If you like the idea of experiencing the United States’ border with Mexico up close and personal in a dramatic natural landscape, you won’t find a better place to do it than Big Bend National Park.
It’s all about a bend in the river. The Rio Grande originates in the beautiful San Juan Mountains of Colorado and flows south through New Mexico, where we saw it in November cutting a gorge in Taos and watering a “bosque” in Albuquerque. When the river reaches El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, it takes on the responsibility of marking the southern border of the United States for over 1,200 miles. All the way to Brownsville and Matamoros, the river mostly flows in a southeasterly direction, except when it flows north for a while, taking the “big bend” that shapes the southwest edge of the state of Texas. And hence the naming of this wild territory established as Big Bend National Park in 1944.
As we dangled our feet in the Rio Grande and contemplated an overnight paddle trip, we wondered where the border actually is here. In the Washington, D.C. area, the Potomac River separates Virginia from Maryland and D.C. at the Virginia shoreline, so the river belongs to Maryland and D.C. More typically, river borders are somewhere in the middle, and we learned that is also the case with the Rio Grande. In 1848 the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican American War defined the border as the deepest channel of the Rio Grande. Seems fair, but it’s not exactly visible to the naked eye. There is an official border crossing in the park, but it doesn’t get much traffic and is often closed, as it was when we were there. Illegal border crossings are extremely rare here in this hot, dry, and desolate place—and the U.S. Border Patrol is out and about in Big Bend to keep it that way. It felt almost surreal to have a wild part of Mexico so close and so clearly connected with our own natural landscape.
The river here is magical. Starting in Big Bend National Park but extending another 122 miles beyond the park’s eastern edge, 191 miles of the Rio Grande has been designated as a Wild and Scenic River. Flowing through several impressive canyons, stark desert landscapes, and modest stretches of arable land, the river clearly earns its wild and scenic designation.
In addition to the riverine habitats, Big Bend National Park also protects part of the Chihuahua Desert—as does an adjacent Mexican national park and a biosphere reserve—and the Chisos Mountains, which rise to over 7,800 feet. The Chisos is the only mountain range in the United States contained entirely within a national park.
This was supposed to be our last park on this trip, and with three distinct ecosystems to explore, we planned to spend about 10 days. In our ongoing quest to escape from the onset of winter, we looked forward to warm days and cool nights with scenic hiking in the Chisos Mountains and paddling on the Rio Grande between the high canyon walls.
The river was our first priority, so we contacted a local outfitter in Terlingua, Texas, to inquire about renting a canoe for an overnight trip through the Santa Elena Canyon. Lorrie had visited this part of the park with her friend Amy in 2016 and had her heart set on paddling the canyon. (Are you surprised?)
Alas, it was not to be. The outfitter told us the river was flowing so swiftly at the moment that it would be too dangerous to paddle through the canyon without a guide…and guided trips required at least four people.
Seeking an alternative, we considered using our inflatable kayaks to paddle through the shorter and tamer Mariscal Canyon, but that plan too was complicated. It entailed:
- 2 ½ hours of driving, including about an hour on a Very Bad Road (apologies to A.A. Milne)
- A night of backcountry camping near the launch point, assembling the kayaks, and leaving the truck there
- 10 miles of glorious paddling through the canyon, including navigating an intriguing section called the Tight Squeeze
- Hiding the kayaks at the take-out point
- Hiking 12 miles up and over a mesa back to the truck
- 2 more hours of driving on the Very Bad Road to pick up the kayaks and take them apart
- Another backcountry camping night
Ok, we give up! We’ve added a Rio Grande river expedition to our list of future trips, planned well in advance with a guide and friends who want to do it with us. Any takers?
With the river beyond our reach, we settled for hiking in the Chisos Mountains instead. What a consolation prize! We did three long hikes to high overlooks that were as spectacular as anything we have done elsewhere. And, we were back in shorts and shirt sleeves, which we definitely appreciated.
As we planned our next hike, another camper asked us what we were going to do now that a big snowstorm was headed our way. What?? How bad could that be? Although there wouldn’t be much accumulation, things could apparently get complicated, and our compatriot advised getting out ahead of it. He recounted a previous trip to Big Bend when he got trapped for three days by a few inches of icy snow that the park service had no equipment to remove. Yikes! Faced with the prospect of snow and colder weather, we decided to move on. (Sigh!)
The good news is we were able to experience the rare Texas snowstorm with our friends Amy and Steph in La Grange. Lots of fun was had by all.
Then we had a lovely overnight with our friends Roger and Mary at their beautiful Little Blanco Farm in the Texas Hill Country before beginning the long trek east. Thanks, friends!
Alas, our western journey is drawing to a close, and we’re hard at work planning phase II that will start in early February. Before we tell you about that, we still have more reflections to share about our 2017 experiences, so expect a few more blogs about our domestic travel experiences in the coming weeks.
Best wishes for the holidays to you and your loved ones. We are now visiting my parents in Florida and are excited about being with our kids and their partners starting on Saturday in Asheville, North Carolina.