Texas – Visited March 2019 (29 out of 61)
Be Prepared, Be Flexible, Keep the Gas Tank Full, Roll in Mud if Attacked by Bees
Frequently, the goal of visiting a National Park is capturing the gorgeous sunset and smiling faces after climbing an extraordinary peak! Often, that picture can’t be captured without some tremendous and ridiculous endeavor, especially with children in tow. However, it isn’t worth it if it means traipsing along highly trafficked trails, parking on the side of the road onto precious wildflowers, or in other ways demeaning the value of the park. Big Bend is huge, and full of many opportunities to explore, find self meaning, and live with values that protect and celebrate wild places. When you visit, enjoy these opportunities and always follow park rules to protect it for future generations, and for the wildlife that call it home.
Big Bend is stupendous, but it isn’t for the faint-of-heart. It isn’t a place for someone expecting a gourmet meal and a spa treatment at the end of the day, unless you are willing to go through some extraordinary measures. Safety and preparation are also paramount. If you really want to get a hold of this place, think Rango. Go with optimism, a sense of humor, and a completely full tank of gas.
This park is about hiking, a lot of hiking. Hike up hills, down hills, across deserts, through dry ravines laden with javelina scat. Hike under sun, in shade, and amidst snake and prickly plant infested territory.
This park is also about the southern border with Mexico, and you can’t visit without being cognizant of that fact. Our government continues to fail passing meaningful immigration laws. Let me be clear, I abhor illegal immigration. I think it is dangerous, and immoral. I think, as a society, a second class of citizens has been created that have few protections against workplace danger. I think everyday Americans take advantage, with people to build, paint, and clean their homes; and do their yard work. Small and large businesses become wealthy from that labor source, and thus it has been difficult to regulate. If we need foreign workers, then we need a system to effectively, and legally manage that labor. However, I cant conceive of a border wall being constructed across this place. Equally, it made me visualize what one would look like elsewhere, across habitats, scenic vistas, ranches, and peoples backyards. We need to demand more from our politicians, and ourselves. We need an immigration system that works. You can use your visit here as an opportunity to talk to your children about citizenship, borders, and how human and animal habitats frequently cross these imaginary lines.
- Fill your gas tank at the last gas station you see before you enter the park, and fill up every time you pass a gas station in the park. Keep the gas tank full because the park is large, remote, and their are few resources.
- Bring plenty of water with you, everywhere. Bring full gallon jugs to keep in the car, and always, always bring water with you when you are hiking. I would recommend a minimum of at least 1 liter of water/person for hikes less than 4 miles, and 2 liters of water for longer hikes (especially in temperatures above 80° F). 1 gallon/person/day is the hiking standard. Don’t rely on spring water to filter, and utilize. It isn’t reliable and wildlife need these resources to get through the dry months. People have died in this park because they did not take enough water with them.
- Don’t bring your dog. He won’t be happy because this place is dry, prickly, and full of things that could eat, bite, or sting him. You won’t be happy because there are very stringent rules about where pups can join your treks.
It is crazy busy in March! This is by far the busiest time of year, as most Texas schools have spring break in March. However, early spring is when the wildflowers are amazing, and the weather is beautiful. Just be patient and be flexible. Study the park map ahead of time. Understand that there will be full parking lots in some areas, and be prepared to find another nearby trail or activity. There is plenty to see and do, so don’t get frustrated or disappointed.
Where to Eat:
There aren’t many options for dining facilities within the park. To be economical, and healthy, you should bring food and snacks with you. Rio Grande, Panther, and Castolon all have snacks and sodas to purchase. Rio Grande has some very basic pantry items. The only restaurant within the park is Chisos Mountain Lodge. It is expensive, and very busy. They have some fun cocktails and a relatively nice menu, including one for children. Terlingua has some interesting dining choices, for when you finish up activities on the west side of the park.
When to Go:
The cooler months are your best bet for enjoying this park (October thru March). With so much desert hiking terrain, it would be a challenge to hike with children in the summer when temperatures exceed 100° F, and not much shade is to be found. While the Chisos Moutains may be up to 20° F cooler than the temperatures found on the desert floor, you still must drive across a great deal of desert to reach that location. This park is a great escape for those living in northern latitudes wishing to escape the cold winter! Check the NPS Park Website for additional information.
Where to Stay:
The answer to this question depends upon how far in advance you are planning, when you intend to visit, and your budget. If you are looking for hotel style lodging, make reservations six to nine months in advance, especially if you plan to visit during cooler months. Visit Big Bend is an excellent resource for accommodations. Within the park, getting a campsite can be a challenge during busy times. We stayed at Stillwell RV Park, which is 7 miles from Persimmon Gap entrance. It was perfect for our needs, and they never turn anyone away.
