Friday, May 7, 2010

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Driving west from Del Rio, we arrived at Marathon, Texas around 3:00 PM on Tuesday, May 4th. Because we would be “dry camping” (no hookups) in Big Bend, we planned on running the on-board generator and so we gassed up the Trek before turning onto highway 385 and heading south into the park. The generator runs off the same gas as the Trek engine.

I saw two gas stations in Marathon and they were both selling Regular Unleaded for $3.35 a gallon… yikes! Well, at least the man working at the gas station was nice. In fact, he was very friendly and helpful.

The 75-mile drive from Marathon to the Rio Grande Village campground in the Big Bend National Park took almost two hours, but it is certainly a gorgeous drive! The scenery is breath-taking and also a little intimidating: this is not an area you would want to find yourself in alone and without water. Big Bend is made up of almost 1 million acres of land that includes mountain, desert, and river environments. You could spend a week here and just scratch the surface. This area is also still very “wild”, offering a wide array of geological formations, many varieties of desert flora, and wild life ranging from mountain lions, to coyotes, to javalinas (peccaries), to rabbits, to snakes… well, you get the picture.

Although we had already pretty much decided to camp in the Rio Grande campground rather than the RV park a short distance away, we swung over there first to check it out. Sure enough, the Rio Grande RV Park in Big Bend is essentially an asphalt parking lot with hook ups. This is really not our thing and so we went on to the Rio Grande campground. The temperature was around 85 degrees when we arrived around 5:00 PM. Not too bad, we thought.

We found a site with some shade trees and spent that first evening relaxing after all the driving. The next morning, we got up pretty early and walked the dogs around. It was still quite chilly in the morning from the cool of the desert night. And this was when we saw our very first Roadrunner! Right there in the campground! We were so excited and I took several photos. It’s funny to think about that now because we have since seen innumerable Roadrunners and realize that they are about as common in this desert region as gray squirrels are in Tennessee!

We also spotted a turkey vulture sitting on a campsite grill with his wings half extended, closely watching two men who were eating breakfast. It was a funny scene and I wish I had the camera. I said something to one of the men and he said, “Oh, he’s our best buddy now that he knows how good we cook.” As we walked around, we saw lots of turkey vultures around the campground. I guess they are Big Bend’s equivalent of seagulls.

National and State parks do not allow pets on the trails and Big Bend is no exception. So we left Barley and Sydney in the RV while we walked around on some of the trails near the campground. It was late morning by the time we went over to the day area and then down to the Rio Grande River itself. The day area was under a couple feet of water – we think this was planned flooding for irrigation purposes, to help the cottonwood trees thrive to maintain some shade for visitors. We spotted lots of Vermilion Flycatchers and saw some humongous Ravens.

The Rio Grande River was surprisingly narrow: the water level is low this time of year and the river (at least where we stood) was only around 50 feet across. In the rainy season, July-August, the river expands and rages but the day we stood there in early May, only a narrow strip of brown, lazy water separated us from our neighbors in Mexico.

While we were exploring around, we came across some handmade articles left alongside a trail with a note listing prices and a jar in which to place your money. These items are left by Mexicans who come across the Rio Grande at night and leave them at different spots for tourists to buy on the honor system. Then they come back at night and get the money. The prices are good and the items are attractive but it’s illegal to purchase these items and the border patrol is very serious about enforcing the law. We did not buy anything.

By the time we returned to the campground, it was around noon and getting warmer. By mid afternoon it was close to 100 degrees and still climbing. We were very glad to have the air conditioning in the RV (understatement) and decided to lay low until an hour or so before sunset to take a scooter ride over to the Boquillas Canyon overlook - it would be cooler then and much more pleasant to ride around.

And so we did, and it was a lot of fun! The scenery at the Boquillas Canyon overlook was gorgeous and a kind lady there took our photo.  I refused to remove my helmet because of "helmet hair"  syndrome.  We saw more Mexican souvenirs and spotted a horse and man in the shade across the Rio Grande River. We were both hoping and fearing to see a mountain lion - it would have been perfect to have spotted one at a safe distance. Oh well, we didn’t see a mountain lion but we did see a coyote lounging along the side of the road about a mile from the campground. This guy was almost twice the size of the ones we have in Tennessee – he was about Barley’s size, looked very well fed, and had a fine coat. We were within 15 feet of him. He looked right at us, did not bother to adjust his speed, and just kept going. Apparently the exploding bunny population at Big Bend is resulting in some very happy coyotes!

The next morning (Thursday), we got up around 6:30 and left the campsite by 7:15 AM to ride up to Panther junction with stops along the way. As we rode, we were very glad to have on our fleece jackets – it was downright chilly in some spots and at least cool in the others. It was a beautiful ride, with the early morning light casting a different look on the countryside and the coolness a welcome relief from the heat.

I spoke with a ranger at the Panther Junction visitor's center and he said that, in his opinion, the best time to visit Big Bend in November. I agree with him when he said that visiting between mid April and end of September was not a good idea... too darn hot!

We were gone a total of two hours and had left the dogs loose in the RV.  We have crates for them, but hate to cage the dogs up for short periods of time.  We've left them loose before, but only for around an hour, so this was stretching it a bit.  Well... they were mostly good.  But someone (probably Barley) must have become bored and turned his attention to one of the sofa cushions.  Too bad, but stuff happens!  We'll put the cushions away next time and leave dog toys out for them. 

Yes, the heat at Big Bend this time of year is immobilizing - by early afternoon after our scooter ride,  it was again too hot to do anything outside. Instead of sitting in the Trek with the air conditioning blasting, we decided around 3:30 PM to leave half a day early and head towards our next stop: Carlsbad, New Mexico.  So that is exactly what we did!

I would definitely return to Big Bend again... I feel we barely scratched the surface of this magnificent park.  But my next visit will be in November, when the temperature is more bearable.

Click here to see our Big Bend photos, and stay tuned for more about our travels!

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