My first visit to Big Bend National Park when I was a child was less than successful. While my parents insisted we all enjoyed the beauty of the park, my only memory was the torrential rain storm that flooded the desert and forced us to detour hours around to return to our campground. But Big Bend is one of the larger parks in the continental US so of course it has been on my list to revisit, especially since it was only a few hours west of the furthest destination on last December’s trip.
My busy travel schedule of this year prevented me from doing the extensive research that is usually a part of my park pre-visit. I was doing a bit of winging it this time, for better or worse. Might I have missed out on some cool experiences by not preparing? Maybe. Did I have an amazing time anyway? Definitely. One of my travel goals is less FOMO. I need to keep reminding myself that as long I am enjoying the experience, it is okay that I am not doing all of the amazing hikes or eating all of the incredible food or seeing all of the life-changing sites. Sitting at the campsite, listening to birds and watching the clouds move across the mountains is just as valid of an experience as hiking the top ten trails as ranked by Alltrails. I tried to do a little of both on this trip.
Big Bend is definitely a remote area, so preparations must be made before arriving as well as in the park. Cell service was extremely limited in the region, although the store at the Rio Grande Village provided free wifi for checking in. Grocery options weren’t more robust that the smallest of gas stations, but I was well-stocked. I filled up with gas nearly every time I passed the station at Rio Grande Village or Panther Junction. I expected to pay outrageous prices in the remote location and was pleased to see that while higher than what I had been paying in the rest of Texas, it was about on par with what I had been paying in Ohio. As a note: if you, like me, are not used to paying inside for gas, you can give them your credit card to hold onto while pumping and then go inside to pay. I had so much anxiety about this!
One other note is that I have never been to a national park with so few souvenir options. I had hoped to buying a great sweatshirt to remember my time, but found virtually nothing – like one or two shirts that were not my style. was the entire extent of the selection. Most state parks I have been to have more options, and this really surprised me. I did get my Death in Big Bend book though, so I am happy enough.
Big Bend National Park information materials tend to divide the park into three areas by ecosystem – river, mountains, and desert. I found it easiest to tackle the park by three geographies – Rio Grande Village, Chisos Basin, and Castolon. This turned out to be the perfect way to focus my three full days in the park.
Rio Grande Village
The Rio Grande Village is the easternmost headquarters of the park and was my basecamp for the trip. It is a full 45 minutes+ of driving to the entrance from Ft. Stockton. This drive, while not long, turned out to be pretty miserable for me because Blue was not feeling well and was doing her best to climb into my lap. It is not easy to tow a trailer through the desert while fending off 65 pounds of unhappy husky. Huskies, if you do not know, do not tend to be stoic beasts. Blue is my soul-dog in more ways than one.
By the time we arrived at the Rio Grande Village Campground we were beat even if we had spent most of the day doing little more than restocking and washing up in Fort Stockton. The wind was wild as I unhooked. I chose the campground for the larger spaces and more rustic seating even though it had no hook-ups. My site was a bit of a hodge podge and was probably designed for tenters – the grill and bear box were on the driver side of the trailer once I backed in. But I pulled the picnic table around and there was plenty of room for the trailer in a relatively level spot.
Rio Grande Village is a great spot to enjoy the river. One of the favorite activities is to take a quick boat across the river to Boquillas, but this requires a valid passport and mine has expired. However, the proximity to Mexico is especially felt in this area. Unmanned displays of handmade crafts could be found everywhere along the roads and trails. Most were accompanied by a coffee can requesting $10 per craft. I later saw a sign explaining this activity was illegal and purchased crafts may be confiscated as contraband, but the entire Boquillas overlook was carpeted with displays, so I am reluctant to believe there is any significant effort to curb the activity.
The Boquillas Canyon trail is a short but lovely hike that ascends steeply for a quick vista, then descends and follows the river into the eponymous canyon. It provided one of my favorite Big Bend experiences. As I was getting ready for the trek, a returning hiker advised that someone was selling tamales on trail and they were delicious. I don’t always carry cash on a hike, but I grabbed some money assuming a backwoods tamale dealer wouldn’t be set up with Venmo. The trail was lovely and sure enough, on my hike back I encountered a gentleman on horseback with a well-used Buc-cee’s messenger bag slung across his saddle.
