Big Bend NP, the undiscovered secret of Texas

Old Feb 8th, 2013, 05:29 PM
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Big Bend NP, the undiscovered secret of Texas

Okay, we get this little "ski break" early February each year and I'm not much of a skier so I'm always struggling to find a place to go. Most places in February are either too rainy (West coast), too cold (Midwest/Northeast/upper South), or too crowded (New Orleans Mardi Gras, Arizona, South Florida). It seems there is no place that is warm, sunny, and not crowded!

But I only had to look internally, inside the state of Texas. You see, we have this very large National Park in the Southwest portion of the state, which receives very little precipitation year round, and averages 70-80 degree winter weather. It also receives among the least visitors of any of the National Parks. So I can get warm weather but no crowds in February? Well the Fodors Guide to the National Parks of the West said so and guess what? They were right.

We stayed at The Casitas at Far Flung Outdoor Center in Terlingua, TX. Terlingua is a former quicksilver (mercury) mining town turned ghost town turned tourist town. It's a town that has always been based on its land, whether from mineral extraction (then) to geologic appreciation (now). I rented two casitas for us, the ones we got were log cabins. They were just built in Nov 2013, everything is brand new, the walls are all cedar and the floor is pine. These accommodations are the best to be had in the whole area by far.

After a 8 hour drive from Austin, we arrived just in time to catch the later part of the Superbowl. After that, time for some shut eye for the big day which was tomorrow.

Now, here is a little secret. I have one son from a prior marriage and my fiance' has three sons from a prior marriage. I had planned months in advance that the Big Bend trip was going to be the time for me to propose to her. As you can see, I said she is now my fiance' so it must have happened, and it did!

I had researched where to propose to her and I was debating about whether "The Window" or Santa Elena Canyon would be better. Since she prefers looking up to down and prefers shade to sun, I figured Santa Elena Canyone would be a wiser choice and I was right.

The first day, we entered into the Park. The landscape there is very similar to Death Valley from the West entrance to around a mile from the Rio Grande. There is everything from consolidated ash piles to lava rocks to canyons to desert scrub. Some of the vistas are undescribeably beautiful. This is all along Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive by the way. Along the way I spotted the view of the Window from below (the next day would be the Window View from above) and I began to think that perhaps Santa Elena Canyon would not be the most scenic. But I was wrong.

At the Sotol Vista, I could see Santa Elena Canyon from there and I could tell that it would be a great hike. This was at least 5-10 miles away from the Canyon as the crow flies.

As we lowered in elevation towards the Rio Grande, the vegetation changed, first to scrublike plants, then to small Cottonwood trees and finally to large trees at the campground.

The Rio Grande was flowing, but very slowly. According to park rangers the Rio Grande usually doesn't have much flow except during the occasional storm during monsoon season in July and August. That is actually the best time to float the river, but at that time the heat is very intense and makes hiking the low elevations all but impossible.

For us, it was in the 80's along the Rio Grande, hey you can't beat 80 degrees in February! We started the hike at the trail head and it very quickly comes to a dry creek bed that is impassable during rains of monsoon season. At this time of year it is just sandy and you can go right up to the river. I touched the water but I had heard of pollution so I didn't let the kids go into the river or anything.

From there, the trail has a set of switchbacks to climb a cliff along the river. Then it descends back alongside the Rio Grande into the shade. It is 10-15 degrees cooler in the shade. There are bamboo shoot and many other tropical plants as the climate is warm all year and the steady supply of river water ensures the greenery.

I was debating about which area to propose, but I finally found a spot where there is a rock that abuts into a portion of the river and the rear portion of it has a view of the entire canyon. This was going to be the spot!

So, I told one of her sons to pull out the Assis (a kind of pad) and start taping as I had something important to say.

I got on one knee and then proposed. She was surprised and wasn't expecting it but she accepted (we had talked about it plenty of times).

--- to be continued...
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Old Feb 8th, 2013, 05:40 PM
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It dropped about 15 degrees to around 65 or so at the top compared to the Canyon. But still, 65 in winter is pretty nice, especially with the more intense sun at that altitude.

We ate at the Chisos Mountain Lodge Restaurant and the food was very good and the view even better. The chicken fried steak and pasta is very good, the Mexican is just okay.
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Old Feb 8th, 2013, 05:49 PM
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The next day was for hiking "The Window" trail. It took us a few hours to hike. The weather was starting out in the 40's and ended up in the upper 60's by the end of the hike with sun.

