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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)