Big Bend National Park: Two campsites, four hikes and a burro ride
As we pulled up to the entrance of Big Bend National Park, the ranger at the gate told us there were only three of 210 camping spots left in the entire 800,000-acre park, and that we’d better hotfoot it over to the Cottonwood Campground to grab one of them. It was 21 miles there by dirt road, and 35 by paved.
“Should we risk the dirt road?” we asked.
She looked at The Epic Van and asked, “Did you rent this?”
With that, we headed down the paved road, cursing the laissez faire, no-worries, we-always-find-a-place attitude we had adopted in our overly self-confident Year Two on the road.
We flew past beckoning turnouts and scenic viewpoints, places we’d normally explore to get our bearings in a new spot.
“Later,” I yelled, as we careened down the narrow blacktop, scooting this way for bicyclists, that way for oncoming pickups with trailers.
As we pulled into the Cottonwood Campground we slid into the first open spot. None of our normal circling to see which possibility struck our fancy. It turned out to be the absolute last one.
It was 5 p.m. on Friday of a three-day-Valentine’s-Day-Presidents’-Day weekend, which we failed to notice being every-day-is-vacation folks. With the exceptionally fine weather in the low 80s, it brought out every hiking-biking-kayaking-camping-birding-romantic-patriotic freak for miles. And there were a lot of them.
We got out our chairs, cracked open a beer, and thanked the camping gods for smiling on us.
Then we got out the park map and began planning the next eight days.
Big Bend, created in 1944, is cradled in the curve of the Rio Grande that makes the southwest dip in the Texas border. The park is yuuuuuge, as Donald Trump would say, with 118 miles of Rio Grande river at its southern edge, and the only national park to contain an entire mountain range, the Chisos. Its amazing geology (which Tom will explain in a separate post) ranges from 1,850 feet in elevation at the Rio Grande Village, to 7,825 feet at Emory Peak.
The next morning, we headed to Santa Elena Canyon, another eight miles west from our camp. We teetered across a makeshift bridge of branches at Terlingua Creek and within minutes were climbing stone stairs carved out of a 1,500-foot cliff, looking at the twin cliff on the Mexican side and staring into the mouth of a stunning, straight-walled beauty of a canyon, shading the deep-blue Rio Grande waters far below.
At a lookout spot, we called to kayakers coming down the canyon.
“Did you spend the night?”
“How was it?”
“Cold. But there were thousands of bats flying around. Really amazing.”
We found out later they were Mexican long-nosed bats at the northernmost edge of their range.
The easy trail, only about 1.5 miles and 80 feet change in elevation, took us up and over the stairs, and back down to walk among the wild river cane, listening to bird trills and lapping waves at the water’s edge, until a rock outcropping ended the trail and we had to turn back.
“Why would Trump ever think of building a wall here?” I thought.
Later, a ranger told us you would need a permit and passport to land on the south side of the river, but on a craft, like a kayak or canoe, you could traverse any part of the water you liked.
Saturday, we headed up Mule Ears Spring Trail, nearly four flat miles across the Chihuahua Desert under the distinct Mule Ears mountain formation to a tiny spring, where if you sit veeeerry quietly, you might spot a little frog. Again we met people who had spent the night sleeping off the trail.
“There was no place without a rock in your back,” one said, a little peevishly. They were headed for breakfast and a nap.
Back at camp, we visited with Dave and Carol, from South Dakota, who were snowbirding in their Coach House camper, slightly smaller than The Epic Van, with several modifications Dave had made, including a fold-out table.
“I tell folks, ‘We’re small people. It fits us just fine,’ ” Dave said, smiling.
We told them about the hikes we had been on and he said, not too convincingly, that they needed to get out on the trail. “But our books keep us busy,” he said, nodding toward the camp chairs and novels turned upside down in the seat, marking their place.
They come to Big Bend every year, brought their kids until they were grown, and now stop at towns along the way for dances, tripping the light fantastic until midnight, then climbing into their van and crawling into bed.
“One year, we were headed down here, and it was snowing when we left home,” he said. “We wondered how far south we’d have to drive before it stopped. When we got here, there were snowflakes falling. Panther Junction, just up the road (and just 20 miles from the border), got four inches of snow that night.”
In the back of their small closet, Dave showed us his coat and tie, waiting for church on Sunday. Behind the driver’s seat was a wire rack for his cowboy hat. “Oh, I gotta’ have my hat.”
He told us about the record carpets of Texas Bluebonnets they had seen last year, that he’d heard they were “popping” on the road to Presidio right now because of all the rain.
The next morning, we decided to go find the popping Bluebonnets and headed over the roller-coaster road that hugs the river on the way to Big Bend Ranch State Park. Just a few miles down the road, we began to see the tiny blue wildflowers, clustered along the roadside in ever-growing clumps.
