The main thing to say about Big Bend National Park is WOW! My apologies in advance for the size of this blog but Big Bend really required it. Big Bend NP does a first come first serve system for campsites so we had booked two different RV parks in Terlingua and Study Butte for 5 nights but we were hoping to get in to Big Bend. We stopped for Diesel and a few groceries in Marathon and then headed down to the NP. When we arrived at the Persimmon Gap visitor centre they let us know that we couldn’t go to Chisos Basin because our RV was one foot too long (limit was 24’ and they fine you if you have an issue) so our only option would be Rio Grande Village and there were 11 spots left. We checked in at Panther Junction and they didn’t have any updates on availability so we decided to take the 64 KM gamble (if we had to return) and try to get in to the campground. When we arrived at Rio Grande Village the full hook up sites were full but the dry camping (boondock) area had 3 spots left so we selected one and booked in for 5 nights. Once we were setup we went to the store to get internet so we could contact the two places we booked to cancel. We were so glad we came on the Thursday and got a site as every day after that there was scramble for sites and usually just for 1 night. Also the dry camping area seemed nicer than the full hook up area which was more like a parking lot. We really lucked out here. The next morning we drove up to Boquillas Canyon to do the 2.3 KM hike in the 1300’ deep canyon. We climbed up and over the first hill and saw the prehistoric mortar holes that the nomadic tribes used to grind up their seeds, roots, and beans. We also saw the Rio Grande River and how close Mexico was, still can’t imagine the wall in the middle of the river! As we descended to the river’s edge Jesus the Mexican singer (he paddle across illegally) had some copper wire ornaments at a display that you could buy. The canyon was awesome and really not too many people around. There was also a sand dune and some odd clay formations along the trail. After we finished the trail we stopped to see the location where a mining (Zinc, Silver, Lead Ore) tramway used to be located and the minerals would come across the 6 mile tram from Mexico and then get shipped by wagon from the U.S. side to the railroad 85 miles away.
We had heard from Shari and Randy that it was fun to go across to Mexico for lunch so we decided to do that next. The Port of Entry is quite unique! On the U.S. side they don’t have customs officers but instead have a National Park ranger who explains how the process works and what items you cannot bring back. Then you walk down the hill to the Rio Grande River and the “International Ferry Operator” puts you in the row boat and rows you to Mexico! Once there we decided to take the 1.2 KM donkey ride up to the town of Boquillas Del Carmen for lunch with our guide Rafael. On the way up he explained about life in the village which survives from tourism. After 9/11 the border crossing was closed and many people had to leave the village. The crossing re-opened in 2013 and the park encourages people to support the village and the Mexico National Park (you pay a $2 entry fee). The donkey ride was not exactly comfortable;-) When we reached the village we saw a white donkey who was so tired of hauling tourists he was resting his head on another donkey. We decided to go to Jose Falcon’s for lunch since they had the river view. Sharon had a Margarita and I had a Bohemia dark beer. We had appetizer of Tortilla chips, fresh Guacamole, Jalapenos and Onions, and a Tomatillo sauce. For the main course Sharon had a Chile Rellenos and I had the Enchiladas Montada. After lunch we went through the gift shop and then Rafael gave us a tour of the town. We saw the military hummer, the church which has service once per month, the solar powered street lights, the town solar power bank, and lots of ladies selling stitched bags and decorated panels. Then we returned by donkey and row boat and for the U.S. customs they had a scanner for your passport, a camera, and then a remote agent called the ranger who then hands you the phone to answer the questions. Sharon went first so she got all the questions and I just had to say my name and date of birth. What a fun unique experience and we were really glad we had done it on Friday prior to all the Spring Breakers arriving!
