Wading in the Rio Grande
As I stood on a sand bar in the middle of the Rio Grande at the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon, I wondered exactly how far across I had to go to officially (or rather unofficially) be in Mexico. I had left my passport at home, but that was just a mere technicality. I wasn’t going to let paperwork stop me, was I? Does Mexico have their own Border Patrol? Surely they aren’t looking out for gringos coming in from the North are they?
Big Bend is a hard area to describe to people that have never been there. In many ways, it’s a landscape that matches perfectly with my vision of the wild west. However, if when you think of Texas, you think of the dusty roads of the panhandle, the flat prairies around Dallas, or the rolling hills of central Texas, Big Bend is probably not what you expect to find tucked away in a little corner of far west Texas.
It’s an area that area contains two major parks, Big Bend National Park, and Big Bend Ranch State Park, a National Wild and Scenic River, the Rio Grande, a significant chunk of the Chihuahuan Desert, and multiple peaks over 7000 feet. Most people have at least heard of the national park – known for being in one of the most remote locations in the lower 48, but many have no idea that the even more remote and rugged state park even exists.
As my brother and I drove from Dallas in my “built” LX470, we saw the landscape slowly change from rolling lush green hills near Fort Worth, to visibility impairing dust storms near Midland/Odessa, to awe-inspiring remote and rugged mountains as we finally headed south towards Mexico.
During our stay in the area, we planned to check out both parks to get a feel for what each offers and better direct future visits. We quickly found that local amateur radio operators have put together an extensive linked 2m repeater system. If you’re licensed (which I highly recommend for backcountry travel), it's a great way to meet the locals and get some guidance around the area.
We chatted with a variety of folks during our visit. From people that had moved to the area to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities (and boy did they achieve that goal) to other visitors just passing through the area. We spoke with an artist who was spending time up in the Chisos Basin area stargazing at night with a new telescope that had taken several hundred hours of work to complete, and when we asked for restaurant recommendations on the radio in Alpine on our way home, we had a veritable pileup of folks looking to tell us about their favorite spot for lunch… we ended up eating at a great Cuban food truck. People may head to Big Bend to get away from everything, but that doesn’t mean they won’t go out of their way to help others.
There are plenty of dirt roads in the national park, but most don't truly require a high clearance 4x4
While the national park is remote, it’s definitely built more for your typical tourist. There are plenty of dirt roads and trails, such as the Old Ore Road, that are worth your time and provide access to primitive backcountry campsites. However only one, Black Gap Road, truly requires a high clearance 4wd vehicle. That said, rain in the area can change things considerably and make many roads unpassable.
But most people don’t visit national parks for 4x4 trails. And as such, Big Bend National Park also has plenty of paved roads, including the spectacular and aptly named, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, as well as 3 campgrounds with visitor centers, and several fuel stations. The Chisos Basin campground even has a small lodge and restaurant. It was in that restaurant that we learned many of the other visitors were there on guided birding tours. The area becomes something of a birding mecca between April and May, exactly the time of our visit. If you want to see a Colima Warbler, this is apparently the only place in the US to do it.
We ran into another group of birders from Detroit near the Rio Grande Village campground. It was our first opportunity to go down to the river after coming off the Old Ore Road. We chatted for a minute and happily took a picture for them before heading our separate ways. They were heading over to Boquillas next.
For those that are interested, near the Rio Grande Village Campground, the US recently opened up the Boquillas border crossing. Prior to 9/11, people crossed back and forth with no official paperwork. Subsequently the US government stopped that practice and closed the crossing for over 10 years. It recently re-opened and you now are connected digitally to a CBP officer via a video screen when re-entering the US. Unfortunately, with my passport back home, we weren’t going to be visiting Boquillas on this trip.
A view of Santa Elena Canyon from our campsite at Terlingua Abajo
A view upriver from the mouth of the canyon
After traversing Black Gap Road (how could we miss it?) we headed to the Western edge of the park to check out Santa Elena Canyon. Quite honestly, it looks like something out of Lord of the Rings. It’s just an absolutely spectacular natural feature. Out of nowhere, cliffs emerge to soar 1500 feet in the air on either side of the Rio Grande. We half expected to see a colossus straddling the gap between the two sides. Santa Elena Canyon is a popular white water rafting spot (we later saw a group stopped for lunch down in the canyon) and it’s easy to see why.
About to cross "the gap"
But as I mentioned previously, we wanted to also visit the State Park. It’s located just west of the National Park. The two parks actually come within less than a mile of each other in Lajitas, where the state park’s Barton Warnock Visitor Center is located. When we checked in, we found out that we were the only group expected that day. This was a bit of a change from the National Park where we had to modify our plans when some of places we had hoped to camp were already booked.
We also learned that we couldn’t access the state park from the Eastern side. We would have to actually drive 50 miles to the Western side to access the entrance. Any frustration with this unexpected detour quickly evaporated as we took in the spectacular views while we drove along the Rio Grande, skirting the southern edge of the park.
A view of the Rio Grande while driving to Presidio
We decided to take the opportunity to head into Presidio to eat and restock our supplies. We weren’t sure where to eat, but when we saw a Border Patrol agent walking out of a restaurant with bags of food, we knew that was the place to stop. It turned out to be a little restaurant called the Enlightened Bean Café, which is part coffee shop, part tex-mex restaurant. It seemed like a bit of an odd combo, but the food was excellent and they were able to direct us to the grocery store in town so we could restock before heading into the state park.
Big Bend Ranch State Park is a different kind of remote and rugged than the national park. The fact that we were the only group scheduled to show up that day should have been our first clue. We never saw any other visitors our entire trip. Well, technically, we did see somebody coming in to land a Cessna at the park’s airstrip next to the headquarters in Sauceda, located down 27 miles of dirt road inside the park. But otherwise, we seemed to have all 311,000 acres to ourselves.
Big Bend Ranch State Park is rugged and remote
Inside the park, there are no paved roads and no fuel (so bring extra). The main road is gravel and pretty well maintained. But once you get off onto the side roads, all bets are off. You’ll definitely want a high clearance vehicle with 4wd. You’ll also need to be prepared for some Texas pin-striping. The roads aren’t traveled frequently and many are a bit overgrown. There’s no way around it, so just suck it up and know that it’s part of the price you pay to get access to such a unique state park.
The view from Guale 2 looking south towards Mexico
Our goal was the Guale 2 campsite, which is considered to be one of the most spectacular campsites in the park, as well as the most remote. They weren’t kidding on either account. We were absolutely astounded by the solitude and amazing views across the Rio Grande into Mexico. After cooking up a dinner of Tandoori chicken and rice, we settled in to watch the stars.
And boy did we see some stars. In the city you get used to only seeing a handful of stars at night. When you get out into really remote places like Big Bend that are a long way from major sources of light pollution, it can be breathtaking to just stare at the night sky.
And unlike the national park, which bans all ground fires, the state park permits fires in the provided campsite fire rings – just bring your own wood. There are few things in life that I enjoy more than sitting around a fire at night, watching the stars, and sipping an adult beverage.
The stars at night are big and bright... deep in the heart of Texas
But all good things must come to an end. The next day we had to pack up camp and drive home. The “real world” back home couldn’t be held at bay any longer. The whole way back though we were making plans for our next trip to Big Bend, where there will be many more starry nights waiting for us.
So there I was, standing in the middle of the Rio Grande. I stood in awe of everything around me. The towering cliffs of Santa Elena Canyon, the fish jumping out of the water of the Rio Grande, the hawks circling as they looked for an unwary rabbit… Passport or not, I had made my decision… That day I definitely may or may not have waded across the river to Mexico :sombrero: