The Rio Grande River runs along the US border between Big Bend National Park in Texas and Mexico. Recent rain raised the fast-moving, muddy and silty water of the river to flooding conditions before we arrived. I was in “flood-watch” mode for several days before arrival (thanks to my PTSD from previous flooding experiences at our house on the creek). I didn’t want to go anywhere near a campsite that was next to a flooding river. Luckily, the weather cleared a few days before our arrival and no huge rain events were in the forecast.
Varied environments are everywhere in the park: Water, Mountains, and Desert. Animals AND border crossings into Mexico were a bonus! This park has become one of my all-time favorites.
Dirt roads and hiking adventures were more interesting with standing pools of water left by recent rain.
Santa Elena Canyon Trail required wading through deep water to stay on the trail. Quick-sand-like thick mud was just starting to dry out after the high water receded. We didn’t wade across the river like some hikers who navigated the mud, fast water and steep and slippery bank where the river trail connected to the canyon trail. Nice views of the mouth of the Santa Elena Canyon helped ease the disappointment about not hiking all the way into the canyon. Instead, we went to the Santa Elena River Access on the Rio Grande for a picnic lunch.
Waterfalls and pouroffs were still draining rainwater like we saw on an awesome hike up Pine Canyon Trail after ‘4-wheel drive only’ road led us to the trailhead at the base of Casa Grande peak in the Chisos Mountains. A two-hour hike in, with about 1,000 foot elevation gain through dense forest was stunning. HUGE bear scat all along the trail was a concern. Did we bring any bear spray or bear bells? NO WE DID NOT, who thinks of that here in the desert? Oh, yeah, it’s not only a desert but a mountainous area where Mexican black bear and panther (cougar) like to roam. Guess we need to add a few safety items to our back-packs for next time. The final leg of the trail was very steep and crossed a wild and crazy, dry river strewn with car-sized boulders. A beautiful pour-off waterfall at the end of the trail was worth the hike to get there. On the way out, a wind started whipping through the canyon and it started raining. I was glad we didn’t get caught near that potentially raging wash when the ultimate thunder and lightening storm continued to blow in that afternoon.
Just around the corner from our campsite, the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail was a lot of fun. The trail starts with boardwalks and bridges connecting floating platforms through a swampy wetland. A beautiful pond teaming with dragonflies, birds and animals can be viewed from the platforms. Past the pond is a trail leading to a bluff with views of the Rio Grande River and mountains. Most hikers like the sunset views from the bluff and race up the trail. If they slow down a bit, they may enjoy some amazing creatures.
Sit for a minute at the pond and feel the iridescent pink, orange or blue dragonflies buzzing around. See young nutria eagerly chasing the great blue heron across the pond. They seem to be laughing as they swim full-speed at the heron who lifts it’s wings like underskirts to quickly wade away from the speeding rat-like nutria. Notice the green heron catching the elusive dragonflies. See kingfishers, perform their daily chattering patrol. Watch turtles and snakes swimming in the water, hoping the heron doesn’t nab them for a snack. Hear the sound of a gurgling spring behind the platform and the swamp bubbles settling in the muddy swamp. The reeds and tall, pampas-like grasses rustle in the wind and birds rummage around in the canes. Across the river and Mexican border, the burros holler their startlingly loud hee haw to signify that the pond show is over. Time to get ready for the sunset trek up the trail to the bluff.
Old Ore Road led to an oasis that was not highlighted on the park map. Ernst Tinaja trail led to slabs of rock creating water pockets as they gradually descend down the hillside. A large pool at the top refreshes the pockets when the water is high enough to spill over the pool and glide down to the pocket-filled rock wash. A pair of ravens guard the entrance to the tinaja canyon.
I love living in proximity to water but prefer to be safely out of the flooding danger! Even though a big thunder and lightening storm came through one night, we felt safe. Without some rain, our water views during these hikes would have been very limited!
Our backyard in the campground included a short hike up the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail, past the pond to the bluff. The beautiful views of the Rio Grande River, the town of Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico, the sunset and sunrise were a regular trek for us.
Sunrise peeks over the Mexican range of Sierra Del Carmen and lights up the Chisos mountains on the US side. Light reflects over the river and the pond. Sunset over the Chisos Mountains is spectacular and casts a beautiful glow over the desert landscape.
Chisos Basin Road winds through high elevation peaks where the desert landscape begins to mingle with evergreen trees and creates unique scenery. The area near the visitor center at Chisos Basin was surprisingly busier than the rest of the park. The energy there was buzzing with people preparing for their hikes, shopping and dining. Window View Trail provided awesome views of the landscape and was an nice alternative to many longer hikes that start at the Chisos visitor center. We didn’t have 4-5 hours that day!
