Exploring Big Bend
I pulled into the Cottonwood campground on the Rio Grande late the previous night, around 11 p.m., so I "slept in" and got up late this morning, around 8 a.m. I looked at my thermometer and it was already 90 degrees. Yep, it gets warm down here on the Rio Grande in late May. A strong breeze had been blowing the night before when I pulled in, but the wind had died down and the skies had cleared. The evening thunderstorms had moved on and it looked like it was going to be a fine day to explore Big Bend, the largest expanse of Chihuahuan Desert in the United States.
Above: This was my "Big Bend Day," and I spent the whole day exploring the park, going from west to east. After exploring the Santa Elena Canyon near the Cottonwood campground, I swung through Chisos Basin in the middle of the park, then headed west to Rio Grande Village. I camped that evening alone at Chilicotal, a wonderful primitive campsite at the foot of the Chisos Mountains.
So far on this trip, I'd traveled through:
- the Mojave Desert of eastern California (a high desert that's relatively cold in the winter, with lots of Joshua Trees and creosote bushes),
- the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona (the lowest and hottest of the American deserts, and characterized by saguaro cacti) and now
- the Chihuahuan Desert of west Texas (characterized by mountainous terrain. Ocotillos and chollas si, saguaros no).
About an hour later, I left the now-deserted campground and headed west a few miles to the Santa Elena canyon, where the Rio Grande cuts through a massive uplift and then empties onto the flat plains to the east on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a nice trail that extends into the canyon and I followed it for a half-hour, then turned around and headed back.
The only other time I’d been to Big Bend, back in November 1985, I hiked this same trail and, golly, it hadn’t changed hardly since then at all. In fact, I passed a group of college-aged women and mentioned this very fact, that the trail hadn't changed in 30 years, and made a silly joke about it and they all laughed. It's always a good day for me if I can make a group of young women laugh.
After leaving the canyon and the still-giggling ladies, I stopped at the gift shop/store in the nearby settlement of Castolon, which also hadn’t changed since I’d last visited in 1985, and got a big bag of ice for my cooler. This store used to be an army post, built in 1920 shortly after the Pancho Villa uprising that caused such a fuss down here, then it became a trading post and now it’s a gift shop. If you ever drive by this place, you should definitely stop and check out the old Castolon store. From there, I headed back up the same highway I’d driven the previous night, but this time I could actually see my surroundings rather than just what my headlights showed.
The geographic center of Big Bend National Park, called Chisos Basin, is also the cultural heart of the park. And because it’s the highest place in the park (with elevations ranging up to 7,800’) and thus the coolest, Chisos Basin is also the most popular part of the park in the summer months. I drove up to Chisos Basin with hopes of staying in the campground there, figuring I could snag a campsite since it was still before noon. But I spent about 20 minutes driving around the campground and found only one empty campsite. I thought about spending the night in the campground but decided that it was just too cramped. Granted, Chisos Basin is a beautiful area, surrounded on all sides by towering cliffs, but you’d have to be a sardine to camp in the campground there. The campsites are packed together and provide virtually no privacy which, if you’ve been reading my website, you know is high on my list of camping priorities. I didn’t feel much like being a sardine, so I left and drove over to the nearby Visitor Center to inquire about other options.
During my last stay in Big Bend, back in 1985, I stayed at two primitive campsites and I wanted to see if the park still had them. Primitive campsites were one thing I really liked about Big Bend and they were something that was unique to this park. Along with the established campgrounds (i.e., large collections of individual campsites), Big Bend had a couple dozen primitive campsites scattered about the park. Unlike a campground, primitive campsites didn’t have any facilities like a picnic table, running water, or a restroom, and only one group can camp there each night, but they allowed you to camp by yourself if you so desired. And I did.
Above: Waiting out a thunderstorm while taking cover under a tree during a hike at Chisos Basin. (0:21)
I walked into the Visitor Center and asked the ranger about primitive campsites. “Yes, we still have them,” he said. I told him what I was looking for and he recommended a campsite called Chilicotal, about 10 miles away. “It has a great view of the Rio Grande valley and you’ll be all by yourself there,” he told me. It sounded like a real winner so I filled out a wilderness permit and paid him the $14 fee.
