Whenever we asked people what we should see and do as we crossed Texas, the universal answer was “Big Bend!” They were right.
We drove west to Big Bend National Park from Seminole Canyon State Park. It was a fascinating trip, as we have never experienced the dessert and these roads took us through so many different iterations of desert features. It was a stunning drive.
Since we were making travel decisions on the fly, we weren’t properly stocked up with food for a couple of days, so we had to drive 60 miles out of our way (from Marathon to Alpine and back) to get to a “real” grocery store. Big Bend has three stores but they only have basics (water, chips and hot dogs, plus basic camping supplies) so if you want anything that resembles “real food” you need to carry it in. This detour allowed us to stumble on the Gage Hotel & Spa in Marathon, which is apparently a five-star facility selected as the #17 best hotel in the U.S. by Conde Naste readers, and the #1 hotel in Texas. The Hotel’s White Buffalo Bar was selected by Texas Monthly Magazine as the best hotel bar in Texas. Right there in the middle of the desert. Who knew?
We also didn’t have a reservation. Getting camp site reservations at the last minute at the National Parks is virtually impossible, so we considered ourselves lucky to secure a walk-in spot in Rio Grand Village. Unfortunately, when we got there we found it lived up to it’s reputation: a closely packed parking lot, rather grubby and un-inviting. The only saving grace was that the folks on either side of us were delightful. We enjoyed chatting during the evening.
There is a separate campground at Rio Grande Village that is large, spacious and more pleasant than the parking lot, but this one had no availability during our visit.
There is a lot of hiking at Big Bend, with great variety to meet many different exploration priorities. Easy hikes, challenging hikes, long ones and short. Mountains, deserts and rivers. There are bears and panthers roaming the mountains, javelinas (pronounced hav-uh-LEE-nuh), coyotes, and a broad variety of birds for excellent bird watching. There is also kayaking and horseback riding. Unfortunately for us dogs are not allowed on any hiking trails, and it was too hot to leave them alone in the Airstream, so we were unable to enjoy the trails.
Virtually the entire southern border of the park is bound by the Rio Grande River, and the international border with Mexico. We could hear the cows lowing on the Mexican side of the border, and there are many spots where you could throw a stone to the other side. Crossing the border is illegal, except at the one official crossing point at Boquillas.
One of the really sensational aspects of Big Bend is the night sky. It is one of the least-lit places in North America. We were fortunate to have two nights of crystal clear night skies, with no moon. The stars were incredible. I haven’t seen anything like it since being in the mid-Atlantic and mid-Pacific oceans on a small sailboat.
On our first and only full day at Big Bend, we explored the various campgrounds and drove the full length and width of the park, experiencing everything from the stunning Chicos Basin at the top of Chicos Muntain, to the desert plains, canyons and hills. The variety in the topography, geology and biology was terrific, and the views were impressive.
The drive up Chicos demonstrated why the park limits the size of campers that can do the climb, as the hairpin turns are tight and the campground is carved into the basin with sites that, for the most part, can’t accommodate anything much larger than a tent. We would have loved to camp there: the sunsets, sunrises and night skies promised to be spectacular. Alas, no spots were available. We need to come back again, and plan far ahead so we can grab one of these sights for the night.
When we arrived at Cottonwood Campground we were thrilled to find a campsite available, even though it meant driving straight across the park and back again, a distance of over 100 miles. It wasn’t the best campground in the world but it was a lot better than the crowded parking lot at Rio Grande. And doing the drive at different times of day, and with different light in different directions made the same drive interesting multiple times.
As it turned out, we enjoyed a spectacular sunset that evening, followed by a star show that equaled the previous night, and a sunrise the next morning against the Santa Elena Canyon walls. A beautiful stay.