Five adventure filled days in Big Bend National Park…
Why we came…
Because we wanted to see Big Bend National Park and hike in the Texas desert.
Our first time in Big Bend National Park
We stayed at the Rio Grande Village RV Park. The campground was a parking lot. The sites were paved, fairly level, and not too long, but wide enough to park vehicles next to the RVs. Because the sites were a bit short and angled 90 degrees to the road, they were quite difficult to negotiate. This is exacerbated if a long rig is parked opposite your site. Once set up, we were comfortable and it was peaceful. We had full hook-ups, no cell phone signal, and no wi-fi. However, wi-fi was available at the little convenience store nearby. The store had a very small selection of food, camping supplies, souvenirs, and sold reasonably priced gas and diesel. It also had a few clothes washers and dryers, and bathrooms with showers. It was a busy place!
We stayed at Rio Grande Village because it’s the only campground in the Park with hook-ups. There are other, much nicer campgrounds in other sections the Park.
We would gladly return to Big Bend and likely stay for two weeks or so. We’d probably split our time at different campgrounds in different sections. It would allow us to thoroughly explore the entire Park.
Make sure to come fully stocked though! Besides the very limited supplies and food inside the Park, the little communities outside the Park don’t offer much either.
The Rio Grande Village RV Park is a parking lot…difficult to get into the sites
Once we got set up, we were comfortable. (Note: Picture was taken when there was nobody on either side of us.)
The Rio Grande valley and Sierra Del Carmen Mountains basked in a warm evening glow
On 5 April we did a couple of hikes near the campground…
We checked in early and set up camp with plenty of time to explore. We have fished the Rio Grande River, far up north near its source in Colorado. Now we were nearly a thousand miles downriver and 8,000 feet lower and were eager to see the differences.
We drove a few miles up the road and hiked over a short rise into the Boquillas Canyon. As soon as we hit the rise, we got a glimpse into another world. Below was the river, green, but clear and bending its way into the canyon and back-dropped by the tall and multi colored impressive Sierra del Carmen cliffs in Mexico. Behind us was the dry desert, but below was alive and green with help from the river.
We spotted two young couples frolicking in the river, their boat pulled up on the Mexico side. Also, we could see a few Mexican cowboys moving along the river and a burro resting in the heat. On our side, a Mexican entrepreneur had left a few walking sticks and desert crafts for “donations” near the top rock. We dropped onto the beach and walked up as far as the canyon would allow us.
We got walled in quickly. We were a little surprised to see such an abundance and variety of vegetation. We were also a little surprised to see sand dunes drifted 50 feet up the base of the cliffs. It was beautiful.
Hike route on the Boquillas Canyon trail / Boquillas Canyon and the Rio Grande River
Boquillas Canyon, Rio Grande River, and the Sierra Del Carmen Mountains
We set out from our campsite for an evening sunset stroll. We walked a half mile up the road admiring the cottonwoods and the irrigation system that were reminders of the Daniels family. At the end of the road we saw the remnants of their home.
Then we hit the Hot Springs Trail and started climbing. After ascending about 300 feet, we took a side trail to the river overlook and were treated to views of the Sierra Del Carmen to the east, the river below us, and Mexico extending to the southern horizon.
We explored a little more and waited for the sun to sink further. The dramatic cliffs, shimmering river, and distant mountains basked in the evening glow of a glorious desert sunset. We headed down the rocky trail before it became dangerous in the dark. We had this experience all to ourselves…it was very peaceful. Our first evening in Big Bend National Park was special.
Hike route to the Rio Grande overlook / The river is far below Arleen. Mexico extends to the horizon.
Cactus flowers and the Sierra Del Carmen Mountains
The Chisos Mountains
A beautiful evening in Big Bend National Park
On 6 April we hiked in the north side of the Park…
The hike to Devil’s Den would be our first long Big Bend hike. It was outlined in a book we had, though not mentioned in the Park Service literature. Maybe that was a sign…
We were intrigued because it was described as a slot canyon (which we love) and there was a good chance that we’d have it to ourselves. From where we parked, Dog Canyon was prominent just a few miles to the west. But to the right, we could see the zigzag cut of the Devil’s Den. Target acquired!
We had issues right away trying to follow the correct route. After one failed try, and then a short cross country trek, we found a wash with evidence of foot traffic. However, as we started to climb and we worked our way around boulders, we spotted cairns and flag markings going every which way. Our GPS maps were inadequate so they didn’t help us much either.
We stuck with one narrowing and climbing wash for a bit and then headed up a ridge for a better view. It was all cross country trekking which Arleen is normally opposed to, but she kept up with Shawn through the desert environment and enjoyed spotting blooming cacti everywhere.
After 600 feet of climbing, we got the view we needed. It confirmed we had picked the wrong route. Given the late time in the day and limited water, we dropped into Dog Canyon and quickly followed that trail back to the truck.
Though we didn’t make it to the Devil’s Den, we had a good adventure. We theorized that the Park Service doesn’t publicize the route because they don’t want people getting into trouble in the narrow slot canyon. We studied the maps more closely afterwards and are confident we would succeed on another attempt!
Hike route near Devil’s Den and Dog Canyon / A bird nest tucked safely in a cactus
Ocotillo flowers are very pretty
Hamming it up between Dog Canyon and Devil’s Den
Arleen’s tiny figure puts the grand scale of the terrain in perspective
We had an incredible view of the north end of the Park
On 7 April we explored the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive…
As soon as we took the left onto the scenic drive and headed past the Burro Mesa, the scenery went from good to great. We could see the Chisos Mountains, the Window, the Mule Ears, Cerro Castellon, remnants of some of the original settlements, and on the far side of the valley, our goal: the Santa Elena Canyon.
