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 were 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 30s) 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.
WOW, such gorgeous photos.
I liked the photo of the view of Casa Grande and Mt.s with the blue sky. You seem to have had a bit
of luck in picking the perfect RV Park. Glad Perry
and Beth could join you. I marvel at the amazing
diverse landscapes and sites. Lucky you got to spend so much time in Big Bend.
Peggy, we had a blast with Perry and Beth. They’re great traveling companions and like to hike as much as we do. Big Bend really is diverse—and so beautiful! We were happy to have a week there, but we could have easily spent even more time.
Wonderful photos! I visited Big Bend in February about 5 years ago, but only for a few days. I was driving a class C Toyoto motorhome, so I had to pass up SO many roads with “4wd vehicles only” signs. Can’t wait to go back now that I have a 4×4 pickup and a small trailer!
The one word that I always think of with Big Bend is “vast”.
I’m so glad you enjoyed the photos, Ann. Sounds like you’re all set to return to Big Bend now with your 4×4 truck and trailer! And if your trailer is small, you’ll be able to fit into any of the national park campgrounds.
“Vast” is a good descriptor for the park.
Another awesome adventure. The photo of Eric and the Balanced Rock is epic! Amazing photos and I am awed by the creative endeavors that the CCC did.
Brenda, add this one to your list if you travel to Texas. We love seeing the CCC work in so many of the national and state parks. They certainly made life easier for all of us who enjoy hiking!
We visited Big Bend Park this last Oct and it was warm but not too hot. This is such a huge Park. We took the rowboat across the river then horses into Boquillas. What a charming town. Probably hasn’t changed in many years. In Oct the nights were coal black and i saw stars and constellations i haven’t seen outside of a planetarium. It was a very special trip.
We tried to go to Boquillas—went through the border patrol checkpoint and made it as far as the river before we were turned back by a fierce windstorm that sandblasted us and closed down the town. :-(( So it’s on our list for our next time in Big Bend. So glad to hear you had such a wonderful trip!
Thank you for taking me back to one of the most beautiful places we have ever visited.
Your surreal photo of Grapevine Hills is gorgeous! Print and frame that one. Isn’t Santa Elena Canyon just beautiful. I love the photo of you looking around the corner. Too cute.
I bet the raft ride gave you an entire different view of BB. It does look smooth. My kind of boat ride.
Window Trail was our most challenging hike. Of course we weren’t prepared, but it is still a challenging one for sure. Looks like y’all handled it very nicely.
Oh gorgeous photos of Lost Mine. It was our favorite too. What a view! So glad you had a wonderful time with good friends. AND…so glad we took your advise and did all the hikes you suggested. Thanks again!
Marsha, I’m so glad you loved Big Bend as much as we did! I’m happy we were able to provide some hiking tips for you—you guys did a great job of describing all of the hikes in detail on your blog. If you return, try to go all the way on the Window Trail. It looked more challenging than it was. I think you made it almost to the end!
The raft trip really was beautiful and a good way to experience the canyon from the water. But knowing how easy it is to navigate the river, next time we’ll do our own kayak trip.
Loved seeing Big Bend again through your eyes. When we headed to Big Bend a couple years ago a friend told me “there’s not much there” and how wrong she was. We really enjoyed the park and had many adventures there. Safe travels
Barbara, isn’t it interesting how differently we all see things? We’ve had people tell us not to bother with certain places but we’ve gone anyway, and had some of our most interesting adventures (Neah Bay in Washington comes to mind).
We loved Big Bend—so glad to hear that you did, as well. Thanks for your comment. :-)
Thanks for the memories! We were there in 2004. It really is that beautiful. And that remote. And that worth the trip. Now we want to go back!
Gretchen, knowing something of your adventurous spirit and love of nature, it doesn’t surprise me that you’ve been to Big Bend (and probably hiked every trail!). It’s definitely worth a return visit—we want to go back, as well.
Wow, thank you for the awesome tour. You guys really covered a lot of ground in a week, and there is SO much to see. I didn’t expect so many different types of scenery there. Your photos are fantastic as always. Agree with the comment above – the photo from the Grapevine Hills Trail is frame-worthy. Now I am really looking forward to exploring this huge park!
Laura, we did cover a lot of ground, but that’s kind of a given in Big Bend. We definitely made an effort to plan our adventures so that we maximized our time hiking and minimized our driving time. Dividing the park into west/east/Chisos Mountains adventures helped a lot.
But…the driving is so scenic, and so beautiful, that we didn’t mind. The Grapevine Hills view is one of my favorite photos, too. :-)
Now that is a landscape worth getting the paints out for. It’s obviously, the wild west landscape inspiring all of those old westerns.
Are there really madrona trees there?
Sheila, this would be a wonderful landscape to paint! I’d like to see what you would create. And yes, there really are madrones in the Chisos Mountains. You would especially love the bonsai looking junipers and pines.
You definitely made the most of your week with those great trails. We also prefer the cooler temps anytime.
Debbie, we did make the most of our week. There are a few more trails on our list for next time, but we made sure to fit in all of the trails that were most important to us.
So that’s who Jesus is! We heard him sing, but he didn’t cross over that day. Thanks for bringing back some wonderful memories. Like you, I went to Big Bend not expecting much … I left quite impressed. I’ll keep the Study Butte RV Park in mind for next time we visit … there’s still a lot left to see and do there, so we’ll someday make a studied effort to go out of our way to spend time at BB.