Day 1: Grapevine Hills Trail was perfect! This especially scenic hike is great for all ages, but takes a short and bumpy dirt road to reach. We drove in our pickup, but saw much smaller cars. This trail is a 2-mile RT in and out straight to a small boulder laden peak. We climbed it, enjoyed the fading sun, checked out the pretty flowers, and raced back to the truck so my son could grill burgers on the tail gate. He is 15, and he eats a lot, like, all the time! He was grill master, and it was just one of those perfect park days, really.
Day 2: Oak Spring Trail to Window Trail (4.3 mile in and out, add additional 4 miles if road is closed)– all downhill from here, or up, depending on your perspective. After abundant research, I clearly ascertained that Window Trail from Chisos Basin is bulging with people, which is not the way this outside gal would like to spend her time in the wild! So, in a moment of brilliance, I thought we would take Oak Spring Trail to Window Trail from the back side. First off, the road to the trail was closed, but this adventurer will not be dissuaded. Onward – across a 2-mile dirt road to the trail head (adding 4 more miles to this hike – shh don’t tell my family). I keep cool though, it’s all in the plan (wink wink). Then, we ascended, and went up, and climbed some more, and found ourselves on the side of the igneous mountain, to which I had assured my beautiful daughter we would NOT be climbing. Having nearly crested, and yet to see the illustrious ‘window’, we continued feeling rather like dwarfs or trolls (or whatever they are in Lord of the Rings) on an unexpected journey. Trying not to look over the steep edge, I tried humming the theme song, and relating that glorious feeling to my family, but they weren’t having any of it. My kids quit. They stopped, in the middle of trail and sat. They weren’t going any further. So, I left them! YES, I DID! My son is 15 and one heck of a Scout, I knew they would be fine (especially because I load their first aid backpack kits with all sorts of precautions, they unwillingly carry with them everywhere).
When we reached the Window Trail (literally directly below), my kiddos decided to follow. It could have been the beckoning call of the stream, but more likely it was the sounds of other human life forms that lured them onward. Window Trail was packed!! It was not really hiking, but more like trekking across some water filled pools with zillions of others, trying not to slip and take out the person perilously walking in front of you. We saw the ‘Window’ meh – just don’t let the little ones too close to the edge.
The return trip was kind of like riding horses, super slow on the way out and running on the way back. We finally made it to the gravel road when I heard a humming sound and my husband saying “uh, honey”, which was ironic because as I looked back anticipating a car heading our direction instead I saw a giant cloud of bees was heading our way. “This is how we die, in a National Park, stung by thousands of Africanized bees” – is what I thought. “Puddle, where is water, no water to jump in, can I make mud by pouring the contents of my water bottle on the ground? No, I cannot, only 100 ml left!” “Kids, bees, duck!” I stammered, and just like that the bees were gone.
All this called for one remainder of the day, drinks and dinner in Terlingua!
Terlingua is FUNKY! It’s the greatest little end of the earth drop off town, ever! If you are expecting to see a Whataburger, you will be mistaken. Have you ever seen Young Guns? This place is a dry, dusty old mining town surrounded by glorious nothingness. Old bearded men, and motorcycle dudes sit beneath the veranda at the High Sierra Bar and Grill and drink beer. Dogs slip through the fence to greet patrons and beg for treats. The food, um, the drinks are cold, and the tequila is plentiful. GO!! Take the kids, let them see the reflection of endurance it takes to make a life in the far reaches (and patience, it takes time to cook food). Sip that cold margarita and know peace.
Day 3: My family is sore from climbing the rocky crags from the day before. So, we take it easy, stopping at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit. It has lovely architecture, placement, paleontology, and one display covers dog-sized-horses (not genetically selected by crazy pony breeders, but real fossilized tiny horses)!
Homer Wilson Blue Creek Ranch is a fun hike for the little ones, and easily doable with a baby carrier. Only 0.5 miles RT, it leads to an incredible historic ranch site with a lovely little ranch house I would move to in a heartbeat. The back veranda offers an incredible view, and the ceilings are exquisite.
At La Harmonia Store in Costolon, apparently, there are some excellent exhibits that explain military history in the area. Unfortunately, we didn’t catch that because my son has great taste in music and a new blue tooth speaker. So, we chilled in the parking lot, ate sandwiches on the tailgate, and people watched. The bathrooms here are nice, clean, and the toilet flushes which is a definite wonder in this far flung desert park.
The Dorgan-Sublett Trail was one of my favorites. It’s short, only 1-mile RT, but it leads to two small mesas where you can look to the Rio Grande valley and get your children to imagine what it would have been like to live on these homesteads. Inside the Dorgan home remains an incredible fireplace constructed of utterly magnificent petrified log stones. My adorable family reached it before I did and they predicted I would be ecstatic when I saw, and I was!!
