Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico

Visiting Big Bend National Park is a surefire way to recognize that life is about getting someplace as much as it is about being there. The towering mountains, wide, flat deserts and dark night skies are amazing to behold. But the hours-long drives through empty country, the preparation for isolation, and the long trudging hikes make Big Bend just as much about the journey as the destination.

Interestingly, Big Bend makes the same argument with its experience of visiting Mexico.

Boquillas del Carmen is a small village just on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. In Mexico, one would have to drive over 150 miles to reach another city. As a result, Boquillas exists largely as a point of tourism for Americans visiting Big Bend. For years, Boquillas did fine for itself, but the US shut down the border crossing after the attacks on September 11, 2001. The United States only reopened the border crossing in 2013. Now, Boquillas is a destitute village where only a fraction of its former residents remain.

For Shannon and me, visiting Boquillas was a novel experience. After talking with a border patrol agent and having our passports checked in a gleaming white, brand new office, we walked out the back door and down to the Rio Grande. As we approached the banks of the river, the ground got muddy. A man standing on the opposite side of the river saw us coming and began to serenade us “Canta Y No Llores.”

The water was still and shallow, so we could have waded across. Instead, we elected to ride across in a canoe operated by a Mexican boatman. It was about a 3 minute ferry, and it cost $5 for each of us, with a free return trip. On the opposite side, we were asked if we wanted to ride horses or donkeys into town, or to walk. It was just half a mile, but since the journey was the experience, we opted for the donkeys for $5 each.

donkeys

We were assigned a guide to accompany us around Boquillas. He walked the half mile into town, leading our donkeys. At the edge of town, we tied our donkeys to a tree and walked in. Our guide led us to a trailer surrounded by a fence with barbed wire at the top. This was the Mexican border station.

After filling out our customs forms, we got to tour the town. There are two restaurants, a bar, a school and two churches. A four-room hotel was under renovation at the far end of the village. There is a hospital and a solar farm. None of these buildings were more than one room, save the hotel. All of them were in disrepair, with the facades crumbling onto the street outside. Having never lived in a war zone, I guessed this is what one would look like.

While the indigence of the community was obvious, Boquillas deserves credit for not begging for money. Every child ran up to us on the street, trying to sell us handmade trinkets, but it wasn’t outright begging. When we rebuffed a sales pitch, the children accepted it and turned around to run back to their homes. Every service demands a tip, including the guide.

We ate at one of the two restaurants, and the food was fantastic. It was simple, but authentic Mexican and we had our fill. We bought a tote bag with a donkey on it as a souvenir. Everyone dealt in US dollars in Boquillas, not in pesos.

boqrest

We spent just a couple of hours walking around with our guide, then rode our donkeys back to the Rio Grande and took the canoe ride home to the US.

If you are looking for a taste of Mexico, I would not recommend Boquillas. But as another experience to tack on to your Big Bend trip, I would say try it once. Know that every dollar you spend is going to people who truly need it.

Big Bend Outer Mountain Loop

Since 2013, I’ve visited Big Bend National Park every Thanksgiving. I always backpack a set of trails called the Outer Mountain Loop. The hike is about 32 miles in distance, but it’s the ups and downs that really get you. The trail goes back and forth in elevation between 3,000 feet and 7,500 feet. It’s rough.

I’ve always used the route prescribed by the NPS, but I have yet to finish. This route starts in the Chisos Basin. The first day consists of a march straight up a mountain (Pinnacles Trail), followed by an even longer march down the other side (Juniper Canyon Trail). Day two is a fully exposed hike across the desert, with lots of ups and downs in the foothills (Dodson Trail). This day ends close to a passing road and a cache for water. The third day takes you up and over the mountains again (Blue Creek Canyon Trail to Laguna Meadows Trail) and back to the starting point.

Last year, I made it to the cache in two days like I planned, but I was just too busted up. I hitchhiked back to my car from there. I hope to be back this year around Veteran’s Day, and I intend to conquer it by making a few changes.

Outer Mountain Loop

The National Park Service route map for the Outer Mountain Loop

The first change is to not push so hard. I’ve tried to make the trip in 3 days, but if I can spread it out to 4 then I can enjoy it a bit more. That should reduce my fatigue level. Another option is to modify the route by starting at Homer Wilson Ranch. That would cut a few miles off the hike, and I won’t have to go down and back up the mountains.

