Rio Grande Adventure: Big Bend National Park
Explore caves, canyons and mountains all in the same afternoon. Watch peregrine falcon dive through the air at speeds of more than 200 mph. Conquer Class-IV rapids while rafting down the Rio Grande. Hike, drive and bike 800,000 acres of unique and wonderful desert landscape, or climb in the lush and challenging Chisos Mountains.
Welcome to Big Bend National Park. Hours from the nearest fast-food joint and one of the last unspoiled lands in the country, this corner of Texas is one few people know about, and even fewer have visited. Outdoor activities are endless: biking, backpacking, camping, hiking, fishing, climbing, horseback riding, canoeing, whitewater rafting, interpretive programs, bird watching and nearly every other outdoor activity you can imagine. All this, plus old Western movie sets, countless archeological sites, hot springs, and long drives down some of the most scenic highways anywhere, make Big Bend an outdoor enthusiast’s dream.
Although Big Bend is one of America’s largest National Parks, it is also one of the most remote — making it the third least visited national park in the nation. This is great news, though, because rather than the 11 or 12 million visitors that other parks annually accommodate, Big Bend National Park rarely gets more than 300,000 visitors in a year, making you feel like you have the entire place all to yourself. One of the largest national parks, yet one of the least visited; you couldn’t ask for anything better. Over 300 miles of roads give you the opportunity to experience the park from the comfort of your air-conditioned car, but the greatest discoveries of the landscape are best found on foot. Any park ranger will give you a list of the scenic drives, but in reality everywhere you look the scenery is unbelievable. Entrance fees are $20 for seven days, or $40 for an annual pass, and can be purchased at either of the Park’s two entrances.
Big Bend National Park is alive with numerous species of living creatures. A bird- watcher’s paradise, you’re bound to discover exotic species, including the world’s fastest-flying animal, the peregrine falcon. Other animal species in the park include mountain lion, golden eagle, roadrunner (beep beep!), jackrabbit, wild pig, coyote, black bear and countless snakes, insects, and spiders. All said there are more than 1800 species of animals and plants (including 450 species of birds and 60 different cacti), as well as another 3600 different insects. The Mexican black bears that live in the Chisos Mountains will invite themselves to dinner if you don’t store your food out of reach!
A vital part of your trip to Big Bend is advanced planning in order to be well prepared to face the isolation that makes this park so unique. You will be hundreds of miles from the nearest cities and transportation hubs, and you won’t find anything other than basic necessities at the few stores in and around the park. Cell phones rarely find a signal, and water isn’t available on any of the trails, where temperatures often exceed 120 degrees. Common sense and a well-planned trip will save you from any unfortunate mishaps.
RIO GRANDE RIVER
One of the main highlights of Big Bend is the mighty Rio Grande. Hundreds of miles of refreshing water divide the United States from Mexico, and no trip is complete without a raft or canoe trip. Ranging from an afternoon to 14 days, local outfitters can take you rafting down occasional Class-IV rapids or on a canoe trip through 1500-foot canyons that will make you think you’re in another world. One such outfitter, Big Bend River Tours, will plan and provide everything to make your trip unforgettable. Their world-class guides prepare delicious meals during your trip, and they also offer unmatched knowledge of the area’s features and history in great detail. Be sure to request one of their best guides, John Parker. A veteran river guide, John’s jokes, stories, and skills will make your river adventure an experience you’ll remember for a lifetime.
For 118 miles, the Rio Grande acts as a natural border between the United States and Mexico. It’s not often that you’re able to enjoy the majestic landscapes of two countries in the same day! With any international border, though, there are many rules and laws associated with border crossings. Just be sure to stay on the American side of the Rio Grande to avoid any problems with border patrol. Guided river trips with registered outfitters have special permission to take their customers hiking into Mexico and back, so check with your guide to see if that would be possible on your trip. One of the lesser-known hikes into Mexico, Fern Canyon, can only be accessed by canoe. During most times of the year, lush ferns literally grow out of the canyon walls, somehow defying nature and growing abundantly in the desert climate. The end of the canyon offers an amazingly beautiful and refreshing swimming hole, which few people rarely experience.
