3 days of Big Bend National Park
We decided to get a very early start, getting up at 7am and driving off before breakfast with the boys still in bed to get a good headstart on the 255 mile we have to cover today. The destination is Big Bend National Park, which is situated at the western end of Texas, right in a big bend of the Rio Grande. The drive there is smooth and foggy, but as we drive south from Marathon the fog clears and the sun welcomes us straight into the National Park.
First stop is the Fossil Discovery Exhibit, a place at the side of the road in the desert that has been teeming with fossils dating back to 150 million years ago until today. Of course the gigantic skulls, teeth and bones of the dinosaurs leave the boys in awe, and the exhibit itself is very well put together explaining the different ages and habitats Big Bend used to have over time including its wildlife.
Then it is on to the next highlight of the day; Hot Springs trail. As we have an RV we have to park out a little bit and walk the rest of the road towards the river, but the hot springs are very close. A small brick wall holds on to the hot water coming from the spring (back in the day there was a motel here and a small shop) before it pours over it into the river. The river is nice and cool, so we spend a good hour popping in and out of the hot spring while swimming in the river. Once our skin has gone raisin, we get out and Sven goes back for the RV while we continue to hike for a few miles along the river through desert like terrain.
We are picked up at the other end by Sven and head towards our campsite. In the evening we attend a ranger program about soundscape and sound preservation across the National Parks – super interesting! – and then go on the nature trail with the boys and a few flashlights. As we cross the boardwalk we see a beaver swimming by through the marshes, a giant toad and a sleeping fish while being bombarded by the loudest cricket concert we have heard so far.
Day 2 in Big Bend, we drive away from the Rio Grande to a short nature trail called Dugout Wells. A spot in the desert with a natural source which is now being helped by a windmill to pump the water up. The trail has a lot of explanations on the different desert plants and animals, and the small oasis is a funny change of scenery in the middle of a sea of desert.
We drive on to the main visitor center of the park at Panther Junction, where we hand in the Junior Ranger work the boys have already finished. To entice children to learn more and try longer hikes, there are 3 extra patches to be received if you prove to have done the work. The 3rd is a 9-mile mountain peak hike for older kids, but the other 2 patches the boys have gracefully collected, together with the NP badge and 2 stickers. Another fantastic score at a national park site!
In Big Bend there is also a small mountain range called the Chisos Mountains, in which there is another visitor center and campground. On our way there we stop at the trailhead for the Lost Mine hike, a 8km climb up the Lost Mine mountain leading to spectacular views across the National Park. Being 800m higher has an effect on the temperature, and especially at the top in the wind it is starting to get quite cold. Coming back down we rush into the RV to warm up, not to come out anymore that day.
We find our camping spot at the campground, spend some time relaxing, baking brownies and having an early dinner. The wind picks up in the campground as well and there is even some snow/hail, but later at night it is mostly rain that falls, making us feel grateful again we are in an RV and not a tent!
Day 3 in Big Bend we have the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive on the agenda, which takes you through the different landscapes of the park to the western edge where the Rio Grande disappears into a canyon. The Santa Elena Canyon is a great easy hike along the canyon, so we put some warm clothes on (last nights weather has seriously cooled off the temperatures) and hit the trail.
Thankfully the river bed is dry enough not to wade through it to the beginning of the trail, and after a short steep climb we follow the river into the canyon until we can not go any further. We run into several very nice people along the way, having some great conversations about travel, our respective countries and outlooks on life. As we get back, we take the Scenic Drive in reverse, this time taking a few stops with historic landmarks and outlooks. Unfortunately Sotol Vista is covered in the clouds, so the most majestic view of the entire park we miss out on, but you can not have it all!
Driving out of Big Bend on the western side, we take the 170 towards Presidio, a road that mostly resembles a rollercoaster ride with steep hills and turns, which is a lot of fun to drive. On top of that you drive along the Rio Grande, making for some beautiful scenery along the way. A quick hop through ghost town Terlingua and on to the border town of Presidio, where we park at the local library for the night.
Fort Davis National Historic Site
Time to go back north! We have a relaxed start of the day, and the boys hit the library for an hour sifting through books and being pampered by the librarian while we do some necessary internet work. Saying our goodbyes and thanking them for the hospitality we make our way up towards Fort Davis, a small oasis high up in the Chihuahuan Desert.
The fort after which the town is named is still there and has become a historic site run by the National Parks, so of course it is a stop on our way. The visitor center is a great hands on museum about the history of the fort, a military base mostly set up to protect those traveling the San Antonio – El Paso road and local farmers from cattle raids by the Native American tribes in the area.
