By Valerie Coffey
We have not been posting as much to our blog as we’d like in 2016. I’ve only managed to write a blog post about once a month. Sorry! We’ve been so very busy! Let us fill you in!
Since I last posted about our travels, we’ve explored the entire southern border of the US with Mexico. We left from San Diego in mid-March, and have now gone all the way to South Padre Island at the tip of Texas!
Along the way we stopped in the Yuma area (near the border of AZ and CA) for a few days, where we visited with our friends Roger and Gail and I got the RV stuck in deep sand. (Yeah, I’m gonna cruise right past that embarrassing story and save it for another day.) Then we walked over the Mexican border at Los Algodones, a popular destination for retirees and RVers to get state-of-the art but inexpensive pharmaceuticals, eyeglasses, and dental check-ups! We saved a lot of money and enjoyed some margaritas in the sunshine while we were there.
We stayed in Tucson for two weeks, visiting our friends Keith and Nicole Davis and seeing everything we missed last year, including Old Tucson Studios, Tombstone, and Bisbee. We saw Val’s cousins in Las Cruces, NM, and hiked nearby Dripping Springs Natural Area.
(By the way, if you’re wondering where we are, or you feel like you’re missing some of our adventures, be sure to “like” our public Facebook page, RVLuckyOrWhat. I post a pantload of stuff there, and only by “liking” our page will our posts come up in your newsfeed. You can also follow us on Instagram at RVLuckyOrWhat.)
All of this repeating of previous destinations from last year was mostly just to get to Big Bend National Park in the southwestern elbow of Texas – one of the biggest national parks left on our list to visit in the RV, and one of the hardest to get to! With over 800,000 acres of protected area, Big Bend is BIG, but only a fraction the size of Death Valley National Park in CA with its 3.4 million acres.
And much like Death Valley, Big Bend is the most amazing park most people have never heard of, much less been to (unless of course, you live nearby or have already discovered it). Mitch had never heard of Big Bend before we started our trip, and I’d only seen pictures of it online but didn’t know much about it. We set our sights on it for year two, scheduling it for early April. (Be sure to read my article, Ten Reasons Death Valley is to Die For, if you haven’t already. I’ll wait.)
My expectations of our first long-awaited visit to Big Bend National Park included sweeping mountain vistas and hiking adventures. I also expected April in Big Bend to involve flowering cactus and extreme heat countered with cool views of the Rio Grande (the river that defines the border between Texas and Mexico). We were not disappointed. What I didn’t expect was how many amazing deep canyons it holds. Nor did I understand that Big Bend is an animal bonanza in the middle of the one of the most remote spots in the U.S.
But I should have known. Like most of the National Parks in the U.S., Big Bend encompasses numerous ecosystems: desert, mountains, pine forests, and riparian river sanctuaries — all with their own plethora of different animals.
Mitch and I arrived in the late afternoon at Maverick Ranch RV Park in nearby Lajitas, Texas (P.S. It’s a great RV park – we loved it!).
It was too late to drive the 40 minutes to the national park by the time we got set up. The next day, work obligations kept us busy until about 3 pm. But we were eager to start our sightseeing, so late that afternoon, we drove into Big Bend National Park and picked up a map from the unmanned park gate (it was already closed), and headed to the nearest destination – the Chisos Mountains area of the park.
We picked a popular hike that was scenic and only 3 hours long, the Window Trail. We stopped to take pictures at a scenic spot and saw this sign:
We parked at the Chisos Campground, and packed our cameras and water – we needed at least two quarts each as it was still about 93F at 5:30 pm! Not far into our hike, I saw something moving near a far-off maintenance area. Black bears! We saw four of them – a mama and three cubs. It was the first time in our travels we have seen bears from outside the safety of a vehicle, but we were about 1000 feet away, so we got out our cameras. The best shot we could obtain were of two baby bears near a chain-link fence – far from the wilderness photos you see in Nat Geo, but at least some evidence of our sighting.
On this trail, we also saw a grey fox, cottontail and jackrabbits, deer, numerous lizards, and lots of birds. Oh, and about 50 kids on a group camping excursion. Every day at Big Bend is an animal extravaganza!
If we learned anything about Big Bend, it’s that water is the number one force of nature that created its many beautiful features. But that water was much more of a force eons ago, when this part of Texas was submerged under a shallow inland ocean. This desert was once wet and jungle-y, with dinosaur fossils to prove it. Much of its geology is volcanic.
A pour-off is just what is sounds like: erosion and flash flooding over millenia created a smooth, high canyon that drops off suddenly. It’s like being at the top of a waterfall that is currently dry. We saw many people waiting at the Window Pour-Off for sunset, planning to walk back via flashlight and moonlight, but we got back in time for dinner and sunset at the Chisos Visitor Center restaurant and drove home in the dark.
The next day, we drove the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive on the way to Santa Elena Canyon, which is a spectacular canyon marking the border of Mexico and the U.S. This is one of the park’s most popular hikes, and perhaps its most famous feature.
The water level in the river canyon was higher than I expected. I had seen many pictures of people walking down the river canyon around the bend. But unless we wanted to hike in waist-deep water, we were limited to a narrow strip of brown clay shore before the bend in the canyon.
On the way back from Santa Elena Canyon, we hiked to the Burro Mesa Pour Off, where a massive channel of soft rock was eroded over eons of falling water.
We took another day to explore Big Bend Ranch State Park, a neighboring but completely different area of Big Bend. We think it was awesome –well worth the day.
