Adventure: Big Bend National Park, Texas

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Casa Grande, Big Bend National Park

Casa Grande, Big Bend National Park

I had been there once before. Twenty one years ago. The details of those memories are sketchy. I remember it was March or April. The weather wasn’t too hot and it even was cold at night. I remember stars filling the sky. My friend Jason and I were in our early twenties. I was a couple months from bootcamp and Jason unbeknownst to him was about 9 months away from the yellow footprints. ‘Man planning’ was in full effect. We threw our gear into our packs, hopped into Jason’s car and headed west. I can’t remember for sure but I think we started driving at night and got to Big Bend from Houston in the early morning. This was pre-internet so we didn’t do our research. We checked into the front gate and headed to the most desolate trail we could find. The trail was in the lower desert area on the east side of the basin but it climbed into some mountainous terrain. I remember that Elephant Tusk was one of our check points along the way. We only saw one other person along the trail. A ‘Grizzly Adams’ type with a horse and mule laden with gear passed us by heading back to where we came. Our water supply eventually ran a little short and we turned back. ‘Man planning’ had cut the trip a little short.

Me in Big Bend, 1993.

Me in Big Bend, 1993.

Fast forward twenty one years, a wife, and three young boys. Its vacation time. What do we do? We have always been perhaps more cautious than others when it has come to ‘long distance’ family drives. Our thought was that our boys had dodged that bullet long enough. Colorado Springs was our first thought. We looked at all the tourism websites and my wife signed up to fill our mailbox with pamphlets and other crap. I also have close friends in CS so it was a natural starting point. Wherever we planned to go hiking and the outdoors was going to be the main focus of events for us. We knew Colorado Springs would fill that requirement. As we started planning, no ‘man planning’ was authorized, we had to accept reality. I had just quit my job and started my own landscape company. I could easily make the time but leaving for a longer trip left us vulnerable in the pocket book. My wife had been talking with another lady that she worked with about her trip to Big Bend in the early summer break. We began to think about it and it just made sense. The trip was less than half the distance than Colorado Springs. The cost of taking the trip was definitely going to be less. It would also give us a change to test the waters of long distance family travel. But what really made it a no brainer was the ‘guide’.

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In the Basin of Big Bend National Park

My wife and her family had taken many trips to Big Bend when she was younger. She knew where to go and had the trip planned in her head.

We had a four day window in July. Missing two days of work wouldn’t do to much to set me back. So we planned to leave early Thursday morning and comeback Sunday. We live north of San Antonio so we were looking at about a six and a half to eight hour drive depending on stops.

Camping is defined diferently in my wife’s head. While I grew up an on the camping on ground or in a tent, my wife was conditioned to a trailer camping style. So ‘camping’ was out of the question. BUT, there just so happens to be a lodge in the Chisos Mountain Basin. Which was actually perfect base of operations for the trip. I can still be the tough guy in a tent but after building rock walls in 110 degree heat all week, an air conditioned room at the end of the day was going to be a plus.

I made reservations with the Chisos Mountain Lodge. The lodge is essentially in the middle of the park at The Basin. The lodge is run and operated by a private company called Forever Resorts. There were a couple of options for the stay. The choice was between the Casa Grande Rooms or the Rio Grande Motel Rooms. According to my wife the Rio Grande rooms were a little smaller and are situated behind the Casa Grande buildings. We chose the Casa Grande rooms which run about $150 a night. I think they vary with the time of year that you book as with most other hotel bookings.

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Chisos Mountain Lodge

After handing my dog over to my parents we packed up and prepared for an early morning start on Thursday. We have a Ford Expedition that is the longer version so we have plenty of room in the back. We packed relatively light for five. I found some travel trunks by Plano last year for a river trip to Bandera. We packed four of the Plano® 1819 Sportsman’s Trunks that I bought for $30 each at Academy. Two were packed with clothes and two were packed with dry goods and food. We also brought a Igloo MaxCold® 152-qt. Cooler.

We set the alarm for 5:30 am on Thursday. The plan was to start out early and get through the San Antonio traffic. Once we were out of SA we would stop for some breakfast. We took the US 90 route rather than going I-10. 90 just seemed to be a little more of a direct route. There was some concern about hugging the border for several hours. US 90 heads west from south San Antonio directly into Del Rio which is a border town of Texas. We made Del Rio by about 10:30. Del Rio has a lot of places to offer for gas and food. We chose to stop at Rudy’s. It was a familiar place and we knew it would be a clean place to stop. I went ahead and topped off and grabbed some more ice. Then we were on our way again.