The fort itself was never attacked, too many soldiers vs Apache, and it is actually kept quite well. We do the scavenger hunt with the boys across the grounds, after which they get a badge AND a patch! After lunch we hike the trail up the mountain behind the fort to stretch our legs some more and enjoy the view across the desert. Our night stop is the Walmart at Pecos, not a very quiet sleep, but it gets the job done 😊.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Another highlight, located right across the New Mexico state line is Carlsbad Caverns. This National Park site is set up around the mountainous area right at the edge of the Chihuahuan desert. As the rock has been pushed up millions of years ago, sulfuric acid seeped through creating enormous caverns under ground. Discovered over 100 years ago as thousands of bats left a hole in the ground peaking the interest of teenager Jim White, as recent as a few years ago new caverns are found in the area as research continues.
As the caverns have been an attraction for almost 100 years already, the area is well set up, without spoiling the experience. We opt to take the 1.5 mile (!!!) walk down the cavern through the natural entrance, right into area called the ‘Big Room’. Along the way all types of cavern growth are encountered; stalagmites and stalactites, but also drapery (curtainlike), straws and popcorn. We spend a few hours underground, exploring with only a few people – we can not imagine what this looks like in high season when people escape the desert summer heat down here.
Lucky for us, there is an elevator back up (it’s height the equivalent of the Empire State Building!), which lands us straight into the visitor center again. We go around the well laid out exhibit and watch the park movie before heading back to the ranger desk for our Junior Ranger pledges! All in all the whole experience is fantastic and we highly recommend it to anyone getting to this area. Moreover, as Sven missed the Wind Cave experience up north (as he was biking through bison 😉), it was really great to get a cave in, and see the boys explain to him what they had remembered from that visit.
Guadelupe Mountains National Park
After a great night sleep we move on to the next National Park, only half an hour away. On top of the cavernous landscape lie the mountains that were pushed up called the Guadelupe Mountains. Highest peak in Texas is the Guadelupe Peak, which is a 6-8 hour climb we decide to leave to other hikers. Instead, we take he ‘Devils Hall’-hike, which is a 3-5 hour hike of which a big part follows the wash of a river.
This means scrambling over rocks, and of course trying to take the most difficult routes 😉. As you follow the river up, you also get to parts where the side of the river bed is a layered type of stone, creating staircase type formations. While most are on the side as the river has cut into the side walls, one actually is right in the path of the river creating the ‘Hikers Stairs’. Further up the riverbed is a canyon made of the same type of rock, creating ‘Devils Hall’.
We break for lunch and as we have some energy left decide to go up the mountain on the way back, to experience a part of the Guadelupe Peak climb. The view out to the Chihuahuan desert is fantastic, and the hike down the steep trail to the parking lot a great reward after more than 4.5 miles of climbing and hiking!
We drive out towards El Paso on highway 180, a highway in the north of Texas with over 150 miles without gas station. No towns, no services, just 2 national parks and border control… Before El Paso we get off the highway and drive up towards Hueco Tanks State Park. A small scale but very strictly organized state park that offers camping as well. After registration and a obligatory movie to watch about the park we hit the most important reason for our stay – hot showers!
We have a new record of 8 nights without a shower, so the layer of grime we built up requires some proper scrubbing. Thankfully the shower is hot with plenty of pressure and a big showerhead so we come out all refreshed and clean. Ok, so we let the fire alarm go off a few times because we put the showers so hot, but it was for a good cause 😊.
Through El Paso, into New Mexico
After exploring the small state park on foot, which has a really fun trail with a proper chained climb up over the boulders, it is time to leave behind the massive state of Texas. Our last stop in the state is Chamizal Memorial in El Paso, a site commemorating the peaceful resolution of a border dispute that had lasted almost 100 years, finally concluded in the 1960’s. The site is a nice park with a visitor center clearly explaining the issue of Chamizal, and the Junior Ranger booklet does a great job explaining to young kids about friendship, cooperation and diplomacy.
While this is a prime example of how to resolve such conflicts, it is also the first time we get confronted with a part of ‘the wall’ between the US and Mexico, as the border is right behind the National Memorial. 60 years later the cards on the table are quite different, and the sentiments about this feat are mixed. We find it an interesting contradiction, but also a place of hope, that one day the learnings of Chamizal will once more prevail. We say goodbye to the border region, having traveled the entire Rio Grande portion of it along it (over 1200 miles, 60% of the entire US/MEX border), dipping in and over the Rio Grande and enjoying its incredible scenery.
We drive up northbound to the New Mexico border, which puts us back one hour in time. Some quick Walmart shopping before the Christmas weekend and on to a really nice free campsite along the Organ Mountains for a good night sleep.
Next week: Christmas in New Mexico