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April 11, 2011

National Parks: Big Bend

From Tucson it is a 600-plus mile drive to Big Bend National Park.  For many that’s a long day’s drive.  For us, with a trailer and a young pooch, 600 miles is a two-day effort.

Boquillas Canyon

Interstate 10 through the south of Arizona is pretty much forgettable.  It must be if your two principal memories are the 6:1 ratio of Border Patrol vehicles to State Troopers on Arizona’s highway and a stop at a disinterested Border Patrol checkpoint in Texas.

“Just you two traveling,” the agent asked glancing back at the sealed 22-foot aluminum clad bubble being towed by our truck.

“Yep,” I replied, channeling the local dialect.

“No stowaways in the trailer?” the agent continued next with a slight smile.  Surely he knew, as all agents at similar stops did, that there would be no stowaways.  After all, the checkpoints are labeled on the published maps.


With a wave of his hand we were off.

At least the Border Patrol stop was easier than our typical crossing into Canada.  Perhaps Canadians fear health care refugees coming in from the States?   Still it’s never a good sign when the highlight of your trip is a Border Patrol checkpoint.

After two time changes in three hundred miles we reached Van Horn Texas for the night.  Where else do you have to change your clock twice in such a short distance, at least at this latitude?  We were time zone confused for a week later.

The next day we were off to the dusty town of Terlingua on the edge of Big Bend National Park.  Our route took us through Big Bend Ranch State Park and the small village of Lajitas.  This route is scenic, particularly along the river, though many RVers avoid this approach to Big Bend due to a short stretch of road with a 15% grade.  As usual, we didn’t research things well enough ahead of time to know to avoid the route.  Hey, that’s what first gear and brakes are for anyway, isn’t it?

Terlingua is interesting enough.  It has a ghost town.  There are plenty of artists.  That is always a good sign particularly in the middle of nowhere.  The real appeal, though, is the Big Bend National Park just a few miles out of town.

The Rio Grande emerges from Santa Elena Canyon (panorama)

Perhaps it is a Texas thing, but it seemed before we arrived that Big Bend National Park was enormous.  Indeed it is large, but it’s not nearly as large as Death Valley or Yellowstone National Parks.  In fact Big Bend National Park is about a quarter the size of Death Valley, the largest park in the lower 48.  Two days of non-maniacal driving will cover pretty much all of the park’s pavement.  It takes much longer to fully explore Yellowstone or Death Valley.

The scenery in Big Bend is typically western.  Dry rocky yellow hills covered thinly with thorny vegetation are divided by arroyos.  If you’ve traveled extensively through the remote regions of United States’ mountain west, you’ve seen similar landscapes.

Big Bend’s appeal is in its peace and solitude.   Miles of expansive and undeveloped country absorb the park’s few visitors.  Big Bend feels empty.  Aside from a few Texans rattling around, the park was nearly uninhabited during our visit.  (Curiously, unlike most national parks, the vast majority of Big Bend’s visitors had the home state plates on their vehicles.)  Annually Big Bend receives about a tenth the number of the visitors that similarly sized Yosemite National Park does.

Terlingua's cemetery

Becky assures me that Big Bend’s most iconic sights are the deep gorges cut by the Rio Grande.  From the road short hikes take you into the mouths of the canyons.  But really, to fully see the chasms, you’ll need to float the river.  Becky did this long ago and is now a non-stop gorge raft tour promoter.  Yet, on this visit, the Rio Grande was shallow and low from drought.  Temperatures atypically approached 100 in late March.  The park felt bone dry.  Boating the Rio Grande was not a practical option.  I guess if we want to really see the soul of Big Bend National Park, we will have to return when the water is flowing.

Big Bend was the eleventh United States National Park we visited since we started our quest to visit all of the parks.  There are 47 National Parks left to go.  Our park pursuit could take awhile.

The full Big Bend picture set is on Picasa.

Contrabando film set near Lajitas



  1. […] 192,210 visitors, 46th in attendance out of the 58 National Parks.  But just like its Texan cousin Big Bend, much of the appeal of Guadalupe Mountains stems from its […]

    Pingback by National Parks: Guadalupe Mountains « Another Header — April 15, 2011 @ 6:19 pm

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