As soon as we got home from school on the 16th, we started packing the car for our trip. Originally, we were just going to try to drive the entire ten plus hours to Big Bend National Park on the 17th, which was when the camping reservation started, but that’s a lot of driving. So we decided to drive to San Antonio, which was about 2.5 hours from us, spend the night, and then leave from San Antonio, which would shave off some hours from the drive.
We ended up staying in New Braunfels [home of the original Schlitterbahn, you know you’ve seen it on The Travel Channel ] because hotels in San Antonio were crazy expensive, and we really just needed a bed to sleep in for the night, and didn’t need to be on the riverwalk or anything fancy like that, so we wound up at a Hampton Inn in New Braunfels. Interesting tidbit, we’ve actually stayed there before on our first ever trip to OG Schlitterbahn back in 2014. Since we had stayed there in 2014, a Dunkin Donuts had been built at a shopping center in front of the hotel, so it was really nice to be able to grab an iced latte from DD en route to Big Bend because DD pwns Starbucks, in my opinion.
The drive to Big Bend wasn’t particularly noteworthy or interesting. It was long, and a lot of the “longness” of the drive was literally just driving into Big Bend itself. Though it was interesting to go from the city/suburbs of San Antonio to complete nothingness except for desert and mountain as we drove to Big Bend. Also a note, if you go to Big Bend: DO NOT fill your car up at the gas station in Marathon, they’re ripping people off [it’s an Alon gas station right before the turn towards Big Bend]. gas at the park is actually cheaper than that gas station in Marathon.
Eventually, we made it to Big Bend National Park, about seven or so hours after we had left New Braunfels.
As soon as we entered the park, we showed them our National Park annual pass [totally worth it if you’re planning on visiting more than one national park in a year] and stopped at Persimmon Gap, which was the first visitor’s center on our side of the park. We got our passports stamped, and bought our stickers, and lots of postcards, and then from there, it took us an hour to drive to our campsite in Rio Grande Village.
Note: NOVEMBER is the popular season for Big Bend National Park. The popular season is from November to March, due to the EXTREME Texas heat. If you ever plan to visit Big Bend National Park and want to camp or stay there [there’s a lodge: Chisos Mountains Lodge ] make sure you book it as EARLY as you can. Every single day we were there, the campgrounds were all full. I actually booked our campsite back in May knowing that. So as soon as you plan to go, look into booking a campsite or room. Some campsites can be reserved 180 days in advance like I did, others can be reserved about 2 weeks in advance, do NOT go to Big Bend unless you have a guaranteed place to stay. The park is pretty empty in summer, and you don’t need advanced reservations for that, except maybe for the lodge, but it’s also 100+ degrees at Big Bend in summer, hence why Fall/Winter is the popular season. Also, make sure you bring enough water if you visit Big Bend. They don’t really have a lot of potable water sources because Big Bend is mostly desert. You need at least one gallon per person per day, is their recommended water amount, according to the National Park Service.
That being said… We got to our campsite and managed to set up our tent without any epic fails:
Almost, immediately as we finished setting up our tent, it was time to leave and go to Panther Junction Visitor Center. There was an astrophotography ranger talk that I was really interesting in going to and it started at seven thirty, and Big Bend is SO big that it takes a good 40 minutes to an hour to get from point A to point B.
The talk was mostly interesting. I learned a lot of technical stuff about how to take night sky photos, but I couldn’t actually figure out how to set shutter speed manually on my sony camera, and it’s not like I really had reliable 4G or WiFi to look up guides or YouTube videos to show me how to set it, so my pictures are… pathetic?
That’s okay though. I’ll just try again when we got to Utah in December/January, and study how to manually set the shutter speed before the trip. Aside from my epic fail of taking night sky photos [that was the best one and that’s not saying much!], the stars were absolutely gorgeous. I’ve never seen so many stars/planets/constellations in my life. I could identify Orion [easy because of the belt], Leo, Big Dipper, Little Dipper, and Cassiopeia, for sure, but there were tons of others. The first night we were there, was the night of the Leonids Meteor Shower, and even though we don’t have the best view of meteors from Texas, I saw the biggest meteor of my life.
Justin and I made our freeze-dried dinner and some hot chocolate after the astrophotography class. The best part of our trip was constantly eating freeze-dried food, we had been looking forward to that for several months. On this particular night, we had spaghetti with meat sauce. Then we went to sleep. I will say this, people don’t really stay up when camping in national parks, I would say the campground was silent by like 10 pm, at the latest while we were there.
