It’s hard to decide what we like best about Big Bend National Park. On previous trips, we’ve done long hikes in the Chisos Mountains, rafted the Rio Grande and even spied a camera crew filming landscape footage in Santa Elena Canyon for Tommy Lee Jones’ 2005 directional debut, Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.
On this visit, we did several shorter hikes across the park’s lower plateau, biked to the hot springs on the Rio Grande, made friends with a half-dozen other “Casita cousins” in the park and spent a good hour mesmerized by the flight of a beautiful Vermilion Flycatcher from a picnic table in the Cottonwood campground.
Oh yes, and Georges took me on a Mexican cruise for my birthday.
Our ship’s captain was Carmelito. He rowed G and me all of the 30 yards across the Rio Bravo (aka Rio Grande) at the reopened Boquillas Crossing in the southeastern corner of the park. The cruise crowds were tolerable; we were the only two with Carmelito in the row boat. Sea-sickness wasn’t an issue; we were never in more than two feet of water.
Neither was ground transport; we spared the burros any inconvenience in favor of a leisurely one-mile stroll into the village of Boquillas del Carmen. Once in town, we conducted ourselves along a self-guided tour of the church and various shopping venues before landing at the best restaurant in town (there are only two) and wallowing in corn tortillas, chile verde and margaritas.
On the return, we detoured long enough to check out the hot springs on the Mexican side (to compare with those we’d biked to the day before on the U.S. side) before Alán rowed us back across the river. We made it back to the port of entry just in time to clear customs (via telephone with a border agent hundreds of miles away in El Paso) before the office’s 5 p.m. closing.
It was an affordable extravagance. Total transportation cost: $5 per person round trip.
Here’s the view from the restaurant’s patio. That’s the Rio Bravo looking across from the Mexican side to the U.S. side.
Later, we spied a couple of canoes further downstream from the restaurant’s patio
Ground transport came in all shapes and sizes.
The church was simple…
…the shopping opportunities abundant. (Let me know if you need help with the translation of any of the, ahem, robust t-shirt slogans in the second photo below. Hint: “muro” is Spanish for “wall.”)
The hot springs on the Mexican side of the river seem just as warm as those on the other side, plus there’s a ramada and picnic bench on site.
Hot springs on the U.S. side…
Hot springs on the Mexican side.
And here’s my favorite tour guide showing the view from the hot springs on the Mexican side…
On the way back to our “cruise ship” for our return sail, we opted for a remote, scenic stroll along the river bank. Except G slipped at one point, and wound up knee deep – literally – in limb-swallowing mud. (No matter; it’ll all come out in the wash.)
Here’s our ship, depositing one set of visitors on the U.S. side before returning to fetch us from the Mexican side.
This is Carmelito waving good bye to us from the Mexican side, having transferred his captain’s duties to Alán for our return voyage.
Another highlight of our time in the national park this time was being with good friends Mary Beth and Keith, who’d driven the nine-plus hours from Dallas to join us. One morning, the four of us walked the one-mile trail together through Santa Elena Canyon near the southwestern corner of the park.
Here they are near the start of the walk.
Here we are near the middle of the walk.
And here’s the gorgeous Santa Elena Canyon, my favorite spot in the national park outside of the Chisos Mountains.
Big Bend is where the desert, mountains and river converge. The park borders the Rio Grande for 118 miles, which has sculpted the surrounding sandstone into the Santa Elena, Boquillas and Mariscal canyons. It is named for where the Rio Grande makes its “big bend” in West Texas, forming this country’s border with Mexico.
The park is unique among national parks in that it is the only one to contain an entire mountain range within its borders – the Chisos. It’s remote – 100 miles from the nearest city. And scientifically significant – there are still bones of dinosaurs buried amid its landscape.
The park gets anywhere from six to 11 inches of rain each year in the desert along the river, double that amount in the mountains. Summer temperatures can range from 100 degrees on the river to 80 degrees in the Chisos.
It has an intriguing incidental history. According to park literature, it was on June 6, 1944 – the day U.S. troops stormed Normandy – that Fort Worth newspaper magnate Amon Carter, on behalf of the state of Texas, presented the deed to Big Bend to President Franklin Roosevelt for federal preservation as a national park.
