Posted by on Apr 5, 2018 in Gallery, National Parks, Texas, Travel | 38 comments

Thank you, dear friends, for your compassionate, generous, and supportive comments in response to my last blog post. While this blog is primarily about our travels, everything that happens along the way is part of the journey. I don’t write about every flat tire or mosquito bite, but I do write about the big challenges. Your kindness buoys our spirits and helps us know we’re not alone as we navigate this epic adventure called life.

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.

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.”

Painted hills on the road to Boquillas Canyon

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.

Our view at Study Butte RV Park

Curiously, there’s a cemetery at Study Butte RV Park

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.

First stop: Panther Junction Visitor Center

A VW camper caravan

The Grapevine Hills Trail on a cold, late December day

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.

On the way to Balanced Rock, the big attraction on the Grapevine Hills Trail

It’s a short hike at less than two miles round-trip, but has some fun rock scrambling

Beneath the famous Balanced Rock

Surreal views from the top of the Grapevine Hills Trail

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.

On the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

Beginning our adventures in Big Bend with Perry and Beth

At the Sotol Vista Overlook

On the Burro Mesa Pouroff Trail; about one mile round-trip

Purple prickly pear provides a bit of color during the winter

Admiring the Burro Mesa Pouroff

On the Mule Ears Spring Trail; about 4 miles round trip

See the Mule Ears in the distance?

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.

Beginning the ascent into Santa Elena Canyon; about 1.6 miles round trip

The Rio Grande is the watery border between the U.S. and Mexico

Along the Santa Elena Canyon Trail

At the end of the trail in Santa Elena Canyon, overlooking the Rio Grande

Heading back down the concrete paved stairway

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.

Rafting on the Rio Grande with our very fun guide

It’s more of a float trip than a rafting trip

A great day for floating on the river

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.

On the road to Boquillas Canyon

Overlooking the Rio Grande on the Boquillas Canyon Trail

Trinkets made by craftspeople of Boquillas, Mexico

Jesus from Boquillas serenades hikers on the trail, sells trinkets, and makes a quick return to his home across the river if officials appear

The getaway canoe on the bank of the Rio Grande

Beth cooling off in the Rio Grande

A Mexican burro mama and baby come to drink from the river

On the Hot Springs Trail

Historic bathhouse on the trail

The hot spring was packed on this fine late December day

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.

The Window Trail

Heading down into the basin on the Window Trail

Stone walls along the trail; more of the handiwork of the CCC boys

A stone staircase, also created by the CCC, provides passage through the rocky chasm

Hiking up the carved stairs on the Window Trail

Admiring the view from The Window, the rock slick as glass from centuries of water cascading over the edge

Returning on the Window Trail

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.

Heading into the Chisos Canyon at daybreak

Views of the massive Casa Grande volcanic butte dominate the trail

A century plant (agave) dried bloom stalk on the beautiful trail

Stairs carved in pink granite, again thanks to the CCC

The pines and junipers on the trail look almost like bonsai

Nearing the end of the trail, with another view of Casa Grande

A volcanic pinnacle at the end of the Lost Mine Trail

About the campground

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.

Our site at Study Butte RV Park. It looks spacious in this photo because Beth and Perry had left. They were about three feet away, which is just the perfect distance with good friends! :-)

Next Up: Big Bend Bookends: Terlingua and Marathon, TX