Big Bend National Park: A remote Texas treasure

View of Big Bend National Park and the Rio Grande from the Santa Elena Canyon Trail

The goal and ultimate destination of our week-long Texas roadtrip was Big Bend National Park, one of the most remote national parks in the country. I’d heard about it all my life, but had a mental block about the distance. My loss! The park is remote…and desolate and harsh and ruggedly beautiful and vast beyond description.

My plans hadn’t included a government shutdown, and I was glad I’d booked one of the Roosevelt-era cottages in in the park’s Chisos Mountains Lodge over a year in advance since the Lodge is run by a private concessionaire and was open despite the unoccupied booth at the entrance to the park and the sign notifying visitors that park campgrounds were closed and staff was furloughed. I was happy to find the cottage all I’d hoped for, and we quickly settled in on our first afternoon, eager to get outside as soon as possible. We started with Chisos Basin Loop Trail, one of the seven hiking trails that start beside the cottages. The trail as far as we explored was well-worn and easy to follow. It had been groomed with logs and stones inset to ease the way on slopes. The view from the trailhead itself was hard to beat with the well-known “Window” at the end of the basin framing the span of desert, mountains and mesas beyond.

Trailhead near the Roosevelt Stone Cottages of
Chisos Mountains Lodge

Big Bend National Park is a designated an “International Dark Sky” park and has the least light pollution of any national park in the lower forty-eight. We were especially excited about the nighttime potential of the park as a full lunar eclipse was going to happen our first night there and the weather was ideally clear. I’d brought an old Celestron “comet catcher” telescope and we set it up on our front porch to watch the event. The moon rose just beside the spectacular “Casa Grande” rock formation (looking something like a smaller relative of Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower) that looms over the lodge complex. Our view of the eclipse was perfect. As the brilliant light of the moon was slowly shrouded, leaving only a dull orange orb suspended above, out popped the Milky Way and a seemingly infinite sea of stars, looking like pinholes in the blackness above. As I gazed across the valley at the stunning sight, a shooting star swept across the sky. What a show!

Big Bend National Park covers 801,163 acres so we headed out by car to reach my first must-see, Santa Elena Canyon, some 40 minutes or so from the Lodge. The main roads through the park are excellent, well-maintained, and monitored by rangers for speeding and other potential issues. We saw rangers on the roads even though the park was technically unstaffed due to the government shutdown. Santa Elena Canyon slices a passage through an otherwise uninterrupted wall of stone that stretches as far as the eye can see. The Rio Grande River flows down the canyon to flatten out and take a nearly 90 degree turn at that point to flow along the massive cliff wall. We watched a couple with a canoe put in at this point, then we waded across the shallow span of a small tributary to reach the Santa Elena Trail that runs along one wall of the canyon.

The Rio Grande River with Santa Elena Canyon visible
in the distance forming a passage in the long wall of cliffs

The Santa Elena Trail begins with stone steps going up several stories. Once at the top, the trail is easy and only moderately sloped, easing down to the water’s edge and back up. The vegetation is interesting, changing from the cactus and scrub of the harsh upper levels to rushes and bamboo down below. The temperature changed constantly, too: cool in shadows and near the water, warm in the sun up higher…unless a cool breeze arrived to change things again. The views back across the park (see lead photo above) from the high points of the trail and of the canyon are awe-inspiring and not to be missed.

Santa Elena Canyon (For perspective, check out the couple in the canoe.)

After hiking the canyon, we spent the afternoon exploring places along the road back towards our Chisos Mountains Lodge cottage “home.” It was fun to stop at random trailheads and archaeological sites. Our first stop took us on a hike through scrub trees along a path dotted with spoor. Clearly this trail was popular with the local wildlife. We saw cat prints, probably those of a bobcat and not of one of the rare mountain lions, a majestic and potentially dangerous animal that — along with local bears — I’d love to see from a distance only. We had fun doing our outdoorsman bit, trying to identify the telltale leavings of the native fauna. My guess is that we were seeing the leavings of bobcat, fox and possibly ringtails. (In the canyon, it had been mainly deer and rabbits.) The ruins we explored were those of early ranchers Messers Sublett and Dorgan, partners who built their homes on adjacent hills with sweeping views of the mountains and canyons.

The ruins of the Dorgan home

We stopped off at Castalon, built 1919-1920 as a never-fully-outfitted army outpost during the Mexican Revolution. It later became a trading base operated by a local ranching family from 1919-1961. Now, it serves as a park office and hosts a display of old cotton-ginning machinery as well as a store offering refreshments and souvenirs.

Castolon buildings with Cerro Castellan in the distance

All along the roadways of Big Bend National Park, we found trailheads, historical, geological and botanical signs bringing context to the world around us. There are periodic picnic tables and toilet facilities, all that we saw were in excellent condition. We found ourselves stopping constantly to take pictures and explore. Although we saw signs of animals, we saw very little ground life. We did see a fair number of birds, though, both raptors and songbirds. We were surprised, at the end of the day, to realize we had logged 105 miles on the car between our hikes and wanderings.

It’s a dry, rugged part of the world.

Although it was January, we wore short sleeves one day and wished we had shorts. Other days we needed jackets. Since the climate is so dry, it’s important to take plenty of water whatever the temperature. And, even if it does warm up during the day, temperatures can drop dramatically at night (and can vary substantially during the day as you pass from sun to shade) so layers are important. Good footwear is also important as is watching your step. The plants are often covered in serious thorns, the rocks are sharp and this is rattlesnake country if ever I saw it.

The park also offers hot springs and a myriad of other vistas and trails. The border crossing at Boquillas was closed due to political turmoil in the U.S., but is usually open; just bring a passport. It’s a small crossing point, so rowboats and burros are the order of the day.

Big Bend National Park is a state and national treasure: unique, remote, wild and harshly beautiful. I’m so glad to have finally experienced it.

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Practical info:

Entry fees to Big Bend National Park are $30/vehicle, $25/motorcycle and $55 for an annual pass. We paid no entry fee since, due to the government shutdown, there was no one to pay. I’m not sure if entry would be included with the cost of lodging, but I doubt it.

See my previous post regarding lodging. I’m very happy we booked one of the Roosevelt Stone Cottages at Chisos Mountains Lodge as they seemed to me to be far beyond anything else available at the lodge. We booked just over a year in advance, which is a necessity. We paid $163/night plus tax. Pets are allowed in cottages 101, 102 and 103 with a $50 fee, although they are not allowed on trails.

2 thoughts on “Big Bend National Park: A remote Texas treasure”

  1. Great series of articles! How many days did you spend in Big Bend it total? We’re planning a trip.

    BTW, two of your photos need to be rotated 90 degrees.

    1. Thanks! Our trip was as follows: 1 night Big Spring, 2 nights Indian Lodge (Davis Mountains), 2 nights Big Bend, 1 night Marfa, 1 night Sterling City. (I’ll blog the end of the trip shortly. The River Road along the Rio Grande between Lajitas and Presidio is spectacular!) I could have happily stayed another night in Big Bend, but we had some time constraints as we’re about to leave the country again for a few months. I didn’t feel particularly deprived though as we really filled our time while there. As for the photos, thanks for the heads-up. They viewed fine for me on Chrome and on my Android phone (both which reorient photos automatically), but I could see the (meta data) issue on Firefox. I think I’ve resolved the problem. Let me know if not.

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