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Big Bend National Park Trip Over Thanksgiving

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There are four of us heading to visit Big Bend National Park over Thanksgiving break, Wednesday through Saturday. We are all very adventurous and up for anything. We would love overnight backpacking trips, but we also know this is a huge park. Would we be able to see more by car/dump-camping, driving to different spots and doing day-hikes?

From there, WHAT DO WE DO!? None of us are familiar with this National Park.
We enjoy a lot of different activities. None of us do a ton of climbing anymore, but would it be worth it to take some climbing gear? Are there any routes in the National Park worth climbing?
Same with bikes, are they worth taking? Any mountain bike rides to do in this area?
What hikes are best? Campgrounds?

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    We were at Big Bend over spring break and really enjoyed it.
    You somewhat have three parks in one-River, Mountains, & Desert.
    You really need to see a bit of each of them.

    I would for sure do a float trip thru Santa Elena Canyon. This is a mini version of the Grand Canyon. However, it is smooth water and not anything wild at all. You could do a longer trip or even an overnighter too. There are 3 or 4 outfitters in Terlingua(not to far from the lodge-45 minutes or so,I think).

    We did the Window Trail and Balanced Rock Trail. There are many good looking hikes.

    We also did the Boquilas Canyon trail. I think this is where Victor the Singing Mexican is. He wasn't there the day we were there, but there were two other mexican men that we saw cross the border(they actually rode across the Rio Grande on horses. They come over to check to see if anyone has left them money for the items they leave behind for sale. I don't think park rangers ever say anything to them. You can see their village just across the river on the other side(probably 3 miles away or so).

    Near this area is a fantastic picnic spot. It had huge shade area and is really the only place in the park like that. Also so Javalina while we were in the picnic area.

    Not far from all of this is at Hot Spring. This is really neat to soak in and is sitting directly on the river. It was just us and one other couple, when we were there.

    You'll enjoy it. We love national park and have been to most of them. This one doesn't have any super duper features, but you will always remember it and be glad you went. It's very interesting.

    We stayed at the lodge and had meals there and a couple of picnics. I think we were there 3 or 4 days total.

    Here is a link to our pictures.

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    Sorry for the multiple post. One word of caution. You probably won't see a mountain lion or bear, but in the mountain area they are both a bit more common than what you might think. You can look on youtube for Victor the singing Mexican.

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    Molly, Did you make it to Hot Springs earlier this year?

    Sounds like you might live in Texas. If you get the chance to visit Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe National Park, be sure and see those too. The two wild cave tours in Carlsbad are not to be missed. Guadalupe is somewhat similar to Big Bend. I am going back myself(5th trip) to that area the first of Nov. Fall folliage is supposedly the best their in the State. I have hiked Guadalupe Peak there, the tallest point in Texas.

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    Thanksgiving week is one of the busiest times at Big Bend so you need to figure out your lodging/camping situation and make reservations ASAP. Backcountry sites (whether backpacking or car camping along primitive roads) are not reservable so if you decide to go that route, you're taking a chance on what is available.

    3 campgrounds in the park: Cottonwood is on the west side near the river and is the most primitive (pit toilets, no electricity, no generators). Chisos Basin is in the mountains (flush toilets, no showers). Rio Grande is on the east side along the river and has a store with showers near by. That is the only set of showers in the park for campers, so if a shower is important to you you'll need to plan accordingly.

    How are you getting there? Are you driving your own vehicle or renting? High clearance and/or 4WD? Some of the primitive roads are passable by a normal car (at least initially), some require high clearance for part or all of the distance, and some require 4WD. So your vehicle will partially determine your camping options and what hikes are available to you.

    In general, I'd say one day on the west side, 2 days in the mountains and one day on the east side is about right.

    The premier backpacking trip starts in the Chisos Basin and goes to the South Rim. However, if you are fit enough to handle it as an overnight backpack, you are probably fit enough to do it as a long day hike. It really depends on if you'd rather set up a tent in the backcountry, in a campground or at one of the primitive sites along a backcountry road.

    For this short of a trip at a busy time of year, I'd recommend you skip backpacking and just do day hikes - assuming you can get reservations for campground or the lodging in the Basin.

    Spiro's suggestion of a rafting trip through Santa Elena Canyon is good, assuming that fits your schedule and there is enough water. The hike into Santa Elena is a must-do, unless you do the rafting trip in which case it would be somewhat redundant, especially for someone who only has 4 days.

    I'm not a rock climber but I know some people do it in Big Bend. But I don't think it is a big part of the attraction so again, for such a short trip I would not pack the rock climbing gear as you probably wouldn't use it more than once if at all. You can climb to the top of Emory Peak but that is really just a scramble not a climb, and there is an unofficial route to the top of Casa Grande but that doesn't involve climbing. Everything else I've heard of in passing sounded more technical.

