Big Bend Country

By Eilene Lyon

We decided to take one last RV trip before settling in for a long, Covid-avoidance-at-home winter nap. For years I’ve wanted to visit Big Bend National Park, one of the most remote and least visited parks in the lower-48 states.

I had to plan and book in advance (not normally my style), particularly since most campgrounds in the park itself were closed. November is a popular time to visit. It’s not crowded, but the area offers very few amenities. For example, there is just one small grocery store in Study Butte (pronounce stoo-dee). Not a single chain hotel, motel or restaurant.

The first day’s drive was long, to Roswell, New Mexico. We went a little further south to the wonderful Adobe Rose restaurant in Artesia for dinner. I knew it from my many months of working around Carlsbad doing field work.

We drove a couple hours from Roswell to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, just across the state line in Texas, the next morning. This area was home to the indigenous Nde (Mescalero Apache) people up until the 1880s, when they were finally driven from their land.

Arriving about midday, we were able to get one of the nicer spots on the outer edge of the parking lot. Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

Geologic uplift exposed portions of the Capitan Reef, and the Guadalupe Mountains are just one portion of this extensive Permian formation that runs through New Mexico and Texas. I could not reserve a camp site ahead of time here. The RV “campground” is a parking lot at a trailhead near the visitor center. First come-first served.

Hiking into the Guadalupe Mountains toward Devil’s Hall.
Most of the “trail” to Devil’s Hall is through a rocky, dry creek bed.
The rocky crevice known as Devil’s Hall. Guadalupe Mountains NP.
This was the first time a bird ever deliberately landed on me. This pine siskin at first seemed to be admiring its reflection in my sunglasses, but it also checked out my backpack and shoulder before flying away. I didn’t get a photo of the cactus wren I had to capture when it decided to explore the van interior one day.

We hiked that afternoon to a formation called Devil’s Hall. The next morning, being forewarned to arrive early, we drove to the McKittrick Canyon trailhead. We had to contend with many more people on this hike, but the fall colors were at their peak and the trail (mostly) easy walking.

The brilliant fall colors in McKittrick Canyon. Guadalupe Mountains NP.
Sunset on the Guadalupe Mountains.

From there, we headed to Davis Mountains State Park to camp for the night, passing the McDonald Observatory as we wound through some lovely wooded hills. The observatory offers public star parties, but they book well in advance and I was not able to get tickets.

The next morning we did a quick drive through Fort Davis National Historic Site. The fort is named for Jefferson Davis, who was U.S. Secretary of War at the time, but later President of the Confederate States. Don’t expect to see them change the name of the county, town and fort any time soon!

Fort Davis National Historic Site.

We spent the next six nights in the Big Bend area, four in Lajitas at the Maverick Ranch RV Park (part of the Lajitas Resort) and two nights in Terlingua. Both of these communities lie between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park.

On Sunday, we drove into the national park from the north and explored the southeastern section before heading out the west exit with a stop at the main visitor center. The following day, which would be the hottest, we headed for the high country – a hike in the Chisos Mountains. Just before our turn-off to head up into Chisos Canyon, we saw vehicles pulled over – a huge black bear was strolling through the grass and cacti – an odd and unexpected sight.

On the trail in the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend National Park.

After that hike, we drove through the southwest section of the park and hiked into Santa Elena Canyon, considered a jewel of the park. Getting to the trail required wading through a side stream, which was about thigh deep.

Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend NP.

Tuesday was a day to check out the mountain bike trails that surround the Lajitas air park. We took the longest loop, winding mostly through level terrain, but with some challenging hills about two-thirds through the ride. Take lots of water if you go! I wrapped up the afternoon with a swim in the resort pool.

“Lajitas” means flagstones. Most of the graves in this unusual cemetery were covered in these flat rocks.
Sunset in Lajitas.

Wednesday we took a raft trip on the Rio Grande through Colorado Canyon. I had requested a two-person ducky, both by email and in making our online reservation, but the guides acted ignorant of that when they came to pick us up. They did limit the number of people in the rafts to two in front, two in back, and the guide in the middle.

It was a bit disappointing not to be able to run the river ourselves, but overall a nice trip. The lead guide, who drove the passenger van (a bit closer quarters than I would have liked), regaled us about local history on the ride to and from the river. Her knowledge seemed extensive and she talked literally non-stop.

