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Troutstream Travels

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The Troutstream In The Wild

Friday, November 30, 2012

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park
Far West Texas (Almost in Mexico)
Rio Grande Village Campground

The Arrival 
The descent to Rio Grande Village
     Big Bend National Park has always been a curiosity for me. It is not close to any major city and is the least visited national park. Located in Far West Texas and sharing the border with Mexico, this park is larger than the state of Rhode Island. There are 118 miles of river frontage on the Rio Grande. Most of the park is only accessible by four wheel drive vehicles. This is the type of place I imagined visiting when we bought the Airstream. Airstreams were made for the vast open land in western United States. For those of you that enjoy splendid isolation, Big Bend is not to be missed.

     The National Park Service has described it better than I ever could:

Splendid Isolation, The Big Bend...

There is a place in Far West Texas where night skies are dark as coal and rivers carve temple-like canyons in ancient limestone. Here, at the end of the road, hundreds of bird species take refuge in a solitary mountain range surrounded by weather-beaten desert. Tenacious cactus bloom in sublime southwestern sun, and diversity of species is the best in the country. This magical place is Big Bend.
    The park has three distinct environments including desert, river and mountain. There are three campgrounds in the park. Two of the campgrounds are on the Rio Grande river. The Rio Grande Village is on the eastern end of the park while the Cottonwood Campground and the outpost of Castalon are on the western end. Both campgrounds are adjacent to steep canyons. In the center of the park, there is a mountain oasis called the Chisos Basin. A campground and  lodge are located in the center of the basin. The Chisos Basin campground is among the most beautiful I have ever seen in terms of setting but was limited to recreational vehicles under 25 feet. That relegated us to the Rio Grande Campground for this trip. Not that we had anything to complain about. All three campgrounds were excellent springboards for exploring this enormous and fascinating park.

The Rio Grande Village campground with the Chisos Basin in the distance
The Chisos Basin
     As I mentioned above, Big Bend is not near any major city. El Paso is the nearest city at 329 miles. There are a few small towns closer but make no mistake, this place is isolated. The park headquarters at Panther Junction is 474 miles away from Austin. It was a long but fascinating drive from Austin. We took the scenic route through the Texas Hill Country. We drove through Fredericksburg, Texas but did not have time to explore. We took a detour and visited the Doss Country Store for breakfast in the heart of Texas Hill Country. I would like to thank Anna Sullivan of the blog Glamper for the idea. This was a pleasant detour and I would love to return to this area to explore the Hill Country.

Doss Country Store

     We were so excited to arrive in the Big Bend after our long drive. The scenery did not disappoint.  The desert environment was surprisingly lush and full of plant life. As we later learned, the Chihuahuan desert is the youngest and wettest among the four desert environments in the United States. Wet is a relative term as a desert is defined as an area which receives less than ten inches of rain a year. Here are some pictures of our arrival.

The Sierra Del Carmen Mountains rise above the river in Mexico 
The Tunnel leading to Rio Grande Village

     After we arrived and set up camp, we decided to hike on the nature trail adjacent to the Rio Grande Village. It is a short trail that climbs a ridge overlooking the Rio Grande and Mexico. It looked like a scene out of a cowboy movie. We saw Mexicans crossing the river into the United States on horses with their burros in tow. They were from the nearby village of Boquillas on the Mexican side of the river. They make trinkets and walking sticks to sell to tourists. All of the popular hiking trails have trinkets laid out on them with a jar to put the money in. It is illegal to purchase these items. Big Bend is an exotic environment to us and we all marveled at the natural beauty of this location.

Our site at Rio Grande Village
Illegal crafts along the trail

     The campground was irrigated so it was a lush oasis within the stark desert environment. My only complaint is that the trees blocked the mountain views. There was fresh water available as well as clean bathrooms. There was no Verizon cell signal due to the remote location. The only form of communication to the outside world was a free WiFi connection at the campground store. This area was so remote that we carried extra water and gas canisters. There were wild pig like creatures that roamed the campground called javelinas and we spotted donkeys from Mexico wandering at night to enjoy the American grass. I could tell they were from Mexico from their accent and the fact that they were also wearing sombreros.

     One of the many benefits of this isolation were the dark night skies. This area is the one of the darkest areas in the lower forty eight states. During our trip, the moon was half full.  Once it set, the skies were unbelievably dark. The Milky Way was clearly visible. We spotted many shooting stars and satellites were easy to spot with the naked eye. It was an amazing sight to behold.

A Do It Yourself RV.  A flatbed with a truck topper and all kinds of storage.
     On our second day, we visited the Chisos Basin. This mountainous environment is not considered a desert. The rangers describe it as an island oasis in the middle of a desert ocean. There is a similar mountain range miles away in Mexico and some animals migrate between the two "islands". As you climb in elevation at Chisos Basin, the environment becomes lush and supports plant and animal life that would not be found in the desert below including junipers, pines and aspens. There are also mountain lions and bears in the basin. Due to the small size of our children compared to the mountain lions, the longer hikes were not recommended for us. Instead, we stuck to a short but scenic paved loop. Although Big Bend is not full of must see sights like Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon or Yosemite, this area is among the most scenic in the park. Once you are in the basin, you are surrounded by mountains with a view of the desert through a split in the range called "The Window". The pictures hardly do it justice.