Santa Elena Canyon Trail – Packed, no place to park. Please don’t park on the side of the road and squish the wildflowers! You’ll get a ticket and look like a donkey. Turn around (with a 60 point turn like my awesome husband) and go park at the overlook, admire the view and head on to other things. There is so much to see, I promise you won’t miss it.
Mule Ears Spring Trail – This 3.8-mile RT hike is a definite must for anyone with moderate hiking abilities. It isn’t exceptionally steep, but we did it on an overcast cool day – don’t attempt if it is above 80° F with smaller kids. My kids loved it, I didn’t even see them, they were always far ahead. I hate when I can’t see them, but they needed bonding time. My daughter misses her busy high school brother. So, if one was bitten by a rattlesnake (which fortunately they weren’t) I would have just chocked it up to sibling bonding. Plus, my husband and I had alone time, we may have even kissed. We grilled brats in the trail parking lot. Happy Day.
Day 4: We summited the misty mountain!!! No, really, we climbed the entire 12.4-mile Laguna Meadows, South Rim, Boot Canyon, Pinnacles route, and it was misty all day and so we didn’t see the views from South Rim, which is why we climbed the mountain. No golden ring. We did see the psychotic trail toilets though. Those things are ridiculous and look like something out of a horror film!! Please, don’t subject your children to the terror. They will have nightmares for the rest of their existence. Besides the fact that they look like massive thrones placed on the mountain, they are built for huge, tall timbering men.
You thought I was going to write about the incredible mountain, and trek. Nope, if you want to know, climb requisite. We saw lots of college-age kids, and a few small children. Third graders will complain, fourth graders need lots of snacks, fifth graders and up will love it. It is considered the premier hike to do in Texas, and it will not disappoint!
Day 5: Rio Grande Village. It was a lot warmer on this side of the park, and busier. That might have been because the gas station at Panther Junction wasn’t working and the park personnel had to drive all the way to Odessa to get the necessary part. It is remote here, I’m telling you. Everyone was racing to Rio Grande Village for gas, and people were in line. Most people got it, the pump is slow, there is one side for gasoline and one for diesel. Most people were patient, and kind. One wasn’t. Don’t be the one, don’t be the donkey.
Boquillas Canyon Trail is fantastic. There was plenty of parking, and the 1.5-mile RT trail leads to exceptional views along the Rio Grande River where you come across homemade artistic wares for sale from the folks across the stream (across the stream is the country of Mexico, in case you didn’t realize). The artisans wait on the other side, probably with binoculars, for visitors to purchase and deposit cash in empty bottles they may collect in the dead of night, or in the middle of the day. One fellow was on a horse, so I wouldn’t skimp on the pay if you acquire a trinket. The trail leads to a fantastic, beautiful fault. I was ecstatic. My daughter thinks I am crazy, but she knows what a fault looks like. Yes, she does.
Hot Springs Historic Trail – Parking lot full, don’t be a donkey and run over the flowers parking on the side of the road if there isn’t a proper parking space. Apparently, the hot springs is the size of a large pick up truck, and people wait in line to get in. YUCK!!! It was the one temptation that my children were most looking forward to enjoying, and unfortunately this slightly germ-a-phobic mother made them pass.
River Road East to Glenn Springs Road – If you are brave and know what you would do if you had a flat tire in the middle of the desert, find a dirt road. If you have a back country-prepper kind of mindset, and you and the kids wouldn’t mind sleeping in the car if you break an axle, find a dirt road. If you have a very full tank of gas, find a dirt road. Big Bend is really experienced best this way. This 801,163-acre national park is full of wide-open spaces best accessible on bumpy, dirt roads that wind their way through the park. At the suggestion of a ranger, we took River Road East, swooped up to Glenn Spring and then out on Glenn Springs Road. We pulled over along the way (in a pull off, not on flowers) and grilled steak, salmon, and corn on the cob. We drank beer and root beer and roasted Peeps to make smores. It was windy, the sky was blue, and the sun was setting. It was the perfect dusty, prospecting, playing down on the desert kind of day that would have made my Grandpa Timothy proud.
Day 6: Sleep in, go get your Junior Ranger Badges, and do a little rock hunting at Stillwell RV Park. Stillwell is a private overflow campground for Big Bend National Park. It is located 30 miles north of Panther Junction, and only about 7 miles from Persimmon Gap entrance. Spring Break is ridiculously busy, and we did not want to search for a camping spot within the park, so we enjoyed our stay here. You cannot collect rock, flower, or animal specimens in the park, but you can collect rocks at Stillwell!!!
We didn’t let the sun set on our last day without a hike in the park, though. We drove to the Persimmon Gap Ranger Station and took the trail up the dry stream bed. It was laden, heavily, with javelina scat. We hiked, scrambled up rocks, and looked at the most fantastic geology yet. This is a great hike for little kids till you get to the rock cliff face at the end of the wash, then it’s best left to the mountain goats. We also, finally, saw a family of javelina up close. It was so exciting!!