    Mountain bikes - last time I was there, there was a proposal being discussed to allow bikes on a few limited trails but I don't think that has been worked out. So you'd be limited to riding on roads, which isn't all bad except it's a bit easier with 2 vehicles so you can set up a shuttle. Really, the only way I'd take my bike is to explore the backcountry roads if I didn't have the proper high clearance/4WD vehicle necessary for some of them. It's kind of like the backpacking/rock climbing gear - you'd pack all that stuff and then only pull it out once maybe for the whole trip. There's just so much to see and the park is so big that in 4 days, you really only have time to hit the highlights and that can be done by hiking for the most part.

    So, if you can reply back with some thoughts on all of the above and let me know what type of vehicle you're driving, I can get more specific on hiking recommendations, etc.

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    About wildlife: the most common animal you'll see that could cause problems is a javelina. Not sure what their current policy is, but when I stayed at the Rio Grande campground they told everyone to flatten their tent when leaving their site - you could leave everything in it, but take the poles down and just leave the tent lying flat on the ground. Reason being that javelinas would sometimes tear into tents and rip them to shreds looking for food and if it was flat on the ground that wasn't an issue.

    I believe every campsite in Rio Grande, the Chisos Basin and the backcountry sites in and close to the Chisos Mountains all have bear boxes to store food. They take bear (and javelina) safety very seriously as the bear population is relatively small, fairly new to the park and they want to keep them from becoming habituated to human food.

    It's not unusual to see bears in the Chisos Basin area - the park tracks sightings of bears and mountain lions, and they are mostly around that area. Partially because that's where most people are, but mostly because that's where the best habitat is. A lot of the bear sightings involve a mother and her cubs so be really cautious if you do see an adult bear as the odds are good there are cubs nearby. My only bear sighting was on the road leading to the Chisos campground, 3 cubs running down the road followed by the mother.

    They will close trails if there is anything suspicious or too frequent of bear/mountain lion sightings as a precaution. I don't recall any serious incidents involving bears, but there have been some incidents of mountain lions stalking children or stock animals. Assuming you 4 are all adults, that shouldn't be an issue but stick together if you're hiking around dusk or twilight.

    Again, the javelinas are the ones you'll most likely encounter and the biggest danger is that they have terrible eyesight and tend to just charge and bolt in any direction if startled. So they could run into you by accident. I've seen them wander through my campsite in Rio Grande and Chisos with no issues - Cottonwood has a fence around it to keep livestock out so they don't really have those problems.

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    A child was attacked by a mountain lion right between the lodge and restaurant earlier this year. With that many people around, I would have to wonder if it didn't have rabies or something wrong with it.

    Spring Break is supposed to be super busy. We didn't think it was busy really anywhere, with the exception that the lodge was full. We never waited for a meal there. I should say the meals were just mediocre.

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    That doesn't surprise me too much, there are relatively frequent sightings around that whole area. I looked up the story, it said a different child was almost attacked earlier that day on the Windows trail so probably the same mountain lion. Depending on which lodge they were walking back to, they could have been in a fairly isolated spot, parts of the lodging area are pretty much back in the woods so to speak.

    Spring Break is super busy, at least if you've ever been at another time of year. My first time I went was in early December, most trailheads had nobody or at most one other car. It was rare to see someone else on the trails. Next time I went was the last week of February - early in the week was quiet but there was a noticeable increase in visitors by the end when Spring Break was just getting started for some schools. Total shock to my system to see van loads of kids at trailheads and actually have to wait in line for the showers.

    Yes, the food is nothing to write home about. They pretty much have a captive audience there. And the rooms I've stayed in were nothing special either but you're not really there to hang out in the room so not a big deal.

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    Thank you all so much for all of these helpful responses! Sorry it has taken me so long to realize the responses were here - I have been traveling just about every weekend this fall. Now, time to nail down this trip!

    Overall, from responses, it sounds like day-hikes will be best for four days.
    Thank you WhereAreWe for the 1 day in the West (Cottonwood campsite), 2 days in the Mountains (Chisos Basin campsite) & 1 day in the East (Rio Grande campsite) suggestion. That helps kind of summarize, and we can hopefully fill-in from there.

    I live in Central Texas, right outside Austin. We have definitely gotten more rain this year than last, but that probably does not say much for this far West Texas. Is it hard to plan for the float trip - as far as water levels go? I think that would be pretty cool to do.

    I am not familar with Big Bend at all. Spirobulldog, is Boquilas Canyon Trail a full-day hike, or would it be best to also have another hike to do that day? There were pretty many things you mentioned along with that one that sounded pretty interesting.

