Big Bend National Park was always supposed to be the crown jewel of our Christmas camping vacation.
When the shutdown happened, I was convinced there was no way we were going to be able to see the park, and even if we were, it was going to be a mere shadow of what our original planned trip was going to be.
The morning after we arrived at Davis Mountains State Park, when I headed to the front desk to pay the balance on our reservation, I asked if it was possible to add two more nights to our stay. Watching Jeff struggle with the wind across southwest Texas, I didn’t know that he wanted to drive the camper an extra 100 miles to stay outside of Big Bend National Park where our activities would be limited. Then I checked the forecast. The day we were supposed to be traveling and setting up camp just outside of the park in Terlingua, the high temperatures were supposed to be in the 60s (with serious fluxuations within the park itself). The day I had scheduled for exploring the park, the temperatures were supposed to drop by at least 20 degrees. It appeared that the best day for Big Bend explorations was going to be day four of our trip instead of day five.
After consulting Jeff, I added two more days to our reservation and we made plans for an early start so we could maximize our time in an 800,000-acre national park.
I got up early, the skies just starting to lighten, and walked both dogs around the loop to give them some exercise before we left them for an entire day. Dogs are not allowed on the trails in the national park and traveling with the two of them at our feet didn’t seem to be fair to either of them. Besides, they had gotten plenty of exercises the day before when to took them climbing up a mountain. They were both exhausted.
I packed up water, drinks, and snack food before waking up the rest of the family. We didn’t quite get an 8:00 start time, but we were close enough. By the time we left, the sun was starting to rise over the mountains. When we finally arrived in Terlingua/Study Butte, the last stop before the national park, we discovered we had stopped at the gas station right next to the RV resort where we had a reservation. I hadn’t been able to cancel our reservation because I didn’t have enough cell service to make a phone call, so we walked into the office/gift shop to see what we could do. The desk clerk cheerfully greeted us and after we explained our situation, he gladly returned our deposit even though we had clearly missed our 72-hour cancellation window. Apparently they weren’t suffering. Many of the people who had been kicked out of the national park had turned to the surrounding RV parks for replacement lodging. Our cancellation would open up a spot for another family looking for a place to stay now that they couldn’t stay in the park.
Following the recommendation of the desk clerk, we headed into the park and straight for Chisos Basin Lodge, which is independently run and still had an open gift shop, restaurant, and rest rooms. On the way there, we watched the desert shift to the mountains, vegetation getting denser and trees getting taller while we felt the change in elevation. We pulled into a full Chisos Basin complex, cars and trucks parked on the road and hikers and tourists crossing parking lots to get to their desired location. Our kids watched in awe as they passed license plates from all over the country, national parks lovers determined to not let a shutdown keep them from exploring one of the less frequently visited parks in the United States during its traditionally busiest time of the year.
We made a quick stop through the gift shop, headed back to the truck to get water bottles and Jeff’s hiking boots, and then headed down to the hiking trails. On the way we walked past the same family we had met the day before coming back from our Montezuma Quail Trail hike. They had just completed the trail that we would soon start. The kids, oblivious to the other hikers around them and the trail sign ahead of them, were immediately distracted by the warning sign giving instructions on how to avoid bears and mountain lions. When we finally got their attention, we let them take a look at the sign and pick the trail. Already hungry and asking when lunch would be, they picked the shortest of the trails, the 1.8 mile Chisos Basin Loop.
The loop has an elevation of 350 feet, took us through forests and past cacti and delivered spectacular views of the mountains and valley below.
We climbed, stepped over rocks, and steadied ourselves as we made each descent. We started to shed layers of clothing that were no longer needed once our blood was pumping. When we finally got back to the store at the trailhead, we were all ready to sit down for a lunch at the Chisos Basin Restaurant, guzzling water and devouring food that took far too long to arrive.
We said goodbye to the Basin and headed back down into the flat desert landscapes surrounding what we now knew to be an island in the sky (thanks to a knowledgeable Texas State Park ranger from the day before) and travelled towards the Rio Grande Village, hopeful that we could get close enough to see the Rio Grande River. But with the Boquillas Crossing and the Rio Grande Campground closed (at least the national park owned side of Rio Grande Village), we couldn’t get close enough to get a glimpse. From the top of the Rio Grande Overlook we could see into Mexico and the pangs of being so close but so far away hit us as we looked across the rugged wilderness.
We continued driving towards the Boquillas Canyon Trail, but even though it looked doable, it would take us too long to complete the trail and we already had a couple more items on our “to see” list before the sun set and we headed back north to Davis Mountains.
As far as I was concerned, the day had been nearly perfect, but I still hadn’t seen the Rio Grande and our son still hadn’t REALLY seen into Mexico. On our way back towards Panther Junction, Jeff pulled off towards the Hot Springs historic site, taking our truck on the bumpy dirt road and then on the incredibly narrow one-way road leading to the parking right next to the Langford Ruins on the top of a hill. We headed down the quarter-mile hike towards the natural hot springs pool and then I heard it: the rushing waters of the Rio Grande to our right. Our son raced down the trail to the hot springs and then the break in the bamboo growing on the banks revealed a small stone pool full of naturally warmed water, the pristine cold waters of the Rio Grande running right past it. The pool was full of park visitors who had come prepared, braving the 60 degree weather to don their swimming suits and take advantage of the warmed pool, some of them taking advantage of the ranger-less park to then dive from warm spring to icy river water. Both of our kids took off their shoes and socks so they could put their feet into the hot spring, our daughter stretching her long legs off of the edge of the pool so she could put her toes into the Rio Grande.
It was our last stop inside Big Bend National Park. We drove straight to Terlingua Ghost Town, which has become an artist colony attempting to preserve the abandoned buildings scattered between restaurants and shops that have popped up to support the artists who now live there. We checked out the gift shop, decided that the 1+ hour wait at the restaurant wasn’t worth it, and stopped at the old cemetery on our way out of town. One more quick stop at the service station where our Big Bend adventure started and we were headed back north towards Davis Mountains, the temperatures quickly dropping to the twenties by the time we arrived back at our camper. I was glad Jeff had turned down my offer to drive when an icy fog settled around the truck; we still had nearly an hour to go before we got home and we could barely see in front of us.
We got home exhausted but happy, greeted by two dogs who acted like we had been gone for days. As I tucked our excitable little boy into bed, he told me he couldn’t settle down, he “didn’t want the fun to end.”
That statement pretty much summed up the day. I still want to go back when the park is fully open, but I’m glad I didn’t give into my fears and cancel the trip. But maybe next time we’ll try to hit the park in late fall, you know, before the flurries start to fall in the Texas Mountains.
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