Rain in the Desert: Driving Big Bend (Day 11)

The next morning, we were pretty worn out. Between the Big Bend Blowout and the hot weather hiking, we were ready for a quiet day. It had cooled down, and was even raining a little bit, so we decided to make it a driving day. We figured that would be a good way to explore the west side of the park on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. (This time, though, we’d be sticking to paved roads.)

BIg Bend Map - west side circled
Completely unexplored.

After a hearty breakfast and some map review, we hit the road. Our first stop was the Dugout Wells. This was one of the few water sources scattered throughout the desert, and it had created a beautiful oasis of water and greenery in the middle of the desert floor. There were full-sized hardwood trees, and a beautiful nature trail winding through the area. The well pumps the settlers had created used windmills to generate a steady water supply, and the windmill was still in place and operating, which was cool to see. We were much closer to the Chisos Mountains here than in our campsite, and the views were tremendous.

2016-02-21 15.26.27
We continued on to the main park visitor center, which we hadn’t visited yet — very unlike us, as National Park visitor centers are usually our first stop in a new park. This one had some really nice displays, and another great National Park video, which we really love watching whenever we get the chance.

This was also where Rebecca found and fell in love with the National Park Passport. She kept going back to it and looking through it, but was adorably sheepish about it, trying to convince herself it was silly and unnecessary. So of course, when she went to ladies room, I picked one up, and gave it to her before we left so she could get her first set of stamps. I didn’t think much of it, but she told me a month or two later that it’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten her.


We got back on the road, and headed west. We stopped next at Paint Gap, a backcountry campsite with a trailhead going back into the Paint Gap hills. We parked and hiked back up into the hills, following the river bed and enjoying the hazy views and the fresh smell of the rain in the desert. The trail would have been hard to follow, but some very creative trail markers kept us safe:

2016-02-21 13.52.44 (2)
That’s a heart, and you can’t tell me different.

Continuing driving the park’s western loop, we stopped next at two old desert homesteads. First was the Sam Nail Ranch, a beautiful area in a small valley with a running well and lots of hardwood trees and greenery. We could just imagine what a pleasant spot this desert oasis was for the settlers trying to build their homes in this unforgiving land. Next was the Homer Wilson Ranch, where we encountered a number of backpackers eating lunch under the porch. One fascinating thing we learned about the desert is that the dry air slows degradation and rot, so this 150-year old abandoned ranch was in incredibly sound condition.

As the road wrapped up into the foothills of the Chisos, the views just got better and better.

2016-02-21 15.52.47
A little altitude goes a long way.

We hadn’t really paid attention to Tuff Canyon on the map, but when we drove past it, I immediately pulled over so we could check it out. We walked over to the edge, and decided to hike down into the canyon to investigate further. We were a little nervous about mountain lions — it looked like a perfect place for one to make its home, and could just imagine one stalking us from the cliffs and crags — but thankfully we didn’t encounter any wildlife as we explored the canyon floor.2016-02-21 16.33.14 (2)

After exploring the canyon for about an hour, we were off to our ultimate destination for the day: Santa Elena Canyon. Located on the park’s southwest border, the Santa Elena is a dramatic canyon carved out by the Rio Grande. We arrived shortly before sundown and were greeted by staggering views and peaceful silence over the water.

2016-02-21 17.52.24 (2)

After watching some kayakers come through the pass, and hiking to the end of the canyon trail and back, we were utterly starving, and started heading back towards camp. As we drove back towards the east side of the park, the sun decided to peek out of the clouds for the first time all day just as it was setting, and we were treated to hands down the most spectacular sunset either of us had ever seen. The pictures only hint at the majesty of that desert sunset.

2016-02-21 18.53.23

After enjoying the glorious colors from my photo-perch on the roof of the truck, we knew we were far too hungry to wait another hour and a half to get back to our campground for dinner. So, we stopped halfway at the Chisos Mountain Lodge for our first dinner out in almost a week. As we enjoyed a delicious meal we were treated to a stunning lightening storm over the desert, watching lightening jumped from cloud to cloud. Just another perfect day in Big Bend!

Our Big Bend Adventure Begins! (Day 8-9)

After our beautiful and invigorating morning hike, we were back on the road, and ready to hit Big Bend National Park! We had gotten over our bout of grumpiness, enjoyed Seminole Canyon, and were excited to explore a new spot, having heard wonderful things about Big Bend. Per our usual levels of preparedness, we had not made reservations, and when we pulled up to the campground where we hoped to stay in the park (Chisos Basin Campground), we learned it was completely full. Dang.

