Louise and Peter go to Big Bend National Park

In mid-April, Louise and I decided to take a long weekend at Big Bend National Park, which is bordered by the Rio Grande in west Texas. I had not visited it when I was a student in Texas and so it was a new experience for both of us. We left late afternoon on Thursday, drove up I-10 to Ozona to spend the night, and then arrived in the park late Friday morning. Our plan was to spend the rest of Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the park and then drive back on Monday so I could be at my desk fresh as a daisy Tuesday morning.

The park is one of the biggest National Parks and also one of the least visited, so it is much less crowded than the others. There is a place to stay in the park, although we had reserved a room in Terlingua, which is only a stone's throw from the park's northwest entrance. Terlingua is a former boomtown based on cinnabar mining, which is the ore from which mercury is extracted. Its heyday was during WWI when the demand for mercury as a component of explosives was at its peak. After the war, demand fell and the mines closed. By the 1960ies, the population had fallen below 100 and it is now known as a tourist destination for people visiting both the park and the Terlingua ghost town, as well as the location of one of the first and still most famous chili cook-off championships.

The most dramatic mountain scenery in the park is centered on the Chisos mountains, enclosing the Chisos basin. (One of us, who shall not be named, decided that it would be riotously funny to refer to the basin as "cheese and bacon". More poetically - "Hasten! Hasten! To the Chisos Basin, where we will dine on cheese and bacon." The other of us - and she will also not be named - found that completely puerile and unfunny.) Surrounding these mountains is mostly hilly desert county going down to the river in the south. The river runs through some spectacular canyons and, at the southeast end of the park, allows you to take a trip into Mexico, which we did.

We entered the park around noon through Persimmon Gap and drove up the mountains to the Chisos basin. The basin contains a small hotel, with restaurant, a store and some housing units to rent. After a bite to eat in the restaurant, we decided to do one of the basin trails called 'window view trail', which is designated 'easy', to cater to my total lack of conditioning. The trailhead was a short stroll from where we were and we started down a pleasant gravel trail towards a break in the mountains called 'the window'. Pretty soon, we realized that we had been descending via a series of switchbacks and that we had already walked more than the promised one mile round trip. We turned around and slogged back up the trail that had turned steep, rough and unfriendly, muttering to ourselves about the unreliability of guidebooks. But when we got back to the trailhead, we noticed that we had been walking down the window trail, not the window view trail. The window view trail turned out to be on a level, smoothly surfaced, ADA-approved path to an overlook where the window was nicely displayed. I guess reading the trail signs isn't such a bad idea after all.

Chisos Mountains Louise in the heart of the Chisos basin Ocotillo in Chisos basin
Signpost to the (wrong) window trail Lion warning on the window trail. (Oh my!) Cactus on the window trail
Louise on the window trail Peter on the window trail The window
Signpost to the (right) window view trail Peter on the window view trail
(Note well-tended level paved surface for the infirm)
Nice-looking rock on the window view trail
View of window Window view trail Predator at the basin
Our hotel in Terlingua A flat tire after a spell on an unpaved road Terlingua ghost town
Ghost town cemetery Louise in the ghost town Ghostly farm equipment
Our spot for breakfast, La Posada Milagro. Service was slow but everyone seemed to be in a good mood, including the bikers who ate there.
View from La Posada Milagro The Starlight theater More ghostly relics
Small bird high on Art Cactus flower

Off to Santa Elena Canyon. This involved taking the Ross Maxwell road, which goes down the west side of the Chisos Mountains all the way to the Rio Grande. There are also plenty of opportunities to stop and take little hikes to appreciate the scenery and see what life was like back in the day.

Sam Nail ranch Sam Nail's windmill The remains of Sam Nail's adobe home
More remains Sotol Vista
(Sotol is a desert plant also known as Desert Spoon.
It is also the name of a potent liquor distilled from the plant.)
Sotol against Chisos Mountains backdrop
Peter Nice rock Mule Ears

We stopped off for a little hike at Tuff Canyon. Not that tuff of a hike, but made of volcanic tuff, which is the ash from volcanic eruptions. We walked down to the canyon floor and then down it for a ways. The rock formations were fascinating.

And finally, at the end of the road - the Rio Grande. The river carries a lot of sand in suspension which gives it a startling green color. The canyon walls are high and normally this is a place for rafting but the river is too low right now. You can practically walk across to Mexico, which highlights the problems the US has in securing its border. The border patrol doesn't put in an appearance here, but if you drive out of the park in any direction, you will soon enough be pulled over for a quick peek in the car - more, I imagine, if you look hispanic.
Two international kids Peter considers emigrating The canyon

On Sunday, we drove down to the southeast corner of the park. The Chisos mountains were completely obscured by clouds, although it was mostly fine where we were. At the end of the road was a small ranger station where the ranger pointed out the way to the border crossing. There were all kinds of high iron gates and fences with padlocks, although I believe that we could have walked fity yards in either direction and been able to walk down to the river unmolested. However, we entered the Boquillas Port of entry where the TSA guys gave us the story - go through this little open gate, walk down to the river and look on the other shore for a guy singing. Near him will be a rowboat. Wave at the singing man and someone will row across to get you. After that, you have to go to the village of Boquillas and check in with Mexican immigration. Have fun in town, but make sure you get on back across the river by 4:30 because we close at 5.

Chisos mountains in the clouds Ocotillo Prickly pear
Flowers Cactus flowers Boquillas crossing
An open door (Huh?) The river Our trip across the river
We paid $5 apiece for a round-trip ticket from the river to the village by donkey. (Maybe a one mile trip, but a very muddy path.) On the left is Louise with our 12-year old donkey handler, Edgar.
The terminus in Boquillas Louise and Edgar The intrepid explorers
Louise at the restaurant Me at the restaurant The fine hand-washing station at the restaurant
Looking into Mexico Looking back at the river

After our Mexican adventures, we return to the Chisos basin for an excellent local IPA. Thus fortified, we drive to the Lost Mine Trail, which is only a few minutes away and which is the most popular hike in the park. When we get there, there are surprisingly few cars. Louise decides to take a nap, so I go on alone. It is not a hard trail, but leads to some very dramatic views to the east and I am hoping that the sun will be low enough to cast some lovely light. (Actually, it turns out I'd have had to wait at least another hour for that.) I am greatly encouraged that my feeble body is able to carry me up the mountain.

An excellent local IPA
On Monday morning, we head homewards. We take a more roundabout route than we did coming, going to Alpine where we buy a new tire; then past Davis State Park; then past the Macdonald Observatory and up to I-10. Louise proposes that we break our journey somewhere and get up early the next morning so I miss only a minimal amount of work time. I resist the idea until we get to Fredericksburg, where the sky turns black and it is obviously about to rain cats and dogs. We stop at a restaurant with its own brewery and on entering we discover that they also rent rooms. We sign up, quaff a few excellent brews, dine and go to bed. In the morning, we arise before the sun and Louise drives us back to Austin.
The gathering storm in Fredericksburg We decide to stay at the Bed and Brew - the brew We decide to stay at the Bed and Brew - the Bed

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