Big Bend National Park: Desert, Mountain, River, and Border

Will the cross border cooperation between United States and Mexico at the Big Bend National Park continue?  This is on local people’s mind, on both sides of the border.

Uncertain Times at Big Bend National Park

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Rio Grande

The Rio Grande marks the boundary between US and Mexico as it winds through southwest Texas.  To the north,  Big Bend National Park that protects and preserves a vast area.  To the south, a nature preserve of similar size.  Both were put in place in the 1940s, with great cooperation from both sides.  This cooperation is still alive and well today, but for how long?  During our visit shortly after Trump became president in 2017, there was a lot tension and uncertainty between US and Mexico.  How will this play out?  Will there be a wall to mar the beauty of the Rio Grande?  How will the cross border fire protection, scientific study, and local trade evolve?

Politics

Big Bend National Park is a large park with three distinct features – Chihuahuan Desert, Chisos Mountain, and Rio Grande – that offer diverse plants, animals, and climate.  Because it’s on the Mexican border, issues between the two countries loom large in the background.  Boquillas Del Carmen, Mexico is a small town on the Mexican side of Boquillas Canyon with a border crossing by rowboat only.  This tiny village of ~200 people is dependent on tourists from Big Bend and very much subject to the whims of US government.  The border crossing closed after 9-11 for more than 10 years, decimating the town.  This crossing was reopened in 2013, which revived this tiny village.

Lunch

We went to Boquillas Del Carmen for a Mexican lunch.  The border crossing was very relaxed.  A ranger on the US side explained to us the border crossing procedure, what to expect on the Mexican side, and what not to bring back.  A short walk to the river bank got us to a rowboat.  A young Mexican with a hat greeted us, collected the $5 fee, and rowed us to the other side in less than two minutes.  We were greeted with different modes of transportation (donkey, horse, car, or walk) for the three quarters of a mile trek to town.  The choice is obvious on a pleasant day – walk.

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Jose Falcons restaurant

We stopped by the immigration trailer as directed but no one was there, so I said

“Let’s go get some lunch”

This didn’t sit well with Loretta.

“What if they come after us because we didn’t have the passport stamped?” she said.

I assured her we were not going to get locked up in Mexico because there probably wasn’t a jail in this tiny town and the closest big town with a jail was 100 miles away.

There were only two choices for lunch, Jose Falcone’s or the Boquillas.  Loretta picked Jose Falcones but I was reluctant.  I can understand Jose, but isn’t Falcone an Italian name?  Falcone reminds me of an Italian mobster.  We relented  despite the risk of running into an Italian mobster in Mexico.  She was worried about not checking in with Mexican immigration but not worried about getting gunned down by a mobster?

Singing Out of Tune

The lunch patio overlooked a cliff in the distance.  There was an old man in a wheelchair.  He tried to play the guitar and sing, with the emphasis on the word tried.  He was off key and the guitar sounded awful.  Loretta said this sounded like the old bear in Disney’s Magic Kingdom Country Bear Jamboree show.  It was so bad it was funny.  The guacamole and the tacos were excellent, however.

No need to exchange currency here, they only take US dollars.  How convenient!   After the excellent lunch and a few boys trying to sell us trinkets, we decided to stop by the immigration trailer again.  This time, the agent was there.  We told her we were leaving and she said “Ok, go ahead, no need to do anything”.  We asked for our passport to be stamped and she obliged but with a “why would you bother” look.  Of course, she did not know about my stamp collection fetish.

Back in the USA

When we re-entered the USA, we used a kiosk to show our passport and talk to a border protection officer by phone to answer a few standard questions.  A park ranger monitored us to make sure we weren’t going to escape into the US.  Why can’t I see eye to eye with the immigration officer when she can see me through the kiosk camera?  This is so unfair!  The ranger told us there is minimal violence, drug trafficking or illegal border crossing problems near Big Bend, and they generally are relaxed about things.  However, this can change in an instant if the “higher ups” were to question it.  Everyone, including the Mexicans were trying to keep a low profile and avoid attention.   Even at this beautiful National Park, political realities are having an impact.

Desert, Mountain, and River

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Cactus in Bloom

The Chihuahuan Desert is large with brush, cactus, and other desert plants.  It’s beautiful in its openness and vastness.  The Rio Grande is the source of life in this desert, with cottonwoods, bamboo plants (an invasive specie) and other plants providing food and shade for birds, and other animals.  The Chisos Mountain, the only mountain range that is entirely within a National Park, is the dominant feature in the park that rises up to Emory Peak at 7632 feet.  The Del Carmen mountain on the Mexican side form an impressive cliff of near vertical wall rising up 1500 feet.