“You want to buy some tamales?” Everything about my childhood filled with Chi-chi’s and Grimm’s fairy tales made me hesitate to buy illegal Mexican food from a stranger in the woods. But a thought popped into my head. “Anthony Bourdain would have done it.” So I asked how much and dug for the cash in my backpack. He produced a plastic bag of six tamales and made change for my $20.
I tried to ask what kind they were, “Pork? Chicken?”
“They are really good,” he reassured.
Good. Mystery tamales are my favorite.
I took my delicious contraband back to the trailer and enjoyed them alongside some cucumbers with Tajin. It was a perfect Big Bend lunch.
The Rio Grande Nature Trail is another highlight of the area. This leaves from behind site 18 and plenty of parking is available at the entrance of the campground. The outlook on this hike is a great place to take in the sunset. It is a short climb to a vantage point from which to watch the sun descend behind the craggy skyline while highlighting surrounding peaks in pinks and oranges. Plenty of fellow camper were there to make for a perfect end-of-day atmosphere. And I packed a beer to create my own happy hour. If you happen to spend too much time enjoying the view, the returning trail is very doable in the dark, though it might be a good idea to pack a flashlight.
One of the highlights of any visit to this area must be the Hot Springs Historical Area. Whether relaxing muscles tired from hiking or enjoying the company of fellow travelers, time spent in the 104 degree waters is sure to be a favorite memory. On our recent visit to Hot Springs National Park, it occurred to me that up until recent history, very few people got to experience the luxury of soaking in hot water. The sanctity of this area can be witnessed in the many layers of history present. Indigenous people marked the natural phenomenon with pictographs and petroglyphs while more recent visitors built motels and other now decaying buildings.
The mountains of Big Bend might have been the biggest surprise of my trip to the park. I don’t tend to think of high altitude environments when I think of the desert. But ancient volcanic activity lifted these peaks high above the surrounding plains and created a unique world of plants and animals. I was hoping to catch sight of a Mexican black bear, but had no luck. However, I did find several new-to-me species of birds. As a mountain gal, the campground in the basin would have been my first choice, but signs warn the roads into the basin are not appropriate for trailers more than 20 feet. And the road does double back on itself several times in a very precarious way. But even if I were willing to roll the dice on not meeting oncoming traffic in a turn, the campground seems mostly set up for tenting, with very few spots available for trailers.
Chisos Basin is also the location of the “lodge” and the only restaurant in the park. I didn’t do anything more than drive past, but both seemed dated and limited in service. I think they are more functional than an experience.
The hiking in the Chisos Basin seems to be ranked among the best in the park. I most often heard about the Lost Mine Trail (although I never figured out the name – doesn’t seem to be any mine around – guess it is really lost!). All online advice dictated getting to the trailhead before 7am as the small parking lot fills early. When I passed the lot on my return trip from the lodge at nearly 10am and found plenty of spots, I decided it was a sign to attempt the trail. Signs in the parking lot were very adamant that all food must be appropriately stored to prevent bear activity, so I had to restart the trail after remembering the bag of dog food in the back of the truck and returning the few hundred yards to take care of it.
The Lost Mine Trail is 4.8 miles of steady climbing, although I only found one section to be particularly brutal. Most of the slope is gradual, if unrelenting and the surrounding peaks and vistas are good at taking one’s mind off burning legs. I was also at an advantage of hiking on a relatively cool day. Temps were nowhere near the desert highs, so while the sun was intense, I was able to proceed without too much effort. I actually really enjoyed the switchback portions. I find great satisfaction is slowly trudging up layer after layer. But immediately after that section, the trail ascends steeply up rock steps. It is an especially taxing climb and the faces of the other hikers I encountered proved that it wasn’t just that I was having a bad time of it.
Of course the views at the peak were spectacular and worth taking in while I nibbled on a few snacks. But I also knew I had Blue waiting for me back at the trailer and couldn’t spend too much time away. All-in-all, the hike took me about exactly as long as the park brochure claimed.
Santa Elena Canyon
The other hike I repeatedly read about was the Santa Elena Canyon trail. This hike is located on the far southwest side of the park in the Cottonwood area and nearly two hours away from my campsite in Rio Grande Village, once you account for scenery stops. So I made a day of it. Cottonwood itself appeared interesting, but seemed to have suffered a fair amount of damage from floods. I was glad I had not dedicated any nights of camping to the region though others have said otherwise.