The next day was an extremely busy day as we drove about 210 KMS around Big Bend NP and did 6 hikes that totaled about 16 KMS, can you spell exhaustion, especially in the heat of the desert! Big Bend is made up of the 3 primary habitats, the Chihuahuan Desert, the Chisos Mountains, and the Rio Grande River. Since our rig was too long to go on the mountain road we focused on the Desert and the River. The first shot is as we rose out of the Rio Grande Village area and you can see the tunnel we went through on the right hand side of the shot. They have exhibit areas all along the roads so the next shot explained the Chihuahuan Desert. Next is a view of the Chisos Mountain range and we continued over to the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Our first little hike was to see the remains of the Sam Nail Ranch. The most critical element for each ranch was to have a water source and a windmill to draw the water to a holding tank. The ranchers would plant non-native trees and many of those survive to this day as some of the windmills still operate. Some of adobe ranch house walls are still intact and you see remains from shed type structures. Further along the drive we started to see lots of rock protrusion lines and we learned that these were called Dikes and were evidence of volcanic activity in the area.
We soon discovered that our maps did not show all of the possible hikes along the scenic drive so we made sure to stop at each exhibit area. The next one was the Homer Wilson Ranch which had been abandoned in 1945. On the hike down to the ranch we met some hikers who were doing primitive camping and circling around the Chisos Mountain range. It was interesting because they had bear/mountain lion proof storage containers where they could go in advance and place water containers with their names and date on them. You need a huge amount of water when hiking in the desert and this allowed them to have drop points to pick up their water. At the ranch we could see the internal construction with the cane stalks for the ceiling with the tin roof on top and we could see their corral. We also saw the sheep dip, which we didn’t understand until we met a British couple that explained they would disinfect the sheep in this funneled disinfectant bath.
Next stop was the Sotol Vista where we met a guy having lunch and he said he left the Chisos Mountain camping area because it was too much of a zoo with all the spring breakers. It got so busy they would only let one car up the mountain road when one car left so the lineup was absurd. The view from the vista was outstanding but next we had the scary switchback road to the valley floor. The next hike was called the Lower Burro Mesa Pour-off and was one of our most spectacular hikes in the park. It wasn’t long but there were amazingly few people around and the red rocks with the blue sky were an incredible contrast. At the end you saw how the water had carved out the Pour-off which would be very interesting to see after a rain storm. On the way back out of the canyon we saw this Collared Lizard scurrying around.
Our next hike was our longest called the Chimneys trail at 7.7 KM and we were a little hesitant when we started it due to the time and due to the afternoon desert heat but after surviving it we were really glad to have done it. It was downhill through the desert all the way to the chimneys and they grew larger as we got closer. We had met a couple of people on the trail and they described where we would find the Petroglyphs and the Arch so it was easy when we got there. We also found several mortar holes used by the Indians to ground down seeds and beans. The Arch was spectacular with the afternoon light and from the chimneys we could see Santa Elena Canyon in the distance (our final destination). I have also included a cactus collage for some of the cacti that we saw on this day. Definitely a physically demanding trail but well worth it!
As we continued on the road we saw Goat Mountain which was a large caldera from a Volcano explosion 29 million years ago. Next we stopped at Tuff Canyon which also wasn’t in our newspaper but was just a short walk. Then we saw Castolon Peak which had many different coloured layers of volcanic activity. As we drove further we saw limestone mounds and this area explained why the Apollo Mission was here in 1964 to study the geology that they might see on the moon. Our next stop was the Castolon Visitor Centre where they had some of the ruins and machinery from the Cotton industry that was here from 1922-1942. Inside the visitor centre they had some display boards on the early history of the Calvary Post and in turn when it became a Trading Post.
