Time is as still as the heat. Days are long under blue sky and a blaring sun. Rocky outcroppings embolden the horizon. Cactus and thorny scrubs add further danger to the abrasive rocky sand underfoot. The Rio Grande flows through canyons bringing a swath of greenery to the landscape and dividing two nations. The Chisos tower above the Chihuahuan Desert offering cooler temperatures for deer, mountain lions and bear. This is the home of the Comanche War Trail. For over a hundred years, the Comanche moon rose over the thundering hooves of fierce warriors on horseback proving their bravery by raiding, killing, scalping and plundering deep into Mexico. The hooves pounded a deep scar on the land, at some points over a mile wide, with no enemy to resist the annual onslaught. Now, the land rests peacefully with healed scars. No longer do the battle cries and war whoops echo through the canyons, but the same landmarks that guided the fierce Comanche eyes are now shared by all eyes.
Here, the desert sprawls to meet the firmament above with no person around for miles. This is isolation. Here, the wide expanses and massive canyons far surpass all possible boundaries, real or imagined. This is big country. Here, the Rio Grande prolongs its journey south with a sudden northward turn. This is Big Bend.
Big Bend National Park is the largest National Park in the U.S. It is 80% Chihuahuan Desert and home to the Chisos Mountains and Rio Grande. Comprised of 800,000 acres that span from under 1800 feet to almost 8,000 feet in elevation, Big Bend has much more diversity than a visitor might expect in the desert of West Texas. Add to that the border with Mexico, and this national park quickly sets itself apart from the rest.
How to Visit: With such a large park, the easiest way to proceed is to break it into three areas: East Side, Chisos (which are centrally located) and West Side.
East Side/Rio Grande Village: Rio Grande Village is a great place to stay in the park. It offers tent campsites, some of which are very private as well as a lot for RVers with FULL HOOKUPS! There is a very small camp store with laundry there, a visitor center open seasonally, diesel and propane are available, and there is very limited internet offered inside the store. Do not expect cell phone service in most places inside the park (or outside the park for that matter). I had a telephone appointment with my Doctor in New York state, and I asked a Ranger for a good place to make the call – there is a pull-off on the way to Panther Junction where I was able to use my phone. Do not leave this part of the park out of Big Bend trip planning – it offers some unique experiences unavailable in the rest of the park. Let’s take a look at what the East Side offers:
Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail at Dugout Wells: This trail lies between Panther Junction and Rio Grande Village. Dugout Wells retains the wells and some other ruins from homesteaders who had settled the area. The trail is a very short, easy walk in the desert; but if you want to learn about the plantlife, this interpretive trail is the one for you. For instance, I learned that there are three types of Prickly Pear Cactus found in Big Bend. The typical prickly pear found in all North American deserts is the Engelmann. Let’s take a look at the other cactus found in North America…
Boquillas Canyon: The uniqueness of this trail begins with the drive to it. On the way to the trailhead, you pass at the only border crossing in the park. After 9/11, this crossing was closed, but it has been reopened in the past few years. The town of Boquillas de Carmen sits in Mexico on the other side of the crossing, and it is visible on the way to Boquillas Canyon. This crossing is not always open, so if this is a must for you, be sure to check with the park before your visit and bring your passport. Once at the trailhead, you face a short trail at about a mile and a half roundtrip, but it does have a steep climb to start. After the climb, you descend to a path along the riverbank. The depth of the Rio Grande here allows you to see the emerald color. This was my favorite view of the River, which was much shallower in other parts of the park. Many people swim in this area, but do be cautious. Chris swam, but we made sure he had no cuts or open wounds, and he kept his head above water. Use your own best judgement.
Hot Springs: Yes, there are hot springs in the desert, and they lay right along the Rio Grande! The hot springs are a very short walk from the parking lot, but you do have to take a narrow dirt road a short distance to reach the lot – RVs and large vehicles have a parking lot at the start of the dirt road. There is also a trail from Rio Grande Village to the springs – it is about 3 miles one way. In addition to enjoying the hot springs, this short trail features some of the human activity in the land through the years, from petroglyphs to the remains of a ranch and a store left over from the tourism years prior to the park’s establishment. Go really early, if you want to have a chance of enjoying that 105 degree water under the desert sun!
Rio Grande Village Nature Trail: Don’t miss this easy walk to a beautiful view of the sunset behind the distant mountains and over the Rio Grande. The trailhead is located at the far end of the tent campground area.
As you can see, the East side of the park offers some very easy hikes with unique and beautiful endpoints. Due to the proximity to Boquillas, Mexico; you will find little stands with Mexican items for sale along these trails. The park services discourages any visitors from purchasing items, as it is considered illegal border crossing and illegal commerce. In this part of the park, you may also come in contact with Mexicans selling their goods as well, but it only happened to us once.
There are plenty of other trails to choose from in this section of the park, and we heard that the Ernst Basin area is particularly amazing.
This is the grave of Nina Hannold. She was a homesteader from Oklahoma who moved to the area by covered wagon. She had several children and cared for the homestead, while her husband supplemented their income by teaching nearby (at the Dugout Wells area we talked about above). She contracted uremic poisoning during pregnancy and died at the age of 29.