April 09, 2012

A Visit to Big Bend National Park

This weekend we visited one of the largest, yet least visited, national parks in the US: Big Bend National Park. The park is located in the southwest corner of Texas, and is extremely isolated. To get there from El Paso is 330 miles and 470 miles from Austin. If you decide to visit Big Bend (or make any trip through west Texas), be prepared. Even on I-10, the highway exits are spaced so far apart that if you run out of gas, you might have to call a service to bring you some. Of the exits we passed, only 3 major towns had gas stations, and by major towns I mean towns with a population of 3k. Also, our ATT phone service was spotty at best, so if you did run out of gas, you might not be able to call your service...

What was nice though, was the drive. I-10 is a very nice, wide road with speed limits of 80 miles an hour. Turns out, Texas is only one of two states in the US (along with Utah) that has such high speed limits! The drive is also pretty scenic, often times going through tall corridors of limestone, and by sweeping fields of wind turbines.

I-10 on the way to Big Bend
Desert views on the way to Big Bend
Instead of driving the 400 miles straight from Fredericksburg to the park, we decided to stop 100 miles outside, in a place called Marfa. This town is famous for its “Marfa lights”, and we had to see for ourselves. Lots of people have different theories on what is behind these lights, some think its aliens and some think it’s just reflections of car lights, but even so, it was pretty interesting to stand on the side of the highway with a decent sized crowd and make ooh and ahh noises as we all witnessed the lights together.  Basically, you come when its full dark, and look out into the dark horizon, where every once in a while you will see tiny white and red light points move across the sky. I didn’t see any noticeable patterns to the movement, and chalked it all up to aliens. Skyler, being the skeptic, said it was obviously car lights. :o)

The next morning we woke up at 5:30, grabbed some breakfast from a local cafĂ©, the Bread and Breakfast, and then drove in the final 100 mile stretch to the park. We purchased the America the Beautiful Pass (finally!) at the entrance gate. Since we will hopefully be traveling to lots of the national parks and monuments this year, we decided this pass was worth its price. This pass covers entrance fees to all national parks, monuments, wild life refuges, forests and grasslands for the driver and passengers of a personal vehicle for an entire year, for only $80! Since the fee to get into Big Bend was $20 per vehicle, a fourth of the pass has already paid for itself.

Driving through the park, we realized how huge it was! Getting from one trailhead to another can be up to a 30 mile drive, so we had to choose wisely on what we wanted to see and do for each day.

Driving into Big Bend National Park
The first day we hiked the Lost Mines trail. This trail has an elevation gain of over 1k feet, and is an out and back. You basically hike to the very top and then come back down the same way. This trail offers great views around every corner. We hiked the 4.8 miles and then headed to the Santa Elena Canyon to eat lunch.

The Lost Mines trail
A view from the Lost Mines trail
We hiked the 1.7 mile Santa Elena Canyon trail that leads inside the canyon. 

The Santa Elena Canyon
Since Big Bend is located in a desert, daily temperatures rise quickly, and its best to do the hikes as early in the day as possible. We were completely drained from the heat and hiking by 4, so we drove west to a little town called Terlingua. Terlingua is a pretty weird little town. Inside city limits you can find the Terlingua Ghost Town, ruins of housing from long-ago pioneers. We bought a couple of cold beers and joined the locals on a huge porch of the general store, and watched a rain storm roll in over Big Bend.

Terlingua Ghost Town
 The following day we made the track back into the park and hiked the Window trail. This 5.6 mile trail leads into the Oak Creek Canyon, where you walk a long portion on dry creek beds surrounded with towering canyon walls. At the end you arrive at the “window”, which is an opening in the canyon where the creek spills out over the side of the mountain into the valley below (when there are heavy rains). On the way back, about a half mile in, you can take a left at the fork in the trail and hike a little way into the Oak Creek trail to get a gorgeous view of the valley.

The Oak Creek Canyon
The Window at the end of the Window trail
The view from Oak Creek trail
After the hike we drove to the east side of the park to get a closer look at the Rio Grande. The Rio Grande serves as the dividing line between the US and Mexico, and in some places is shallow and narrow enough to cross by foot from one country to the other. It was kind of different to sit on our side of the beach and look out at Mexico as we ate our lunch. Also, nearby our lunch spot was a display of trinkets for sale. Upon closer inspection, it turned out that Mexicans cross the river, drop off their hand-made goods and leave a jar for money, along with signage of how much everything costs. Americans can choose to purchase something by leaving money in the jar, but there are strict signs everywhere advising that it is illegal to purchase goods from Mexican Nationals. On top of this, the merchant sits on the other side of the river and watches as you peruse his items. It was all a bit awkward, mainly how easy it was to get from Mexico to the US and back

Warnings against purchasing from Mexican Nationals
The merchant, on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande
We finished out our exploration of the park by visiting the Hot Springs. The mile hike takes you along the Rio Grande, by a naturally occurring Hot Bath and then loops back through desert terrain. It was so hot outside that we chose against getting in the hot water, although it looked very inviting.

The Hot Spring
We left the park through the north entrance. Every way out of the park has a Border Patrol station that stops your vehicle, and we had no problems getting through. The drive back was uneventful. A wild turkey crossed the road in front of our car on the highway (and scared the crap out of us!). But we did get to see a huge blood red moon as we got closer to Fredericksburg.

Blood red moon over Fredericksburg

Find more pictures of our trip to Big Bend here.

Happy Big Bend Exploring!


P.S. We chose to board the dogs instead of taking them with us. Big Bend’s pet policy is extremely strict, and you can basically take your dogs only on paved roads. They are not allowed on the trails, in the river or in the backcountry. This, combined with the high daily temperatures of the desert, was why decided they would be better off at a local veterinary hospital for the weekend. We just picked them up and looks like they had a good time. Also, we had brought our bikes with hopes of mountain biking the back country, but were sorely disappointed to find out that Big Bend only allows biking on paved and 4X4 roads, not the epic single-track we were looking for. Boo!

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