Big Bend National Park

May 4 – 8, 2016: From Seminole Canyon State Park we made our way to Big Bend National Park.

We entered the park via the northeastern entrance, approximately forty miles from the town of Marathon, and stopped at the Persimmon Gap visitor center.  


To perhaps provide a sense of scale, Big Bend National Park is larger than the state of Rhode Island. There were three major sections to the park that we wished to explore. The eastern section (Rio Grande Village area), the central section (Chisos Basin area), and the western section (Castolon area).

Chisos Basin area

We planned on spending one night in a campground located in each section of the park. But it didn’t quite work out that way. The day we arrived the forecast called for clear skies at night but suggested cloudier nights thereafter. Since Big Bend National Park is an international dark sky park (and UNESCO biosphere reserve) we wanted to ensure we had the best night sky view on the least cloudy night. The Chisos Basin campsite is at the highest elevation of the three areas so it would provide those optimal views. And, it turned out that the Rio Grande Village campsites were already full. So, off we went to Chisos Basin and slid into the last available campsite at the Chisos Basin campground. This campground has no hookups nor showers but, at the highest elevation in the park, is the coolest of the campgrounds.

We viewed the sunset from a popular (and accessible) spot – The Window View. Here the sun sets right between two mountains for all to enjoy. Although we weren’t present, we heard from other hikers that, at sunset the following evening, five bears made an appearance!

The night skies were also fantastic.

The following day we reserved another night at the Chisos Basin campground (we were now fearful that we wouldn’t find any availability if we waited until later in the day, especially since the weekend was approaching) and set out for the Lost Mine trailhead. The hike was 4.8 miles round-trip – stunning desert and mountain views throughout – but with the best saved for last. We spent over an hour simply sitting on a huge rock at the top enjoying the views. The best description of the landscape I could think of was: Old Man Storr on the Isle of Skye in Scotland (the Trip Over Life banner image) with a little bit of Great Smoky Mountains and Death Valley thrown in. So, yeah… stunning. A great way to kick off the southwestern portion of our 2016 Road Trip that will also include New Mexico and Arizona.

Later on, after returning to our campsite, we observed two of the locals enjoying themselves.

These fine folk are two of the many roadrunners that inhabit this part of the country. I’m not sure I knew anything about roadrunners other than the cartoon character Road Runner. And he never fornicated with a rodent in his mouth whilst on-air.

We followed up that show with another lovely sunset.

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Rio Grande Village area

The following day we drove down a 6.4 mile gravel road (Camper Dan loves that) to the trailhead for the 2.2 mile round-trip Balanced Rock hike. This section of the park looked different than the higher elevations of the Chisos Mountains. Here we walked down a sandy path surrounded by huge boulders – visually similar to Joshua Tree National Park – and, at the end of the boulder scramble, we were faced with the large ‘Balanced Rock’. I loved this hike because this type of desert landscape, complete with large rock formations, is one of my favorites. Also, we saw no rattlesnakes (bonus!) but did see cute rainbow colored lizards (bonus!).

Before continuing on with additional hikes closer to the Rio Grande Village area, we stopped at the Panther Junction visitor center to inquire about backcountry camping permits. We had already reserved a spot for the evening at the Rio Grande Village RV Campground (hoorah for hookups and air conditioning in the 105 Fahrenheit / 40 Celsius temperatures in the shade) but were interested in something for the next night (our last night in the park) that was more primitive, private, and had the darkest night skies. We were able to secure a permit for a space on K-Bar road, a few miles west of Panther Junction (and therefore we wouldn’t be spending any nights in the Castolon area). Happy with that outcome,  we continued on to view lush landscapes from the Rio Grande Valley overlook.

We visited the Hot Springs, down a short trail, sitting right on the Rio Grande and bordering Mexico. It was just too hot to enjoy during the day.

We hiked the Boquillas Canyon (1.4 miles round-trip) along the bank of the Rio Grande out to the mouth of a large canyon.

Castolon area

Our last full day in the park, we headed out to the western section (Castolon area) of the park to hike the Santa Elena Canyon trail.

TIP: Panther Junction has a gas station. Check your fuel level before heading out!

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We enjoyed more of the Isle of Skye (Scotland) mixed with Death Valley landscape throughout the drive and stopped at numerous overlooks. These included Sotol Vista (sotol is a yucca-looking plant) and Tuff Canyon.

Once we reached the Santa Elena Canyon trailhead, we started out and quickly came upon the Rio Grande River. We knew the trail involved a river crossing, but were surprised to find that the trail signage indicated a path that included such a deep river crossing. So, we continued downstream until we found a more suitable crossing and made our way back to the trail. We climbed up to an amazing view of the Rio Grande running through Santa Elena canyon before descending again and walking deeper into the canyon.

TIP: On many of the trails it would be easy to walk across, or cross the river, into Mexico. Every trailhead warns against these illegal crossings but, if you’re feeling adventurous… Or, use the one legal border crossing in Big Bend National Park to cross into Boquillas, Mexico. Bring your passport!

After enjoying the Santa Elena Canyon trail, we drove back towards Panther Junction and enjoyed beautiful scenery along the way.

We arrived at our backcountry site on K-Bar road. Here we cooked a lovely dinner and enjoyed a nice bottle of wine. The wine was purchased in Oliver, British Columbia (Canadian wine country) during our 2014 U.S.A. and Canada road trip. It was time to open it and celebrate our good fortune that we’re once again on the road for a few months.


TIP: If you’d prefer to explore Big Bend National Park without having to camp, Chisos Basin offers lodge accommodation.

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