Mountain biking in the Big Bend Ranch State Park. The trails are a mix of roads and single track, mostly the latter.

We explored the biking trails in the state park (fee required) on Thursday. Both the visitor center and the trailhead were just a mile or two from the RV park. We enjoyed these trails even more than the air park area. The Crystal Trail passed a hillock completely covered with large white quartz crystals, including some that appeared to have been modified as tools. That’s one of those photos that I missed taking. Darn.

Our last full day, we spent the morning on a trail ride. It was even more sedate than expected – and I really did anticipate a slow-paced ride. Still, it was nice to be able to look around (not at the trail) as we explored an old mining camp, pictographs, and a defunct desert golf course. One rattlesnake along the way, and a delicious lunch at the halfway point.

Our trail ride was on private land, but everything you see behind us is in the national park.
Pictographs on private property where we had our trail lunch. Unfortunately, the area has a lot of graffiti and trash lying around.

We spent the last night of our trip at Davis Mountains again, doing a little hiking around the park looking for birds. I picked up a few new species on this trip, including ladder-backed woodpecker and canyon towhee.

We decided to do the entire distance back to Durango the next day, driving through El Paso without stopping, getting a little to-go lunch in Socorro, New Mexico, and back home by nightfall. We saw three bizarre things in the first couple hours of the drive, but I only got a photo of one.

  • A blimp-like craft, looking like a swollen space shuttle, hovering above the desert, completely white with no visible markings.
  • On a long, straight stretch of highway through flat, desert ranchland, a pull-out with two brilliant white, cubic, glass-fronted buildings, about 8-foot square each. The golden letters above each display window said “Prada,” and yes, they were filled with shoes and bags straight off Fifth Avenue! (Me thinks some rich rancher’s wife has a tad too many dollars and no sense.)
  • Not too far north of the Prada stop, three bull elk crossed the highway in front of us. It was about the last place I would have ever expected to encounter these animals.

Thus ended the excitement of our last trip for 2020.

Feature image: The Rio Grande flowing through Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park. Mexico on the left, U.S. on the right. (E. Lyon 2020)

45 thoughts on “Big Bend Country

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    1. It was really a nice getaway, and we didn’t have to worry about too much contact with other people for the most part (aside from the rafting van ride – with windows down in front). We couldn’t take our dog, though, so we missed him.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’m glad you put the correct pronunciation, though I probably need one for Butte too! I know it’s pronounced “byoot” but I always, always read it as “butt” in my head because I think it’s funny, so I’m definitely reading this as “study butt.” Glad you got to enjoy a trip this year! The bird landing on you is weird, as is the blimp thing from the sound of it. I liked the elk though!

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  2. What a wonderful trip! Thanks for sharing all the photos. Love, Love, LOVE the picture of the bird on your head! How funny that a cactus wren tried to catch a ride with you — good thing you saw him (her?). We saw them quite a bit near our house in Phoenix, and had a pair of Canyon Towhees visiting our backyard, which was special as they’re typically shy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Christi. Glad you could “come along” on the trip. We get spotted and green-tailed towhees here, and they are pretty shy, too. It felt so weird to have the siskin hopping around on me. I’m used to handling birds, but this was very different.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I read this yesterday, but wasn’t able to comment. What a wonderful trip. Such a good idea to do it when you did. The gardener won’t go anywhere right now, even where there is nobody else. Your photos are beautiful and so funny about the bird! The elk are fabulous. At least I got to “travel” by reading your post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It really was a perfect time to go. Now that Covid is taking off, I’m quite leery of going anywhere. Not even skiing for now. I went to town early yesterday and took care of all my Christmas shopping. Aside from groceries, I’m in hiding!

      Glad you liked our wildlife encounters!😊

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  4. Wowwww, made my day a bit happier and brighter! Beautiful places with (no doubt) amazing stories. I have troubles with my website (lucky me lol I cant see my own page/posts), so it will be a rough day with “Happy Engineers” of WordPress. 😫

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve done the App Trail in different parts here and I love it. No doubt there are a ton of beautiful hiking trails here, but the majesty of those captures you shared . . . wow.

        Liked by 1 person

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