This trip was in the works for a long time, and I spent a lot of time agonizing over how to make it happen. But when we found out that I somehow shockingly had a huge number of SkyMiles (perks of my mom always flying Delta and setting me up with a SkyMiles account practically at birth!) we were able to bring the dream to life! We had to fly into Albuquerque, which is about a ten hour drive from Big Bend, but it was a lot closer than driving from home, and a LOT more affordable than flying into El Paso, which had been my original plan.
I know a lot of people think I’m crazy for the intense amount of planning I do for these trips, but I have to admit, there’s something really rewarding about hashing out the details and spending hours (no, I’m not joking. HOURS) on StreetView trying to find the best campsite with the best views (and in this case, the longest driveways hahahaha), and then finally going on the trip, pulling into that campsite, and seeing that it’s just as perfect as I had hoped. And then going on hikes and doing activities and being super satisfied when everything works out – for me, that’s a great feeling. There is certainly something to be said of “winging it,” but I’d rather do all of the work before the trip so that all I have to do is relax and follow the plan! Part of this need to plan all the minutiae also comes from the fact that we have limited time off that must be maximized! 🙂 Especially with a trip like this, where we probably won’t be able to return to Big Bend for many years, I want to make sure that we can get the best feel for a park that we can. If we lived in a van, I doubt I would be so militant.
We got in, of course, super late on Saturday night (that’s pretty much our MO now. Might as well own it, I suppose). Between having to fly into ABQ (a 9 hour drive from Big Bend that on the clock takes ten hours due to the time zone change), having to go to REI to stock up (because you can’t fly with camp stove fuel), and making a grocery run in El Paso (because Costco), it wasn’t really super avoidable to be getting in late. Thankfully we can pretty much set up the Half Dome in our sleep (happy 5 year anniversary to us and the HD2, my very first purchase as an REI employee on my very first day- it has served us so well and we absolutely love it! #notsponsored), so we made quick work of setting up the tent and our bedding and were in bed within about 20 minutes of pulling in to our site.
The next morning we slept in (you’re shocked, I know), had a relaxed little brunch, went to the visitor center to get our stamps and buy a new park pass (ours had expired, oops), and headed out to hit the Lost Mine Trail. The trail gets its name from a legend of a secret mine, the location of which was so closely guarded that the workers of the mine were blindfolded during travel to and from the mine. According to the legend, the workers were all killed in a raid by Comanches and the mine’s location was lost- but rumor has it that if you stand on the threshold of the church in Terlingua and look towards the Chisos Mountains at first light on Easter morning, the sun’s rays will show you where the mine lies. (Never mind that Easter doesn’t fall on the same day every year and thus “first light” would shine on a different location… hahaha.) We didn’t find the mine, but we did find some absolutely spectacular views.
After our excellent hike (which we highly recommend, it’s not particularly strenuous and the views are incredible), we headed back to camp and had a quick dinner before sunset. Right around sunset, the winds picked up quite a bit and it was pretty cold (at least, in comparison to the night before and earlier that day), so we decided to be lame and sit in the car listening to The Adventure Zone (which is absolutely hysterical by the way- if you’re a nerd and especially if you love D&D, you should listen to this podcast. Start at the beginning obviously, and get ready to laugh so hard you cry).
After a couple of episodes, I realized that I hadn’t included our campsite number in the itinerary that I’d sent to our friends, the Bowmans (@theamericanfieldtrip), who were planning to meet up with us. There is absolutely zero cell service in the vast majority of Big Bend, and Chisos Basin in particular. (We learned later that apparently there is a spot of like… 3G somewhere, AND the visitor center has free WiFi… oh that we had known that first.) I’m kind of a stresser, so we ended up deciding to drive to find service to call them and tell them which site we were in. We drove to a spot marked in the park newsletter as a place where “most cell phones can get service”- HA. Ours did not, at least in the parking lot, and due to the aforementioned wind I wasn’t super keen to get out and wander around in essentially pitch blackness looking for cell service. In hindsight, I should have driven west to Terlingua, but I was kind of dumb and kind of panicking, so we headed out to the north, the way we’d come into the park. We made it almost all the way to Marathon (90 minutes away, folks) before we finally got service. I immediately called Madison and it went straight to voicemail (cue more panicking), but shortly after that she called me back and we were able to coordinate. That was a relief! I felt super dumb as I normally am super diligent about putting the campsite number everywhere on the itinerary, especially when we’re planning to meet up with people, but this time I just didn’t. I felt extra dumb when I learned about the WiFi at the visitor center… oops. I suppose that goes to show that I’m not the very best at planning. Either way, it wasn’t the worst- we were able to top off our gas tank (pro tip, fill up in Alpine before going to the park if you’re coming from the north, it’s way cheaper than Marathon and way cheaper than the gas in the park- but we didn’t want to drive all the way back to Alpine to top off) and listen to even MORE Adventure Zone (seriously, we love it, and mixing our nerdiness with our love of national parks was super satisfying), and go to bed at slightly more reasonable time than our original plan of 9pm.