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Judge Roy Bean’s Saloon

Our next stop, Langtry, Texas, was around lunch time. It is worth the the stop. Langtry is the site of Judge Roy Bean’s saloon and Court. The museum is outstanding, although it is small it is kept up and worth your time. Some of you may remember Paul Newman’s portrayal of the judge in the 1972 movie The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.

After a quick lunch we drove on. We made another stop in Comstock then on to Marathon, Texas. I’d recommend fueling up before you get to Marathon. Fuel gets more expensive as you get closer to the park. I filled up for $3.34 a gallon when we left home. I did fill up in Marathon and paid about $4.00 a gallon. Regardless, make sure you have a full tank going into the park. There is a fuel station near Panther Junction inside the park but its always good to plan to have no access to fuel once inside the park. The trip from Marathon, the last town outside of the park from the north, is a 70 mile trip to the park headquarters.

It was late in the day and we looked for a place to eat in Marathon. There were a few options but in the long run we decided to make the last shot to the Basin and check in. We threw the kids some chips and moved on.

Usually the July temperatures are at least in the 90s and usually in the 100s but as we were driving south towards the park gate we hit some thunderstorms. This was a blessing because the rain in the area kept the temps about 10 degrees cooler than normal for the rest of out trip.

We drove up into The Basin that evening. The grade gets pretty steep but the bigger concern is the switchbacks. If you have a trailer with you be cautious on the turns. There are about three turns that are about 180 degrees. I think there was a sign that even restricted trailers over twenty feet. I’d call ahead and check that number though.

Our room was in the B building. For future reference I would plan to see if there is availability in the A building as it faces The Window ( a main attraction of the park). Our room had two double beds and a fridge. No televisions were available, a plus by the way, but there was WiFi and it was sketchy at best. I had no cellphone services in the Basin either (another plus). I did have to request a fold up mattress. Lets just say it was not a comfortable option. I took the mattress off the frame and slept on the floor. I think they charged me for it so I plan to just bring a bed roll for our next trip.

The first night we did a quick recon of the surrounding lodge area. Several trail heads began just feet away from our room. There is a store that has a few items like ice and beer (the essentials). It does close at 6:30 pm so plan accordingly. The lodge staff hangs around till about 9:00 pm so if you have requests let them know before hand.

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1500 Foot Walls of Santa Elena Canyon

Like I mentioned our guide, my wife, had our itinerary planned out. Friday would include a trip to Santa Elena Canyon and Castalon. Then a drive back to the Basin for the Lost Mine Trail for a hike. The drive to Santa Elena Canyon is about 30 miles and does have some 10% grades along the way. The terrain changes dramatically from the 6-7000 foot elevation of The Basin area. The Chihuahuan Desert becomes very desolate and the temperatures increase by about 10 degrees once you reach the lower elevation.

 

We reached the Rio Grande and the mouth of the canyon early in the morning. Unfortunately, the rains from the previous day had filled Terlingua Creek which prevented us from crossing and taking the trail that went into the canyon. The 1500 foot cliffs overlooking both sides of the river provided us a view that was still worth the drive. We had also come across a few javelinas on our way in. As we were leaving a group of canoe’rs were setting up to drop into the river. There are river tours available and will be on my bucket list for future trips. After some rock skipping and pictures we made a short trip to Castalon. An old US Army fort and trading post now serves as a store where you can find some refreshments (beer) and other tourist items. There are campgrounds in the area in some cotton wood trees. Its my understanding that they fill up in the spring and fall. We headed back to base camp for lunch and a quick break before we tackled the Lost Mine Trail.

Lost Mine Trail- The Payoff

The top of the Lost Mine Trail

The trail head for the Lost Mine Trail is a short drive from the lodge and has good parking availability for July. I can imagine that the spring and fall it would fill up quickly. The trail is about 5 miles round trip. The elevation change takes you from 5,700 to almost 7,000 feet. The grade isn’t too bad and doesn’t require ‘climbing’ skills. My sons are 10, 8, and 6. Ice cream for all sealed the deal and they made it to the top with little complaint. The view at the top made it well worth the effort. Round trip was about 3 hours. We headed back to the lodge for an easy night.

