During our first Thanksgiving “break” in Texas, Kevin and I made the 9 hour trek to Big Bend National park, located near the Terlingua and Lajitas towns in west Texas. While not as impressive as Yosemite or other national parks around the U.S., I highly recommend visiting Big Bend if it is within driving distance from where you live. This trip got us hooked on hiking and led us to hike in Australia and plan a hiking trip to Banff and Jasper National Park (stay tuned for future blog posts).
Day 1: Santa Elena Canyon
After bribing ourselves with breakfast sandwiches and Starbucks coffee, we left Dallas at 5 AM to arrive in Big Bend at a decent time. Once out of the Dallas metro area, the drive became the boring equivalent of driving through Iowa or Southern Illinois/Indiana cornfields (which we have lots of experience with). Be wary of your gas and food needs because after about half way (around Midland) gas stations and fast food restaurants become few and far between.
We arrived in the Big Bend area around 2 PM and drove directly to our campsite in Terlingua. I had considered hotels/motels for our stay but preferred an inflatable mattress in a tent ($25/night) to paying for a motel ($200/night) which from pictures, looked like it would require a tetanus booster. Our campsite had a nice sized lot into which we could pull in a car, a fire pit, flushable toilets, and showers with plenty of hot water. The crystal clear night sky filled with start was a nice bonus but what also sold me was the fact that the campsite was walking distance to a small area of shops and restaurants. We later found out that the campsite also has large “tipi” style tents available for rent for a small fee (definitely would have gone with this option if I knew this in advance).
After setting up our lodgings, we wanted to see Santa Elena Canyon. Punching “Santa Elena Canyon” into Google Maps, we set out on Google’s “fastest route”. We paid the $25 park entrance fee and this is where Google let us down HARD (I also missed a sign that said “four wheel drive required” but I still blame Google). Taking Old Maverick road, my poor Honda Civic Sedan had to go through 13.3 miles of loose gravel, boulders, cacti, and bushes. Instead of 49 minutes, the route took almost two hours. I couldn’t go above 8 miles an hour and would sometimes LITERALLY get out of the car to move boulders in an effort to avoid piercing my tires or tearing off a bumper. Kevin may or may not have told me to turn around after two miles so he spent the entire time shielding his eyes from what I was doing to my car. I still haven’t looked at my car’s undercarriage because I’m too scared. The moral of the story is take Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive instead of Old Maverick Road unless you’re a car sadist or have four wheel drive.
Once we parked our car, now covered in dust, and noticed all the clean cars which evidently took a paved route, we did the short 15 minute hike on Santa Elena Canyon Trail to arrive at the foot of the canyon. You have to walk across the Terlingua Creek but because of the dry climate, it is usually less than a foot deep. We explored the canyon for an hour, watched the sunset, and headed back to the car.
On the way back from the canyon, we stopped for some firewood, parked our car, and walked to dinner at the Starlight Theatre. The place was packed so we had to wait for a while before getting a table but the restaurant had great cactus margaritas and live music, as well as lots of souvenir shops around it.
Spending the night in a tent surround by the desert was a bit scary. The temperature drops drastically (75 during the day to below 40 at night), the coyotes howl at the top of their lungs and it seemed like they were right outside our tent, and the javelinas snoop all over the campsite looking for food. Nevertheless, I was able to fall asleep pretty quickly after having a few aforementioned cactus margaritas and some more cocktails by our pre-bed bonfire.
Day 2: Lajitas and the Rio Grande River
This was my FAVORITE day in Big Bend. I had booked a “Saddle & Paddle” trip a few months beforehand so we woke up at 7 AM and headed to the Lajitas Stables for the saddle portion of the day. Upon arriving at the stables and checking in, we were assigned two horses – Candy for me and Shrek for Kevin, and given a short riding lesson. The horses were very calm and as long as you’re comfortable riding a large animal up and down actual mountains, you do not need to have a lot of riding experience to enjoy this tour. We, along with another couple, set on the trail (with Candy stopping every 4.5 seconds to eat grass until I started being more authoritative with her) climbing into the mountains of the Chihuahua Desert. We stopped often to take pictures and admire the views of the surrounding mountains and the Rio Grande. I am not exaggerating when I say that the breathtaking views, combined with being on a horse with the sun shining down on us, made this ride downright magical.
