One of the hardest things about life is doing something for the first time or going into something blind. There is a certain exhilaration but also a decent amount of fear and uncertainty that comes with a first date, moving to a new city, going to a new school, or just trying something new in general.
Obviously taking a road trip doesn’t rise to the level of starting a new job on the scale of “things that can give you crippling anxiety” but Big Bend National Park is a big one for anyone going there for the first time. “Why am I going to the desert? What happens if I get carteled into Mexico? What if I get attacked by a cougar that spits rattlesnakes?” These are all very rational questions that come up as you pack for a park you’ve only seen in pictures located in a part of the world you’ve never been.
In reality, once you push past the uncertainty and drive through the dusty oil towns and windmill covered mesas, Big Bend is a figurative oasis. Do not expect to see much water, not even in the Rio Grande. We were fortunate to travel during a wet year and the park was in full bloom but there are no lakes or running streams here.
Even the Rio Grande was only waist deep at its deepest points and often our raft got stuck when the river bottom was only submerged by a few inches of water. However the plant life is extremely efficient and much of the park was green, even after devestating years of drought.
While the desert floor is beautiful in its own right, eventually one sees enough sagebrush that you start thinking of ways to monetize it. Upon realizing that even if one did find a use for sagebrush, tearing up vast quantities of the one plant holding the dirt together in a desert probably isn’t a great idea (Dust Bowl part Deux anyone?) it’s time to head into the mountains.
The Chisos Mountains at the center of the park felt more like something from New Mexico or Colorado than the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert. The high elevations made the climate cool and windy which perfectly contrasted the hotter desert floor. Sleeping at night and keeping cool were no problem at all even in the middle of the desert in the middle of the summer. We were actually hotter on the return trip to Houston than we were at any point in the park itself.
Of course this isn’t to say this trip was a walk in the (national) park. You’ve gotta drink tons of water and be careful not to over exert yourself. This place is remote and even the heavily trafficked trails and roads are lightly traveled. The ground is rocky and much of the rock in the park is rotten, making tripping and twisted ankles very easy. Even small stumbles can be problematic when one realizes how often trails are flanked by cacti.
We were in the park less than a week and encountered four snakes including a rattlesnake right next to our path that did not rattle and a host of scorpions and spiders. The park is also home to approximately an infinity number of yellow jackets, wasps, and flies so be prepared to dodge and swat at things that move in three dimensions. Not to mention the danger presented by billions of road runners darting in front of your car every three seconds.
Big Bend is beautiful but it’s harsh. It is also massive. Big Bend is the 14th largest national park in the system and its the 7th largest in the lower 48 states checking in at just over 800,000 acres. From the town of Terlingua just west of the park to Rio Grande Village and the crossing to the Mexican town of Boaquillas in the east the travel time is over an hour and a half. Traveling the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive from the Chisos foothills to Sanata Elena Canyon takes about an hour. The park itself protects three distinct biomes: the mountains, the desert floor, and the river.
Our time was limited but we got a taste of all three biomes. I will say this is the point where most travel articles lose me. Too often when travel writers talk about a place they visit they spend less time talking about the place and more time talking about what they did and how amazing their lives are. I can assure you, there will be no humble bragging here. At no point in this trip did my girlfriend and I fix poor children’s cleft pallets while zip lining through a majestic waterfall in a country you will never visit. Everything we did is easily repeatable by an average person. Even hiking to the top of a mountain was my girlfriends first hike and I have the fitness level of a middle aged bowler so don’t be intimidated.
We stayed in the Chisos Mountains, camping the first night and then staying at the lodge the second and third (turns out a twin inflatable mattress isn’t going to cut it for two people). We also got great sunset views through the Window and hiked the Lost Mine Trail which takes you to the top of Crown Mountain giving spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, canyons, and especially nearby Lost Mine Peak.
On our second day in the park we took a rafting trip out of Terlingua along a stretch of the Rio Grande in Big Bend Ranch State Park, the adjacent and amazingly even more remote state park. The immediate impressions of the river is how little water is in it and how much more rugged the Mexican side of the bank is. The Rio is never more than a few feet deep and crossing it would be a minor inconvenience of not a welcome respite from the heat. My sister asked what stops people from crossing it? Honestly? Nothing. But nothing is needed. The blistering and rugged journey from the interior of Mexico to the river and the subsequent journey across cacti, snake, and sagebrush riddled American parkland provide a better barrier than any wall could ever hope to achieve. If someone was that determined to make that journey and succeed in crossing the landscape then frankly we should welcome someone of that skill and determination with open arms. Wet weather has also choked the banks with thick vegetation though our guide told us that in dry periods it can reduce quickly and flooding can quickly down much of the brush.
Unfortunately the scope of the park is so massive that the only way to see much of it with any kind of rapidity is from the car. Whether it was due to low use or the preservative qualities of the desert, the roads in Big Bend are spectacular and in great condition. The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is easily the best drive I’ve ever been on in my life.
The drive offers stunning views of the Chisos, landmarks like the Mule Ears and Cerro Castellan and ends with a spectacular overlook of Santa Elena Canyon, the “Grand Canyon of the Rio Grande.” Describing Santa Elena Canyon is honestly impossible to someone who hasn’t seen it. The Texas side of the park slopes down from the Chisos into a flood plain with the Rio Grande at the edge. Abruptly out of the floor towering walls of solid rock jut upward creating a long system the locals call the “Great Wall of Chihuahua.” The Rio plunges into the sheer walls and creates a spectacular canyon from the overlook to Lajitas, TX.
Santa Elena Canyon is one of three major canyons in the park the others being Boaquillas and Mariscal but we only saw Santa Elena. It is also possibly the largest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Unlike the rotten volcanic igneous rock that defines the Chisos, the canyon and the sheer cliffs in this part of the park are due to earlier geologic uplifting. Smooth granite shoots upwards 1,500 feet with the only dent in the wall being the canyon itself. We did not get a chance to go into the canyon or up on the cliffs but both hikes are supposed to be spectacular in their own right with a float in the canyon having some good technical rapids despite the low level of the river.
As for the people, the atmosphere in the park is amazing. Big Bend is one of the least visited parks in the system with 300,000 visitors per year on average. It was neither deserted nor crowded. The lodge and campground in the Chisos Mountains were filled with helpful staff and great visitors. We were even able to commandeer the TV in the bar one evening to watch the U.S. Women’s National Team defeat Germany in the Women’s World Cup semifinals.
They served coffee in the morning which my girlfriend loved and I loved because I no longer had to boil water in a kettle before even pouring the coffee. It was also nice to take a shower after days of being in the Rio Grande and climbing up mountains.
A few days is hardly enough time to scratch the surface all in all. We were not able to do most of the major trails in the park and we didn’t venture to the southeastern corner which is only accessible by gravel roads. We got a good taste but to truly experience the park and the area you would need a full week and even then it would take years to truly see the entirety of the park. I hope we get to go back one day but this is also going to be the first of 58 more travel reviews of the national park system. So with that being said I will leave you with my absolute favorite picture from Big Bend…