Rio Grande Big Bend Exploration

DVD

Adventurer
#1
The sun rose over Leyva Canyon but hadn’t yet hit our campsite. The December chill was still in the air, so we carried our chairs and coffee mugs to a nearby hill in the sun. Enjoying the hot coffee on a cold morning, Laurie mimicked the line from MASH, and I played along:

“Listen, do you hear that?”
“What? I don’t hear anything.”
“Yes, let’s enjoy it.”

We spent the next 15 minutes in silence, sipping coffee, taking turns looking at the countryside through binoculars, listening to birds and insects, and enjoying the profound solitude of Big Bend Ranch State Park in Texas.


Beautiful sunrise at Yedra 2 campsite

Our first visit to the Big Bend area had it all: beautiful scenery, the unique border flavor of the Rio Grande, great trails for hiking and offroad travel, and immense solitude.

Of course, a trip like this always involves trade-offs and balances. You want solitude, but the National Park was developed to afford access to the masses, so you have to put up with some crowds to see the major attractions. You want to get to know the area in detail, but the size is immense, and you only have a week, so you have to miss interesting places. But all in all, it was a great trip.

We arrived at Big Bend National Park (BBNP) around 10 a.m. during the holiday week and dealt with the crowds, which seemed to be lingering in the visitor center to avoid the cold, blustery weather outside--we're talking low 40s and strong winds. We had to wait over ½ hr to acquire a backcountry permit--short line, but the people in front seemingly went through 50 permutations of their plans before finalizing their permits. Eventually, with permit in hand and fees paid, we started our journey into BBNP.

I prepared detailed plans for this first phase of the trip. We wanted to get a good flavor of BBNP in 2 days but only spend one night there due to campfire prohibition and cold winter nights. So I planned daily routes, with GPX files and preferred campsite locations. It must be a little bit like planning for a battle - as soon as things get started, the plans go out the window and you adapt to circumstances.

I had planned to acquire the backcountry permit at the Persimmon entrance station, but the ranger said that due to holiday volume, all backcountry permits were being processed further down the road at the main Panther Junction station. This meant that we had to stay on the paved park road all the way to the Rio Grande, rather than following my GPX route, which had us jumping onto offroad trails and getting away from the pavement and traffic and RVs as soon as possible.

But the weather cleared up a bit, traffic cleared out, and we were soon enjoying the beautiful sights of the Chisos Mountains.


Low clouds moving through the Chisos Mountains to dramatic effect


Another view of the Chisos with lingering low clouds

The border aspect of the Rio Grande is a defining characteristic--2 countries sharing the same aquifer--and we wanted to get a sense of that. For $5 roundtrip you can take an international rowboat trip across the river, from BBNP to the little village of Boquillas, Mexico. Ready for adventure, we passed through the tiny US border station (1 agent and kiosks to scan your passport upon return) and followed a hiking trail down to the river.


Rowboat across the Rio Grande


On the Mexican side of the Rio Grande


Exploring Boquillas

In Boquillas, we had a very good lunch at Falcons and cold cervezas. They offered a limited menu: quesidilla plate, chicken tamale plate, and goat taco plate.


Great lunch in Boquillas


Crossing back to the USA

Back in the national park, we finally hit the dirt trails, heading west on the River Road trail. We wanted to get to camp by late afternoon, which meant not necessarily hurrying, but passing by some interesting side trails and exploration opportunities. But we did have time to make a few stops along the trail.


Exploring Mariscal mine ruins


Whoever lived here had a nice view


Mariscal mine ruins, including this old car hulk

Keeping with the international theme, our campsite this night was right on the Rio Grande. We arrived early enough to set up camp and explore the area, hiking along the river. The Rio makes a big 270-deg loop here such that the campsite is on the south side of the river, and we look north into Mexico as a peninsula, and then the Chisos Mountains in the US are further beyond.


The Loop campsite is on a little plateau above the Rio Grande--we slept in the back of the vehicle, looking out over the river


We'll know we're old when we no longer feel compelled to skip a nice, flat stone

Because it was a bit chilly, Laurie had the idea that it would be warmer to sleep in the back of the LR3. Typically, we’d have dinner and spend the evening around the fire. Unfortunately, ground fires are prohibited in the national park, so we set up the tent as an escape from the wind and ate dinner and read in there, eagerly waiting until it was late enough to get into the sleeping bags.


Not the most pleasant evening, huddled next to the little propane heater

As an aside, our investment in an insulated sleep pad last year really paid dividends on some of the cool evenings on this trip, and we slept warmly and well. When we first arrived at the Loop campsite, we could see a vehicle and camping gear a good distance upstream at Loop Camp 1, but with the falling temps at sunset, they packed up and left.

For the trip overall, we lucked out with weather, and the next day dawned calm and clear, and we enjoyed clear weather and moderate temps the rest of the trip.


Ahh, coffee is nearly ready - just a thin film of ice at the top of the water bottle


Nice breakfast view!