Next began the “thrill” part of the ride. As we began our decent down the mountain, the horses were slipping and skidding down the rocky mountain and my heart lurched into my stomach a few times. However, it was evident that the horses were very well trained and knew the route so I felt safe the entire time.
We descended into a cove of sorts for a picnic lunch prepared by our guide. Hunger may have played a role in this but the lunch was DELICIOUS (smoked meats, bean salad, fancy cheeses and crackers, fresh fruit, trail mix and cookies). Our guide was extremely interesting, knowledgeable, and friendly, telling us crazy stories about the history of Big Bend and his experiences in training horses. After lunch, we wound our way down the Mesa back to the stables and waited for a pick up from the river guide.
We rode about 45 minutes in a Big Bend River Tours van to the river entrance point, got fitted for life jackets/canoes, and entered the water. There were a few rapids that seemed innocent but Kevin and I actually ended up flipping over and I lost a shoe and a pair of Ray-Bans. The sights were beautiful and we even saw evidence of mountain lions, which are common in the area.
While canoeing down the Rio Grande was fun, we both agreed that we could have done without this part of the tour – a) Kevin and I are terrible and extremely uncoordinated canoeing partners and b) out of the two and a half hours that were supposed to be canoeing, one hour was taken for set-up/waiting for the whole group to pass tiny rapids and 45 minutes was spend taking an awkward “snack” break on a muddy beach for no apparent reason.
The tour took place on Thanksgiving Day so after napping in our tent, showering, and watching the sunset, we headed out to la Kiva Restaurant & Bar for a Thanksgiving dinner. No. Just, no. The food was equivalent to a Cracker Barrel buffet (does Cracker Barrel have a buffet?) but it was one of the only restaurants in town period, let alone one that was open on Thanksgiving day. We did run into our river guide there, who was Kevin’s spirit animal, which led to them taking shots for the next three hours.
Day 3: Emory Peak
On our last day in Big Bend, we packed up our campsite, had breakfast at La Posada Milagro (AMAZING breakfast sandwiches and omelets), and headed into the national park itself (the fee was once again $25). Parking is limited and VERY hard to find so we had to circle the parking lot more than a few times. Our original goal was to hike Emory Peak but the information desk told us it was at least a 6 hour round trip, 8.5 mi journey and we wouldn’t finish before sun down so we decided to hike Pinnacles Trail instead. The trail is well paved and consist mostly of wide steps but it was still grueling for the cardiovascularly challenged (us aka powerlifters that do zero cardio). There are also signs everywhere saying to beware of mountain lions and bears and while we didn’t see any of those, we saw a ton of deer up close.
Once we got to the end of the Pinnacles Trail, we realized that there was only a mile of trail left to reach the summit so we decided to risk it. While the last mile may only be a mile distance wise, it was basically a CrossFit workout. Not only is it extremely steep, but for the last 25 feet you have to climb several sheer rock walls and scramble up falling rocks. There were several people that just sat near the top because they were too scared to climb that last 25 feet (Kevin almost tried to do this but I bullied him into coming with). We spend 30 minutes at the top before beginning our descent, which had to be speedy because we had less than two hours before sundown. The way down was a leisurely stroll compared the assent and we finished the entire hike in five hours (take that information center guide!).
Our next stop was Fredericksburg (future blog post) so we pigged out on fast food (once I realized that I burned at least 3,000 calories with five hours of strenuous hiking) and began the hilly five hour drive.
Here is a short list of tips based on our experience:
- If you are afraid of snakes (we didn’t see any but were warned), javelinas (these were ALL OVER the place), coyotes (they didn’t come on the campsite but we could hear their howling all night), or just don’t like the idea of glamping, then opt to pay a premium for a hotel/motel.
- Don’t expect to see Colorado-sized mountains – Emory Peak’s elevation is 7,825 ft, but the area is nevertheless beautiful.
- Unless you really enjoy canoeing, skip the paddle portion of the tour, it’s more fuss than it’s worth.
- Spend more than a half day exploring the park itself, it’s huge and we regret not dedicating more time to it.
- Be aware of temperature changes and dress in lot’s of layers that you can easily take on and off depending on weather and activity.