As I start to write this entry, we are sitting in our vehicle at Nine Point Draw in Big Bend National Park, in the dark, inverter fan humming away as Teresa and I type up our Big Bend blog entries. Big Bend National Park is one of my favorite destinations. It was my first major national park during my last journey, so it has a special place in my heart. Simply put, it is a land of extremes. Parts of it are extremely desolate. For example, where we are camped now at Nine Point Draw, we have heard nothing but the wind whipping around our vehicle. There are a few scattered bushes, cactuses, birds, and coyotes in the distance, but otherwise, there is nothing but rock, sand, and sun/moonlight. But if any amount of humidity hits the lower elevations, the smell of creosotebush fills the air with its intoxicating medicine-like smell (it is NOT like the tar-like smell of creosote railroad ties). But, move a few miles South, and you end up in the Chisos mountains. The Chisos mountains are the park’s centerpiece, full of trees and animal activity with elevations ranging from 4600ft at the top of the Window pour-off, to 5400 ft at Chisos Basin, to 7825 ft at Emory Peak. Move yet further South, and you hit the Rio Grande river (1850 ft at Rio Grande Village), home of a wonderful hot spring we visited multiple times on this trip, and again full of life. Big Bend is named aptly for the big turn (bend) the Rio Grande makes through this part of Texas.
In addition, the park is configured perfectly for boondocking (free camping). All you need is a free permit (after park-wide entrance fee [or, as in our case, National Parks Pass]), a 4wd high clearance vehicle, and the entire park is yours to explore with more free drive-in camping spots than you can see in one trip. The sites are designated and marked, but I’d say 90% of the camping sites are configured where you cannot see another camp site. (I wish more National parks, given the space, topography and low visitation, would adopt this model!) It works incredibly well for campers with a desire for a semi-wilderness experience on a tight budget such as ourselves. We pull into our spot and call it home. A few times, we’ve shed our clothes and sat out in the shade of our truck. More than a few times, we’ve stripped down to enjoy a hot solar shower before bed.
So before getting into Big Bend, let me roll back the clock a little bit and get everyone up to date. We had just ended up spending a 24 hours or so in Truth or Consequences, NM and a couple of days in Las Cruces, NM area exploring the surrounding BLM/Forest lands. (More info on these experiences in Teresa’s Daily Diary here). I figured we had to leave the Las Cruces area by a certain time to be able to make it into Big Bend with enough time to reserve a back country campsite. I, however, did not take into account the time change between New Mexico and Texas. While New Mexico is in Mountain time, Texas is in Central, even though the two areas are nearly at the same latitude. I realized, half way enroute, we weren’t going to get our backcountry site in time. So doing some research, I found Elephant Mountain WMA (Wildlife Management Area) on the way to Big Bend. Usually, you can camp for free in WMA’s, but this one, oddly enough, was state land (instead of national land) and charged a significant fee. However, as we were driving down highway 118 from Alpine, TX, we discovered that Texas DOT has put up some picnic areas, and the picnic spots even allow for overnight stays (so long as you don’t set up a “structure” [IE Tent]). The only drawback? No bathroom! Not even a portapotty! Who in their right mind would create a picnic area without a bathroom facility of some type? Weird! But that’s West Texas for ya. Aside from some of the towns, it’s a very strange desolate place. As an example, check out the Marfa Lights (explained here) or Prada Marfa (El Paso Times Article Page 1, Page 2).
Anyhow, our first night in Big Bend started at a beautiful campsite (La Clocha #1) overlooking the Rio Grande (and Mexico) and a dip in the Hot Springs. The next morning, we hiked along the Rio Grande through Hot Springs Canyon from the Hot Springs to Rio Grande Village (where I enjoyed a bag of Habanero Doritos and a cold drink) and back. It turned out to be 8 miles round trip to the store instead of 6 miles as advertised. (The store is one mile from the trail’s end at Daniel’s Ranch.) It’s a beautiful trail with views of the river canyon. Even after hiking through intense desert heat on the way back, I thought the dip in the hot springs still felt pretty good on the way back. Teresa on the other hand, was experiencing mild heat exhaustion. It’s gonna take us a while to get used to this desert heat!
Our next campsite was Pine Canyon, on the edge of the Chisos mountains, a bit higher up in elevation than our Rio Grande campsite. The following morning, we did a 4 mile Pine Canyon hike to the bottom of a dramatic pour-off where water, when flowing, pours off the edge of a cliff into the valley below. Being in a 7 year drought, there was no water, but being in the shade was quite nice.
Our next night is spent at La Noria campsite out in the middle of desert off of the Old Ore road. The following morning, we mountain biked out to Ernst Tinaja (tinaja means earthen jug) and scared up a bunch of birds as we approached the tinaja. We found a dead vulture floating in the pool. There were obvious claw marks along the edge of the pool where exhausted animals have tried, in vain, to climb out. This vulture had probably gotten its feathers too wet to fly out and died in the pool. According to rangers, this happens quite frequently when the pool is so low. They have found dead mountain lion and deer in the pool.
While hanging out at the tinaja, a few folks hiked up. One group of younger guys from East Texas showed up and told us about a little festival in Terlingua Ghost Town. Perhaps some of you have heard of the Terlingua Chili Cookoff? It is quite literally world famous, even though the town of Terlingua has a pretty meager population. Well, we missed the Chili Cookoff by a few months, but managed to watch the Chihuahua races. Pretty hilarious!
Arriving back in the park, we headed for our Paint Gap #3 campsite with gorgeous views of the Chisos range. For anyone coming from the East coast visiting the park for the first time, I highly recommend spending the first portion of your trip in the desert, saving the Chisos mountains for last part. For no other reason, the stark contrast between a nearly lifeless desert and the treed mountains makes for an awesome end to any trip. Our trip pretty much ended with a pretty rough backpack trip in the mountains… we ended up hiking 22 miles, including a 3 mile slog up to Laguna Meadows with nearly six gallons of water on our back and outstanding views from the Chisos Rim. We also summited Texas’s second highest peak, Emory Peak, a dizzying experience due to a easy, but very humbling (due to extreme exposure) rock climb.
We ended the backpack with a hike up to the Chisos Lodge Restaurant. 🙂
After relaxing for two more nights in Big Bend, allowing our sore legs to rest, we headed out of Big Bend through Persimmon Gap. Then an an odd thing happened. While driving out of our park, we saw a Sunlite pop-up camper on a truck parked at the visitors center. It was very similar to our old camper that we sold to a guy in Atlanta. Well, as we got closer and closer, we recognized some of the bumper stickers on the back; we realized that we had found our old camper! We went inside and found Greg Scott, the guy we had sold it to and had a nice long chat about traveling. He’s out photographing birds. Be sure to check his website for some outstanding shots.
So as I write this, I am in La Trattoria Cafe here in Alpine, Texas. The food is good and the internet is fast, so we are quite content. Next, we are off to Davis Mountains State Park, Fort Davis, McDonald Observatory, followed by Carlsbad Caverns, hiking to the top of Texas at Guadelupe Mountains, White Sands, then Gila Cliff Dwellings and Gila Wilderness. After Gila, we should enter Arizona. Until then, happy trails!
PS Stay tuned for a new Big Bend Podcast!