The last time we went to Big Bend, we rushed our way through the 800,000 acre park in less than six hours.
This time we had three full days. We could take our time and explore the things we wanted to explore without rushing through each point of interest.
To give an idea of how much area Big Bend National Park covers, it is 20 miles from the entrance of the park to Panther Junction, the first of five visitor centers in Big Bend. The Big Bend region itself covers hundreds of miles of territory, called so because of the actual bend in the Rio Grande River, the natural border between Texas and Mexico. Technically, our stay in the Davis Mountains during the previous Christmas break had also been in the Big Bend region, and that was 100 miles away from the park.
Our first stop of the day was Panther Junction, where the kids picked up their Junior Ranger books and we picked up maps and park information.
Then decisions had to be made.
We had three days and a list of things that we wanted to do. With three regions of the park that we wanted to explore, the plan was to do one region each day. I wanted to do Boquillas Crossing on our first day and Jeff worried that, since we were approaching noon, we wouldn’t have enough time to explore the village and make it back across the border in time. Then we discovered we had forgotten our water bottle carriers (a necessity for multiple long hikes) and our hiking sticks.
Decision made, we were heading to Mexico.
Boquillas Crossing has been an important part of Big Bend National Park history since nearly the beginning. It was never intended to be a free-for-all open border but instead an open partnership between the US and Mexico government to preserve hundreds of thousands of acres of land on either side of the river and keep the village of Boquillas open for American visitors looking to cross the border. We paid the $5 a piece to take a boat ride across the river and then paid another $5 a piece to ride burros into town. While I initially said that I wanted to walk into Boquillas, I got out-voted by the rest of the family, and truth be told, it was a worthwhile experience. Since there was no one there to check our passports on the other side, we freely explored the village with our burro guide following us along the way.
This was the first time our kids had been out of the country and while the Boquillas economy is clearly dependent on visitors from the States, we were definitely not in a resort. Our kids were seeing one of the many sides of Mexico and a much more realistic view than many of their friends will most like see on a first time visit outside of the country. We ate at one of the two local restaurants, drank from glass bottles (I forgot how much I dislike Diet Coke outside of the States), found a geocache, visited the local church, and let the kids pick out a couple handmade souvenirs. Despite Jeff’s fears that we would get stuck in Mexico (the national park port of entry closes at exactly 5:00 PM, no exceptions), the whole visit took us about two hours. We returned across the border with plenty of time to visit other parts of the east side of the park.
I had gotten to travel out of the country; now Jeff wanted to relive our post-Canyonlands adventure by taking an unimproved road to another geocache spot. We turned onto Old Ore Road and Jeff drove us along the scenic, bumpy, windy four miles to the Ernst Tinaja trail turn-off. The leaves of tall yucca plants scraped against our side mirrors and we had to move over to the side to occasionally allow another vehicle heading the opposite direction to pass us, but 30 minutes after turning onto Old Ore we were walking down the trail.
It was worth all of the bumps along the way.
We walked over waves of sandstone, changing in color and texture the closer we got to Ernst Tinaja. When we finally arrived at our destination, both kids took off to climb up the rocks that flank the sides of a series of pools, only one of which is visible from the bottom. We all climbed up to the top and walked about 50 feet further to see additional rock formations unlike any we had ever seen, before making the decision to head back since we didn’t have any of the climbing equipment necessary to go any further.
We finished our day with a return to the historic Hot Springs. On our first trip to Big Bend, the Hot Springs was the only place where we were able to see the Rio Grande and Mexico on the other side. We had been rushed and since the kids had Junior Ranger questions that could be answered at the site, we made our return. I realized when we were about 30 miles outside of Houston that we had forgotten our swimming suits (note to reader, if you ever go to Big Bend, remember to take your suits, no matter the time of year), which meant that we were going to have to make due with just putting our feet into the natural hot tub. We looked into the historic buildings, put our feet in the water, and walked back on the sandy trail with our drying bare feet, finally putting on our hiking boots when the rocks got to be too plenty.
We wrapped up the day with a stop at the Panther Junction visitor center so the kids could walk the 400-foot path in front of the visitor center which helped the kids answer the questions about plants in their Junior Ranger books. While they raced the fading sunlight to finish their research, I watched a small family of javelinas cross the path behind the visitor center. It wasn’t a bear, but it was more wildlife to add to the coyote and roadrunner we had seen earlier in the day (I know, cue the Looney Toons jokes).
We had packed a lot into the day, but we didn’t feel like we had overdone it. All four of us returned to Terlingua feeling like we had accomplished all that we had wanted to on our first day in the park. Day one had been a complete success.