This is another hike about which I had read that the parking lot fills quickly. But again, I found the parking lot relatively empty when I arrived around 10am. The 2 mile roundtrip trek starts along a boardwalk across mud flats and soon approaches the confluence of a creek with Rio Grande. The trail crosses the creek at this juncture, with no bridge. I watched another hiker debate the crossing which looked fairly deep and required slogging through fairly deep mud on the nearshore and scrambling up a steep bank on the far end. I decided I would not attempt the crossing in hiking shoes, so returned to the truck for Chaco sandals.
I slogged through the first few yards of mud, my feet sinking 10+ inches into the muck on every step. But as I reached the water, it became very clear the water was deeper than it appeared. I estimated it would be at least waist deep for me (other hikers later confirm they had heard it was even deeper), and that is more than what I am willing to do for a casual hike. I turned back disappointed and discussed the path with other hopeful hikers.
As we were chatting a pair of hikers emerged from the creek bank and shared that walking up the creek a few hundred yards. there is a completely dry crossing. It required a fairly sketchy scramble along a portion of the bank, but was very doable. I was so excited to hear this, I overcame my normal trepidation about rock scrambles and ran right up the hillside. Though it was, in fact, pretty treacherous, once I got past the descent, I followed a wide-open trail along the bank to the official trail. Oddly, after the effort in getting there, the climb into the canyon was paved with lots of interpretive signage. One would think that with as much effort as was put into that section of the trail, a bridge would have been constructed at some point, but I am sure there are reasons (most likely flooding) not to.
The walk along the trail in the canyon was magical. Paddlers floated past while wrens filled the chasm with echos of their songs. I finally got my lifer canyon wren. While reading an interpretive sign about canyon wrens, a little brown friend popped up from the rocks and trilled his song. It was perfect!
Though the trail was short, it was a great glimpse into the diverse worlds of the Rio Grande and I put a Rio Grande paddling trip on my bucket list!
A note about dogs in Big Bend
Big Bend is not a dog-friendly park. Many national and state parks restrict access for dogs and I totally get it. Blue is a well trained dog with ample trail experience, but she is a four-legged natural disaster. Additionally, she is not used to the desert plants and animals and they are presumably not used to her. I caught Blue growling at the bushes on more than one occasion and I am 50/50 on whether she was paranoid or justified.
There are very strict notices in the national park information paper and on the website that dogs may not be left alone at any point. If you hike or go on a river trip, someone must stay with the dog. I took a gamble to ignore that rule, but I will say I have a couple points that make this a reasonable decision in my mind:
- Blue is very comfortable in the trailer. It is her safe space. It is actually the first place she slept inside after finding her in the woods. She rarely acknowledges anything outside the trailer when she is in it. She regularly spends days snoozing inside while I am out exploring and she is perfectly happy.
- Blue is not a barking dog. I know I can leave her inside the trailer and she will not disturb anyone. Someone would have to be watching me closely to ever know there is a dog in the trailer.
- I visited on cooler days. The highs for the days I visited were in the upper 70s, low 80s. Never did the inside of the trailer reach more than 84 degrees. I have a lot of experience with keeping he trailer cool. I got the trailer as cool as I could at night and the lows were in the 50s-60s. Then drew the blinds tight against the sun and kept the cool air in. I kept a fan moving on a Jackery as well. I would have never left Blue on a hotter day and in fact have changed entire camping itineraries around to prevent making Blue spend time in warm weather with AC.
- I was very committed to not leaving her during the hottest times of the day. I woke up well before sunrise for my big daily adventure amd was back at the trailer no later than 2pm no matter the weather forecast. I worked my schedule around her and spent most of my afternoons chilling around the campsite instead of off exploring. Even though we often spent that time napping together inside the trailer, I was there to make sure temps didn’t spike.
- I was not relying on electricity. I was tempted at times to book a site at the RV village, crank the AC and go enjoy the park. But I think that is one of the reasons for the strict pet rules. Electricity in such a remote area is a luxury and not reliable. Circuits may kick off at any point. And cell service isn’t adequate enough for pet monitors. I wasn’t relying on any utilities to keep Blue cool.
All this to say that you should follow the rules and not do as I did. I took a calculated risk based on the circumstances of my visit, but I have a fair amount of experience with camping and my dog. My heart breaks to think of the reason the rule is in place. I am sure it was other caring families that thought it would be fine, only to live a pet-owner’s worst nightmare. But I also believe in sharing information about mitigating risk. Due to a few things I saw, I strongly suspect not everyone took such caution so I think it is worth noting the things I did to keep my pup happy and safe.