In Big Bend Ranch State Park, we hiked Closed Canyon Trail, which became perhaps the most technical hike we’ve tried in our travels, because we went far beyond the 0.7 miles of the canyon described in the signage. We didn’t mean to, we just kept climbing and sliding down slippery shoots and over boulders until we reached an impassible, steep dropoff. I acquired numerous scrapes and bruises that I didn’t remember getting.
My favorite thing to happen in our exploration of Big Bend Ranch State Park is that during our hike of Closed Canyon, we heard canyon wrens singing. My mother used to love the recording of the song of the canyon wren in the visitor center at the Colorado National Monument in Fruita, CO, near where we lived when I was little. The exhibit with the same bird song recording was still there 34 years later when Mitch and I visited in Oct. 2014. But neither my mom nor I had ever actually heard one in nature. I had always wanted to!
In the quiet of Closed Canyon, we were alone and heard the plaintive, descending calls of canyon wrens over and over and I finally captured its call (albeit not really video of the elusive wren itself)! It almost sounds like rotating fireworks or car tires squelching on pavement. This is for you, mom!
We also hiked the Hoodoos Trail down to the Rio Grande River, in what was perhaps the hottest hike for us all week. The temperatures neared 100F almost every day, and near the river, the humidity was high, and the hill on this one combined with no shade got to me. We took the next day off and hung out by the beautiful pool at the Lajitas Golf Resort, affiliated with our RV park.
The next day, we rented a Jeep and raged down almost 100 miles of backroads. We started by turning north at Panther Junction and starting at Old Ore Road. I couldn’t take too many pictures of the worst spots ‘cuz I was busy holding on with both hands.
The Ernst Tinaja Trail leads through an eroded canyon to a deep pool of fetid green water. The sides of the tinaja are steep, so they trap water and animals that are drawn to it. The sides of the canyon are incredible, with uldulating flaky layers of pink and orange laid down by an ancient seabed.
On another day, we spent more time at the Rio Grande Village section of the park, where we hiked to the top of a vista overlooking a bend in the river. The sweltering hike was worth it just for the view of the river and the wild burros on the Mexican bank, but especially for the pink cactus blooms we saw!
When in Big Bend National Park, you can experience a unique border crossing by rowboat to the tiny isolated town of Boquillas, Mexico.
First, you must enter an official US Port of Entry/Customs building where a US customs agent checks that you have your passport. While anybody can just walk across the river, border patrol is fierce in the area and anyone caught crossing anywhere or anytime other than through this customs building, or who doesn’t have authority, can be fined US$1000. The agent tells you where to go (down a dirt path to the river where a rowboat awaits) and what to expect, and that you have to be back across the river by about 5:30 or 5:45 pm.
When the locals on the other side see you coming, they serenade you as you cross with the famous song, Cieloto Lindo, or “Ay! Yi, yi, yi-i-i-iy…” Mitch knew all the words from Spanish class, and sang along, which they loved.
We were assigned a local guide, Martin. Your guide can take you to town on a burro for a fee, or you can walk. We decided to walk. Our friends said this was a good decision because the burros move slowly, if at all, and must be prodded the whole way. I wish I had worn hiking shoes, though, because my feet were filthy after walking the sandy roads in Teva sandals for half a mile.
With Mitch’s attempts at Spanish, we learned that the population of Boquillas is only 180 now, down from a peak of 300 pre-9/11. The border crossing was closed after 9/11 for ten years, which hurt the town badly, as they depend on tourista dollars. The town is very isolated, hemmed in by the Rio Grande and the US border on one side, and steep impassible mountains on the other. Martin and his wife stayed in town for that decade and he made a living as a fisherman from the river.
Martin spoke just enough English to try and convince us to eat at Boquillas Restaurant instead of the more popular Jose Falcon’s. We spoke to the proprietors, but went to Jose Falcoln’s for the better menu selection of food and drinks. We felt bad because Boquillas restaurant was empty, and Martin was trying really hard to convince us for some reason, but we didn’t regret our choice.
Lunch and margaritas were yummy! Can’t say it was cheap though, as our taste for añejo tequila unexpectedly raised the cost of the margaritas from $5 to $12 each. Still, we enjoyed lunch, and I bought a wooden muddler to mash avocado for guacamole. It was really cool to make this unique trip to Mexico.
On the way home, we stopped to take one last hike along a nature trail at Dugout Wells. As we drove in to the site, I saw a large, pale, dappled cat leap across the dirt road through the trees! Mitch had his eye on the rutted road and missed it. The sighting was too brief to get a picture. I didn’t know what I’d seen! My first thought was that it was a pale spotted jaguar with round ears pasted against its small head as it ran in pursuit (or flight), which made no sense at all!
But from my description, the ranger at the visitor center said it was likely a mountain lion. I thought it was too small to be a mountain lion, and while my sighting was the middle of the day, they tend to come out at only night. I searched online and thought it matched images of a jagarudi, which is extremely rare and never offically documented in Big Bend. But apparently the mountain lions in Big Bend are very small, and might venture a long way for a drink of water, which was available at Dugout Wells. So who knows, maybe I saw my first wild mountain lion. Without better documentation, all I have is this:
As you can see, Big Bend, this amazing national park nobody’s ever heard of, has a wealth of beautiful vistas, interesting geology and history, tons of animals, and lots of fun things to do. Hope you enjoyed our telling of the adventures.
See you in the warmer places!
Read our next post: Fun With Cactus