The window trail makes a steep decline, it is in mostly the full sun with a few shade trees now and then. Finally, at the end it makes a steep decline through a canyon, where pretty much the whole Chisos Basin drains. The creek was mostly dry, with a few wet spots. I hear in the rainy season in July/August, the creek can be raging but impassable. But even rains during the rainy season are hard to come by.

The end of the window trail is quite dramatic, you can see a sharp drop of about a thousand feet to the desert floor below. The rock there is very smooth, having been sanded down by the water. It is actually quite scary being there, one false move and it's game over...
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Old Feb 8th, 2013, 06:00 PM
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Glad she said yes. Big Bend is very enjoyable and very diverse. Mountains, river, and desert all in the same place.

If you get a chance to go to the other national park in Texas I like it to --Guadalupe National Park. Consider hiking Guadalupe peak there, the highest point in TX. Plus, it is less than an hour away from Carlsbad Caverns. It isn't as isolated as Big Bend, but it is even more primitve-no lodging, no restaurant for miles.
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Old Feb 8th, 2013, 06:12 PM
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spirobulldog,

I've been to Guadalupe NP and it is great as well. But Big Bend NP is now my favorite among all parks!
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Old Feb 8th, 2013, 06:47 PM
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Next up was a drive out to the east side to soak our aching muscles in the Hot Springs.
The east side of the park is very different from the west side and the mountain.
Whereas the west side has many volcanic features, the west side has more evidence of deposits from wetter time periods, with lots of shale,
limestone, and other outcroppings.

The road to the Hot Springs Trail is gravel and goes through a desert environment that is very pretty. At the end of the road
are some old structures like an old motel, post office, etc.. Then there is a trail along the Rio Grande that is all sand. There are
many different petroglyphs and other cave writings on the cliffs. Mexicans place their wares along the rocks and you may buy
their illegal merchandise, although a sign warns against it. The Rio Grande at this point is ankle deep during the dry season, so Mexicans
can cross back and forth at their leisure. It was here that I realized how futile border control was...
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Old Feb 8th, 2013, 09:06 PM
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We went to the Hot Springs which was a mile or so from the trail head. The Hot Springs has a remnant structure there of just stones. It used to be a full bathhouse, but the remnant structure is all you really need. There is a stone structure around a hole where hot water comes out. There are several walls separating out separate pools where I presume different "rooms" in the structure were. There is a waterfall that leads to the Rio Grande. The bottom of the structure is sand.

The water temperature is around 105 degrees which is a perfect soaking temperature. We periodically dipped into the Rio Grande to cool back off and then back into the Hot Springs.

The Hot Springs are a very enjoyable part of Big Bend and I highly recommend it.

After the Hot Springs we went back up to the Chisos Mountain Lodge Restaurant and ate dinner there again.
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Old Feb 9th, 2013, 07:03 AM
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http://share.shutterfly.com/action/w...0IatW7FqybsWjP

A link to our photos from March Spring Break 2011 to BB.
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Old Feb 9th, 2013, 12:14 PM
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Very nice. And congrats.

I was there the week before you, the temps are pretty variable this time of year so you were lucky. Ranged from highs around 90 to lows in the upper 20s when I was there.

Did you do anymore hiking?
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Old Feb 11th, 2013, 08:59 AM
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The final day we went out through the north entrance. We stopped at the fossil trail and looked at the fossil (reproductions). That attraction is a bit misleading, I thought there would be original fossils. Oh well, the boys enjoyed digging in the desert sand.

We got up to the north entrance but the visitor's center was closed for lunch. We ate there anyway and time for the drive back to Austin.

Some final thoughts:
Big Bend is like no other National Park we've been to. Apparently the only times of year they are crowded is Spring Break, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Summer is too hot for most people, you pretty much have the whole park to yourself. Winter is very mild but because school is in session, most families can't visit then. So, most of the visitors are either snowbirds or retirees.

Even Visitor's Centers don't receive many people. The only place there were multiple people visiting was Santa Elena Canyon, the parking lot was full there, the Mountain Lodge restaurant is crowded in the evening, and there were 3 cars at the Hot Springs parking lot.

I really think Big Bend may be the last National Park that represents what National Parks are supposed to be, wild untamed land with very few people.

