“I was expecting a lot more big clocks” was the joke that received more mileage than it should have as we hiked (and drove) our way through the vast and quiet Big Bend National Park.
Everyone will tell you to stay in Chisos Basin and everyone is right. But, Chisos Basin was booked until the end of time – probably when the ancient volcanoes come back to life and dragons take the skies. So we camped as close to the park as we could at Roadrunner RV. Since this was our first-time trailer camping, we appreciated having electrical hookups and access to water. The owners were helpful, the lot was level, and our view of Bee Mountain nice.
We arrived on Saturday night, slept in our trailer (slept well!), and woke up early. I made coffee on the camp stove, we laced up our hiking boots, and drove into the park.
Every Kid Outdoors
Thanks to our 4th grader, we got into the park (and all parks) for free! How? In 2015, President Obama created a program to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the National Parks program that lets 4th Graders, and their families, into all National Parks at no cost. Zilch. They say that 4th grade is when kids are prime for learning history and about the great outdoors. Eleanor beamed when the Ranger asked who was the 4th grader, “me!” she responded excitedly from the back seat – he handed a card through the window, Eleanor signed it. Our free year of visiting the Parks began.
Our first destination was Santa Elena Canyon. We hoped to kayak the Rio Grande but were told it was going too shallow. That’s alright since hiking Santa Elena is an option. We drove the recommended Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (confirmed – very scenic, lives up to its name), and because big Bend is larger than the state of Rhode Island, getting from point A to B can take some time – the drive from the park entrance to Santa Elena Canyon is over an hour. On our way, we stopped at the Castolon Ranger Station for a bio-break, picked up two Junior Ranger books, and chatted with the Ranger:
500 million years ago, this area was under the sea (under da sea dah dah dah dah). 250 million years ago, one continent bumped into another, and it raised the land. Land eroded, the area was partially underwater, dinosaurs roamed (Dinosaurs, you say?). Righ around the same time an asteroid hit Mexico, and the dinosaurs went extinct, liquid magma created violent volcanic activity in the area. A massive slab of limestone dropped 2,000 feet. More volcanoes. More erosion. The Rio Grande cut through. And here we are.
“Oh, and that’s Mexico,” he said, pointing to a Game of Thrones like wall of rock in the distance. “Big Bend shares 118 miles of border with our southern neighbor.”
When Brooke and I were in college, we studied in Vienna, Austria for a summer. Before Vienna, we stayed in Mörbisch, a village that bordered Hungary. One morning, we strolled our twenty-something-selves up to the border, stamped our passports, and walked across. No cars. No planes. Just walked. The world felt a little smaller.
That’s Mexico!? The girls said excitedly as we got closer to the canyon. Can we go to it!? I don’t know…we’ll see. I hoped they could feel the same smallness I felt almost 20 years ago (goodness, so long ago).
Santa Elena Canyon
We parked, put on sunscreen, filled the backpack with water, and started walking. A path led us to steps that switchbacked up and down the cliff, alongside the Rio Grand. The river was slow and lined with Bamboo and a slice of the cloudless blue sky mirrored the river.
The Santa Elena Canyon walls are 1,500 feet in some spots – as tall as the Sears Tower. That big building folks. The one that makes you go “wow” when driving into Chicago. That’s what was pressing us from both sides.
The trail wasn’t long and ended in a sandy area where people had taken off their shoes and waded into the river. A group of college students tossed a frisbee and started walking further into the canyon. There are miles to hike if you want to go further. In the shade, it was chilly, but Mexico was on the other side so we weren’t going to leave without crossing the river. We hiked up their pants, took off our hiking books, stuffed our socks inside, and stepped in.
The water was cold! and the bottom of the river soft. The girls hopped onto our backs when the water got a little deep. When we were close to the opposite side, the girls ran up to the wall and pressed their hands against Mexico. Eleanor and Lucy bounced with excitement. I can’t believe we made it!
We walked a little further down the river that had cut its path into the massive rock – finally turning back to our shoes. We did the stand one leg thing, trying to not fall over while we put our feet into wet socks and thought, “huh, should have brought a towel.”
The walk back was quick. We were hungry and ready to rest. Near the hike’s entrance, there were a handful of picnic tables – just the spot for a PB&J.
