“It takes the shape of a place out west, but what it holds for her she hasn’t yet guessed. She needs wide open spaces.” ~Dixie Chicks
I was fifteen years old the first time I visited Big Bend National Park. My parents loaded the kids into the Buick station wagon (no air-conditioning) and drove about nine hours to get to the remote park. This was during the pre-entertainment device era and just to confirm, it was a long-ass drive. However, as we set up camp in the Chisos Basin at sunset, I knew we were somewhere special. Fast forward several decades later and I still hear Big Bend calling to me. I crave wide open spaces, big sky, luminous stars, breathtaking sunsets and the feeling of being on the edge of the world.
The family and I recently spent our Thanksgiving break at Big Bend and it was a trip that made us fall in love with being alive. We left our home mid-morning and drove west to Fort Stockton, located about 2 ½ hours outside of the park. Our stay in Fort Stockton, a town established in the mid-1800’s to protect travelers heading west through the Comanche owned land, was brief and uneventful. It is an oil town and seems to have an influx of fracking-related traffic. We ate a big Tex-Mex dinner, had a pretty decent margarita, filled the truck with gas and went to bed early in preparation for the remainder of the drive the next day to the Rio Grande Village campground.
The Rio Grande Village campground, southeast side of the park, is located close to Boquillas Canyon and the crossing into Mexico. A couple of things to note about the park, the majority of the campsites cannot be reserved and function on a ‘first come, first served basis’. The ones that can be booked get reserved well in advance. The park is huge, it covers over 1,200 square miles and contains three microclimates, consequently each campground is unique. You can’t go wrong with any of them but keep your location in mind when planning your itinerary.
We tent camped at the Rio Grande Village campground and the nights were cold and windy, but the vast night sky provided greater understanding of the minuscule role we play in the universe. This campground has a short nature trail that leads to the river and the base of a small hill. Pack your evening cocktails (don’t forget drinks for the kids!) and climb this small hill before sunset. Look west to catch the light show created by the descending sun and look east to gaze upon the colors of the Sierra del Carmen mountain range…and just breathe.
We traipsed all around the southeast corner of the park the next day and hiked the dusty Boquillas Canyon trail. This trail starts off with a climb then leads down into the canyon. Sunscreen, hats and water are necessary-even in the fall and winter. During the hike we heard singing echoing off the canyon walls and one of my eagle-eyed kids was finally able to locate the source. A small man, tucked away into a cleft of the canyon on the other side of the river, waved and continued to serenade us. Later, we came across a jar with a note stating he was ‘the singing Jesus’ and accepted donations. We happily left a little something for Jesus.
Post hike we drove to the Boquillas Crossing. When I was a kid, this was a very fluid, unofficial area where you paid for a small boat to ferry you across the river into Mexico. It is now an official port of entry with specific operating days and times. You will still pay for a small boat to ferry you across, but you need to carry your passport and must check in with immigration officials on both the American and Mexican side.
After your brief boat ride, climb onto a burro and ride into the village, tip the locals for their assistance, buy a few hand-made items, tour the church and eat at one of the two restaurants (they usually are not open at the same time so the choice is easy).
The next day we drove into the central fortress of the park–the Chisos Mountains. Standing tall above the desert floor, they form their own microclimate containing pine trees, mountain lions and black bears. We did the Window Trail hike early in the morning. The beginning is primarily downhill and it gets a little tricky at the creek crossing, but even the six year old was able to navigate it successfully. The view at the end of the trail is worth it. Upon arrival, sit down and bask in the warmth radiating off the boulders, observe the changing play of light and shadow through the ‘window’ and just enjoy each other’s company for a while.
Before returning to our campsite for the evening, we drove to the start of the Hot Springs Historic Trail. This short walk meanders by the stone ruins of an old resort, ancient Native American petroglyphs and ends at the remains of a bathhouse. Let the hot, healing water soothe your tired limbs; this was as close to a bath as we got during our trip.
The northeast part of the park was our last leg of this journey and we took the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to get there. This thirty mile paved road highlights spectacular geological features and at its terminus is the stunning Santa Elena Canyon Trail. This trail leads you up several short switchbacks and then gradually descends to the banks of the river. Look up at the towering canyon walls above you and as the wind rustles through the river reeds, listen for the ancient greetings of the Native Americans watching you from above.
Post hike, we stopped at the small historic town of Terlingua. This dusty, sandy strip of inhabitation is home to quirky eclectics, creatives, hermits and worth a visit. It even contains a bonafide ghost town that our kids found fascinating. Most of us were also thankful to see the plethora of restaurants to choose from for lunch. Note: I will pay you money if you can convince my crew to eat sandwiches for more than three days in a row.
There is so much to do in Big Bend and each of our trips build upon the previous ones. One day I will be able to say that I have done every single thing I ever wanted to do in Big Bend National Park but until that day I will continue to heed the call of wide open spaces…..of Texas deserts and mountains….of big luminous sky, right here.