PLACES TO STAY IN BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
The National Park Service operates three developed campground sites (191 total campsites) at a rate of $14 per night. There is also a full hook-up RV campground at Rio Grande Village, which is also the location of the only public showers and laundry facilities. Reservations for these sites can be made up to 180 days in advance at recreation.gov. For the more adventurous campers, a backcountry camping permit will give you access to 116 of the most isolated campsites in the country. These are available at the park visitor centers up to 24 hours in advance of your excursion. Camping in Big Bend National Park is like nothing else: you have your own personal choice of landscapes, including the desert, canyons, mile-high lush mountains, next to an enormous river, or anywhere else you may choose.
One of the most enjoyable parts of camping in the park is the night sky. It’s no exaggeration that unless you’ve been to outer space, you’ve never seen anything like this. There are so many stars visible to the human eye alone, that the entire night sky looks like one giant light. You’ll never see the Milky Way as brilliantly as you will when you peer outside your tent on a clear night.
If roughing it in a tent isn’t your thing, there are a few lodges, motels and B&B’s scattered throughout the park and nearby town of Terlingua. The Chisos Mountains Lodge is nestled in the beautiful Chisos Mountains, and is the only lodging actually inside Big Bend National Park. Next door to the lodge is the only restaurant in the park, offering an excellent menu — they’ll even prepare a bagged lunch for you before you hit the trail.
Terlingua lies just outside the park boundaries, and apart from the park’s visitor centers, it is the closest thing to civilization you’ll encounter during your trip. There are a few motels, B&B’s, and some great restaurants scattered throughout this town of 300 people.
Terlingua’s “Ghost Town,” a once thriving mining town, is now the town’s humble hub. The Starlight Theatre has some of the best filet mignon in Texas, and they frequently bring in great local bands for an authentic Southern experience. Ten Bits Ranch, a small B&B tucked off the main road, runs completely on solar power. And if you’re in town during the first weekend of November, expect to be joined by 10,000 people attending the world’s largest chili cook-off. Three days of music, events and, of course, chili offers a fun and unique experience.
Several Indian groups once roamed and settled in the Big Bend area. The Chisos Indians were a loosely organized group of nomadic hunters and gathers who called this area their home from the mid-1500’s until 1850. Around 1850, another Indian tribe, the Mescalero Apaches, began to invade the Big Bend region and displace the Chisos Indians. Soon after that, mercury was found in abundance around the surrounding hills, and mining companies quickly swarmed the area, forcing out the last of the native tribes.
Terlingua has well-preserved quicksilver mining sites that can easily be seen from the main road winding through town. There are also countless archeological sites scattered throughout the park itself, with dozens of hieroglyphic paintings still remaining on cliff walls and inside caves. Although they were left exactly as they were found, without gates, fences or other barriers, they are extremely fragile and will fade away from the oils in your hands, so be sure to look but don’t touch.
The Chisos Mountains climb out of the center of the park, literally like an oasis in the desert. Hiking in this lush, green forest makes you winder how a place so vibrant could have ended up in the center of a desert. The two mile climb to the top is certainly worth the trip, as the temperature frequently drops a dramatic 30 degrees or more cooler than where you started at the bottom. Winter wind is a major factor at the top of the mountains, so be sure to pack a jacket, because although it’s extremely in the desert, it will be much colder once you reach the summit. The peaks offer 360-degree views of the park as well as mountains well into Mexico, offering a sight you won’t soon forget. There are multiple routes up these mountains but the best one, the Old Mine Trail, is located near the Chisos Mountain Lodge. At the end of your journey, go warm your bones back up in one of the parks many natural hot springs. Many are situated right next to the Rio Grande, which makes it convenient to occasionally cool off in the river if you get overheated.
Whatever outdoor activities you choose, Big Bend National Park is sure to have more than you could ever expect. Local adventure outfitters are ready to take you on 4×4 Jeep excursions, white water rafting, lazy canoe rides or horseback riding through lands rarely touched by humans. Or just explore the nearly one million acres independently; it’s up to you. With one of the most isolated places in the entire country, you will almost feel as if you have the entire park all to yourself. It is well worth the trip, and an experience you’ll remember forever.
BEFORE YOU GO
Big Bend National Park
Big Bend River Tours
Chisos Mountain Lodge
Big Bend National Park
Basin Rural Station
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Starlight Theatre, Terlingua, Texas
Ten Bits Ranch, Terlingua, Texas
Terlingua Chili Cook-Off
From Camping Life’s March/April 2010 issue. Are you a subscriber?