P.S. I got the link to your blog from my friend Sue of Moho Travels.
Erin, we were happy to meet Jesus from Boquillas as we hiked along the Rio Grande. He’s quite the character, and as you know, is a good singer.
Sorting through our photos while writing this post made me realize again just how beautiful Big Bend is, and how unique. I’m so glad you found our blog! Thanks for commenting.
Yes, we love BBNP and it is worth driving there even it is out of the way. It so nice to see the park in a different season for I see some water there. Oh, so Jesus was still there serenading you! We hiked most of the trails you did from east to west! Great photos and thank you for taking me back there, it’s been a while.
Did you drive the river road, at Big Bend Ranch State Park? or is it another post?
MonaLiza, you encouraged us to make the trip to Big Bend! We really enjoyed being there in late December/early January. We’d like to return sometime to see the spring blooms, but I don’t want to be there when it’s hot!
We drove the river road in Big Bend Ranch State Park to go on our rafting trip, but didn’t have a chance to return to do any other exploring in the state park. That’s on our list for another trip!
Ever since David spent a few days in Big Bend last fall I’ve been waiting for your post and it sure didn’t disappoint. I suspect I sound like a broken record exclaiming over how beautiful your first picture is and the one of the painted hills. What fun to be there with friends. I’m wondering if you would recommend December as a good time to go despite such short days. I’m also wondering if staying outside the park as you do is actually better than staying inside in terms of reaching different sections of the park. We usually like to stay inside National Parks but Arches was one where we found there was as much to do outside the park as inside and a long way to reach things from their end of the road campground. Love the VW and you sure look bundled up. I never think of Big Bend or Death Valley as being cold. Wow 30’s. The hiking looks fantastic. Love the purple prickly pear and the Burro Mesa Pouroff. Great name. Does it ever actually pour? Not sure I’ve ever seen more beautiful pictures of the Rio Grande. Of course I love the burros. Could be Fred and Ginger in reverse. She was bigger and brown, he smaller and black. With 4 of you, a kayak shuttle would be possible but not with two and you’d have missed the info. Was it worth the price? SO sorry you picked the only time when you wouldn’t have the hot springs to yourself. By the time I got to the Chisos Basin and the cool Window Trail I couldn’t believe you did all this in a week and wouldn’t have wanted to try to keep up with you so I see I’ll need more time than that if ever I get to go. FABULOUS look at this park Thanks so much!!
Sherry, I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, even though I’m way behind in posting. I would definitely recommend December as a great time to be in Big Bend (January and February, too). We didn’t mind the cold temperatures (it warmed up nicely most days) and we had plenty of time to do the hiking we wanted to do. I wouldn’t go again during Christmas break, though, for obvious reasons. Although it was really fun being in Terlingua at the holidays!
We were definitely busy while we were there, out and about every day, all day. So I’d say 10 days or two weeks in the park would be ideal.
Wow, you saw a lot and took great pictures- far better than mine from a lucky short trip I was able to make between treatments. I loved it too and was especially taken by the night sky on a clear night. I have never seen the heavens look so fantastic – even in Utah. Great post!
Thanks so much, David. It’s great to hear from you! I know how much you enjoyed your trip to Big Bend—I hope you and Sherry will make it there for more exploring. You would both love the trails. And you’re right, the night sky is breathtaking.
It’s a beautiful place that we are looking forward to seeing some day! You saw so much in a week. Love the peak around the river canyon, and the peaceful float on the river. The photo of the bridge looks like there’s a large city across the top! Some of our favorite parks are the quirky ones we first think are a mistake and turn out to be just right. Looks like you found another one here :-))
I agree, Jodee. We’ve definitely found that some of the quirkiest parks turn out to be our favorites (even though my first impulse sometimes is to bail!). With your appreciation for unique landscapes, you’ll love Big Bend.
It was great to experience this wonderful park with you two!
Best company in every way! We’re looking forward to Nashville. :-)
Thanks for taking me to a park I’ve yet to experience! I can tell we would enjoy it too!
Lisa, you and Hans would enjoy hiking and exploring Big Bend. Just be sure to go in the winter—I know you feel the same way I do about hiking in hot weather.
This post had me smiling Laurel, as I thought back on our time in Big Bend. Although it is a bit difficult to get to the park, it is so worth the effort. It ranks up there in our top 10 favorite national parks. I can’t believe the number of people in the hot springs. We had it to ourselves when we were in the park. I was feeling a bit frisky that day as I stripped down to my birthday suit to get into the springs, only to discover two young locals on horseback right across the river watching me…oops! I’m guessing they were waiting for us to leave so they could enjoy the springs. Great photos!
Such a great story, LuAnn! We were kind of surprised at how many people there were in the springs, but then again…it was Christmas break. We joined the party anyway. :-)
That’s great that you saved the Lost Mine Trail for last, as we did it first…it was the highlight of our trip! The entire park was great, but we loved that hike in particular.
Thanks for sharing your experiences in this great park!
Thanks, Pete. We deliberately saved the Lost Mine Trail for last, but we enjoyed all of the trails in the park. It’s so much more beautiful than I had imagined!