23rd December 2020-26th December 2020
In the era of viral pandemics and social distancing, this rusty, wide open national park in Southwest Texas is one of the optimal places to visit to breathe in some fresh air while surrounded by wilderness, that leaves you rapt, rejuvenated and relaxed. Here is my take on my short trip to the Big Bend National Park during the winter holidays.
BEST TIME TO VISIT: Visiting Big Bend National Park is a great way to experience the rugged wilderness available in the state of Texas. It is made up of acres of desert mountains encompassing the Chihuahuan desert and holds jagged and sheer canyons with the Rio Grande River flowing through them. The park is located in Southwest Texas right on the border of US and Mexico. It is one of the least visited national parks in North America with average visitation of 300,000 -400,000 a year and therefore ideal for a short getaway during the pandemic, especially if you live in the state of Texas. The most popular time to visit the park is considered the spring and the fall, as the summers can be too hot, and the winters can lead to snowy storms. However, with the winters being milder the last couple years in Texas, a trip in the winter might be just the right time to visit this picturesque and dreamy destination. We travelled during the Christmas days and the weather for a hiking trip couldn’t have been better with temperatures of highs in the high 60s and lows in the low 30s. Having said that, it did snow up to 6-7 inches the week after we got back so planning for the weather during this time of the year is highly recommended.
GETTING THERE: One of the reasons that the park is least visited, is due to its location and the very limited transport facilities around it. There is no public transport available in the vicinity of the park. The closest airport available is at Midland, Texas or El Paso, Texas, towns that are a 3.5-4.5-hour drive from the park headquarters. Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains are available to Alpine, Texas which is an hour and half drive to the park. Therefore, having a car to get to the park as well as navigate within the park is a must. From San Antonio, it is an easy 6.5-7-hour car ride through 1-10 west and US-385 south freeways. The drive spans the vast lands of West and South Texas leading up to some mountainous views while approaching the park. Planning and stocking up for food, water and gas is suggested as distances between towns and services are quite considerable.
LODGING: Apart from the campsites available within the park at the Chisos Basin as well as at the Rio Grande Village, there is the Chisos Mountain Lodge located next to the campsites within the park and is the only lodging available inside the park. The town of Terlingua located just outside of the park has a small Chisos Mining Motel and the La Posada Milagro Guesthouse . Other closest hotel options available are in the towns of Alpine, Marathon and Marfa.
We stayed at the Lajitas Golf Resort about 20 mins outside the park. It is 4-star, well landscaped resort that offers standard rooms, suites, condos and individual villas; all overlooking either the pool, golf course or the glorious mountains of the Chihuahuan desert. The resort offers a range of activities like horseback riding, ziplining, standup paddle boarding, shooting and mountain biking, in addition to having a spa and a museum within it. It also has its own general store with a gas station, a Deli, with a good spread of groceries. Other dining options include a bakery, a bar and a restaurant. The resort also offered some holiday activities for the kids like cookie baking and a Christmas movie showing for some festivities. We stayed at the Haceinda Escondida Villa which is a 2650 sq ft, three bedroom, 2 bath home, featuring a full gourmet kitchen, TV in each bedroom with smart capabilities in the living room, complimentary WIFI and a lot of outdoor courtyard space with panoramic views of the desert. The home comfortably sleeps 6 people. Overall it was a great 3-night stay at the resort. A few downsides worth mentioning are: 1) The mattresses in the guest bedrooms were slightly uncomfortable; 2) hot water ran out very easily. Inspite of two bathrooms, only one person could shower at a time to get enough hot water and the wait time between showers to replenish the hot water was about 15-20 mins. 3) While the customer service was generally responsive, the villa wasn’t ready at our check-in time of 4pm.
- Scenic Drives : The park can be easily cruised through its very scenic and awe-inspiring natural landscape. The three most popular scenic drives include:
- Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive: This drive starts at the Panther visitor center and extends about 30 mile ending at the Santa Elena Canyon. There are several overlooks, hiking trails and short strolls along the way that undoutedly enhances the scenic experience. Depending on your choice of hikes and length of stops, you can spend most of the day going through this drive. With the following stops and hikes, it took us about 5 hours to the end and another hour to drive back.
