Big Landscapes at Big Bend

Story and photos by Matt Harding

There’s no swinging by Big Bend National Park. The nearest “big city” is Fort Stockton, Texas, population 8,378, more than 100 miles north. No, anyone who ends up at Big Bend is going to Big Bend. (The nearest actual big city is El Paso, 300-plus miles away.)

West Texas was hot when I arrived. In fact, the whole of Texas and much of the country in late July was boiling. During the week I was in the state, high temps never dipped below an uncomfortable 100 degrees. 

But that was part of the adventure. I made it to the town of Marathon at night and then into the park. By early morning, I headed toward Rio Grande Village, the first stop on a jam-packed two-day Big Bend trip. 

On the first day, the Rio Grande was on my mind. One of the many big bends in the river comes at the Boquillas Canyon Overlook, where the thin waterway below separates the U.S. from Mexico. 

From there, you can also see Boquillas del Carmen on the Mexican side of the border, which can be visited via the pedestrian crossing that operates on a four- or five-day schedule depending on the season. At the port of entry, you’ll find a fairly informal rowboat ferry system. Sometimes, you’ll be able to legally walk across through the Rio Grande. Keep in mind that you will still need your passport at the virtually-staffed port. 

I hiked the 1.5-mile out-and-back Boquillas Canyon Trail – the last stop at the end of the road. The easy hike, with birds and burros echoing in the distance, leads to the entrance of a limestone gorge that splits the Sierra del Carmen Mountains (and thus, the U.S. and Mexico). 

It was a perfect morning walk in the Chihuahuan Desert, already starting to simmer at 10 a.m. On my way back to the parking lot, I came upon three horses that paid me no mind as they grazed. (As I suspected, these animals are actually livestock that routinely cross the river for, quite literally, greener pastures.)

After getting a bag of ice and some food staples at the Rio Grande Village Store, I went to the Hot Springs Historic Trail. Unfortunately closed due to recent flood damage, the area’s historic buildings are still accessible, as is the Upper Hot Springs Trail, which has a view of the famous Langford Hot Springs, named after J.O. Langford, who built a home and resort at the site based on the “medicinal” properties of the hot spring. 

Before too long, I made my way West, basking in my rental car’s air conditioning and stopping periodically at various trails and overlooks (both of which were excellent at Tuff Canyon). My day culminated as far West as you can go in the park – Santa Elena Canyon. 

The sun was already getting low in the sky as I walked to the trailhead of the 1.7-mile roundtrip Santa Elena Canyon Trail. It was only then I learned a water crossing was involved – the sometimes impassable Terlingua Creek.

However, I saw a lone hiker on the other side, so went back to put on my swim trunks, drop off my camera and get my (hopefully) waterproof phone. 

Reaching the creek, I took off my sandals and sunk my bare feet into the squishy mud, making a slow and steady beeline for the trail sign on the other side. But knee-deep water quickly turned to waist-deep and I soon found myself chest deep in the briskly-moving stream, clumsily slipping in the mud my toes clung to.

I gathered my bearings and made it to the bank but found it near impossible to get up onto dry land. As I was fumbling about, that other hiker had been making his way to the creek to head back, pointing me in a much easier direction for my own return. (Only 20 feet downstream, closer to the Rio Grande, the water was at most waist deep.)

As I ascended to the Santa Elena Canyon vista, taking photos of the steep walls above me and hearing my own echo as I breathed an audible “wow” into the canyon, I already knew this place would be my favorite of the trip.

Nearby Cottonwood Campground was my home for the night. Well into dusk upon my arrival, I struggled to set up my tent in the gusting wind, which was greatly welcomed as temps still reached into the 80s. This 24-site desert campground was near-deserted for my stay. Only one other site was occupied. 

After a late start the following day, I made my way to the Chisos Mountains, a welcomed departure from the blistering desert. 

My plans to hike all the way to South Rim were scrapped mainly due to time, but sore feet helped solidify the decision. Instead, I traversed the quick Basin Loop Trail and glared down the basin into The Window. The trail that leads to it was sadly closed at the time due to increased bear activity in the narrow corridor. (When I checked out my campsite later that afternoon at Chisos Basin Campground, park rangers happened to be ushering out a bear.)

I decided on the Lost Mine Trail and got to enjoy it in virtual solitude. Though the hottest part of the day in the mountains, it paled in comparison to my previous days in the Texas heat.

After soaking in views of the Lost Mine and Casa Grande peaks, and trying to figure out where the Rio Grande flowed many miles away, I journeyed back to town and enjoyed a French dip sandwich followed by a peach cobbler at the Chisos Mountains Lodge. 

As the sun set, I set my sights on the Window View Trail for one last look at The Window and the vast landscape in front of me. Mesmerized, I somehow noticed scampering some 100 feet below was another black bear, one of about 30-40 estimated to live in the 1,252 square mile park.

I was certainly glad I decided to swing by.