A tent surrounded by nothing but desert, a 2-hour trip to Mexico in a dust storm, and the first time I’ve ever looked overhead and seen the Milky Way.
As the National Parks Service describes it, Big Bend National Park offers “splendid isolation,” and that description couldn’t be more accurate.
I’m kind of letting the cat out of the bag when it comes to the secret that is this place, and I’ll be honest––I feel a bit guilty about it. Because as one of our country’s most remote and least-visited parks, Big Bend really does seem like the best-kept secret in the National Parks system.
That said, with recent news of public protected lands losing ground across Utah, I wanted to share the beauty and vastness of the wild places we still have, and hopefully help us all remember why they deserve to be protected.
Back in October, two close friends and I flew into Austin. You may remember Zoe from the trip to Arizona over the summer. New to our Woks of Life cast of characters is Justin (see below).
From Austin, we hopped into the rental car and ventured into the heart of West Texas, where Big Bend National Park sits, named for a sharp turn that the Rio Grande makes along the border between Texas and Mexico.
(Full disclosure: Not 100% sure if this ^ is the real “Big Bend” or just your normal average semi-big bend? I’m sure there’s more than one helpful reader out there in the know.)
We ended up spending several days exploring the Chihuahuan desert, ghost towns, the Chisos Mountains, canyons, and even Mexico.
For anyone who’s read any of our travel posts featuring other national parks (see: Joshua Tree, Sequoia, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Zion, Grand Canyon, and Olympic), you probably already know how much we love road trips and camping trips, with everything we need in the trunk of a car.
But in a lot of ways, this felt like the farthest I’ve ventured yet from civilization.
Day 1. On the Road
We left Austin around 1:30 PM on our first day. Having flown in earlier that morning, we stopped for supplies, ate something called the “Don Juan” at a place called Juan in a Million (involving a massive pile of potatoes, eggs, bacon, and cheese), and braved traffic to finally get out of the city.
About 5 hours into the drive (yes…FIVE HOURS), we still had 2 hours left to go. But the sun was getting low on the horizon, so we stopped at a windy, deserted picnic area along the highway to make dinner while we still had some daylight left.
On the menu: seared salmon, arugula salad with tomatoes, basil and parmesan, and mushroom ravioli.
After dinner, we got back on the road. The sun set swiftly at 7:30, and the road seemed to suddenly go pitch black. Justin was our designated driver, and along the straight two-lane highways we were on, we could see nothing but the pavement immediately in front of us and the odd javelina or jackrabbit scurrying across it.
There was maybe one car on the road along with us, disappearing and reappearing in different intervals. It was when we stopped at a railroad crossing––for what felt like at least 10 minutes––to wait for the longest ever nondescript freight train to pass by that I fully realized how far into “nowhere” we’d gone so far.
That night, the three of us finally made it to our destination (Stillwell Store & Campground), followed the cryptic instructions of the proprietor I’d called earlier that day, pitched a tent in a sea of darkness and desert whilst dodging prickly pear cactuses, crawled inside, and went to sleep.
Day 2. Wrong Turns & Mountain Ranges
Next morning, first thing was first.
Zoe is happy when there is coffee:
We drove out of our primitive campsite and stopped at the store to shower, wash dishes, fill up the gas tank, and do other things one does when living out of a car.
We were finally headed straight to Big Bend.
…and we did eventually make it.
But first, we accidentally drove to Mexico:
(I may or may not have given Justin the wrong directions.)
ANYWAY, after that little detour, we turned the car around and found ourselves at Panther Junction Visitor Center, Big Bend National Park’s headquarters.
Where I did my routine grilling of the local park rangers, grabbed a map and borrowed a pen, and started planning out the next few days. As it turned out, the park’s campgrounds were full, so we weren’t 100% sure where we’d be sleeping that night.
Undeterred, we hit the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains, one of the most rewarding hikes in Big Bend.