So, we headed over to the Rio Grande Village Campground, which turned out to be very beautiful, spacious, and only a few hundred yards from Mexico! After driving a few loops around to check out all the spots, we chose one we liked, and started setting up. What we weren’t prepared for was the heat — it was in the mid 90s as we were setting up at 5 pm! Since it had been down in the 40s the night before at Seminole Canyon, it was a little bit of a shock.

2016-02-18 17.56.55

We had been told that there was nearby short trail that had phenomenal sunset views, so once we had set up and eaten, we headed for the trail to watch the sun go down. And we were not disappointed.

2016-02-18 18.12.22

We were blown away by how beautiful it was, and as it turned out, this was only a small taste of the incredible vistas we’d see over the next week. We went to bed as excited as kids on Christmas Eve, looking forward to all the exploring we had in mind.

The next day dawned clear and bright, and after some discussion, we decided to do what we usually do in new areas — give ourselves the driving tour to get the lay of the land and see what we might be interested in exploring on foot. After a discussion with some very helpful volunteer park rangers, we decided to up the ante and take the Tahoe on a 23-mile, four-wheel-drive-only road. I’d been wanting to take the truck into the backcountry for the first time, and Old Ore Road sounded like the perfect place!

Rebecca was a bit nervous, so to be on the safe side, we brought all our food, topped off the gas tank, and stashed about 6 gallons of water. That way, even if we got stranded, we could sleep and eat comfortably while we awaited rescue. Armed with our gear, and a giant new map of the park we’d gotten at the ranger station, we headed for the trail head! I was incredibly excited — I’d been longing for some real wilderness for a while, and it sounded like I was finally going to get it! We got to the trail head, and off we went. The views were immediately amazing, and the road wasn’t too bad!

2016-02-19 11.43.06 (2)

Our first detour was a stop at Ernst Tinaja, a spring back in the valley. We were told that the spring formed beautiful crystal blue pools, and we were very excited to see them, especially in such a sparse and dry environment, but when we arrived, this is what we found:

2016-02-19 12.13.52 (2)

Smelly, green, bug-filled pools, buzzing with flies. Not exactly what we’d seen on the postcards. However, the hike into the canyon was stunning — there were amazing rock formations unlike anything we’d ever seen before. Actually, pretty much ALL the scenery the whole week was unlike anything we’d ever seen before. Made it a lot of fun!

2016-02-19 12.13.30

We jumped back in the car, and continued down the road. We passed a number of cars going the opposite direction, but never any going our way. Traffic continued to thin out until about mile 12, when IT happened. The Big Bend Blowout of 2016.

2016-02-19 13.06.41

Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, this was the one thing I was really hoping would not happen on this trip, and here’s why. Despite building this great camping rig, buying a compressor/battery jumper, packing a tire patch kit, bringing all our food, and having the car checked out before the trip, and all the other preparations we did … I had never actually checked and made sure A) that I had the jack and all the pieces I needed to actually change a tire, and B) that my spare tire was in good shape. I know, I know, it was like amateur hour, and now here we were: 12 miles from the nearest road, zero cell service, and not a soul in sight. 20160219_132850

It’s not a real adventure till something goes wrong, right? But in our case, all’s well that ends well — the jack and all the necessary pieces were there, the spare was fine, and within an hour we were back on the road. Despite a nagging fear that we’d blow a second tire and be left without a spare, really and truly stranded, we were able to enjoy some amazing vistas and cool ruins.

2016-02-19 12.50.32

2016-02-19 14.50.47

Our tires stayed strong, and after a total of 7 hours on a 23 mile road, we emerged victorious on the pavement!

2016-02-19 16.05.21

We headed back towards the campground, but the views weren’t over yet. The drive back was incredibly beautiful…

2016-02-19 16.53.22

And once we were back to camp, all fed and showered and safe and sound, we were treated to another glorious sunset. So far, we were big fans of Big Bend!

2016-02-19 18.42.30

Campground: Rio Grande Village Campground

  • Tent/RV site, no hookups.
  • Cost: $14
  • Pros: Flat, paved, spacious sites with picnic tables and large bear boxes. Easy access to water and decent bathroom facilities. Convenient location to trails on the east side of the park, as well as Boquillas, Mexico. General store, coin-operated showers and laundry, pay phones, WiFi, and ATM just a short walk from the campground.
  • Cons: Lackluster showers — especially for not being free. The hot water was lacking and they ran out of quarters in the change machine a few times.