Unfortunately for us thunderstorms still lingering in the area had knocked out the power in the basin area. This meant know AC and refrigerator, but more importantly our ice was getting low. We needed more. The store had already closed as well. I should have bought more ice. Always remember the comforts in Big Bend can’t be counted on and plan to lose them. The room was bearable but stuffy. There are small window with screens on them but air does not flow through them very well. Fortunately we were getting down to the low 60s at night. It would have been miserable for my wife (and so then me) and kids if we weren’t having such good weather. There were enough bugs out as well that opening the doors was not an option.

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The spillway of The Window

The next morning we woke up at about 6:30. The bats were still out making rounds thinning out the fly and mosquito population. The plan for the day was The Window trail. Its recommended to do this hike in the morning. The close quarters of brush along the trail can make it a little warmer than most areas in The Basin. The Window trail is a must on  your visits to Big Bend. There is more chance of seeing the Mexican Black Bears and other wild life along this trail than most others hikes in the park. As luck would have it we had already seen one of the bears the previous morning. Talking with a ranger the bears become active in the area in July. On our way down the trail we came across what looked to me like an animal had thrown up blood. I wasn’t sure what it was so we kept on moving. About twenty yards down the trail my middle son was the first to see the young bear. He was only about 20 yards away across a dry creek. The young bear then went out of sight into some brush. We slowly moved on down the trail looking for signs of him. We found him up in a tree. We sat and watched him for a few minutes pulling on the branches of the tree. Apparently, after talking with the rangers, he was getting berries off of the trees. We came across one more bear further down the trail. We only saw this one for a few seconds before it disappeared into the brush. Our trek continued on and as you get closer to The Window you move into a tight turning canyon area. The parks services has constructed steps to help you navigate up and over several large boulders and slopes through this portion of the canyon. The Window is a spillway for water rushing out of the Basin and has become very slick over thousands of years. So going to the edge is not a smart choice. I went withing about 5 feet of the 75′ drop. The immediate drop is not huge but the view provides a view that goes out into the lower desert which is a few thousand feet below the Window. After some picture we turned back and headed to the room. The trail is about 4.5 miles round trip and has two starting points. It took us a little over two hours to complete.

When we returned the power was finally back on. So we took time to re-situate our cold goods and grab some lunch. That evening we hung out around The Basin and hiked some smaller loop trails. At 9:00 pm we went to a small telescope viewing put on by the park. The stars in Big Bend are amazing even without a telescope. We thought we were in for a treat. Unfortunately, the ranger started talking about being scared of the dark and included some freaky pictures of zombies and chupacabras. My youngest freaked out. No stars for us so we decided to call it a night.

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Boquillas Canyon Dune

The next morning we made our final trip within the park. Boquillas Canyon is on the south end of the river and in the eastern part of the park. This area is much flatter than the western portion of the park. The canyon has large 1500 foot cliffs like Santa Elena. But one of the cool features is the sand dune that runs up a portion of the wall. It makes for a good climb. On the way into the canyon we were stopped by a Caballero that had crossed the river from Mexico herding his horses. The young Mexican cowboy rode bareback in shorts and a tank top through the dense brush to see if we wanted to buy some trinkets. The town of Boquillas in Mexico is not far away. Apparently it is not uncommon for the villagers to cross and peddle there wares. It is illegal however and if they are caught they are shipped to Persidio about 100 miles away. In reality, I don’t know that this really happens. I think the relationship with the villagers is such that the rangers and border patrol turn a blind eye. The villagers don’t want trouble. They just want to make a some money and go home. Bring and extra set of clothes if you have young kids. You’ll want to strip them down before they get back into your car after floundering in the sand dune. After some fun we packed up and headed back to the room.

I thought we had until noon to check out but another couple told us check out was 11:00 am. We had an hour. After a quick scramble we loaded up and made our check out in time. We did not get a break on the room because of the power. So do not expect it if it happens to you. You stay you pay.

My planned route for the road back home was to connect with I-10 in Fort Stockton. The thought was that it may provide us with better eating opportunities on the ride home. The speed limit is 80 mph on the majority of the drive west of San Antonio as well. Let’s just say I would rather have gone back on US 90.

This was a great trip for our family. No television, phones, or other distractions. Just us bonding together in nature. My boys are already wanting to go back next year. The Big Bend area is a place of desolation and unexpected beauty. This park should be on your bucket list for places to visit.

The Window At Sunset

The Window At Sunset




Bryan Dolch is the owner and editor of Iron Mike Magazine. He also owns Texas Landscape Magaine, It’s The Texan, and Red Oak Marketing. He is a book cover designer for Tactical16 and a contributor to several small publications. He lives with his family in Central Texas.

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