I have been the most excited about this National Park since we left on this amazing adventure 3 months ago. 3 months ago.. wow we’ve been on the road for 3 months. It’s really flying by. Back to Big Bend- this park has so much to see. There are mountains, desert and river life.
The park is 800,000 acres! It has it’s on own mountain range. The Chiso Mountain range is encompassed entirely inside this national park- the only NP in the US that can say this. It also has part of the largest desert in the US, the Chihauhaun dessert. It also has the Rio Grande River as it’s and the US’s border! It is also a Dark-Sky park. Very exciting stuff.
It’s named Big Bend because it’s located where the Rio Grande River takes a U-turn and heads north creating a bend in the river. The Rio Grande River starts in the Rio Grande Park in Colorado and ends in the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way it serves as the border between the United States and Mexico.
THE DESERT (once an ocean floor)
The Fossil Exhibit
From the NPS site “There isn’t a single region on the planet that has an all-inclusive fossil history of life on Earth. This is why places like Big Bend National Park, which have an emphasis on one time frame, can contribute so much to our knowledge base. Big Bend National Park’s geologic history is not only complex and diverse, but also contains an amazing fossil record of the late Cretaceous and early Tertiary periods.
Some of Big Bend’s fossil finds include bones of a pterosaur, the second largest known flying creature of all time with a 36-foot wingspan, as well as the skull of the triceratops-like Chasmosaurus, the largest known skull of any land animal. In addition to numerous dinosaurs, giant crocodiles, and other reptiles, the park has abundant fossilized wood, early mammals, and a wide variety of marine vertebrates and invertebrates.”
Natural Hot Springs
The Hot Springs Historic District within Big Bend NP has limestone cliffs along a trial to the remains of the Hot Springs homestead, motel and post office. The site was developed by J.O. Langford starting in 1909. A Mississippi native, Langford arrived in the Big Bend looking for a cure for poor health in the hot springs of the Rio Grande. The site was the first major tourist attraction in the area, long before the national park was established. He built a bathhouse around it but all that remains is a little of the foundation. The water is heated by geothermal processes and emerging at 105° F., the water carries dissolved mineral salts believed to have healing powers. When we arrived at the springs there were several people there, two of whom looked to be regular guests that were coming for the healing powers.
The crazy thing about this hot spring is that it is IN the river. I wonder how someone discovered this to begin with. If the Rio Grande gets high it will flood the remains of the bathhouse and you wouldn’t be able to see it. Monsoon season is during the summer so because it’s November, they haven’t had rain in two months so the river is low. We were able to put one leg in the Hot Springs and one leg in the Rio Grande River. The temperature difference was so significant, our feet felt tingly in the river.
On this trail there are pictographs in the limestone walls.
Crossing the Border into Mexico
Inside Big Bend National Park is an international border crossing to a tiny village known as Boquillas, Mexico. That’s right I said inside the National Park! Isolated in the biosphere know as Maderas del Carmen, with mountains on one side and the Rio Grande River and US border on the other, this tiny town needs you to visit so they can survive. And for us, when we’re this close to Mexico we need to cross over for some spicy food.
There is an entry port into Mexico from Big Bend. It was very easy, we just used a little flew powder and we were transported there. No, seriously we just needed our passports and $5 to pay a guy to row us across the river in a row boat. Row, row, row your boat,. Gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily. Life is but a dream! This is the only way to access Mexico from the park. If you try to walk, swim or row yourself at any other location you will be fined $5,000. This crossing is open 9am-5pm everyday except Monday and Tuesday. Check out the video below.
Once we were across the river, 5 minutes later, we rented donkeys for $5 each and rode the nearly 1 mile into the village of Boquillas (Bo-key-us). You can walk for free. Or a truck can drive you into town (not sure what that costs. Since we rented the donkeys we had a guide that stayed with us the whole time, his name was Edgar. He has lived there is whole life and was able to tell us how history of the border crossing and his small town of now 200 people that is 160 miles from the closest town. They didn’t have electricity until two years ago. You see back in the late 1980’s the United States told them if they installed poles they would run electric wires over to them. They had it all set up and ready to receive electricity but then they shut it down because of a bird they were worried about getting electrocuted. The Mexican government installed a solar farm for them two years ago. It runs the whole village. There is small part of the village that the older generation live in down the hill and they chose not to be connected to the solar farm.
The border crossing closed after 9-11 and remained closed for 12 years. This town that only survives because of tourism, died and many moved to the next town to find work or passed illegally into the US to find work. There were a few that stayed behind and they learned to sew quilts to sell.
Once there, we checked in with Mexican customs at a small white trailer in the center of the village. This was the first time the girls were able to go through the process of getting their passports stamped. They’ve had to have them on cruise ships but they get linked to Magic or Wow bands and never actually hold them and get stamped.
Then we had lunch at Boquillas Restaurant, this is really large patio with chairs and a women inside a house with a large kitchen. She and her husband came out to ask what we wanted to eat. Our guide had to interrupt for us because all I remember from high school Spanish is ‘Puedo user el bano?’ which is ‘May I use the bathroom?’. There is no menu, I felt silly after I asked. He said they had tacos, enchiladas or tamales. To drink they have beer, margarita and coke to offer. We ordered four taco plates (street size tacos) 3 cokes and a beer. The girls had they first real coke in a bottle. The food was delicioso! Oh look I know another Spanish word:)
Then Edgar took us on a tour of his town. He showed us the oldest building (100 years old), his house and family, the primary (1st-6th) and secondary school (7th-12th), the solar farm and the old mining area.