    Here is a big question - my husband and I do not plan to be in Texas much longer. We love seeing National Parks and adventuring. We thought Big Bend was necessary to see before leaving Texas, but I have also heard a lot about Gaudalupe National Park & Carlsbad Caverns, like you all also mentioned. Should we try to divide our time? Would it be worth it to try to see more places, or concentrate our time in Big Bend?

    Also, as far as vehicle goes, we both drive sedans. We may end up needing to rent a car. If we were to take just a sedan, is it doable? If we were to take a sedan, do we then also take bikes?

    Sorry so many questions! You all are awesome with advice! Thank you, thank you!

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    A sedan is doable, you won't be able to drive some of the primitive roads but others are open to cars for at least part of the way. Not sure you have time to do much biking so I would leave them home.

    Boquillas Canyon is not an all day hike, it's more like an hour or so. I didn't particularly care for it but it is ok. You don't actually hike into the canyon, just to the mouth of it, and Border Patrol may or may not have cut/burned down the cane along the river. If it's down, not the prettiest area to walk through.

    Float trip water levels are variable, obviously higher in summer during the rainy season. But there are dams upstream that also regulate the water level so it's difficult to predict. Best bet is to call an outfitter in Terlingua or Study Butte and see what they think.

    Whether you can do Big Bend, Guadalupe and Carlsbad all in one 4 day trip is up to you and how much driving you can handle. Guadalupe/Carlsbad are 5-6 hours beyond Big Bend. You could hike to the top of Guadalupe Peak and do some cave tours. The bat flight program at dusk is over by then as the bats have migrated away.

    Personally, I would not try to include those 2 along with Big Bend if you just have 4 days. That would just be too much driving for me.

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    We have friends that make the long trip from NE Texas to Big Bend several times a year to ride motorcycles off road (off smooth highways). I would think these back roads would be fun for bikes as well.

    You really need to visit the nps website---www.nps.gov/bibe

    It gives good info about roads, trails, things to do, camping, etc including:
    "With over 100 miles of paved roads, 150 miles of dirt roads, and about 200 miles of hiking trails the park offers nearly limitless opportunities for scenic driving, hiking, camping, backpacking, mountain biking, horseback riding, bird watching, wildlife observation, and stargazing. Additionally, the Rio Grande borders the park for 118 miles providing options for half-day floats to extended excursion by raft, canoe, or kayak."

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    I see from you other thread that you're possibly moving to Denver. Keep in mind that Carlsbad is about a 10 hour drive from there, which much to see and do along the way. So you could make that a separate road trip from Denver and it would be about the same drive time as you currently have.

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    I wouldn't do them both in the same trip.
    To me, Big Bend is better than Guadalupe, but just an hour away from Guad is Carlsbad Caverns. If you have any adventure in you at all consider one or both of the Wild Cave Tours there(reserve far in advance). They only let 8 people per week go on either tour, so very few people even know about it. It is truly amazing. I like Carlsbad better in the summer because of the bats(see them both enter and exit-most people just see the exit-the morning we saw them enter, we were the only people there-expect several hundred people at night). However, you really don't want to hike in Guadalupe or BB in the summer. I am going backpacking in Guadalupe at the end of the month. Supposedly there is one small section there that is the very best fall foliage in Texas(we'll see-hopefully I am timing it right).
    I've only been to BB once, but have been to Guadalupe and Carlsbad 4 or 5 times. What makes BB special is that is 3 parks in 1--Desert, Mountains, and River.

    You really can't go wrong with either. Do not under any circumstance stay at White's City near Carlsbad. It is absolutely the single worst place I've stayed at or eaten at.

    Boquillas wasn't a very long hike at all the best I remember. Maybe an hour or two. I think we might not have gone very far though. Not sure. This is where we saw a couple of mexican men cross the river. I gave them a couple of dollars and we took a photo with them on their horses.

    The Balanced Rock/trail is a nice one and it takes a couple of hours. Keep in mind that this park is pretty good size, so it takes some time if you are driving from one area to the next.

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    A few more things :-)

    Generally, some of the unimproved/primitive roads are passable by passenger cars, but it always depends on current conditions. For example, apparently they just received a lot of rain because the latest park update says to watch for standing water/flood debris on all roads, and 4WD/high clearance vehicles are recommended on all unimproved roads. And the road to the Santa Elena Canyon trailhead is closed as of now. But I would guess those conditions will improve within a few days, so you will have to check before you go and adjust accordingly.

    If you can get access to an SUV for the four of you, I'd go with that as it'll open up more options for you. You don't have to do any crazy 4WD stuff, but high-clearance does allow you to go some places that a car can't. And you'd have more peace of mind even on the roads that are passable with a car. But for 4 days, you will still have plenty of options with just a car.

    Also, even with that latest rain the current river level at Castolon (just downstream from Santa Elena Canyon) is only 3.42 feet.

    Check out either of these for a river trip:

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