5th wheel in any spot. Saved ourselves 8 gallons of gas by not pulling the trailer down there.
We did the short Santa Elena Canyon Trail, that takes you as far as you can go into the canyon on foot. Having a kayak here would be a great option to explore the rest of the canyon. The canyon is a bit of a “Brain Games” mystery spot. When you are looking down river in the canyon, you would swear the water is flowing up a rather large grade.
To our amazement, the folks from the Lajitas Resort, 70 miles away, were setting up for a wedding ceremony.
Sunday was a totally different day. No lines to get through the gate and no traffic in the park. It’s as if everyone vanished into thin air. We drove to the Rio Grande Village Campground and selected a site will a spectacular view of the bluffs in Mexico.
As the name would imply this campground is right on the Rio Grande. In this neck of the woods, the Rio Grande is only about 30 yards wide and Mexico was only 100 yards from our trailer. We didn’t go over, but there is a port of entry to the town of Boquillas Del Carmen just down from the campground, where some enterprising individuals will row you across the river and provide a donkey ride into town so that you can do a little shopping and have lunch. You need a passport to get back into the USA and you need to be back over by 6:00 as the port closes for the night – or you could probably just wade across the river at night :).
The next day we did a very nice 6 mile round trip hike right out of our campground to Hot Springs. The hike was very cool, but the hot springs was a little disappointing. I guess I’m not sure what a hot springs area should look like, but I kept hearing people talking about sitting in the hot springs.
Turns out, if you didn’t see someone sitting in it, you would probably walk right on by it. It’s a little stoned in area about 15 by 15 feet and only a couple of feet deep. The water was very nice and warm, but it was a little cozy in there with the other folks. We heard the day before was standing room only, gross!!!
All along trails in this part of the park we ran into random spots where there would be walking sticks and little trinkets for sale. Now, I understand that people are coming over the border illegally to set these up and are probably disturbing the eco-system by creating their own trail to these spots, but I really didn’t see any harm in it. The park has signs all over warning you that it is illegal to buy these items and that they would be confiscated and you would be fined. My guess is if they didn’t make a big deal of it, there would be little trinket stands every 10 feet.
The next day we headed back up to Chisos Basin. We took the ranger up on her recommendation for a trail to hike. I’m glad she didn’t size us up as older, out of shape people and suggest an easier hike. The South Rim Trail was right up our alley, even though we are older and slightly out of shape people. It was over 12 miles of up and down, through canyons, across meadows and ultimately coming out onto the south rim of the mountain for an incredible panoramic view of the southern side of the park.
In all the years of hiking, this would be our first black bear sighting. We did feel we had a pretty good chance of spotting one after seeing the bear crossing sign
and being asked by two different rangers that were on the way down if we had seen any bear. When I asked why all the curiosity, he told us there was a “bad bear” out there. Uhhh, what do you mean, bad bear, exactly?! I guess one had ripped up a tent of some people who were out hiking. Not sure if the one we saw was it, but it sure was close to the back country campground that we hiked past.
We had perfect conditions on this hike, nice blue sky, cool temperatures and only a few fellow hikers. This was one of the best all around hikes we have completed so far. Plenty of elevation gain to make it difficult and a good mix of terrain and eco-systems that rewards with a spectacular view at the half way point. We could have hiked a much shorter trail to Emory Peak to take in just the view, but we would have missed all the canyons, meadows and of course the bear.
The Rio Grande Village campground was great. Each night we would hike up to the top of a nearby hill to watch the sun set behind Chisos mountain. We woke up one day to a family of Javalina grazing outside our trailer. The views were incredible just sitting at the RV. If you get a chance, go into the campground store and meet Gabriel. He is quite the enthusiastic character who is very knowledgeable of the area.
I was incredibly depressed when we had to leave. If I had not already booked and paid for a site at Davis Mountain and if our power connector had not broken, I would have loved to stay there for the max stay of 14 days. This would be a great place to try to nab a camp host job through the winter.