Coming back into the US. The girls bought souvenirs from a little girl about their age. One bought a bracelet that said Big Bend (one side of the border and the other bought one that says Mexico for the other side of the border). There were a lot of other things to chose from; bags, blankets, necklaces, cozies. They were embroidered with Boquillas, Big bend, Mexico and No Wall.
After we rode our donkey’s back and rowed back across the Rio Grande we had to check back in through customs. By the way- the $5 includes the ride back:) And they take US dollars. I’d suggest a family of four take $100 cash in small bills to spend the day in Boquillas if you want to ride the donkey’s, lunch, souvenirs, donate to their conservation efforts, and tip the guide.
After crossing back into the USA we were greeted by park rangers that lead us to a computer kiosk one at a time. A quick scan of our passport and the phone rings, a crackling voice comes across “Are you bringing anything back from Mexico?” No sir, I answer. “Thank you, have a good day.” The girls of course answered yes and told them about the bracelets. And just like that we’re back in the states thinking about how Boquillas might be a stone’s throw away, but it’s a completely different world. Definitely a unique National Park and Mexico experience!
Santa Elena Canyon Trail
This is the quintessential picture of Big Bend National Park. We had to hike the Santa Elena Canyon Trail to see this breathtaking view. This short hike is my all time favorite family hike! It’s only 1.7 miles round trip and easily accessible. It is rains or the river is high the trial may be closed because we had to cross the river to I recommend going close to sunset because of the cooler temps and the view. The wind blowing through the canyon really added to our experience. Earlier in the day a wind storm started. We were told that it was picking up and wouldn’t end until the next day. We decided to go anyway and loved it. The trail ascends a mountain and then descends with tight switchbacks and ends at he river surrounded by think high vegetation. It ends with this spectacular view.
To get to the Santa Elena Canyon you can either take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Road for the Old Maverick Rd. On the map the Old Maverick Rd is the shorter route but it is also unpaved rough terrain. I would suggest the Ross Maxwell Scenic Road which is paved and beautiful. It makes a loop if you want have a 4×4 and want to take both. They take about the same amount of time.
We stopped at one of the 5 visitor centers (we visited 4 of the 5) and the girls earned their junior ranger badges. This was the hardest Junior Ranger booklet yet. It had extra patched they could earn. They each earned two. Maybe we will sew them on their backpacks, unless someone has a better suggestion. Comment below and tell me what you do with these badges and patches. TIA!
Balancing Rock Trail
The girls and I did this 2.2 mile hike up to a very cool Balancing Rock. The first part of the hike is a winding trail through the desert with no shade and then you have steep rocky ascend. The girls did great! The pay off was well worth it. Because of the caves and giant rocks at the top of the mountain they girls had the idea to play hide and seek- it really was the perfect place to do that.
There are mountain lions and Mexican Black bears in the mountains but we did not see any.
Tent camping in Big Bend
I know it sounds funny that we went camping when we are living out of a camper! We packed up our tent and sleeping backs and headed to a remote camping location off of Gravel Pit Road right next to the Rio Grande. We obtained a permit at the park office for $12. At Big Bend it is $12 to camp whether it’s for 1 night or 14 nights- all $12!! Cheapest camping reservation I’ve ever paid! And of course Mackenzie got us into the park for free with her 4th grade National Park Pass. It’s $25 per vehicle for up to a week.
We set up the tent without the rain fly so we could look up at he stars all night. The entire mid section and doors our our tent is mesh. It’s built for this very thing. We watched the sunset, ate dinner and played Uno while we waited for the stars to emerge.
I brought my tripod and played with my settings until I was able to capture some shots of the constellations and Milky Way. (I’m obviously just a beginner with a Cannon T3i Rebel so they aren’t the greatest but I still had fun trying ). We layed out on the picnic table and watched the constellations move across the sky every night this week outside of our RV. Our RV park is also a Dark Skies community and all lights have to be out by 9pm. The girls searched for constellations, satellites, planets, and even space junk using the Sky View app.
This was the highlight though because you could see even more and it was a new moon so we had even more visibility.
The sun set at 6:00pm. We spent a few hours outside the tent identifying constellations before heading inside for another game of UNO, we fell asleep shortly after. I woke up from my sleep several times from the coyotes howling and the cow mooing (in Mexico- yes there was a cow on the other side of the river wearing cow bell that we could hear all night) and would take an opportunity to see what other constellations had risen into view. One time at 3am I awoke and opened my eyes to see Ursa Major staring right back at me. I went out of the tent to take some picture and as I climb back in everyone else had woken up so we all stared at the sky for at least another hour watching shooting stars dart across the sky. Add this to your bucket list!
There are rattlesnakes, tarantulas, jackrabbits and coyotes here in the dessert. Luckily, all we saw were jackrabbits.
I let Abby and Mackenzie take turns driving the Jeep on the “off roading” trails, it’s just like driving a golf cart, right?
They did great!