A final view from Loop campsite before hitting the trail for the day's adventures

Today we would explore the western side of BBNP, proceeding to Big Bend Ranch State Park (BBRSP) in the late afternoon. After breaking camp, we continued along River Road, checking out sights along the way.


Westbound and down on River Road trail, with Sierra Ponce in the distance


Johnson Ranch ruins


The mighty Cerro Castellan

We proceeded to Santa Elena Canyon, where the Rio Grande cuts through the landscape forming canyon walls up to 1500 ft above the river.


Northern face of Santa Elena Canyon

Next: Part II - Big Bend Ranch State Park
 
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DVD

Adventurer
#2
Part II - Big Bend Ranch State Park

We exited the national park and headed to Big Bend Ranch State Park, which involved some highway driving. Outside of the national park, we stopped at the little settlement of Terlingua for gas, then stopped at the BBRSP entrance to pick up our passes and backcountry camp permit, and then proceeded into the state park to find our campsite.


Entering BBRSP


Yedra Trail spur to our campsite

The trail warning sign provides a good indicator of the mindset of the state park. Whereas many places seem excessive in their warnings, the trail all the way to Yedra 2 and the trailhead was a legitimate high-clearance, 4WD trail.

At the end of the rough trail, we were rewarded with a beautiful campsite. As a bonus, we had enough time for a late afternoon hike on the Yedra trail after setting up camp.


Exploring the surrounding area


Weather-beaten Yedra trail sign


Yedra 2 campsite at dusk -- it's a good place

We were now in "phase 2" of the trip. We didn't have distances to cover. I didn't have preplanned GPX tracks for the following days. We would look for interesting things to see and do and go with the flow.

We enjoyed a leisurely morning at Yedra 2--listening to the quiet and enjoying a solitude that was almost palpable. Rather than instant oatmeal and yogurt for breakfast, as previous mornings, today we made a nice mess of pancakes and sausage.

As we departed the Yedra 2 site, Laurie declared it the best campsite ever. Not to be a buzz-kill, I waited until the end of the trip to ask if she wanted to reconsider and recalled backcountry camping on the edge of the Grand Canyon, Panorama Point at the Maze, or the dispersed site from last summer right on the Greys River in WY. We both agreed that BBRSP is right up there!

With the new freedom to explore, we backtracked a few miles to the Ojito Adentro trail, which follows a wash to lush canyon fed by a spring. It's interesting to hike back there to experience the contrast in the mostly barren and dry area.


Hiking up the canyon


Some interesting obstacles in the trail


Water in the desert

For our remaining 2 days in BBRSP, I reserved the same site, so we could have a base camp and explore from there. We stopped at the Sauceda park headquarters to get our 2-day permit for the Rincon 1 backcountry site. It was a much more laid-back vibe compared to the national park. As a bonus, they even had shower facilities (free!). Laurie strongly suggested I take advantage of the facilities.

Clean and undaunted, with a new backcountry permit in hand, we headed down Fresno Canyon to the Rincon 2 campsite. Along the way, we stopped at a rock-art site named Manos Arriba, which translates to "hands up." This rock shelter includes a number of hand paintings, as well as outer rocks that show marks from tool sharpening and grinding holes.


Looking up at the hand jive


Looking out


Sharpening rock

Continuing on the Fresno Canyon trail, we eventually reached the spur to the Rincon 2 campsite. It is a great place to spend a couple days in BBRSP.


Another spectacular remote campsite at BBRSP


Campsite view showing Flatiron Mountains at sunset (with moon above)


The dawn of another beautiful day

In retrospect, the only problem with the Rincon site is that it is a good hour down a kind of rough, dead-end trail. If we wanted to explore anywhere by driving, we'd have to traverse the same trail we came down the previous afternoon.

While enjoying another pancake breakfast, we decided to explore new territory. So this day, we drove a short distance to the end of the Fresno Canyon trail and then followed the hiking trail that continued up the canyon. This turned out to be a 7-mile hike on a hot day.


Exploring the Crawford-Smith Ranch ruins


A lot of work went into water retention and distribution


Kitchen still life


Just a trickle of water at the Fresno Cascades


One section of the trail had a lot of these "mosaic" boulders - solid boulders composed of many smaller rocks


We found a shady spot in the wash for lunch

The hike took a bit longer than we expected, so we decided to return to camp, have some cold drinks, and enjoy the rest of the day relaxing at camp.


Laurie, the fire starter


Perfect last evening, with nearly full moon lighting the Flatiron Mountains


Beautiful sunrise on our last morning in the park

All good things come to an end, and it was time to head back to Arizona. But we had one last adventure planned. To break up the long drive home, we would spend the night (New Year's Eve) at White Sands National Park. They have 10 hike-in remote campsites in the dunes, available on a first-come, day-of basis. The waxing moon had hindered our star-gazing during this trip, but on New Year's Eve one day from totally full, and the white dunes are supposed to be spectacular by moonlight. I even bought a "deer sleigher" sled--intended to ease the job of carrying a deer carcass out of the woods--to make it easier to hike the 1.5 miles or so with our non-backpacking camping gear.