The next morning we woke up, had breakfast with the Bowmans in their awesome bus (named Buster, hahaha), and generally had a leisurely morning before heading off to Santa Elena Canyon. The drive was gorgeous! The sky and the land are just so vast and spacious there. We made a quick stop at the Castolon visitor center to grab Junior Ranger packets for the Bowman littles, Graham and Margie, and then pulled up to Santa Elena. We went straight to the trailhead to the hike to check it out, and this is definitely the spot I’d recommend putting in a boat if you have one. They have a separate ramp a ways down the road specifically for launching boats, but you have to paddle a lot farther upriver before getting in to the actual canyon (which is why you’re there to paddle!), and the walk from the trailhead parking lot to the river is reasonably short and flat.
Santa Elena is one of those places that I personally feel can’t really be overhyped. I don’t know, maybe I’m just easy to please and spend too much time on the hype train, but I was in awe of this canyon the entire time we were there. The walls of this canyon are massive, insanely sheer, and there’s something about being inches away from another country, especially without fences and guards and dogs and giant swaths cut through the forest, that inspires a little extra wonder.
The Bowmans inflated their duckie (two-person raft, for y’all who aren’t river-savvy) and headed up the canyon by water, and we headed up on the trail. I think someday I’d like to come back and packraft this river, and hike up this trail to put in at the end of the trail. It’s a cool little walk that provides a different perspective on the canyon and the river, and the bit at the end through the reeds (and the grasses which smelled very distinctly like hay) makes the little stroll overall worth doing, in my opinion.
At the end of the trail, we swapped with the Bowmans and paddled upriver a bit before heading back downstream. This experience only further proved that duckies and the two of us just don’t get along- we had a lot of the same issues we had on our honeymoon in the Tetons, where we just could not get that thing to track straight for the life of us. (And we swear, it’s not us- we’ve kayaked in hard-sided kayaks with no issues before! I think for whatever reason duckies are a different animal.) But it was still great to get on the water and experience the canyon from another perspective.
After our fun little excursion in Santa Elena, we headed to camp at Rio Grande Village. The sunset as we drove through the park was incredible, and as we got into camp we saw javelinas! (We didn’t get a photo though, bummer.)
After getting in and setting up camp, we had some homemade mac and cheese with broccoli (so yummy! Thanks Bowmans!) before heading to the hot springs. We drove in on the dirt road rather than hiking from Daniels Ranch, something we felt wouldn’t be the best or easiest choice in the dark with small humans. There is a turnaround/parking area for RVs and such, and we definitely recommend using it- the road isn’t much worse than the road leading up to that point, but it is VERY narrow, with a steep-ish dropoff on one side and a rock face on the other. Buster would not have fit. Driving in was straightfoward, and the walk to the hot springs was easy and flat. We didn’t take any pictures there, and I’m not even mad about it, because there would have simply been no way to capture how magical that experience was. The hot springs were built up into a rock-walled pool in the 50s, and the majority of that structure still remains. The water temperature is absolutely perfect, especially during a slightly chilly (relatively speaking) night. The best part of all, though, was the STARS. Oh my goodness, I’m no stranger to stargazing, but wow, the stars were absolutely incredible. Sitting in that hot water with the Rio Grande rushing by, enjoying good conversation with great friends and looking up at the stars, was definitely one of the top three most memorable experiences I’ve ever had. We stayed later than anyone else (even the naked old dudes, haha), and slept soundly and comfortably that night.
The next morning, we got up and headed to the showers in the village store to clean off our sulfur smell. They were admittedly kind of the worst showers ever, but better than nothing I suppose! After that, we had to part ways with the Bowmans, as we were headed to Guadalupe Mountains and wanted to get there before dark to get a campsite. We were sad to leave them!
On our way out, we stopped at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit, which was awesome. It doesn’t take much time, but it’s really well done, and it’s cool to see fossils that were dug up right in the region they were found.
Overall, we had a great time in Big Bend and (as always) wish we could have spent more time there! It’s a park you could easily spend a week in, partly due to its vastness and partly due to the huge volume of different activities. We loved going in the winter, but would love to go back in the spring when more plants are flowering and when it’s a little warmer!
Our Big Bend National Park “Must Do”:
The hot springs, especially at night! The temperature is perfect and the stars are amazing. It’s an excellent way to relax after a full day of activities.