The road to Chisos Basin

The Campground at Chisos Basin surrounded by mountains.  What a setting!

Walking the nature trail with Casa Grande above us.  


The Window

Chisos Basin from afar
     After our visit to the Chisos Basin, we took our Sequoia on its first real off road expedition. Our vehicle was going to move beyond the weenie suburban drives to Chipotle and piano lessons. This was hardcore desert dust meeting our dainty rubber. We headed onto a two mile trail to the Hot Springs. The springs are located on the shores of the Rio Grande and were refreshing after a day in the mountains.

The National Park version of an infinity pool

     Ethan and Lucy earned their first Junior Ranger badges after our visit to the Basin. They were so excited.

The boys sleeping under the stars
     We decided to spend our Thanksgiving morning in a unique way by taking a canoe trip down the Rio Grande in Big Bend Ranch State Park. We had to drive about fifty miles west from our campground to the funky town of Terlingua, Texas. The Rio Grande water level was low but the scenery through Black Canyon was spectacular. We had a snack on the Mexican side of the river.

     We really liked the town of Terlingua which is located west of Big Bend National Park and east of Big Bend Ranch state park. They have a ghost town on the site of an abandoned mercury mine as well as the best kitschy Texas souvenir shop around. It is also the home of the original Chili Cook Off. They have a big festival every year there that attracts tens of thousands to this small little outpost. The town was full of new and old Airstreams. I would love to spend more time here in the future. Melizza and I can see ourselves exploring this area in our Airstream.

Lone Star Airstream Style
     Our Thanksgiving was a simple affair. We had some great homestyle mexican food for lunch in Terlingua after our trip down the river. Once we returned to our Airstream, Melizza prepared a simple dinner of grilled steak, brussel sprouts, sauteed onions and mushrooms and mashed potatoes. It was simple perfection. We will give the kids a traditional turkey menu for Christmas at home. We miss our family in Ohio but cannot resist the lure of travel.
Hot Terlingua Tex Mex

     Before leaving Big Bend, we explored the two famous canyons at both ends of the park. Boquillas Canyon is on the east end near our campground and Santa Elena canyon is in the west. Both canyons are scenic and not to be missed.  
Boquillas Canyon at dusk
Walking Sticks

The Trout family on border patrol
Wild horses in Boquillas Canyon


     Big Bend is full of wild animals. There are mountain lions, bobcats, bears, javelinas, scorpions, rattlesnakes, coyotes, roadrunners and jack rabbits. Many of the animals on that list could be considered dangerous. I lectured the kids relentlessly about the dangers. We had no dangerous encounters on our trip but Big Bend can be hazardous. I just learned that a woman was attacked by a mountain lion on a remote hiking trail the day we left.
     As we were leaving, we inquired about camping in more remote and primitive sites with the park rangers. It turns out that there are several spots throughout Big Bend that are Airstream accessible on dirt roads a couple of miles from the main road. All of the campgrounds are dry camping in Big Bend except for the parking lot campground adjacent to the Rio Grande store. We brought our generator and a full tank of water. We could easily go three or four days like that with no problem. I wish I could have stayed a few more days with 360 degree views of the mountains and desert. Thanks to the rangers at Big Bend, we know where to stay next time.
     Unfortunately, we had to move on as I had to get back to Ohio for work and the kids need to back in school for their traditional education. We left Big Bend through the western entrance and headed to Marfa, Texas. Marfa is a cool little town with a thriving art scene. It is famous for the mysterious Marfa lights, impressive modern art installations and as the backdrop for many movies including Giant, There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men. On my next Texas trip, we will spend some time here. I loved this little town.
Leaving Terlingua
No services for 100 miles except for border patrol

     Before returning home we headed northwest to Fort Davis State Park. The campground was nestled in the mountains and we saw our familiar javelina friends here too. This wonderful state park is about thirteen miles from the McDonald Observatory which is run by the University of Texas. These are the among best telescopes in the continental United States. We attended a star party under the dark Texas skies. The astronomer put on a great show and pointed out the constellations with a powerful laser pointer. We then had the opportunity to view the moon, Jupiter and several star clusters through high powered telescopes. This was a great ending to an amazing trip that I will never forget. West Texas is a magical place. In my view, Big Bend is among the best national parks in our country. It is a must see destination and worth the trouble to get to. Just take your time and enjoy it.
Our campsite at Fort Davis 
Snuggled up for the Star Party

     After almost four thousand miles of travel round trip, I can honestly say that I would do it all over again. Texas is an amazing place to visit. The geographical diversity and natural beauty is beyond belief. We will be back. I hope our return visit will be sooner rather than later. If not, I have the great memories of my first true western Airstream trip.