A little under 5 miles up and back, the trail wound its way up quickly, and the payoff at the end was pretty amazing:
Snacks were eaten. Naps were taken.
At the end of the day, we ended up at a GEM of a campground––Rancho Topanga, in Terlingua, TX. My earlier consternation at not being able to stay within the park’s boundaries was quickly forgotten, as I walked into the campground office and had the most hilarious interaction with the camp host, who I assume owned the place. He looked to be in his late 60s or early 70s, and was sitting at a worn oak desk covered in papers and old photographs. It was around 6:45 PM, and the ceiling fan turning lazily above us was the only respite from the 90 degree heat.
A snippet of said hilarious conversation:
Camp Host: “You’ve got two choices, hon. Valley or ridge.”
Me: “What’s the difference between the two?”
Camp Host: “The ridge gives you a full 360 degree view. The valley costs $10 less. Most people staying here for only one night choose the valley.”
Me: “Ridge it is then.” (I notice a rock on the desk that says, Turn Me Over. The camp host gives me side-eye, and I turn it over. The other side says, You just took orders from a rock.)
Camp Host: *laughing* “You just had to do it, didn’t you?”
Ha. You had to be there.
The campground was pretty great. We did indeed have a full 360-degree view around us, along with a sturdy picnic table to make dinner on and a really nice bathhouse.
Which turned out to be a very good thing, because apparently there was a windstorm that night (I was totally oblivious and slept through the whole thing, though the wind was blowing so hard that the tent walls were slapping Justin in the face), and it continued well into the next day.
Which brings us to…
Day 3. Dust Storms, Ghost Towns, and Tamales
I’ve dealt with rainstorms, snowstorms, and hailstorms while camping in my time, but never a dust storm. It made it pretttty difficult to break down the tent and pack up in the morning, with the wind sending everything flying unceremoniously into the air at any given moment. One of us had to sit in the tent to hold it down while the other two broke down the poles.
We huddled on the porch of the bathhouse to make coffee and crack open some packets of breakfast biscuits (after my friends convinced me that my original plan to make mushroom omelets just wasn’t practical in 30 mph winds):
And then, it was as good a time as any to walk through an old ghost town. It was relatively small, as ghost towns go (I say that as if this weren’t my first ghost town). We saw the old cemetery, and walked through the crumbling buildings beyond, quietly imagining what life must have been like there a century before.
After all that, we drove back into Big Bend, and headed for Boquillas Crossing, the point in the Rio Grande where you can cross the border into Mexico.
To make this international crossing into a foreign land, there was only one mode of transportation.
The dust storm was really picking up, as you can sort of see in this photo:
When we disembarked on the other side, we walked the mile or so into the village of Boquillas Del Carmen––sand, dirt, and wind pulling us forward and pushing back in equal measure.
We knew we’d reached the village when we were greeted by these little guys:
And a completely different set of places, lives, and experiences than those we’d left across the river.
We stopped for lunch in a local restaurant that felt like someone’s home (compounded by the fact that it was definitely someone’s mom cooking in the kitchen), where a friendly host sat us down with some Tecate and Mexican Coke.
We were told the menu for the day was Cheese Enchiladas, Beef Tacos, and Chicken Tamales. Luckily there are no vegans among us…
We got one of each. They were all, of course, delicious, served with bean tostadas, salsa, and pickled jalapeños and carrots.
During lunch, the man running the restaurant told us more about life in Boquillas, and how it’s changed over the years. He described how before 9/11, the border between Boquillas and Big Bend was open, with a kind of friendly understanding at the local level between the park and the village.
Tourists and hikers visiting Big Bend National Park would cross into Mexico to visit Boquillas, and Boquillas residents were crossing into Big Bend regularly to get supplies––like eggs and milk––from the Rio Grande Village camp store within the park.