- Stop at the Homer Wilson Ranch overlook: This feature is a foreman’s ranch house that was abandoned in 1945. We only stopped here briefly to take pictures of the view and the house at a distance, although you can hike down to the house for a closer look. The trail is only a short walk of 0.7miles round trip.
- Stop at Sotol Vista Overlook: It overlooks the entire western side of the park.
- Hike the Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff Trail : This is an easy, flat trail that is no more than a mile round trip. The trail is mainly made of course sand and gravel leading upto a seasonal pour off of 100 foot or above from the mesa above. However, in the winter, even without the water, the rugged and volcanic scape was worth the stroll through the trail. There is also the upper pouroff trail that is 3.7mile long, if you have additional time to explore.
- Take a picture of the Mule Ears at the Viewpoint: We only took a picture of the mountain shaped as mule ears, although you can choose to hike up to the ears for a closer look. It is a total of 3.8-miles, easy to moderate trudge.
- Stroll down the Tuff Canyon Trail: This canyon features overlooks of the tuff in the canyon walls as well a total of a 0.7-mile-long stroll through the access trail for a nearer experience of the volcanic cliffs. It is one of the recommended short walks in the park.
- Take a picture of the Cerro Castellan: This is a prominent conical mountain on the drive that is made up of a high stack of ash, lava and rocks.
- Hike the Santa Elena Canyon Trail: This trail is the end of the scenic drive and the most spectacular and the most popular of all hikes of the Big Bend park. As you approach the trail you will witness the 1500-foot tall limestone rock walls from a distance that converts into a magnificent experience as you near it. It is an easy to moderate 1.7mile round trip following the edge of the Rio Grande river that flows through the limestone canyon. The views of the canyon from below and the river from above, combined with fresh air, is both exhilirating and refreshing.
- The other small scenic drive is on the Chisos Basin Road which is a short 6 mile drive to the Chisos Basin Visitors center and the Lodge. The drive is fun for kids with its steep and winding roads that takes you up to 2000 feet above the desert floor, offering splendid vistas of mountain peaks and eroded desert valleys.
- The 50-mile drive on Hwy 170 west of Lajitas resort to Presido is also considered one of the most beautiful drives of west Texas . Driving further along the drive will also take you to the Big Bend Ranch State Park which I hear is a worthy park in and of itself.
2. Hiking: The park offers a number of trails for treks ranging from short rambles to long all day climbs, each presenting with a variety of incredible landscapes, vegetation and/or wild life. Following are some of the most popular hikes recommended while visiting Big Bend National Park.
- Santa Elena canyon Trail: Details stated above.
- Lost mine Trail: This is a moderate 4.8mile roundtrip trail with stunning views of the Chisos Mountains and the flora and fauna of the area. Allow 2-3 hours of time for this trek including spending some time at the summit. There is very limited parking space at the trailhead so chances are you might have to wait a little to find a spot.
- Balanced Rock Trail: This is a very unique trail in terms of rock formations that is very easy to walk through until you get to the end of the trail where you encounter rocks of all sizes for you to climb to and reach to this one distinct formation of a vertical rock being balanced on two horizonal ones. Exploring the rocks is a lot of fun for kids and adults and one can spend hours scrambling through the area. The hike is about 2.2 miles round trip and will take about 1-2 hours on an average. Note: You will need to drive about 6 miles on the gravel road to get to the trail head. Make sure to have good tires on your car.
- Cattail falls Trail: This trail is considered a hidden gem of the park that leads you up to to a strictly seasonal waterfall after a good rain in the spring. However, I believe the hike is still good even at other times. The hike is only 3 miles round trip and the details of how to get to the trailhead are nicely described here .
- Window Trail: This is one of the most popular day hikes in the park that offers stunning views of the window and the Big Bend National Park. It is a moderately strenuous hike of 5.6miles round trip. However, they also have a trail that branches off called the Window View trail which is only 0.3mile paved trail that offers views of the window and even the sunset if you catch it at the right time. However, observing the sunset over the window will solely depend on the location and time of the sunset on any given day.
- Emory Peak Trail: This is one of the longest hikes in the park that takes you to the highest peak of the Chisos mountains. The hike is strenuous 10.4mile round trip.