As we headed out of BBRSP toward Marfa, TX, temperatures plummeted to 34 deg. and the wind started howling.


Bucolic scene as we exited BBRSP - Longhorns enjoying the relatively balmy weather

As we got closer to White Sands, we turned on the NOAA weather station to hear of a "back-door cold front" in the area and forecast for freezing drizzle in the White Sands area. We were somewhat relieved to call White Sands and find out that all the backcountry camping sites taken.


Strong winds and threatening weather at White Sands National Park

There is a nearby state park, but all things considered, we decided to check the "hotel tonight" app and found a good deal for a nice Ramada Inn in Las Cruces on New Year's Eve.

It was a great way to end the year and the trip.

>> More photos in Google+ trip album
 
#3
Just read your trip report, and I really enjoyed it and the nice pics. Since we've never been to this area before.(it's not a place you pass through on your way to somewhere else)
We would like to float down the river though, do you know when is a good time for that?
Thanks for sharing.
 

DVD

Adventurer
#6
Hi Lenny, I'll bet you'll have a great trip!

Did you get a lot of desert pinstriping?
That's hard to say. But we probably got some additional pinstriping on top of what's already there :)
But seriously, the main trails are no problem. For both of the backcountry sites we stayed at, there were kind of pairs of sites: Yedra 1 and 2, and Rincon 1 and 2. In both cases, the trail got worse after reaching the first site. The sites are far enough apart that you don't see or hear or know if there's anybody in the other site. There's a good PDF that describes the remote sites:
https://tpwd.texas.gov/publications/pwdpubs/media/pwd_bk_p4501_2059.pdf
 
#8
Always enjoy a photographic return to BBNP and BBSP. Wonderful area for exploring and I alway wish I had more time to visit it more frequently myself. Thanks for sharing your journey.
 
#9
Thanks for the great report! I've been considering another trip out to BBRSP in Feb and your pics have given me some ideas of things to go see for ourselves.
 

DVD

Adventurer
#12
Thanks for the nice replies.

Big Bend is on my list for a trip.
I've been considering another trip out to BBRSP in Feb
Big Bend area is definitely on our "gotta get back there" list.

I always like reading BBNP trip reports - my wife and I honeymooned there 40 years ago next June.
Congrats! You have us beat by 6 yrs! There must be something in the Rio Grande water that keeps couples together :) I imagine it's always a special place for return trips.
 
#13
Noticed all the power lines in the photo of the Boquillas main drag. Did they ever get power there? Years ago they were supposed to get power from the US side of the river but the tree huggers stopped it because I would ruin the "view shed".

We spent more that a few Spring and Fall seasons in the Big bend area working on the river; mainly running Lower Canyon trips for 7 to 10 days. We actually lived in Boquillas for a while; part of the time down behind Jose Falcon's café or down over the hill behind the old cantina on the right as you walk up the road.

Do they really have an "official" border crossing now?

We have always loved the Big Bend country.
 

DVD

Adventurer
#14
Noticed all the power lines in the photo of the Boquillas main drag. Did they ever get power there? Years ago they were supposed to get power from the US side of the river but the tree huggers stopped it because I would ruin the "view shed".

We spent more that a few Spring and Fall seasons in the Big bend area working on the river; mainly running Lower Canyon trips for 7 to 10 days. We actually lived in Boquillas for a while; part of the time down behind Jose Falcon's café or down over the hill behind the old cantina on the right as you walk up the road.

Do they really have an "official" border crossing now?
Wow, that sounds like great times, living and working there. I'm certainly no expert on the area, but I did a little bit of research before our trip. And when we went to Falcon's for lunch (because it looked warmer than the other restaurant), we were afraid they were closed because the door was shut and locked. But this was because they were full, and there isn't any standing room inside. A guy who seemed to be helping out explained that he'd give us a tour of Boquillas while waiting for a table to clear. Of course, this included a stop at his house, where we bought a few souvenirs, but the tour was informative.

I'm pretty sure he said that the electric is from solar, and we did see a pretty good sized array of solar panels. He showed us the grade school and a couple churches. Provisions come by truck, twice weekly, from the nearest town in Mexico, which is over 100 units away (I forget if he said kilometers or miles). I had read about a firefighting crew from Boquillas that regularly crosses the border to help with fires in the national park, and asked him if he was part of that crew. He laughed and said that was work for the young guys.

And yes, there is an official US border station. It's pretty low key. As we headed to Mexico, the guy reminded us that the station closes at 5. I started taking a photo my wife at the passport-reader kiosk, I was informed that photos aren't allowed. But you put your passport in the reader, and an offsite agent asks if you brought any fruit or other goods back from MX.
 
#15
Boquillas back-story

My own research indicates the official border crossing closed soon after 9/11/01 and it re-opened in 2013. An acquaintance of mine who lives 30 miles outside of Terlingua, himself a self-taught off-the-grid living expert, was part of a grass-roots effort to build the solar system now providing electricity to Boquillas. If I ever get down there, Boquillas is high on my list of places to have a meal and dos cervezas, por favor.

Foy