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Big Bend National Park, Part 2

January 13, 2012

Did you miss part 1 of my Big Bend National Park trip recap

After two mountain hikes and a desert hike, it was time to tackle Big Bend’s final terrain: river. The Rio Grande separates Mexico from the USA and in my mind, was a roaring beast of a river, with massive rapids in crashing waves.

Instead, it’s more of a Rio Pequeño thanks to drought, at least where we were. At its narrowest point, the river was maybe 15 feet wide; warnings said not to cross into Mexico or risk fines/jail. (There are no legal border crossings in the park.)

We forded the river walked along the shore at Santa Elena Canyon, an imposing 1500-foot high separation between the US and Mexico. The Rio Grande cuts right through the rock, with dramatic cliff faces on both sides.

Friends and family who’d visited Big Bend before said they saw plentiful evidence of illegal border crossings. Although we did see footprints embedded in the sand, we debated over whether they were caused by border crossers or afternoon strollers trying to cool down.

The highlight? Seeing an authentic Mexican vaquero with his herd of cows.

Watching him work — keeping an eye on the cows to be sure they didn’t wade over to the US side of the river — was like looking back into time. Vaqueros date back to the late-18th century and while he may be equipped with a cell phone today — we could hear him chattering away — little else has changed.

Elsewhere at Big Bend, there’s only evidence of how much had changed. Settler homes, barely 100 years old, are now abandoned dwellings with information plaques.

Nowhere is the Big Bend area’s economic decline more evident than Terlingua, a former mining community that reinvented itself as a tourist destination.

When the jobs — and many of the people — left, Terlingua turned itself into a sightseeing stop for Big Bend travelers, as well as one of the only places within driving distance of the park to offer food and lodging. People still live here but there’s a juxtaposition in every glance between lived-in homes and abandoned shacks.

Today it’s one of those towns you’d say has ‘character.’ A folksy musical group set up on a porch, playing for a growing crowd. A sports bar had an interesting mix of young seekers and aging oilers. And every year, the town throws a big El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration.

After all this sunshine-y, beautiful weather, we expected our last day in Big Bend to be more of the same. Should we hike to the highest point in the park? Visit the hot springs?

None of the above because we found out that bad weather was on its way and escaped the park a day early, driving 230+ miles through near-whiteout conditions.

Within an hour, we went from this:

to this:

It was disappointing to leave Big Bend National Park early but I was happy we safely made it back to the nearest city (Midland, pop: ~130,000).

Overall, if you’re looking for a great way to connect with nature, do some fantastic hikes and see some of America’s most beautiful desert scenery, definitely check out Big Bend. It’s a trek to get there but once you make it, the journey is worth it. Each time I visit a national park, I become inspired to check out more of them. Which park should be next?!

Have you visited any national parks lately?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Natalie permalink
    January 13, 2012 9:51 am


    I just discovered your blog yesterday and have definitely enjoyed it since two of your favorite things are also my two favorite things-food and travel! My husband and I are backpackers and have visited several National Parks. A few summers ago we did the Grand Canyon (just a drive through), Bryce National Park, and Zion National Park. I would definitely recommend visiting all three of these. The hiking in Bryce and Zion is pretty awesome. Just be prepared-it’s hot (we were there in July)! This summer we are planning a 60 mile trip through Glacier National Park and, judging from the pictures, it’s going to be wonderful. I’ve had several people tell me it’s the most beautiful place they’ve ever seen. I’ll share our pictures when we get back if you’d like! Love the blog!

    • January 13, 2012 11:22 am

      Thanks so much for reading, Natalie. Do you have a blog? I’d love to follow your journey.

      I’ve been to the Grand Canyon (incredible) but Zion and Bryce are both on my to-go list. Eventually…

  2. January 13, 2012 9:57 am

    Thanks for the tour, Erin, looks wonderful. I couldn’t believe the sudden onset of snow. Stay warm!

    • January 13, 2012 11:23 am

      Thanks! The snow was pretty wild but it just adds to the adventure of travel, right?

      • January 13, 2012 12:39 pm

        Absolutely. The unexpected is usually the best part of the adventure!

  3. January 13, 2012 7:47 pm

    Ok so reading these posts make me cry with envy!!! We SOOOO wanted to go to Big Bend and made it as far south as Marfa but due to work and time constraints we had to get to Austin. I’m so happy to see your pictures and, yes, they make me wish we would have gone all the more. I love West Texas and hope to go back to spend more time.

    I think it’s rad the snow storm hit. What a memory! Love that picture of the train. Very cool.

    We are Mammoth National park right now…trapped alone in a campground by all the ice.

  4. Life's a Bowl permalink
    January 14, 2012 9:02 am

    BREATHTAKINGLY BEAUTIFUL! That’s so cool to experience nature at it’s finest and see a real vaquero… Unexpected snowstorms are not fun but a rare experience that you can say you were there for!

  5. January 17, 2012 9:04 am

    I love the Oregon Trail reference. I’m surprised no one on your trip was bit by a snake and got diphtheria (always best to keep going, waiting for them to recover only wasted precious time!)

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