Our second epic fail of the trip happened overnight. For some reason, Justin and I thought we should sleep with our rainfly open. We were freezing. We were literally too cold to sleep. The temperatures probably dropped to the 30s that night. We learned NEVER to do that again, unless I suppose it’s actually warm at night.
The next morning started our first full day at Big Bend National Park.
Big Bend National Park is located in West Texas, and is literally on the border with Mexico. The park encompasses an area of 801, 163 acres and for 1000 of those miles, the Rio Grande forms the border between Texas and Mexico. The park has over 1200 species of plants, more than 450 species of birds, 35 species of reptiles, 3600 different insects [mosquitoes included], and 75 species of mammals. The park has an extreme climate, as well. Spring and Summer days often exceed 100 degrees, Fall and winter are more mild, but freezing temperatures do occur, especially at night! [As we learned from our failure to use our rainfly on the first night]. There are different temperatures throughout the park! For example, in the morning at Rio Grande Village Campground [where we stayed] was in the 30s/40s, the afternoon, by Santa Elena was in high 60s, almost 70, then up on Chisos Basin, the next day, it was in the 50s, so the temperature changes from location to location, therefore if you go, I recommend layering. It might be 30 degrees in the morning, 60s by afternoon, 50s by evening, and 30s by night, and that’s all within a day! The temperatures are just as eclectic as our Houston temperatures.
Big Bend is one of the largest, most remote, and least visited parks in the United States. In the 10 year period from 2007 to 2016, an average of 352,000 visitors entered the park annually. In comparison, the most visited national park is The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in one year it had 11,333,894 visitors! One thing that Justin and I both loved about the park was how empty it was. I mean, yes the campgrounds were all full, but when we drove from area to area, we barely saw any cars, it was like we were the only ones in the car. At lookouts, there were hardly any people there. Even the trail we hiked was mostly empty. The most crowded area was probably Chisos Basin and that’s primarily because there’s a hotel located there, as well as the most popular hiking trail [The Lost Mine, we didn’t hike it], but every other area of the Park, even Santa Elena Canyon, wasn’t crowded, at all.
The primary attraction at Big Bend is hiking and backpacking. The most popular trail is The Lost Mine trail. But there are things to do if you’re not the best hiker. There’s the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which has a lot of lookouts and eventually deposits you at Santa Elena Canyon. There’s also star-gazing, bird-watching, and there are a lot of easier trails. The park is a certified dark-sky park, and has the darkest skies in the contiguous United States.
You can also cross the border to visit Boquillas, which is a Mexican Village across the Rio Grande. The border crossing was originally closed in 2002 due to paranoia from 9/11, but was reopened in April 2013. It’s actually a sad story. Citizens of Boquillas used to be able to freely cross the border and be able to go to the general store near the Rio Grande Campground and buy supplies for themselves and their families, but after 9/11, the border was closed and since then, they’re not allowed to do that, so because of that many of the town’s residents were forced to move away because they couldn’t provide for their families since their economy depended so much on tourism.
The border-crossing is open Wednesday through Sunday between the hours of 9 am and 6 pm [though time-change changes that, so check with the Rio Grande Visitor Center before you decide to go]. To cross, it’s five dollars, and you need your passport. Justin and I did not cross the Rio Grande to visit Boquillas while we were there.
Anyhow, we decided for today that we were going to visit the Panther Junction Visitor Center, and drive the Ross Maxwell Scenic Road to Santa Elena Canyon. There was a lookout point along the road to Panther Junction called the Rio Grande Outlook that we stopped at, though you don’t really see the Rio Grande river from it, but it was pretty:
On the way to Panther Junction after that, we got distracted again by the Hot Springs Trail:
The Hot Springs are evidence of human occupation from thousands of years ago to recent years. There’s rock-art that’s evidence of ancient civilizations.
In somewhat more recent years, a man named J.O. Langford in 1909 came to Texas. He had been a sickly child and had contracted malaria, as well as bouts of different reoccurring diseases and he heard rumors of a spring that could cure anything. .J.O. decided he needed to find those springs. He regained his health by bathing and drinking the spring water and then made a business out of it and opened a bath house. The cost was 10 cents per day or 2.00 for a 21 day treatment of bathing and drinking the water. He built an entire business out of the hot springs, and there was a hotel, a school house, a store, and that was prelude to the tourism that became Big Bend National Park. The spring is 105 degrees and bubbles up from a hole in the ruins of an old bathhouse.