- South Rim Trail: Similar to Emory peak, this is also a strenuous hike of 12.6 miles, albeit for gorgeous views of the park. The hike can be combined with Emory peak for a total of 15.6 miles.
Information on additional hikes are on this post, which provides a great overview of the hikes at the park with pictures
3. River Tours: The Rio Grande river and the associated canyons in the Big Bend National Park offer many opportunities for a scenic tour on a kayak, canoe or raft. You can even book professionally guided tours for a couple hours or a whole day. Details available here.
4. ATV and Jeep Tours: For those who prefer to be on land, there are guided open-air jeep and ATV tours as well. Check here for details.
5. Visit the Rio Grande Village and Take a Dip in the Hot Springs: The Rio Grande village features a well-equipped campground, a visitor’s center with an exhibit, trails and the famous hot springs. The nature trail is a 0.75-mile loop that is a scenic and relaxing trail along the river that can give you the opportunity for some bird and wildlife viewing. Soaking in the Langford hot springs with 105-degree F natural water on the edge of the Rio Grande, is a ‘must thing to do’ at the park especially if you can get there at sunrise before it gets too crowded. The walk to the spring is via the easy hot springs historic 1mile trail. The springs was closed due to the pandemic.
6. Star Gazing: The open and clear skies of the Chihuahua desert allows the astronomers in us, the perfect place to go all out with star viewing and the astounding galaxies around us, be it with an app, a personal telescope or driving up to the nearby MacDonald Observatory. You can view the stars typically from anywhere in the area, however this post provides a list of the best places for stargazing in the park and the details for it. Alternatively, I was told that booking an evening star party at the McDonald Observatory (located in Fort Davis) is absolutely worth it, although the place was closed due to the pandemic during the time of our trip.
7. Ghost town of Terlingua: Terlingua used to be a major mining town until it was abandoned. It is located 3-4 miles west of the Big Bend Park and is definitely a very interesting town to drive by, wander around or stop for some grub. The town is very small with only around 80 residents and populated by abandoned buildings and small houses. Interestingly the residents have maintained the ghosty look of even the functional stores and restaurants within the place. It definitely had the strangest appeal of all small towns I have ever visited with weird art all around and a spooky feeling when you try to enter any of the buildings. The town is most popularly visited for its Starlight Theatre restaurant and other dining spots (see below).
8. Mexican Town of BoquillasThe town of Boquillas del Carmen in Mexico is located on the border of US and Mexico, on the side of Mexico just outside of the Big Bend National Park and provides an easy opportunity to get a glimpse of Mexico. The Boquillas crossing that takes you from the park to the town is a very popular thing to do. Men with their row boats shuttle back and forth to take visitors through the crossing, following which a short walk will get you to the town. The town features several souvenir shops, restaurants and a bed and breakfast. The Boquillas restaurant is very popular for some authentic Mexican food and drinks. More details are on this post.
Day 1: Drove to the park. On the way, visited the town of Terlingua. Relaxed at the villa. Star gazing in the night from the villa.
Day 2: Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Hiked the Burro Mesa pouroff, Tuff canyon and the Santa Elena canyon. Drove to the window trail to watch the sunset.
Day 3: Hiked the Balanced rock and the Lost Mine trail.
Day 4: Drove back to San Antonio.
FOOD: In the interest of not visiting crowded restaurants during the pandemic, we mostly cooked at our villa and only ordered take-out pizza from the Lajitas Mercado a couple of times and its worth mentioning that the pizzas were quite tasty, freshly made and reasonably priced. However, in addition to the resort dining options, there are a few other food choices that include meals offered at the Chisos Mountain lodge which also has a convenient store for snacks, canned veggies and meats; restaurants located in Terlingua such as La Kiva restaurant, High Sierra Bar and Grill, the Taqueria El Milagro and the most recommended Starlight Theatre. Some were closed due to the pandemic and vegetarian options are limited. Carrying food while you navigate through the park is highly recommended due to limited options within the park, longer hikes and significant driving distance needed to get from point-to-point.
OTHER USEFUL TIPS
- Bring your passport
- Phone service is very, very limited in the area
- Plan well for food, water and gas.
* Thanks to my friend Dustin Green for proof-reading this article.