Hiking and Rafting

Big Bend is hiker friendly, with many trails of various distances and for varying abilities, from wheel chair accessible paths to the strenuous hike to Emory Peak.  There are multi-day rafting expeditions through the narrow Santa Elena Canyon.  There is something for everyone.

Boquillas Canyon

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Donkey standing like a statue next to the trail

There are three main areas to visit.  The Rio Grande area, where Boquillas Canyon trail leads to the mouth of the Boquillas Canyon.  During this hike, I saw a donkey by the river.

I said to Loretta “Who put a statue of a donkey on this path?”

“You idiot, that is not a statue, it’s a live donkey.  Look at his ears, it’s moving” she said

“Oh,  I see.  But he is so still and just looking at us.  He is pretending to be a statue.”

Later on, we learned the donkey sightings are frequent in the “wild”.  The donkey probably escaped her owner in Mexico and crossed the river to graze.  I wondered if homeland security folks searched him to make sure he was not smuggling drugs or weapons across the border.

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Boquillas Cliff
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Hot Springs by the Rio Grande

The canyon walls rise high in the air and form an impressive, narrow canyon.  We hiked the Hot Springs trail hoping for a hot spring and we were not disappointed.  There was a hot spring by the river bank where people sat back and relaxed with a perfect view of the roaring Rio Grande.  Since we didn’t have bathing suits, and Loretta was not about to go skinny dipping, we took off our shoes and socks, rolled up our pants, and soaked our feet.  My feet felt real good in the 104 F degree water, especially after a day of hiking.

Scenic Santa Elena

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Santa Elena Canyon
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Fossils at Santa Elena canyon

The Ross Maxwell scenic drive leads to the mouth of Santa Elena canyon, the most impressive scene in the park.  A two mile round trip hike goes just inside the canyon, where it’s shaded most of the time.  The river, while still flowing, is placid and reflected the tall canyon walls.  We don’t even know how to spell archaeology but we spotted fossils on rocks near the river, left over from the days when Big Bend was under water.  Amazing to see them in real life, and not just in books or movies.

For the Sake of a Clear Picture

I was taking photography lessons and just finished a section on the importance of using a tripod to get sharp shots.  Anxious to put my new learning to use, I told Loretta I wanted to bring the tripod on the hike.

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Mouth of Santa Elena canyon

She shrugged and said “Suit yourself, but I am not carrying it, at any time”.  I carried the tripod, stopping at every bend on the trail, adjusted the legs of the tripod just right, framed the picture, and used the two second timer technique to take a shot.  All of this setup took a lot longer than just point and shoot.  Loretta had the patience of a saint.  She never hurried me but just stood back and waited.  I’d like to think she did this just to indulge me, but perhaps she just wanted to rest during the hike.  I will never know and I will never ask.

Continue on the Scenic Drive

There are a couple of ruins of ranches from early 20th century that were interesting, as well as the short walk that led to the Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff.  At the end of this 0.5 mile flat trail is the bottom of a dry waterfall.  Signs of erosion is clear. When it rains, this is definitely the bottom of a waterfall.

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive was not particularly scenic, by National Park standards but it did lead to several spurs for good views and historic sites.  I thought NPS was stretching it by calling it a scenic drive.  Other drives in the park are just as scenic.  I guess they needed to name something after the first superintendent of Big Bend.

Basin and Window

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Mexican Jay

The Chisos basin has the only lodge in the park, along with a general store, restaurant and campground.  We hiked the Windows trail that led to a cliff with an opening – the window – that had a spectacular view of the desert and a cliff across.  Four Mexican jays were playing hide and seek with us.  They followed each other down the path, just ahead of us, almost like they are leading us somewhere.  They leapfrogged each other, playing catchup.  Even though they were within a few feet of me, each time I raised the camera, right on cue, they flew off, landed on the next tree, and waited for me to raise the camera again.  As soon as the camera pointed at them, they flew off again.  These birds must have received training to tease the photographer and then expertly screw up the shot.