The trail to the hot springs is a gravelly, rocky, and narrow road, however I think most cars will be fine driving the road. There is a certain area though that trailers and RVS have to stop though because the road becomes too narrow for them.
Justin and I found the trail really easy to hike. We hiked the shorter portion of it, but the entire trail loops with the Rio Grande Campgrounds. The trail is flat, and the entire trail is surrounded by limestone [I think] cliffs.
The trail starts by passing the ruins of J.O.’s resort, and has the foundations of old buildings.
Then the hike descends into a flat area surrounded by cliffs, and tons and tons of cacti, as well as some other desert plants:
The trail eventually leads to the Hot Springs.
We didn’t soak in the springs. We did intend to soak in the springs, but never found our way back to the springs. When we went the springs were pretty empty, as you can see, but they do get crowded. The Rio Grande was really high when we were there, and the current seemed really fast. The water looked pretty muddy too, at least at this part of the river. I think some people do jump into the river to cool off, but I wouldn’t recommend that at all, especially if the river is overflowing.
All throughout BBNP, there are also displays of homemade crafts, usually beaded sculptures, and hiking sticks, amongst other stuff with prices and a money jar. These are from Mexicans, who cross the river, and try to make some extra money. I want to say that I think it’s illegal to buy the stuff that they leave there, but that doesn’t stop most people, the jars were stuffed full of money, and you can’t blame anyone for trying to make a little extra money to support themselves and their families.
After the Hot Springs trail, we did eventually wind up at Panther Junction, and we both got our cancellations, and headed towards the scenic drive.
Unfortunately, I don’t remember what picture is what, but we stopped at a lot of scenic viewpoints, and here are my pictures from them, I think Tuff Canyon and Mule Ears are in some of them based on the map of the national park I’m referring to.
As a scenic drive… I wouldn’t say it was very scenic? I mean there were some beautiful sights with the mountains and desert scenery and everything, but after awhile it sort of got a bit repetitive.
Soon after we arrived as Castolon Visitor’s Center, to get our cancellations from there.
Castolon actually has a very interesting history. In the early 1900s, people began to live and farm along the banks of the Rio Grande. Farmers grew corn, bean, wheat, squash, tomatoes, and melons. Then from about 1912 to 1920, revolution raged in Mexico. Due to this, the air corps established a military landing field and established Camp Santa Helena. However, Camp Santa Helena never grew to be the military outpost it was intended to be because the revolution ended in 1920. So instead the military buildings, which included mens’ barracks, officers’ quarters, a latrine, a granary, a tack shed, and a stable were turned into a frontier trading post. Then in the early 1920s, cotton started being farmed there, and that continued for two decades until the National Park Service acquired the area and turned it into a concession operation, which it still is today.
There’s actually very fascinating history there, so if you visit BBNP, don’t skip that Visitor’s Center, it has some of the most interesting history.
The scenic drive continues from there, and the more picturesque stuff starts to appear because the Rio Grande is closer:
The final scenic stop of the trip is the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook. The Santa Elena Canyon overlook is basically the “bend” of Big Bend National Park. It is where the Rio Grande changes directions abruptly after being straight for several miles.
Basically where that ray of sunlight ends is where the canyon begins. This was taken from the overlook on the scenic road.
Justin and I chose to follow the road to Santa Elena Canyon, where we hiked to the foot of it. It was a SUPER easy hike, it’s basically a wooden boardwalk over sand, and it leads you to the sandy shore of the Rio Grande/Santa Elena Canyon, and you have a really good view of the “big bend”.
There’s an actual trail that you can hike to go into the canyon a little further, but the trail was overrun by water from the Teralingua Creek, so the trail had water up to your knees that needed to be crossed to access the trail, and people were doing it, but Justin and I lacked adequate shoes or clothes to do a mid-deep water crossing, so we just took pictures from the shore.
Then on the drive back, we passed Goat Mountain, before finally heading back on the road towards camp.
The whole drive from Rio Grande Village to Santa Elena Canyon was about two hours, that’s how freaking huge Big Bend is.
We got back to camp as the sun was setting, we made some dinner [freeze dried pasta primavera with vegetables for me and mac & cheese for Justin] and went to bed really early, remembering to close the rainfly this time, because we were so exhausted from the night before.
That was Day Zero and Day One.