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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.