Marathon and Fine Dining

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Gage Hotel

Marathon, north of the park, is a small town with a very nice hotel.  The Gage hotel and the 27 acre Gage Gardens are beautiful and seemed almost out of place in the rough and tumble west Texas.  I was worried about entertaining Loretta on Valentine’s day, the day we were in Marathon.  I didn’t expect to find fine dining in this tiny town so I told her we’d have to celebrate Valentine’s Day a day early while we were in San Antonio.  We did, but lucky for her (and I), we got to do it again on Valentine’s Day at the fabulous 12 Gage restaurant.

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Appetizer at 12 Gage

This restaurant is decorated in southwest style.  The waiter told us about the history of the hotel, the town, and why the towns in this part of Texas are exactly 30 miles apart (maximum distance between water stops for steam locomotives).  Before long, he had the attention of everyone in the dining room.  Everyone applauded after he finished.  The food was excellent and the presentation artful.  They even gave Loretta a rose.  This was an unexpected and very pleasant surprise.  He got a big tip.

Terlingua and Old West

On the west side of the park is the town of Terlingua and the Terlingua Ghost Town.  The ghost town is an abandoned mining town with decaying buildings.  Starlight Theater is heavily promoted but it’s not a theater.  It’s really a restaurant with live entertainment.  We sat next to a two man band, one playing the guitar and the other alternated between the banjo and guitar.  They didn’t practice much together before the show because before each song, the older man had to tell the younger man exactly what chords to play for the next song.  Still, he had a nice voice that was mostly in tune and sounded a lot better than the Mexican singer in Boquillas.

After dinner, we went back just inside the park border, parked at a pulloff, leaned back and gazed at the stars.  It was dark with an occasional cloud that blocked the view from time to time but it’s just so amazing to see so many stars, much more than what you can see from the suburb.

Thought for Big Bend National Park:

Policies have consequences.  Weigh all of the pros and cons as it affect people’s lives before making policy changes.

Impression of Big Bend National Park:

Big Bend is the only National Park with a border crossing.  With the recent election and the promise to build a wall on the southern US border, politics is no longer avoidable.  There is already a “wall”.  It’s called nature.  The cliffs and the vast distances in this unforgiving climate on both sides of the border serve as a natural wall.  I hope saner minds prevail and no wall will ever mar the beautiful landscape at Big Bend.

There is something for everyone at Big Bend.  Mountain, desert and river.  Hiking and rafting.  Hot springs and old ranch ruins.  Birds and wildlife, even an occasional donkey.  Plants from the sagebrush in the desert to tall pines in the mountains.  The variety makes it fun to visit.  While this park is pretty far away from major cities or interstates, touring by car is easy with excellent scenery within a short walk from the road.

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Big Bend National Park Rating:

(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings.  All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)

Element Rating (out of 5 Stars)
Scenery ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Variety ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Accessibility ⭐️⭐️
Touring ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Hiking ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Wildlife ⭐️⭐️
Overall ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Practical Info for Visiting Big Bend National Park:

  • Marathon is the gateway city if you are coming from the north or northeast, but it is still far from the park.
  • Alpine is a much bigger town and good if you are coming from north or northwest, also far from the park.
  • Terlingua is just outside the western entrance to the park.  It feels like a typical National Park gateway town with a strong west Texas flare.
  • Minimum of two days required to explore the park.  Three if you want to do more hiking.
  • Santa Elena canyon a must see.  Hike into the canyon to the end of the trail to appreciate the canyon.  It’s only two miles.
  • Have lunch in Mexico.  The border crossing is “quaint” and fun.  It’s probably the only time you will cross a national border by rowboat.
  • Wear appropriate clothing if you want to soak in the hot spring.  It seemed really relaxing.
  • Pick your time of the year for a visit.  Summer is very hot except in the mountains.
  • Gage Hotel in Marathon is excellent, albit expensive.
  • Cabins at the Far Flung Outdoor center are excellent in Terlingua.
  • Plan ahead if you want to camp in the park or to stay at the lodge during peak season.  The spaces fill up quickly.

Big Bend National Park Facts:

  • Size: 801,162 acres, ranked 14th.
  • Visitors: 388,290 visitors, ranked 42nd.  Record year was in 2005 with 398,583 visitors.
  • Peak Month in 2016: March with 54,642 visitors.
  • Low Month in 2016: August with 16,144 visitors.
  • Entrance Fee: $25 per vehicle, $12 per person not in a vehicle.

Date Visited: February 15 to 16, 2017

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