There were quite a few vehicles at the Santa Elena Canyon trailhead. We eagerly hit the trail and walked through deep sand across the dry Terlingua Creek. Then the route climbed steeply to an overlook that gave us the first good view into the colorful canyon…we were in awe! The green tinted placid Rio Grande River contrasted with the multi orange and brown hued vertical cliff walls. It was beautiful.
After dropping to the river, we walked a half mile and found a good sitting rock. The huge boulder was very slick from being polished by rushing water and sand. It was a perfect spot to sit and take in the enormity of the canyon walls that towered 1,500 feet above us.
We retraced our steps back. More than a half mile and a couple of hundred feet higher than the parking lot, we met a cheerful 88 year old woman being patiently assisted by her teenaged grandson. We chatted for a bit as she caught her breath. She was so excited to be on the same trail that she had hiked many years before. We told her that she was an inspiration to us and praised the young man for helping her.
We drove out and paused at the nearby boat launch. Santa Elena Canyon is 17 miles long and has some treacherous white-water sections. However, it’s possible to paddle up river for several miles before running into rapids. We’d like to return some day and kayak upriver and into the spectacular canyon.
Hike route in Santa Elena Canyon / The Rio Grande River in the dramatic canyon
Posing near the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon
Looking east down the Rio Grande towards the Chisos Mountains from the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon
Headed deeper into the colorful canyon
The canyon walls extend vertically 1,500 feet above us. Mexico is just 50 feet away.
Our next stop was, Rancho Estelle, the Sublette-Dorgan homestead. The two families farmed the valley in the early 1900s. We wandered around near the remnants of the homes. Their spots on a small hill provided a great view of the canyon and the valley. Still, it was hard to imagine such a remote, rough life.
The remnants of the Dorgan house, built by an early homesteading family, and then turned into a resort
Another brilliant cactus flower. Santa Elena Canyon is the notch in the cliffs.
After that, we stopped at the Tuff Canyon. We peered into the short, but dramatic canyon from two overlooks before we scrambled down the dry riverbed that was strewn with multi colored river rocks. We made our way to the north end where huge tuff boulders or compressed volcanic ash stair-stepped up. We wandered around and tried to imagine how incredible it would look during monsoon season when water was cascading down the falls and raging through the narrow canyon.
Hike route around Tuff Canyon / Beautiful cactus flowers back-dropped by Cerro Castellon
Looking into Tuff Canyon
Exploring Tuff Canyon
Inside Tuff Canyon
Water in a pot hole in Tuff Canyon. There were many wasps buzzing around the puddle
Finally, we stopped below the Burro Mesa. We walked a half mile up a dry wash and then the hidden box canyon and the incredible pour-off revealed itself. Again, we tried to imagine what this would look like during monsoon season when desert drenching rains cascade over 100 feet.
Hike route to the base of the Burro Mesa Pouroff / Imagine a raging torrent cascading down this impressive chute
Entering the Burro Mesa drainage
We had this awesome spot to ourselves / The desert in its spring dress against the box canyon
On 8 April we hiked to The Window…
For hikes in National Parks, we use several sources like park guides and private books. For the famous Window hike, we found an on-line blog that recommended using the Oak Spring Trail. Although, it would be a tougher hike, the blogger promised better scenery. She was right!
The first half mile followed a maintenance road towards the spring before forking to the left. Soon after, the trail pitched up and started switch backing. After the first few switch-backs, our calves settled into the steep angle. It was the first such hike in five months and we relished it!
As we climbed, the view behind us opened up. We were high above the desert floor and multiple mountain ranges lined the horizon.
As we hit the high point of the trail, we walked out on a narrow, rocky ridge. From that perch, we saw the main trail a hundred feet below. There was a steady stream of hikers on the popular trail. It was a bit jarring because we had been by ourselves for the last few hours, and now we were about to join the masses.
As we cut down the steep rocky section to the main trail, we met a couple who were making their way to the ridge because they had seen us up there! Though they were quite familiar with the Park, they had never deviated from the normal route.
Finally, we joined the main trail and the other hikers for the final half mile to The Window. Here the trail morphed from a rocky slit to a wide manicured path. The CCC had left their legacy with flat rocks fitted together, cemented and sculpted stairs, and several resting benches.
The Window is a pour-off that falls over 200 feet. The rocks near the edge have been polished by years of monsoonal floods. Since it was dry, we were able get pretty close to the edge. But between the smooth slippery rocks and funneling winds, we took extra care to avoid the big drop-off.
On the way back, we had planned to hike another mile to a nearby spring and waterfall. We rested at the trail’s fork in the shade of a big oak tree and decided we were done. It was a great day and a good way to end our Big Bend adventures.
Hike route to The Window / Posing at the precipice. It drops hundreds of feet behind us.
Colorful scenes on the way up the trail
This natural bench was a fantastic place for a break. The expansive view extended more than 180 degrees.
Nearing the high point of the trail. The view was incredible!
The Window is a hundred feet directly below us.
Looking straight down at the CCC made steps just a couple of hundred yards from The Window / Arleen on the same steps
In The Window…it’s a long ways down! / Looking up at The Window. There’s actually someone sitting there. (Click on the picture to zoom in.)
We spent a few days each near Carlsbad NM, Roswell NM, and Albuquerque NM. We are currently camped at Navajo Lake in northwestern New Mexico and our next stops are El Vado Lake NM, Taos NM, and Red River NM.
It was HOT during out stay! / This burro was on the Mexican side of the river.
This road runner hung out near our home / A greater earless lizard
The Sierra Del Carmen Mountains reflected in a flooded cottonwood grove