He told us that after 9/11, however, the border closed for over a decade, and residents of Boquillas with family in Texas couldn’t see their loved ones. The border eventually reopened in 2014, with some changes. (Zoe, Justin, and I had to show our passports to an official on the Mexican side, and we would have to talk to a U.S. Customs Official when we returned to the park. Said customs official was actually a guy in Dallas, who talked to us over the phone with a camera pointed at our faces. Weird.)
No longer able to buy supplies in Big Bend, the man who’d served us our tacos, tamales, and enchiladas has to regularly drive 150 miles to the nearest city, Múzquiz, in order to get supplies. The route is a rocky dirt road, and takes up to 5 hours each way.
We left Mexico with a more tangible sense of how decisions made at the highest levels––on a seemingly macro scale––can affect individuals, families, and small border towns like Boquillas.
Back on U.S. soil, we made our way over to Boquillas Canyon.
There were some unexpected encounters along the trail:
Honestly have no idea what those cows and that spirit horse (he disappeared, and I have no idea where he could’ve gone amongst that rocky terrain) were doing there. But it was all very “Texas.”
We had dinner at Dugout Wells, near the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail, where remnants of an old settlement reminded us that people once tried to build their lives from scratch in this harsh, but beautiful place.
Dinner that night = steak.
Because you can’t go camping in Texas without a couple of steaks in the cooler.
That evening, we would be sleeping in one of Big Bend’s “primitive roadside campsites.” These are “backcountry” sites along some of Big Bend’s primitive dirt roads. But having endured a dust storm that day, we decided to hit the bathroom at Panther Junction to clean up a bit. The rangers had told us a couple days before that they kept the bathrooms open 24 hours…ostensibly for just this purpose(?).
The plan was to just wash our faces and brush our teeth.
But then this happened:
Yes, Zoe and I washed our hair in the visitor center bathroom sinks. Because we’re worth it.
And it was great.
Clean and comfortable, we drove to our campsite for the night, Grapevine Hills 1, near Government Springs.
Where the sun set, and the Milky Way was out in full force by around 8:45 PM.
I’ve been pretty quiet thus far about the night skies in Big Bend. But here’s where the park really sets itself apart. I have been to some pretty dark places in my time––but, disappointingly, never dark enough to see the Milky Way.
On the drive out to Big Bend, I’d looked out the window and seen a fuzzy white band in the sky. I thought it was clouds or fog or a trick of light, until Justin––astronomy nerd extraordinaire––stopped the car and confirmed that it was indeed the Milky Way.
It was so dark and clear in Big Bend that we could see it every single night, along with satellites, shooting stars, and constellations with so many other stars around them, they were hard to make out.
Obviously, it was our preferred evening activity for the whole trip.
Day 4: A Sunrise, A Canyon, and a Sunset
The next morning, it was cloudy for the first time on the whole trip.
And it made for the most amazing sunrise:
You can see how “in the middle of nowhere” this Grapevine Hills campsite was. Just nothing but desert and mountains in all directions.
The plan for the day was to do the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to Santa Elena Canyon, a notch in this huge wall of rock, visible miles away.
Walking into the canyon was even cooler.
With more towering walls of rock…
And rafts floating down the river.
We explored other stop-offs along the drive, and at the end of the day made our way to Chisos Basin Campground, where we would be staying that night.
I’d say we got pretty lucky with our choice of campsites on this trip:
Visible from the campground is “The Window,” where the sunset created these insane bands of light and color.
All in all, Big Bend National Park did not disappoint.
Over the course of a few days, we got to know just a tiny fraction of its mountains, canyons, river, and deserts, and we didn’t want to leave.
Living and working in New York amidst skyscrapers and street noise, I often think back to places like Big Bend. I think about their silences, open skies, and vast landscapes, and remember how lucky we are to share them.
If you enjoyed this Big Bend National Park post or any of our other camping travel posts, help us support America’s protected, public lands by getting outside, introducing someone to the outdoors, and/or supporting organizations like The Trust for Public Land, The Nature Conservancy, and The Natural Resources Defense Council.
Until next time!