Over the past few years I have been exploring Texas’s national and state parks. I’ve gotten to know the Sam Houston National Forest fairly well. It is both nearby and a decent spot for mushroom foraging (we’ve found a lot of chanterelles). I have been to Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Martin Dies Jr. State Park (named after the reactionary Texas politician, a sort of Marjorie Taylor Green of his day), Brazos Bend State Park, and Padre Island National Seashore as well. At the start of this month I went to Big Bend.
The first thing to know about it is that it is a drive. We did it in a day but that was only possible because we got up super early and had two adults to drive. Our total drive time was just shy of twelve hours and we travelled into some remote areas. As someone said to me before we left, “To get there drive to the end of the world. Once you’re there keep going and drive another 100 miles.”
It was certainly worth the drive. We had a camping site in the Rio Grande Village which, as the name suggests, is located right on the Rio Grande. Our site was only about 500 yards from the river. Our first morning in the park we were able to take a hike over to see it on the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail. The nature trail was easily accessible. It can also be walked at night. The three nights we were there the moon was full and brilliant. We were able to walk out onto the middle of the trail’s boardwalk without using a flashlight. It is situated on top of a marsh and offers a spot where it is possible to see almost the entire night sky.
The park is big enough that it contains a diversity of ecosystems. We were car camping and took advantage of having an access to a vehicle to drive around sampling the different ones. This meant that we got to see forest mountains, a river valley, and the desert over the course of day.
We were there for two full days. On the first day we took two hikes along the river. I’ve already mentioned the first. It only took about an hour. The second, longer, hike was from the site of an abandoned ranch to naturally occurring hot springs.
The ruins of the ranch’s irrigation system are still partially functioning. This has odd effect of creating a micro-ecosystem revolving around large and aged trees at the edge of the desert. The trees are so close to the desert that it is possible to walk from their shade to the brutal desert sun in under five minutes.
The second day we drove along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. This took us past the Chisos Mountains through a large stretch of desert to the Santa Elena Canyon. The canyon is a dramatic gash in the side of a plateau that the Rio Grande cuts through. The park just about ends at the entrance of the canyon. The rock walls mark the border between Mexico and the United States.
We also took a hike along the Mule Ear Spring trail. It is so named because at ends at Mule Ears Spring, a tiny desert spring. The hike passes a historic corral, located right by the spring, and goes a way through the desert. We walked past a huge number of cacti on our way (while I was in the park I learned there are three different kinds of prickly pears there: purple, blind eye, and Engelmann’s).
The spring itself was a spot of cool lushness. It hosts a small frog population who live in what I can only imagine is frog utopia. The frogs had two patterns: pure black and green with black leopard spots. They’ve got to be far from most, if not all, of their natural predators. There are ample flies and small insects buzzing around and plenty of small pools for them to swim and spawn.
Before we returned to the camp we visited the lodge. Like a lot of National Parks, Big Bend has an old WPA lodge. There’s a restaurant and two different shops. We went there because it offered a spectacular view of the sunset. The sun falls to Earth through two peaks which form what they call the window. The day star is framed and contained as it sets. Above it sits the vastness of the coming night.
Vastness is the operative word for the park itself. And its sheer size is reason enough to go back. The Chisos Mountains are supposed to have good backpacking sites. I would like to hike them at some point. Before I do, I anticipate I will visit some more of Texas. I still haven’t made it out to Marfa, El Paso, or the South coast.