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Trip Review: Big Bend National Park

Grapevine Hills Trail (Photo by Jacob Towsley / A Hippie in the Woods)

My girlfriend, Lily, and I were setting out on a road trip from Florida to California. Lily had accepted a job in California and decided she was going to drive. She invited me along to keep her company and more importantly, to split up the driving. We had planned a short stop in Big Bend National Park, which was a highlight of the trip.

Hippie hiking up the Grapevine Hills Trail (Photo by Lily Borror / @lilywalksthruthewoods on Instagram).

Big Bend National Park is in the south west corner of Texas, bordering Mexico. It is one of the biggest national parks being over 800,000 acres and larger than the state of Rhode Island. According to More Than Just Parks, it is home to more than 1,200 species of plants and a number of endangered animals, like the ocelot. Big Bend is the only national park in the United States to house a whole mountain range. The Chisos Mountains are the heart of this park. They offer stunning views and great hikes, but also provide plants and animals a different habitat than that of the desert floor. Being nearly 6000 feet higher than the desert is some areas, the Chisos Mountains offer a cooler, wetter environment. Nestled in between the mountains is a forested ecosystem that is home to the parks 25 mountain lions and the Mexican Black Bear.

Rainbow over the expansive Big Bend Landscape (Photo by Jacob Towsley / A Hippie in the Woods).

Texas was my first experience with the desert and those prickly little cacti. We stayed at the Stillwell RV Park and camped just outside the park boundary. Even with being as close as we could get to the park, the park is so big that it still took us an hour to get to the Panther Junction Visitor Center. There we waited out the rain, (rain in the desert?!) and watched a short film about the park. Due to the rain, we no longer had the daylight to do our planned hike for Emory Peak, the highest point in the park at 7,825 feet. Instead, we found a few lower mileage hikes to explore different parts of the park.

Lily Borror (@lilywalksthruthewoods on Instagram) at the Big Bend entrance sign (Photo by Jacob Towsley / A Hippie in the Woods).

Big Bend is a great place to go hiking with over 150 miles of trails and elevations from as low as 1,800 feet near the Rio Grande to 7,800 feet on Emory peak. One of the most iconic hikes is Balanced Rock along the Grapevine Hills Trail. The 2.2-mile round trip hike leads you through a gully between desert hills and large boulders to the aptly named Balanced Rock. It is an easy walk for most of the hike, but some rock scrambling and steeper sections are necessary to reach the balanced rock. The trail head is 6 miles down the Grapevine Hills dirt road. It can be bumpy at times but our midsized SUV made it without an issue.

Hippie and Lily underneath the Balanced Rock.

After driving back out the dirt road from Balanced Rock, we headed for Santa Elena Canyon. On our long drive across the park, which took us an hour, we saw a tarantula crossing the road. Not sure what I was seeing at first, I drove by wondering what that large object slowly moving across the road was. Finally, realizing we turned around for a better look at the first Tarantula we’ve encountered. To our dismay, the car behind us had run the poor guy over and flattened him on the road. At least we got to see how large the arachnid species is before we once again headed for the canyon.

We got to see the Rio Grande on the parks south west border. We hiked through Santa Elena Canyon, which is known to be one of the best sunrise spots in the park. The start of the hike begins on a sandy bank of the Rio Grande looking into the canyon and the monstrous cliffs. When the sun rises in the east it illuminates the cliffs and canyon with golden light. The hike along the Santa Elena Canyon Trail is an easy 1.7-mile round trip hike. The bridge across tributary stream to the Rio Grande was washed out but a visitor made path was off the north. If you follow the stream it leads to a dry river bed and the trail goes steeply up the side of a hill and then steeply back down the other side. This is the hardest part of the hike, as it was not an official trail. Once onto the official trail it is well worn and easy to follow. There are ramps up to some informational signs and then it is all downhill from there, until you turn around. The canyon was unlike anything I have seen before, and we even saw goats across the river in Mexico climbing the side of the cliffs.

Santa Elena Canyon (Photo by Lily Borror / @lilywalksthruthewoods on Instagram).

Big Bend is known for its gorgeous bright orange and pink sunsets. One of the best spots to view a sunset in the park is known as The Window. The Window is created by two mountains that the sun sets between. It can be viewed from the Window View Trail, a short, paved trail from the road, or on the Window Trail, a 5.6-mile hiking trail. Lily and I hoped to watch a sunset from the Window View but our hike through Elena Canyon took us longer than expected and we did not make it in time. The sunset we saw however was still beautiful and I look forward to seeing more in the park in the future.

Lily enjoying the sunset in Big Bend (Photo by Jacob Towsley / A Hippie in the Woods).

As we were driving back to the campground after the sunset, we chanced upon a group of javelinas. The roads were pitch black and the only light was our headlights and the stars. Lily and I pulled over to see the night sky with no light pollution and were amazed by the stars. I was able to spot the little dipper! After getting back in the car and driving for a few more minutes Lily yelled and was frantically telling me to turn around because she saw a javelina. It turns out there was a whole family of them chomping on the desert plants just off the side of the road. We saw more on our way out the next morning, crossing the road. We were both glad to have seen some wildlife while in the area.

Night time siting of the javelinas (Video by Lily Borror/ @lilywalksthruthewoods on Instagram).

With such limited time in the park, it left us a lot to do and desire for a return trip. Big Bend offers many possibilities for outdoor adventures from back packing to rafting down the Rio Grande. I was fascinated by the diversity in ecosystems. Having very little previous knowledge of the desert, I thought it would be a barren land with short stubby plants and cacti. For the most part that is true, but when I learned that a forest lived in the heart of Big Bend it instantly drew my attention. I hope to come back and revisit the park and explore more of its landscape.

Map of Big Bend National Park and surrounding area. (Map by National Park Service).

Things to Know About Big Bend National Park:

  • The park is in a remote area with the nearest town of Terlingua 30 miles away. El Paso is the closest big city, which is over 300 miles away. If you are taking I-10 you will pass through the town of Marathon, it is recommended to get gas and supplies here before entering the park.

  • The park has a few gas stations near visitor centers. The price was reasonable, being only a little more than prices in nearby towns. Be conscious of how much gas you have and where the gas stations are before setting out as the attractions are spread out.

  • Big Bend is connected by network of paved roads and dirt roads. Some roads are recommended for high clearance 4x4 vehicles only. If you do not have a 4x4, don’t worry, you can still access almost all of the park on the main roads.

  • Venomous species. Big Bend is home to many different snake and insect species. It has many venomous snakes such as the Trans-Pecos Copperhead, Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Mojave Rattlesnake, Black-tailed Rattlesnake, and Mottled Rock Rattlesnake. Most snakes are not active during the middle of the day when the sun and heat are at peak. The park has scorpions, but count yourself lucky if you see one. It also is home to tarantulas and tarantula hawks (large black wasps), but it is unlikely that either species would sting or bite a human unless provoked (Don’t go picking them up).

Follow Lily on Instagram and see all about her hike along the Appalachian Trail!


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