Just think, there are 3 million people that visit Yellowstone, mainly from May to October (most of the park is closed the rest of the year).

There are 200,000 people that visit Big Bend, mainly from October to May. There is basically less than a tenth of the visitation there compared to Yellowstone.

Maybe I'm ruining a good thing by recommending people to go there, but I feel like it's my duty to let you all in on this park, it's really a great place...
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Old Feb 11th, 2013, 10:09 AM
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You might want to check out Great Basin National park or some of them in Alaska like Wrangel St. Elias. Those are very isolated too and have very few visitors.
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Old Feb 11th, 2013, 10:28 AM
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A few things to add:

1) You won't find original fossils at an outdoor exhibit ever - possibly in a glass case indoors but definitely not outdoors. Almost certainly they would be stolen. Big Bend is working on plans for a new, expanded fossil exhibit - they have the most complete fossil record of any national park, meaning the fossils found within the park span a greater period of time than anywhere else.

2) If every annual visitor somehow showed up on the same day, they would all have over 2 acres of their own. Big Bend is the 8th largest national park in the lower 48.

3) They have the darkest night skies in the lower 48, as of February 2012. They partnered with a private company to redo all the lighting in the park - you may have noticed that even the Basin lodging area was pretty dark. They purposely did that to protect the views of the night sky. I was shocked at how much darker the Basin was compared to my previous trips.

4) No need to worry about your trip report attracting a lot of people to the area, it is so isolated from major cities/airports that it will not become a big tourist destination anytime soon.
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Old Feb 11th, 2013, 10:51 AM
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Wow - four boys - congrats! I love reading national park trip reports. Thanks.
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Old Feb 13th, 2013, 06:35 AM
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WhereAreWe,

About the darkest nights in the lower 48:

I had read that Big Bend was rated as one of the best places in the world for having the least light pollution. The night sky there is darker than most anywhere else in the world.

Knowing this, several times at night we stopped at the side of the road and turned off all the lights to the car and rolled down the windows so we could look out. I didn't want the kids actually getting outside because of fear of bears, mountain lions, foxes, coyotes, etc... but sitting in the van with the cool desert night air and a sky where you could see every single star, it was amazing.

When you look to the right and left, there is absolutely nothing you can see, unless a passing car comes by. I think in 30 minutes, 2 cars came by and this was on the main road...

We stopped in the mountains and on the desert, but I think the night sky is best viewed in the desert, the mountains actually "block" some of the stars...
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Old Feb 13th, 2013, 06:59 AM
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Also, for your point 4, I'm worried with Texas' high population growth rates, that Big Bend will eventually become popular.

The only thing going for it is the fact that most of the population growth is in Central or East Texas. The only population centers that are growing fast that are near it are El Paso (800,000 people, 5 hours away) and Midland-Odessa (4 hours away from Odessa). However, unlike the Austin, Houston, and Dallas metro areas, there are not large numbers of affluent people that have time to take long vacations to natural parks.

If these cities keep growing, I presume Big Bend will have an increase in visitation. Time will tell...
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Old Feb 13th, 2013, 08:26 AM
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I've read that Canyonlands NP has the darkest skies. Stargazing is best at places with lower humidity. So, I would think BB would be better in the winter months.

For me, the best places I've done a little star gazing was Bottom of the Grand Canyon during rafting trip, Goblin Valley State Park in UT, Guadalupe, and Big Bend. Bryce has the best Ranger star events, IMOP. Carlsbad has a really interesting program(just one day per year all night long).
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Old Feb 13th, 2013, 09:01 AM
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Yeah, Big Bend was certified as having the darkest skies last year. I think before then it was Canyonlands or another park in Utah.

Visitation has actually declined a bit, I don't remember the peak year but I don't think its been in the past 5 years. It's too far for the average tourist to drive. It's not a secret to Texans but still, they aren't flocking to it. It's their first national park, been written up in numerous mags and papers, but still most Texans would rather drive to Colorado than Big Bend.
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Old Feb 13th, 2013, 02:21 PM
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I think part of the reason is the limited facilities. I had tried to book within the park several times but everything was sold out.

I finally went off park and found a decent place.
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Old Feb 13th, 2013, 05:31 PM
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Congratulations, and thanks for the report, sounds like a great place to visit.
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Old Feb 14th, 2013, 02:57 PM
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You're welcome. Glad you enjoyed it.
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