Situated along the Rio Grande in west Texas, Big Bend National Park is one of America’s largest yet least-visited national parks. Covering over 1200 square miles (3100 square kilometers) of the remote Chihuahuan Desert, this isolated corner of the country sees only about 350,000 visitors per year. Since it’s over a four hour drive from El Paso and over six hours from San Antonio and Austin, relatively few people make the trek out to this desert outpost. Although the park may seem like a barren expanse at first glance, those who make the journey are sure to discover a treasure of wildlife, plants, geology, culture, and beauty.
My wife and I visited Big Bend in early February and chose this time of year for several reasons. Although the park is relatively empty most of the year, the holidays (December-January) and spring break (March-April) see an elevated number of visitors. Summer marks the least-visited time of year, which seems attractive if one is willing to endure the searing temperatures here. Wanting to avoid all of these extremes, we opted for February and were not disappointed. On day one (Feb 9) the high reached 86 F (30 C), plenty warm for two Michiganders who had been suffering under sub-zero temperatures and several feet of snow for weeks.
Forty miles (64 km) south of the small town of Marathon, Texas, we entered the park at Persimmon Gap. This low opening in the otherwise imposing Santiago Mountains provided the first views of the enormity of the Big Bend.
From Persimmon Gap it was about 30 miles (48 km) to the Panther Junction visitor center near the center of the park. Although the vastness of our surroundings engulfed us, we were treated to more intimate encounters with the numerous greater roadrunners (Cuculiformes: Cuculidae: Geococcyx californianus) in the area:
From Panther Junction we headed another 20 miles (32 km) to the Boquillas Canyon area near the eastern end of the park. Along the way the views became even more impressive:
Our first priority here was to make the border crossing into Boquillas, Mexico. This international port of entry is provided as a cultural enrichment experience for visitors to Big Bend. The crossing is officially closed on Monday and Tuesday, and since we arrived late on Sunday we felt compelled to get this quick adventure in before it was too late.
The US side is very formal with an office, a steel gate, a video link to US Customs and Border Protection, and official hours of operation. This location is staffed by National Park Service rangers who informed us if we weren’t back by 5pm we would be locked out of America until the border officially reopened on Wednesday morning. Looking up and down the hundreds of miles of unprotected Rio Grande, however, crossing here at any time seemed trivial:
Although the Chihuahuan Desert is a dry, harsh landscape occupied mostly by plants, animals, and people adapted to these conditions, the Rio Grande offered a bit of an oasis. Along the water there were cottonwood, mesquite, willow, hiusache, and retama.
Once at the Rio Grande a Mexican ferryman met us at the river:
For the low price of $5 per person he carried us across:
On the Mexican side we were greeted by Victor the Singing Mexican and a number of locals selling a variety of souvenirs. The town itself is about a mile from the river, and transport to town can be accomplished either on foot, by pickup truck, or by burro:
Given our time constraints we opted for a truck. Once in town the Mexican customs agent looked at our passports, shrugged and said “yeah you’re good.” Quite laid back compared to the US side. After this we enjoyed Mexican soda at a local restaurant while taking in the view back towards the Chisos Mountains of Texas:
Boquillas itself is a tiny town of fewer than 100 people.
Although far removed from the tourist cities of Cancun and Puerto Vallarta and the drug cartel violence of Tijuana, Mexicali, and Juarez, there was still a bit of a “shakedown” vibe in this remote corner of Mexico. Boquillas survives almost entirely on American tourists, and at every step there was an enthusiastic local ready to sell overpriced goods or services. Our “guide” (someone who was tagging along with us without our knowledge) was all too eager to point out their church…
…and their hospital:
These key buildings felt almost like props designed to elicit sympathy and dollars from visitors. Although we were a bit cynical, we did purchase a few small items in addition to the various fees for services. Before crossing back into the United States it was strongly suggested that we provide tips for Victor and our “guide,” and purchase last-minute souvenirs. Not wanting to jeopardize our ferry ride back to Texas, we complied. Did I mention the word “shakedown” yet? Perhaps “aggressive marketing” is a more accurate term.
In the end we weren’t sure if we were providing international humanitarian aid or were simply being fleeced as gullible tourists. Regardless, if you want to easily experience a small Mexican town, have more than a little cash on hand, want to help some locals, and can suspend disbelief, Boquillas can make for a pleasant afternoon.
Once back in the United States, we took in a few more views of the Rio Grande.
We hiked a bit of the Boquillas Canyon Trail, and although we didn’t have time to complete it we got a nice overlook of the Rio Grande along the way:
With the sun setting we made our way to the Chisos Mountains:
Big Bend’s only lodge is found in the Chisos Basin, a depression within the surrounding mountains (there are, however, many rustic campgrounds throughout the park if you’re so equipped). The Chisos Mountains Lodge offers clean, comfortable rooms, a surprisingly good restaurant, and a general store. Although the prices are slightly elevated, they are far better than those in other remote national parks like Death Valley. As we entered the basin a warning sign foreshadowed a bit of the intrigue to come:
After our long day we crashed in our Casa Grande room for a bit before hunger lured us to the restaurant.
The excellent view from the dining room provided us with these scenes of The Window, a photogenic gap in the Chisos Mountains:
Although day one in Big Bend provided a number of memorable experiences, the bulk of our travel would be accomplished on day two.