National Park Number: 42 of 59
Driving through West Texas, one gets the feeling that absolutely no one lives in America. The sky here is enormous, the open fields roll on and on, and even where there are towns, many seem nearly deserted.
On our way to Big Bend from Carlsbad, we stopped for the night just outside of Marfa—in fact, we slept at the viewing area for the mysterious Marfa Lights, an unexplained phenomena of distant floating balls of light. They don’t show up every night and I wasn’t expecting to see them, but about 10 minutes after we arrived, there they were—glowing orbs bobbing above the hills. The leading explanation is that the lights are refractions of distant headlights, but nothing has been proven so far and it’s a strange sight. Even better than the mystery lights were the views of the night sky—expansive and clear and covered in stars.
In the morning, we headed back into Marfa to check out some of Donald Judd’s modernist art installations at the Chenati Foundation. The grounds of the museum are on the site of an old Army-barracks turned German POW camp, and we were guided through one of the buildings to see Judd’s 100 untitled works in milled aluminum. The installation is a collection of boxes, all with different internal configurations. It’s a piece we’d seen pictures of before, but the effect of seeing it in the space, of watching how the boxes reflected the sunlight and each other, had a huge impact. After, we checked out the 15 untitled works in concrete, then headed southwest from Marfa toward Big Bend Ranch State Park.
This park runs along the Rio Grande northwest of the national park and it’s a gorgeous introduction to the Big Bend landscape. We stopped to walk the Hoodoo Trail, with its views of sandstone formations and Mexico yards away, then continued on to hike through the slot canyon of Closed Canyon Trail. Slot canyon hikes are a dream with kids: fun and engaging, with natural slides and climbing walls, and nobody can get lost or off-course. This one was a blast and we got a little caught up in the fun, so we started back a bit late and ended up hiking largely in the dark. At one point we got stuck at a spot that had been easy enough to slide down, but was steep and slick for climbing back up. But with a combination of my natural daring athleticism and David’s pushing on my bottom, I made it up and got everyone else hoisted.
That night we stopped in Terlingua to make dinner, then decided we were much too tired and lazy to cook, and much too hungry to eat something easy. Instead we popped into the Starlight Theater for dinner, and I’m so glad we did. This place is downright delightful: an old theater converted into a restaurant with very solid food and excellent live music. All the musicians were local, and I’m not sure how a town of this size in the middle of nothing can support so many rad musicians, but it does. Though we may have been the only sober people, and were definitely the only people there with kids, we had a fantastic time and kept the kids up way too late eating chips and guac and toe-tapping to the tunes.
We finally managed to drag ourselves away, get the kids into bed, and drive into the park. This is where we fell in with the angels of our Big Bend visit, Jen and Brady Groves. We met these NPS uber-fans through our blog and coordinated a meet up at Chisos Basin. This was an enormous stroke of luck for us, because Jen is a master planner and had reserved primo camp sites for their visit, which they generously opened up to us, because they are wonderful.
We never make reservations before getting to a park and usually don’t know during the day where we’ll be sleeping that night. This would have been trouble in Big Bend, which is so massive that driving in and out of the park to camp outside would have taken up most of our visit. The park was also super busy, and though the visitors were spread out enough that we didn’t feel at all crowded during the day, the campgrounds were fully booked every night we were there. So we majorly benefited by being on Team Groves. These two are park wizards.
They’re also super fun, and after a leisurely getting-to-know-you breakfast on our first morning together, we set off for Santa Elena Canyon. One of the most scenic spots in Big Bend, the limestone walls of the canyon soar 1500 feet above the Rio Grande and make a perfect path for paddling. We set up the kayak and headed upstream for a bit to get a taste of the canyon from the water, then hopped out at the end of the Santa Elena Canyon Trail and hiked back while the Groves took a paddle.
Then we made the long drive to Rio Grande Village on the other side of the park, exclaiming over the stunning scenery all the way. By the time we got to the village, it was time to set up camp and make dinner, but we had one more adventure to tackle with the Groves: a nighttime hike to Boquillas Hot Springs.
The hot springs sit among the ruins of an old bathhouse, right where the Tornillo Creek runs into the Rio Grande. We hiked the half mile to the springs on a moonless night; by the light of our headlamps, we checked out the ancient petroglyphs and red pictographs on the canyon walls along the trail. When we got to the springs, the canyon walls opened up and we could see the huge Texas sky, navy-black and so covered in stars, it looked like someone had spilled salt over it. I had never seen so many stars, never knew that it was even possible to see so many stars at once. Sitting in the rock-walled pool, you could lean over the side and sink your hands into the chilly current of the Rio Grande, and Mexico was 20 feet away, unfenced and unwalled and looking no different at all from the U.S. side of the river, and overhead was an entire heaven, and all around us was perfectly heated, storied healing water just risen up from the Earth’s core. The perspective was gobsmacking.
Hours later, when we finally tore ourselves away, the kids were sleeping on our shoulders and we had a new favorite national parks moment.
The next day we had to say goodbye to Jen and Brady, who headed on to Guadalupe Mountains.
We stuck around Rio Grande Village to hike into Boquillas Canyon, where Graham invented an elaborate real estate development game in which he built and sold stick-and-sand homes.
Then we drove back to Chisos Basin for a sunset hike up Lost Mine Trail, a perfect trail with perfect views over this gorgeous spot.
We had one more day to spend in the park, and we largely spent it driving and taking in as many views as possible. We went to Mule’s Ears Overlook, then hiked to Lower Burro Mesa Pour-Off Trail, which during the summer monsoon season becomes a waterfall but was in this season a peaceful shady spot to wile away an afternoon.
Big Bend was a park that made us check our perspectives. It’s enormous, for one thing, full of contrasting landscapes and extreme conditions. Its heart is the Rio Grande, a river much less grand than it used to be as water is siphoned off for use upstream, and the absence of adequate water supplies scars the landscape everywhere. Its proximity to Mexico is a constant reminder of the artificiality of borders. And its expansive sky is instantly humbling. This park quickly became a favorite, full of peak moments—we are just in love with west Texas.