And the park boasts impressive elevation range. We like the winters along the Rio Grande on the park’s southern edge at 1,850 feet in elevation. And we’ve reveled in summer at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, where we’ve hiked to Emory Peak, at 7,835 the highest point in the park (and second-highest in all of Texas next to Guadalupe Peak some 260 miles away along the New Mexican border).
Even better than Emory Peak, though, is the South Rim trail along the Chisos. It’s one of our all-time favorites. We did this 15-mile loop hike several years ago – it took us nearly all day and we were fairly limping at the end – but the views were spectacular.
We’ve explored much of the park over the nearly two decades we’ve lived in Texas. But it’s a huge park, and there’s still so much more to experience.
Here are G and Keith posing with the famous Mule Ears formation in the distance behind them.
Later, the four of us hiked Lower Burro Pouroff trail back into this canyon.
And then we walked to the old Nails Ranch, where remnants of the century-old homestead still stand, together with non-native fig and pecan trees just down this trail. (Video courtesy of Keith.)
The trail gets narrower closer to the old homestead. A dilapidated windmill still pulls water from the well to water the trees, all these years later.
This is my favorite selfie of the four of us. (Thanks, Keith!)
And of course we ate well throughout. One day, G made a smoked salmon salad as a picnic.
Keith, the hunter among us, brought a frozen backstrap of venison from Dallas. One evening, G and he sautéed the medallions and served them in a marchand de vin sauce by the light of the campfire (which accounts for my lousy selfie memorializing the event).
One morning, after Mary Beth and Keith returned to Dallas, G and I pedaled to the hot springs from our campground at Rio Grande Village. The next day we took our Mexican cruise and, late in the day, did the short hike into Boquillas Canyon.
The hot spring was delightful. We didn’t get there til nearly noon so we had to share it with about a dozen people but it was still fun. And very warm! (They say it’s 100 degrees but that doesn’t seem reasonable; maybe it’s in the high 90s.) We enjoyed chatting with Wendy from Austin, a grandmother and proud owner of an RV just since August. She’s planning her first extended RV trip out west next month.
On our cruise, we hooked up with Clay and Stephanie at lunch. They’re from Salt Lake City and we discovered we have a remarkable lot in common, including a love of simple travel, distance cycling, scenic hiking, travel blogs and just adventure in general. They even recommended a couple of hikes in Utah we weren’t familiar with. (Another Casita trip in the making?)
We always love Boquillas Canyon. But we missed Victor this time. He used to serenade hikers from the Mexican side of the river, his rich baritone voice reverberating off the canyon walls. My former colleague at The Dallas Morning News, Alfredo Corchado, wrote this story about him. Victor passed away about three years ago.
It’s a setting that inspires painters.
On this visit to the canyon, G enjoyed chatting in French with Violaine from Toulouse, who lives in Houston now but longs to return with her husband and children to Brussels…. Some things are universal: her kids spent the afternoon skipping rocks across the river.
Big Bend is among the most ecologically diverse parks in the country. Rangers here claim it has more species of birds, plants, butterflies, bats, reptiles and even ants, than any other U.S. national park. They are particularly proud of the fact that the Mexican Black Bear, absent for years from the park, has recently returned. We saw a family of javelina on this trip, but the park’s famous mountains lions remained elusive.
I’m having a love affair with banana yuccas, which we first noticed dotting the landscapes in the Big Bend Ranch State Park but which seem to be on a population-explosion binge in the national park. They are distinctive for the cactus’ huge blossoms perched atop stubby tree-like bodies.
From a distance, they look like large native women balancing water pots on their heads. More than once I thought I saw people hiking when, upon examination with binoculars, I realized the human-like figures were really banana yuccas.
Actually, whoever named them should be fired. The blossoms look more like huge pineapples than any sort of banana bunches.
We concluded our stay in the national park with a candlelight birthday dinner in our Casita – complete with sparkling wine! G warmed the fresh corn tortillas we bought at Boquillas across the border and melted the last of the jalapeño Asadero cheese we’d bought at the Licon Dairy Farm just south of El Paso the week before. It was delightful….
We never seem to get enough of Big Bend. We’ll be back. But now it’s off to experience the remote beauty of Devils River State Natural Area and then on to the Hill Country to close the loop on the final week of our Year on the Edges of America….
Special thanks to photographer Keith Bardin for providing the bluebonnet shot that leads this blog post.