Up at 7:45 this morning, we made scrambled bell peppers and eggs with chicken maple sausage on the side in our propane camp stove for breakfast. We rolled out at 9:15 and got to the park entrance around 10. During the drive in we noticed there was a seemingly large fire burning somewhere in the Chisos Mountains (more on this later).
We started off our visit by doing the Ross Maxwell scenic drive. This road starts along the western edge of the Chisos Mountains, winds up and down through the desert landscape, and terminates at Santa Elena Canyon which has been carved by the Rio Grande. We stopped at a couple scenic vistas and did a few short trails that led to abandoned ranching and farming settlements from the early 20th century. During our drive we spotted a group of horses seemingly all alone and with no equipment on, I guess you can add horses to the list of wildlife you can spot in Big Bend.
There is a very popular (by Big Bend standards, this is one of the least visited national parks after all) trail at Santa Elena Canyon which goes along the river about a mile into the canyon and stops at a small beach. We walked this trail to the end and somehow Peyton convinced me to get my feet dirty and wade the Rio Grande with her. We walked about a half mile further upriver (and about halfway through that it got very rocky for my bare feet) to a turn in the canyon and were rewarded with a great view of a huge cave about halfway up the canyon wall. On our trek back through the Rio Grande, Peyton impaled the bottom of her foot on a thorn that was dwelling on the bottom of the river. The hike through the river was not kind to our feet, but it was well worth the extra adventure! On our way out of the canyon we ran into a couple who did the horseback ride with us the night before. Big bend, small world.
We had a lunch of caesar salads, summer sausage, and cheese around 2. Peyton took over driving and we headed towards Rio Grande village on the southeast edge of the park. We got to Rio Grande Village and checked out the river access. We backtracked to Boquillas canyon and on the way to the Boquillas overlook we got stuck behind four wild horses who were walking right down the middle of the road. We eventually passed them and made it to the overlook. There is a Mexican town across the river named Boquillas de Carmen which you can see from this point. In normal times there is a US border port of entry that allows people to take a boat from the national park to the town, but due to the pandemic there is no passage allowed currently.
While we were there the horses caught up to us and made their way down to the river. Another car pulled up and a couple in their 20s got out. We started chatting and it turns out they are from Dallas too and the wife is a nurse at Parkland Hospital (once again, Big Bend, small world). They are staying at a primitive campsite only accessible via dirt road and 4WD. We’ll have to try that in the future once we upgrade Peyton’s ride. We talked for a few minutes then said goodbye and got on the road back to the campsite. We decided to make a stop at the Panther Junction visitor center to see if we could learn more about the fire that’s been burning in the Chisos Mountains since we arrived. We learned that it was spotted at 1:30 PM on Thursday and all trails in the upper Chisos had been closed as a result. The area the fire is at is so remote that firefighters have to hike 3-4 hours through mountainous terrain just to reach it and firefighters from Mexico have been called up to assist the efforts. As we had planned on hiking the south rim trail (a 12 mile hike which offers sweeping views of the park and Chihuahua Desert) taking all day tomorrow, we had to come up with an alternate plan. We settled on doing the much shorter but still highly recommended Window Trail.
Construction on the road into the Chisos basin has passage closed down from 8-11 AM and 1-3 PM so we still had to get an early start in order to get to the trailhead, but since this trail is so much shorter than what we had originally planned for that left us with most of the day free after our hike. I bought a national parks edition US atlas and a Texas atlas in preparation for this trip, so we headed back to camp to break them in and make a plan. On the way back to camp we wanted to stop in Study Butte for ice cream but there were no ice cream places in town. The convenience store purported to sell ice cream, but they only sold it until 5 and we arrived at 6. Oh well, ice cream from the gas station freezer works in a pinch.
We got back to camp and began to strategize. We decided we wanted to check out the adjacent Big Bend Ranch State Park directly to the west of the national park. The only roads through the park are off road and require four-wheel drive to traverse, but FM 170 runs right along the Rio Grande and the southernmost edge of the park from Lajitas to Presidio. We also decided to make a late itinerary change and make a detour to Guadalupe Mountains National Park on the way back home Sunday. During the course of our planning an unfortunate incident occurred where some beer got spilled on one of the atlases. However, I posit that it’s not a legit road trip atlas until it gets beer spilled on it. We concluded the day with tacos for dinner, and sat by the fire as the sun set and the stars came out.