The second change is to lighten my load. I’ve been carrying a full backpack with a tent and sleeping bag, plus my water supply. That gets heavy. I struggle to make it through an entire leg in a day. Last year I cut my water load by bringing a filter. That was fantastic. This year, I’m reducing my pack weight by downgrading my tent and sleeping bag to a tarp and a blanket. With less weight, my energy should stay up through the hike.

Third, I’m trading in my heavy hiking boots for some lighter ones. I’ve been on this trail enough times now to know that there aren’t that many opportunities to twist my ankle, so I’ll opt for the greater flexibility. This will let me move more nimbly, which is going to be important in case I see a bear or mountain lion.

Last, I’m going to change up my food. I’ve been bringing military MREs with me because they’re just easy. But they’re pretty heavy, and I think I could do better with the dehydrated meals from REI. I’ll have to look into that more.

Outer Mountain Loop

Overlooking the last part of the Juniper Creek Trail

I’d love to hear suggestions for other things I could to do make my trip more doable, especially if you’ve hiked the Outer Mountain Loop before. Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Casa Grande Mountain

When I was a kid, I decided I wanted to walk up a mountain. I didn’t need to climb it and risk my life. I just wanted to get to the top and look down. I was pretty sure that driving would be cheating.

I finally did in 2013 when I went to Big Bend National Park and climbed the Chisos Mountains. There was a trail leading all the way up. Tons of people were doing the same thing, which kind of cheapened it for me. I decided not only were cars cheating, but trails were cheating. I resolved to walk up a mountain that nobody else was walking up at the same time.

In February, I made plans with my girlfriend Shannon to take her on her first trip to Big Bend. I’m a planner, so I started researching and making an itinerary. Somewhere in the message boards on BigBendChat.com, some hikers were talking about Casa Grande. There was no trail to the top, but they were talking about an unsanctioned way to get there. I took a lot of notes and put it in our plans.

Creative Commons - photo by Yunan Chen

Casa Grande, overlooking the Chisos Mountain Lodge

The hike up Casa Grande begins with the Lost Mine Trail. This is a 20-30 minute walk that goes up to a ridge where you can see the other side of the mountains. Since you start halfway out of the Chisos Basin, it isn’t a very hard climb. It is so heavily trafficked that it might as well be paved.

When you reach the ridge with the overlook, the path turns to the left and climbs up to a higher summit. Instead of continuing, take a right and walk along the ridge toward Casa Grande. There is a slightly defined path. The most important thing to know is that you want to always navigate to the inside (toward the basin) of any ridge. The outside is incredibly steep and could spell death if you slip.

At the ridge on the Lost Mine Trail, just before we headed off-trail for Casa Grande.

The path is not easy to follow. Near the beginning it had us climbing with hands and feet to stay on the ridge. When we got close to the first peak, the path wandered down from the ridge. Eventually, we found ourselves entirely in the forest. When we would occasionally lose the trail or it appeared to fork, we relied on cairns (small stacked rock formations) as a guide.

We could never see more than one peak looming up in front of us, and it was easy to think that we were nearing the top.  But the first two peaks were decoys. Number Three was Casa Grande. This hike can be pretty steep, and Shannon started developing blisters by the time we got past the second peak. We had to climb up some stone washouts when the path disappeared and then find it again at the top.

After the second peak, the path dead-ended at a steep rock-covered slope. It was all loose rocks, called scree, and we had to hike straight up it. For every 3 steps I took, I slid back down 2. It was incredibly tiring, and we had to just lay on the rocks at one point and rest.

The view from the top.

But the good news was once we cleared the scree, we were very close to the top. The views are amazing. We spent about an hour just sitting on the peak. Although it’s unsanctioned, this would be a great place to camp. The hike from Lost Mine Trail to the summit was probably around 3 hours.

We ran into two things of note on the way back down. First, it was so difficult to keep from falling on the scree that we both wound up just sledding down on our butts. Once the scree got moving under us, it wasn’t always easy to stop. If we made any wrong turns, we would fall off a cliff. If we went past the trail by 6 feet, we would fall off a cliff. It was pretty frightening when I slid a couple of feet past the trail and had to grab a tree branch above me.

Shannon taking the easy way down.

The second thing is that it was difficult to keep track of the trail heading back. We lost the trail pretty quickly, and wound up just going in the general direction of “down.” I was kind of worried we would hit an impassable obstacle and have to backtrack all the way back up the mountain to find the trail, but in the end it was pretty smooth sailing. We ran back into a lower part of the Lost Mine Trail and got back to our car in just over an hour.