We got out to get a close-up look, and watched from high outcroppings as the river lazily meandered, most of the water from Mexican tributaries, including the Río Conchos.
That night we moved to one of the primitive campsites with a backcountry permit from a visitors’ center, $12 for up to 14 nights. We were only staying three. Our spot was one of two on the dirt road labeled Croton Spring. The other spot was occupied by Dale and Annie, with their teenagers, Elliot and Alice. They’ve all taken a year away from their regular lives to live in a camper with their two cats and see the country. Fabulous idea. Annie and I shared book notes. She works in a library in her real life. Tom and Dale, an engineer, talked finances. We were humbled that a family of four was living on half of our budget. Dale said our monthly cell phone bill would buy a week’s food for the whole family. 🙁 Feeling wasteful. They bought their RV for $2,800 and renovated it for about the same amount. Alice introduced me to the cats and showed me her bunk, the shorter one because Elliot’s taller, and I gave Elliot the best advice a 60-year-old can give a teenager, “Keep your curly red hair really long.” They’re the coolest family on wheels. You can read their informative, funny blog at intothetransporter.blogspot.com.
On Tuesday, we took on the Lost Mine Trail, about five miles and 1,100 feet of elevation change up through the Chisos Mountains, with dry, dusty, switchbacks shaded by Alligator Juniper, Emory Oak, Texas Madrone, and Mexican Pinon Pine. Along the way we saw an Acorn Woodpecker, only because some birders pointed him out to us. At the top, you look out across miles of mountain peaks as the breeze cools the sweat from the back of your neck.
We dug out our passports on Wednesday and headed toward the far east corner of the park, where the International Ferry, a rowboat, waited to take us into Mexico. After checking through the U.S. customs building, we walked down the dirt path to the river. Victor Valdez, the famous singing ambassador, sitting across the water, already was warming up, and serenaded us for the 32 strokes (paddles scraping the bottom) it took to ferry us across the international waters.
Victor apologized for not standing to greet us. “My legs,” he said, pointing down. “Bad.” We gave him our $5 tickets for the ferry, and plunked down another $5 apiece for our burro ride into town. “This is Edgar, your guide,” Victor said. “He will stay with you, take care of you, show you around. He’s very good. He’s my nephew.”
We hopped … well, struggled, on my part … onto the burros and started wobbling the mile toward Boquillas, a tiny town that survives on tourist dollars. Along the way, through our poor Spanish, and Edger’s slightly better English, we learned that he grew up here, works every day but Sunday with the burros, and is married with two children.
Our first stop was Jose Falcons, one of two restaurants, where Edgar joined us for enchiladas and beer, his mixed with Clamato juice. The owner of the restaurant, Lilia Falcon, told how her father started it, ran it even after being confined to a wheelchair, and how she and her mother had to get jobs other jobs when the border closed after 9/11. It stayed closed for 11 years. “It really devastated the town,” she said. She is hoping for better times for Boquillas since the crossing reopened in 2013.
After lunch, Edgar showed us the school, the church, pointed out his house on another ridge away, and took us to the solar-panel installation. There, another of Edgar’s uncles, who lives next to the fence surrounding the solar plant, told us how grateful he was to the Mexican state of Coahuila, which had helped build his house after the previous one, in an arroyo bottom, was flooded. The state also installed the solar plant, along with street lights along the dusty lanes, and he spoke of the changes it had brought.
“It’s good for the babies in summer, so we can run the air conditioner,” he said. “But, when it’s hot, we all sleep outside. Nobody bothers anybody. You used to be able to look up and see all the stars. Now, the street lights are too bright. Sometimes, I miss the stars.”
We bought a scorpion made of copper wire and beads from a small boy who ran out into the lane followed by his sister and other children, and admired the beautiful embroidered pillows and bags as we headed back to our burros and the border, and Victor waved us back across the waters.
Our last day in the park, we took the Window Trail, 4.5 miles and 500 vertical feet. It was a backward hike, descending to the Window pour-off. I prefer going up, then descending on the way back, when my legs are tired. But off we went, down a long set of stairs, just outside the Basin Campground. The trail wound through desert, then into a small, scoured rock canyon, and ended at a breathtaking break in the rocks where any bit of rainfall would create a spectacular waterfall. As we climbed out again, we found new friends Tom and Ellen from Lubbock. We met them at the dump station the day before. We sat down to cool off, shared stories and camping spots, and agreed to meet up some day at Caprock Canyons State Park near their home in Lubbock.
On the last night, alone in our primitive site, we pointed our chairs toward the sunset and sat until the light and warmth were gone. I looked up at the stars over the park, one of the darkest in the country, and thought of Edgar’s uncle searching his sky for the twinkling lights.