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West Texas in general, and Big Bend in particular, is one of my happy places. Growing up, we took family trips to Big Bend quite a bit, and it’s beauty, vastness, and ruggedness has never grown old to me. The open, expansive terrain and the complete and utter silence is palpable. While at over 800,000 acres, Big Bend is not the largest national park in the United States, it can, at times, seem like the most remote.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this park, Big Bend National Park is located in southwest Texas alongside the big bend of the Rio Grande. The park shares 118 miles of international border with Mexico on its southern side. To the north of the park, Marathon, Texas, is the closest town from the eastern entrance to the visitors center at 88 miles. You’ll drive 62 miles before you get to the entrance to the park, then an additional 26 miles after you enter to the visitors center. The Rio Grande Village campground, the largest campground in the park, is a further 20 miles from the visitors center. So once you get to the entrance, you’re in the middle of nowhere… and then you have to keep going deeper into the middle of nowhere. It’s really quite awesome.
Because of the sheer remoteness of the park and its campgrounds within, Big Bend likes to boast that “half the park is after dark.” They are not wrong. Because it is surrounded on all sides by desert, it is, in fact, the “darkest park” in the national park system. I remember as a kid, lying on picnic tables watching meteor showers, one shooting star after another, until we lost count and fell asleep under this dense blanket of celestial beauty.
I wanted my kids and Kyle to experience Big Bend the way I did as a kid, and while my parents have taken our boys to Big Bend a couple of times, neither Kyle nor the girls had ever been, so we decided last year to make a Christmas trip of it.
The Rio Grande Village is the largest campground in the park and has everything from primitive camping to full hook up spots for RVs, campers, and travel trailers. There is also a store with limited provisions, pay showers, a dump station, and a laundromat. This is one of two places within the park with a gas station, the other being Panther Junction, where the visitors center is located. This is where we stayed while we were in the park, surrounded by mesquite trees and visited by the occasional road runner. We did not stay in the full hook-up portion of the campground. It is located off the parking lot of the store, and doesn’t have the charm or character like the rest of the campground. This is the campground I most remember from my childhood, so I was particularly excited to show Kyle and the kids.
While we weren’t at Big Bend for as long as I would have liked, we did manage to hit a few of our favorite spots.
One of those spots is the hot springs. The hot springs is a short hike with a really neat reward—the hot springs themselves. The springs are right on the river, and depending on factors such as rainfall and time of year, both the springs and the river may be well supplied with water, or simply look like muddy, forgotten puddles. We lucked out, as both the springs and the river were high, which was good because on the day of our visit, the springs were packed with people. In fact, always expect people at the hot springs. As it is one of the most popular attractions in the park, this is one area of the park you are guaranteed to see other people. Also note that although the river is right there, and on the other side is a bunch of tall grass, it is illegal to swim across the river. The Rio Grande is a natural border between the United States and Mexico.
The hot springs are a short drive from the Rio Grande Village. Just park, and follow the short trail.
There are so many places in the park where you can pull over, walk around, or just look. We did that a lot on this trip. We just slowed down and enjoyed what the park had to offer: stunning views, short hikes. The beauty of a place like Big Bend is that you find yourself slowing down and just taking it all in.
While you’re in Big Bend, make sure to drive up to Chisos Basin. Chisos Basin Road is not recommended for trailers over 20 feet and RVs over 24 feet due to its sharp curves and steep grades, so if you’re over those limits, unhook before driving up. You will have already unhooked if you’re planning on sight-seeing or going to the hot springs anyway. There is a campground at Chisos Basin, and because of its elevation (5,401 ft), it’s quite pleasant, even in the summer. There is also a lodge, restaurant, and store. A short loop from the parking lot takes you to the spectacular view of The Window, a vista that is beautifully framed by mountains. This is also where you’ll find the trailhead to Emory Peak, the highest point in the park at 7,825 feet. I have never hiked the peak (it takes two days), but it’s definitely something I want to do with my kids once they get older.
We drove up one morning, did the loop, shopped some, and had lunch at the restaurant. While we were eating, two Border Patrol agents walked in and sat down for lunch. Since we brought our passports with us (just in case!), Dad walked over and asked them about crossing the border. At the time, the border was only open a couple days a week, and this was due to the office hours on the Mexican side of the border. The agents were really helpful, and answered our border crossing questions.
We ultimately decided not to cross the border this time because the next day it would be open was the same day we were planning on leaving the park.
If you are interested in crossing the border while you are there, get up to date on the rules, take your passport, be prepared to be disappointed (closed border crossings, etc). It seems like the rules change all the time, so what your friend did 3 years ago might not be possible for you this fall.
One of my favorite places in the park is Boquillas Canyon. I simply love this place. The trail takes you uphill to some stunning views of the Rio Grande and the Mexican desert just beyond. It is a pretty easy hike, and you don’t need any special hiking gear. I wore my Bean boots, a pair of Athleta leggings, and had a light pack for snacks and we were good to go. We used to take this trail as kids, and as hot as it might have been getting to the canyon, the high walls at the trails end were sure to give us some shade and cooling wind upon our arrival. Boquillas Canyon is definitely a kid favorite, too. The river is calm and shallow enough to cool your feet off, and the sandy hills were definitely made for climbing and exploring. We tried to impress upon the children that the other side of the river (“right over there, kids!”) is Mexico, but I don’t think they found it particularly impressive.
It’s been over a year, and we still talk about what a great trip that was. Kyle has said that he wants to go back for Christmas this year, and I think we probably will. If we do, we’ll stay in the park longer, and spend a night or two on the other side of the park in the Cottonwood campground. I’d like to spend some time doing something in the Santa Elena Canyon—a trail or a rafting trip. That is a part of the park that I have never done and would like to experience it with Kyle and the kids.
If you go, even in the winter, don’t forget to park your swimsuits and Chacos for the hot springs, and never go to any national park without a quality pair of binoculars!
Have you ever been to Big Bend? What was your favorite part? Join the conversation in the comments section!