Looking back from the summit at the ridge we walked along.

I highly recommend Casa Grande for more adventurous hikers. It is by far the best day hike I’ve ever been on.

Big Bend National Park

bbsign

It’s surprising sometimes how close to other countries I’ve been without ever visiting one.  I lived in San Diego County for over a year, but I didn’t go to Mexico. I have visited Maine, Seattle, and Detroit, but I never made it into Canada. But the closest I’ve been was actually swimming in the Rio Grande River at Big Bend National Park in west Texas. And to be honest, Big Bend is like a world completely separate from any country.

Big Bend has an incredible diversity of ecosystems within its borders, including lots of desert, the entire Chisos Mountain Range, forests and waterways.  It’s beautiful to see, well-managed, and amazing for both long backpacking trips and short, manageable day hikes.

Plan your trip ahead of time, as the park is very large and it can take an hour or more to drive from one attraction to another. Your best resource is definitely chatting with the diehards at BigBendChat.com‘s forums.  Here are my top recommendations:

Lost Mine Trail

This trail is on the way down into the Chisos Basin, and has its own parking area.  It’s a quick 20-30 minute hike to the ridge where you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful view of the valley that Juniper Creek runs through. This one is great for beginners. From there you can continue upward toward Lost Mine Peak, a steep climb for about another 1.5 miles. But if you’re an adventurous hiker, there is a point at which you can turn off and make your way up to the summit of Casa Grande, one of Big Bend’s signature peaks. It will take a few hours, and there is no official trail, so make sure you do your research before you attempt this.

View from the ridge on the Lost Mine Trail

The Window

The Window is accessible by another relatively easy trail from the Chisos Basin.  It’s all downhill on the way, and all uphill coming back out. But the view at the end of the trail is spectacular, as it peeks through a space where two mountains meet to overlook amazing desert and foothills for miles.

South Rim

The South Rim is Big Bend’s crown jewel of day hikes. Make no mistake, it will take you all day to get there and back. You’ll climb up to the top of the Chisos Mountains, and then hike to the far side to look out over the majestic mountain ranges that stretch even past the Mexican border. Bring a camera, and maybe a tent. You can camp at the top if you get a pass from the ranger’s station before you start your climb.

Outer Mountain Loop

Big Bend has a number of backpacking trails, but this is the most popular.  It also starts and ends at the Chisos Basin, and runs over the mountains and through the desert on the other side. It’s 30 miles long, difficult and not for beginners. I’ve tried it three times so far, and have yet to conquer it.

A view of the Outer Mountain Loop, as seen from the South Rim.

Rio Grande Hot Springs

On the eastern end of the park, there is a fabulous hot spring right on the banks of the river. It is gloriously warm, and it flows into a frigid, sometimes furiously rushing Rio Grande. It can get a little crowded from time to time, but still worth the visit. Don’t be afraid to climb over the side into the cold river water and let it whisk you downstream for a little.  It’s a short walk back to the spring to warm back up.

Boquillas, Mexico

There is an official border crossing from Big Bend into a small town on the Mexican side of the border, which is where I had my first international stamp put in my passport. Boquillas is a small, poor village where all of their income is from Big Bend tourists.  There is not a lot to see, but the people are friendly and the experience is novel.

One of two restaurants in Boquillas

Santa Elena Canyon

Another great point at which to experience the Rio Grande is on the western end of Big Bend.  Here, the river cuts through what seem like impossibly tall cliffs on either side.  The view is picturesque, and the drive you must take to get there is as well.

Terlingua Ghost Town

Just outside of the park to the west is Terlingua. This small desert city is known for its annual chili festival and its hippie vibe. If you’ve driven in from Austin, as so many Benders do, you’ll feel right at home having a drink with the artsy locals.

 

Who Are You And Why Do I Care?

My name is Jeremy, and I’m what you might call a late bloomer. I’m 36, and while I have lived on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, in the midwest and now the south, I have never left the United States – until this year.

However, I like to think that I’m coming to international travel with a few advantages: I have the wisdom of my years, the financial security to travel without having to quit my job, and the resources of many friends with great travel recommendations.

I’ve started this site to chronicle my adventures, make recommendations of my own, and inspire others to travel, even if it feels like you’ve come late to the game. Please follow me on Facebook to get notified when I make a new post.

Bon voyage!
Jeremy

1002391_10200283825842182_1097783863_n