Chisos Basis is at the center of the park and on the way we made a couple of stops: 1) to see the Mule’s Ears from a distance and 2) to climb ancient volcanic ash where the girls found rocks that looked like crystals. They were sad when we said they couldn’t take anything from a National Park.
We pulled in next to the Ranger Station, got our National Park stamp, and saw our very first roadrunner! It was the size of a small chicken and had a pigeon’s comfort level around a bunch of humans. It neither meep meeped nor sped away with its feet in a blur.
We walked the short paved Window Trail loop and took the shot that everyone comes for.
After the Basin we climbed the Lost Trail Mine. The trails are well maintained, and while it was steeper than the last path, it was a nice hike with incredible views. But by this point, the day was getting late, and we were hungry, and we knew we had a decent drive ahead of us. We walked back to The Beast and drove back to the campground – picking up firewood for s’mores and a campfire.
Day Two – Dinosaurs, Wild Horses and a Canyon
Day two started much like day one. I woke early, climbed over Brooke to get out of the trailer, and fired up the camp stove to make our fancy coffee. A man with a cowboy hat walked by, I later learned he sailed around the world in a boat he made himself. The rest of the family woke up and we drove back into the park.
One excellent attribute of the National Park System is the Jr. Ranger Program. Kids pick up a small paper book and spend the next day finding as many answers as they can as they travel around the park. This is great because they learn, of course, but it’s also great because it keeps your kid busy as you’re driving around a park – and in Big Bend, there’s a lot of driving.
The girls spent their first day hunting for answers. On the second day we stopped at the Panther Junction ranger station where they turned in their work, raised their right hand, and repeated the ranger motto after the real Ranger: “Explore, Learn, and Protect!”
Fossil Discovery Exhibit
Go here! With so much natural beauty and hiking, we weren’t sure if the Dinosaur Exhibit would be a good use of time, but we’re very glad we made the slight detour.
The exhibit is housed in an open-air (good for the age of the ‘rona) modern building that gives you panoramic views of Big Bend. We were the only ones there. I’ll say it again – Big Bend is quiet, and I loved it.
We followed a path inside the building that walked us through how Big Bend was formed and what creatures roamed when. The fossils were remarkable, all were found in Big Bend, and now Lucy is now going to be an Inventor, President, Archeologist when she grows up.
Pulled Out a Big Thorn
On our way to Boquillas Canyon we walked a short hike – Dugout Wells, which was interesting and full of more facts but not worth the time if you’re speeding through the park – and stopped by another Ranger Station to use the bathroom, meet a Ranger, and pull out a GIANT CACTUS THORN from Brooke’s hiking boot. It was an inch long, as thick as a stir-straw, and required the Ranger to use a pair of pliers to pull out.
Wear. Good. Boots. Don’t go running around Big Bend in your tennis shoes. It will hurt.
As we neared the canyon, I took a wrong turn making our first stop the Boquillas Overlook. We walked to the cliff edge where we could see the small Mexican town across the river. In non-COVID days anyone can take a small boat across the river, visit the town, meet some nice people, and eat some good food. In the days of the ‘rona, though, American’s can’t cross – but the Mexicans can.
At the edge of the overlook, there was a collection of goods – walking sticks, koozies, small metal figures and a can for cash. Lucy spotted people across the river and yelled Hola! A Mexican man yelled back Hola! and waved. Several people hopped into a canoe, paddled across the Rio Grande, walked up the cliff, and asked us what we’d like to buy.
After four years of hearing about the damn wall, it was hard to believe that this part of the border was so porous. As we drove away, Brooke commented that their little town was probably hit hard by the lack of tourism. Selling their goods this way was them getting by. There was no threat. It was a delightful interaction.
We left with two walking sticks and a koozie.
People write a lot about Santa Elena Canyon – for good reason – but I would like to say that Boquillas Canyon might be even better and absolutely a part of the park you should visit. A few reasons why:
We were greeted by wild horses from Mexico. (who’s gonna ride them?).
There’s more to explore – tiny rolling green hills, steep dunes to climb, rocks to boulder over. And wild horses.
The water was a deep green blue that absorbed the late afternoon light. Light that shone on wild horses.
It was warmer too. We’re not sure why but it was a lot warmer than the other canyon. Probably because of the wild horses.
We said goodbye to the horses and as we drove out of Big Bend the sun set, casting its pink glow on the mountains behind us.