Abandoned buildings create a ghost town feel along the Hot Springs Trail. There is a six-room hotel ruins with murals painted on the walls, a beautiful building that housed the store and a nearby oasis of palm trees. The trail leads past petroglyphs and pictographs to a hot springs fed pool built on the edge of the Rio Grande River. The pool can hold 20 to 30 people and ranges from a hot 105 degrees to cooler areas at the edges. We weren’t prepared to soak, but it was interesting to see the high, raging river nearly running over the edge of the pool. Normally, the hot water pours from the pool out into the river.
The Fossil Discovery Exhibit is a cool building with some unusual fossils, murals and bronze skulls displayed. A short trail leads to a hill with views of the surrounding desert.
Our last day in the park included a hike to a popular spot called Balanced Rock with the goal to be at the end of the trail at sunrise. Over an hour drive from our campsite to the trail, half of the drive was on Grapevine Hills Road which was one of the roughest roads we drove in the park. We were happy to have the Jeep as we came in while it was still dark. The Grapevine Hills Trail was a sandy wash that led past a boulder field and lovely desert landscape with steep rock scrabbling at the end. We enjoyed a picnic breakfast while the golden sunrise glow lit the boulders on the hillside around us.
Boquillas Canyon Trail to the mouth of the canyon was hot by the time we arrived. Hot this time of year means 75 degrees, and had me wondering if desert sun is more intense. It must be brutal here in the summer! The river runs into the steep, narrow canyon and creates nice views but the trail stops at the mouth of the canyon. I can imagine how nice it would be to explore further into the canyon by canoe.
Passports in hand, we drove to the Boquillas border crossing to go to Mexico for lunch. For $5 apiece, we purchased a round-trip rowboat ride across the Rio Grande River to Mexico. We took a $5 Burro ride from the river into the town of Boquillas de Carmen.
I’ve ridden horses before but never a burro. I knew they were smaller than a horse so I asked for a BIG burro, no such thing. The saddle was loose and I about spun upside down trying to mount the poor thing. The guides held the saddle and my long leg nearly kicked Bruce’s burro in the face as I alley-ooped onto the saddle. A few apologies to the burro later, and another try and I was situated. The burro ride included a guide that walked along with the burros. My Burro grunted with nearly every step (uh uh uh) and didn’t seem to respond to my pats of encouragement. He was very good natured though. Pinta, Bruce’s burro, didn’t even want to come out of the paddock even though we were the first crossing of the day and it was still cool out. I imagined she would be really stubborn by the end of the day!
A short walking tour around the unpaved town of less than two-hundred people with views of the Sierra del Carmen mountains was quite an experience. Two restaurants, a bar, an abandoned mud/straw jail, a hospital, and a store were the extent of the tour.
The locals receive free hot water from a hot-springs-fed water tower. A solar array for electric service was added 3 years ago. A free hospital serves the community with one doctor and one EMT. The only store was nearly empty. With gasoline $5 a gallon and the nearest town 160 miles away, stocking trips are consolidated to once a week or less.
The only paved areas of the town are the border control yard, an empty parking place for an ambulance that previously served the hospital and a large plaza beside the river. The border control office was closed due to a shortage of agents. Kids were playing soccer in the fenced border control yard. School was out while the two teachers (one per school) were at meetings in the nearest town. Nearly every house had a wooded shade booth in the dirt in the front and people were setting up for the day. Cute kids would run out to greet us and offer their craft items for purchase. The trouble is, they all had nearly the same items, wire and bead figures, white embroidered cloths, and string bracelets. The people were very pleasant, nicely dressed clean and very polite. There was a distinct absence of any adornments around the town or any landscaping. I imagined what it would be like with flower pots or plantings around the buildings or inviting courtyards.
Of course, we stopped for a souvenir from our guide’s wife and we had lunch at the traditional restaurant.
The restaurant sign was adorned with a skull with Mr. Trump’s face and NO WALL decoupaged onto it. Most of the textiles for sale were embroidered with NO WALL. After 911 when the border was closed, people mostly moved away and only began coming back a few years ago. The town relies on tourists for survival and easy crossing is essential.
Our return by burro and rowboat saw a lot more tourist traffic coming into town, mostly on foot (the burros were probably glad).
Fall is a perfect time to visit this beautiful park. It’s nice and cool and there is enough rain to fill the pour offs and basins but not usually enough rain to flood. The beauty and variety of experiences at Big Bend National Park makes this one of my favorite national parks!