Our original plan had been to take the Old Maverick dirt road back after Santa Elena Canyon but after we spoke with the Ranger we decided against this with our RV. Apparently the road was wash boarded and really only saved you about 6 KMS so it was better to return on Ross Maxwell Drive. After the visitor centre we drove to Santa Elena Canyon and we could barely get parking due to all the people there. This seemed really weird as we had seen very few people on any of the trails we had been on this day up to that point. The Canyon is 1500’ deep and the trail to the narrowest point is 2.6 KMS round trip. It was getting late in the day but we decided to do the hike anyway. The views were breathtaking and if we’d had more time (or it wasn’t spring break) it would have been great to take a canoe through the canyon with one of the guide companies. On the return hike it was bizarre because our RV was the only vehicle in the parking lot that had sun shining on it! Once done the hike we had the 100+ KM drive from the park’s western side back to Rio Grande Village campground on the Eastern side of the park. Along the way back we had more great views of the mountains with totally different light conditions, clouds forming over the mountains, a rainbow as we realized it had been raining on the other side of the mountains, and a sunset. What an absolutely amazing day!
The next morning we were planning to go on a guided Ranger walk at Dugout Wells but we didn’t know the time was changing and sprung ahead. Our Smartphones gave us the correct time in the morning and our other clocks were all wrong so we missed the guided walk. Consequently we had a slow morning and a big breakfast which was just fine after the pace of the day before. At Dugout Wells they had a self-guided nature walk where we had a great view of the Chihuahuan Desert below the Chisos Mountains, learned which deserts have the different types of Pricklypear cactus, saw how the cactus decay, saw the Lechuguilla cactus unique to this desert and the tall trees where the original settlers had their well.
Our next stop was the Fossil Discovery Exhibit which had been rebuilt and just opened in January 2017. In the kids play area they had some interesting fact display boards so I’ve included them for your reading pleasure. Inside the exhibit it was well laid out stepping through the millions of years of the Big Bend area and how the fossils came to be in this area. However there were four unique fossils from this area and they are the Agujaceratops, the Alamosaurus, the Quetzalcoatlus, and the Bravoceratops so I’ve included information boards and replicas of the bones found. Outside they had a little trail to show you the type of area where they find the fossil bones. Next stop was the Panther Junction visitor centre where we watched an excellent 22 minute video done by National Geographic on Big Bend. On the way back to the campground we stopped for a panoramic view from the Rio Grande Overlook.
The next day we decided not to drive anywhere so we did the Daniels Ranch to the Hot Springs trail (14 KMS) and at night we did the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail (2 KMS) to see the sunset and the reverse sunset. We saw the remains of the Daniels Ranch and then started the long uphill switchback climb and had spectacular views across the Rio Grande River to Mexico; I say again how could you put a wall here! Along the trail we saw many flowering cactus and some Ammonite fossils. We ate lunch along the river where the canoe trips come ashore and then saw the old ranch house and the trading post. On the rock walls we saw Petroglyphs, Rock Art, and swallow nests. The Hot Spring was a small over crowded pool area, most people drive to the hot spring on a dirt road and hike .5 km. Sharon soaked her feet in the 105f water but it was more entertaining watching the inexperienced canoeists try to get down the rapids with a really strong head wind. Later we saw the guides lashing their canoes to the newbies to try to push them down the river. On the way back we saw more interesting rock formations and cactus. The many ups and downs of this trail in the 90 F heat really take a toll out of you, so the beer reward was awesome;-)
That evening we did the short hike on the Rio Grande Nature trail out of our campground to see the sunset but more importantly to see the reverse sunset where the sunlight reflects on the Sierra del Carmen Mountains in Mexico and they can glow with a reddish tinge. You have to be there about a half hour prior to actual sunset to get the best photos. We could see the Mexican town of Boquillas where we had lunch several days before. We also saw a Mexican farmer riding his donkey up the hill side across the river as the sunset. Another amazing day in Big Bend NP!
The next day we started our drive out of Big Bend and we saw an area called the Badlands close to the Western entrance. We also saw the huge lineup (over 1 KM long) of spring breakers entering for the day. No question we would like to come back to Big Bend when it isn’t spring break and enjoy more of the hiking trails in the park especially around the mountains. What a beautiful place to visit!