Flipping back through the calendar pages to the cusp of the New Year finds us in Big Bend National Park. According to Native American legend, after the Great Spirit created heaven and earth he dumped all the leftover rocks into a big pile, and the Big Bend was born. Doesn’t sound too appealing, does it? I assure you, that legend doesn’t tell the whole story.
This is not a place you just happen upon. We’ve come close numerous times in our travels across West Texas, but it wasn’t until the last of December that we turned onto the two-lane road that would take us seventy miles from the nearest town into that giant pile of rubble known as Big Bend National Park.
It is remote, rugged, and wild. And far more beautiful than I imagined (truthfully, I didn’t imagine it would be beautiful. I imagined dry, rocky, and barren. I was wrong).
Even the National Park Service waxes poetic in describing the park: “There is a place in Far West Texas where night skies are dark as coal and rivers carve temple-like canyons in ancient limestone…this magical place is Big Bend.”
We spent a week in the park, hiking as many of the trails as we could squeeze into short winter days, rafting a section of the Rio Grande, and best of all, sharing adventures with our good friends and fellow full-time travelers Beth and Perry. Our verdict: This truly is a magical place.
Big Bend National Park is enormous. Covering more than 1250 square miles of desert and mountainous terrain, it takes more than an hour to get from one side of the park to the other. But there’s no traffic. And the roads are peaceful and scenic.
We stayed in a private RV park just outside the entrance to the west side of the park. Upon arrival, I had one of those “Uh-oh, what have I gotten us into?” moments. The park is hard packed dirt, the sites are not well-defined, and scattered around the property is a random assortment of junk, most of which the owner intends to use for some project someday. Oh, and there’s an old cemetery for added ambiance.
As it turns out, it was a wonderful place to stay. The internet is free and fast, the owner is friendly and accommodating, and the park is quiet and has memorable sunsets and dark night skies filled with stars.
We started our explorations at the Panther Junction Visitor Center. The film about the park is excellent, and the map and list of hikes we picked up was invaluable in planning our time. While there, we decided to hike the Grapevine Hills Trail, which isn’t far from the visitor center. It turned out to be one of our favorite short hikes in the park.
We happened to be at the park the week between Christmas and New Year’s. There were a couple of nights of unseasonably cold temperatures (dropping into the 30’s) and a couple of days of chilly hiking, especially when the wind was blowing. But we’ll take cold any day over hot, especially in Big Bend, where there’s not much shade to be found and the temperatures can soar to 95 degrees by late spring.
Adventures On The West Side
The 31-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (named for the first park superintendent, who helped design the route) is the highlight of the west side of the park. We set out bright and early on a chilly morning to drive the trail, stopping often to admire the views and hiking a variety of short trails along the way. At the end of the day, we’d hiked about seven miles, and spent many more miles entranced by the mosaic of canyons, cliffs, desert, and clouds.
We finished up our day on the Santa Elena Canyon Trail, which begins rather elaborately with paved switchbacks and stone retaining walls before descending to the river. The trail hugs the Rio Grande and offers a glimpse of the temple-like canyons carved from limestone promised by the national park.
Curious to see the canyon from the water, we signed up for a half-day rafting expedition on the Rio Grande. Our guide was high-spirited and great fun and we learned a lot from her about the geology and history of the area. It’s not an inexpensive trip, though, and we realized in retrospect that we could have easily used our own kayaks and created our own shuttle.
Adventures On The East Side
On the opposite side of the park from where we were staying, we explored the rocky desert-like terrain of Boquillas Canyon and the historic hot springs on the Rio Grande. This is one of the only places we encountered hordes of people (in Big Bend National Park, “horde” is a relative term. This is one of the least visited national parks in the country). Had we been there at any time other than Christmas break, we would have had the hot springs to ourselves.
Adventures In The Chisos Basin
The Chisos Mountains are the crown jewel of the park. We chose two beautiful hikes here. The Window Trail is a 5.6 mile round-trip trek that descends 1,000 feet and ends abruptly at the pour-off for the basin. It’s a wonderful framed viewpoint with rocks worn to a glass-like smoothness by centuries of cascading water. You don’t want to get too close to the edge on this one.
We saved the Lost Mine Trail for our last adventure in the park. The rugged, gorgeous trail climbs 1,100 feet over two and a half miles through a cool forest of pine, oak, juniper, and madrone with stunning views along the way of volcanic buttes rising from the desert floor. If we had to choose one not-to-be-missed hike, it would be this one. Or maybe the Window Trail. Or the Grapevine Hills Trail. I take it back—we don’t want to choose. We can’t choose.
About the RV Park:
We were in Big Bend National Park the week between Christmas and New Year’s, one of the two busiest times at the park (March is the second busiest time). Even months ahead of time, there were no reservations available at Rio Grande Campground, the only RV campground within the park. All of the other campgrounds in the park are no hook-up, first-come first served, and most are unsuitable for anything but the smallest rig.
As it turns out, we were happy that we landed at Study Butte RV Park. The park has full hook-ups, the owner is great, and the internet is speedy and free. And it’s just a few miles from the town of Terlingua, which if you come to Big Bend, you do not want to miss.
Next Up: Big Bend Bookends: Terlingua and Marathon, TX