After leaving the Visitor Center, I took a couple hikes around Chisos Basin, then a massive thunderstorm rolled in and, with an eye on the darkening sky, I walked briskly back to my truck. It was starting to sprinkle during my walk back and literally one second after I got into my truck, the skies opened up and it just Poured with a capital “P.” It was a massive downpour which lasted about 20 minutes, so I just sat in my truck and watched it all unfold. Then the storm was gone and the skies cleared again. Ah, life in Big Bend!
As I left Chisos Basin, I drove by the campground, happily content with my campsite reservation that night at Chilicotal where I’d be camping by myself. “So long, suckers,” I said to myself, thinking about all the sardines who’d be camping at the Chisos Basin campground that evening. Um gee, let me think: I could either camp in this packed campground and step over bodies left and right. OR I could camp by myself way out in the backcountry with no one around for miles. Boy, that was a tough decision.
Big Bend (West)
A Perfect Evening at Chilicotal
Once I got to the main highway that runs through Big Bend, I headed east past Panther Junction, wanting to drive as far as I could within the park. Forty minutes later, I passed through Rio Grande Village which, along with Chisos Basin, is the other major developed area in the park. Rio Grande Village sits low, on the Rio Grande River, so it’s a lot hotter in the summer compared to Chisos Basin, which is up in the mountains. So no matter what season a visitor comes to Big Bend, they’ll have a pleasant place to stay. The campground at Rio Grande Village is massive, much larger than Cottonwood where I stayed the night before. And considering that it was close to 100 degrees compared to maybe 80 at Chisos Basin, I wasn’t surprised that it was virtually empty. Nope, no problem finding a space here!
I continued driving down the Rio Grande valley until I reached the end of the road at a place called the Boquillas Canyon Trail, which I hiked for about a mile to a nice overlook. The town of Boquillas, Mexico was across the river, which is easily forded here.
And that’s exactly what I did during my last visit to Big Bend. Back in 1985, I'd camped in a primitive campsite by myself right on the Rio Grande, a few miles upstream from here, and that warm afternoon I looked across the river. “Gee, I’ve never been to Mexico,” I said to myself, so I put on my swim trunks and swam across, then I walked around on the Mexican side for about 10 seconds and then swam back to the U.S. Just don’t tell U.S. Customs about that, OK? Anyway, that was my first visit to Mexico. Of course, my second visit, also very brief, had been just a few days earlier when I camped at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona – and that visit wasn’t too legal, either. One of these days, though, I fully intend to enter Mexico legally. Promise.
It was now about 4 p.m. and I headed back up the highway through Rio Grande Village once again, then a few miles later I turned off at a place called Hot Springs. A narrow, mile-long dirt road takes you to a parking lot where I parked, then I got out and walked down a beautiful trail alongside the Rio Grande. There had once been quite an establishment here about 50 years ago, but it’s now deserted. Nevertheless, this Hot Springs trail was, by far, the most fascinating trail I hiked at Big Bend. There are several huge palm trees near the abandoned buildings giving the area a real "oasis" feel, and I then passed several Indian pictographs, which had been painted on the rocks hundreds of years ago. The trail continues along the Rio Grande and I passed some natural hot springs on the river bank, which a few visitors were enjoying. If you come to Big Bend, I strongly recommend the Hot Springs trail. It's mucho cool.
The sun was dipping towards the horizon, so I figured I’d better find my campsite. I got back on the main highway and drove about 10 miles back towards Chisos Basin and then saw my turnoff, the Glenn Spring Road. After slowly driving down this dirt road for a few miles, I found the Chilicotal campsite. I hadn’t passed anyone on the dirt road and there was no one here at Chilicotal either, nor could I see any sign of civilization for as far as I could see. It was perfect, and so much better than camping at that sardine can called the Chisos Basin campground.
Figuring this would be a great place to enjoy some grilled bratwurst, I broke out my little Coleman grill. Sitting in my camp chair 20 minutes later and watching the sunset, I ate my brats smothered with mustard, relish and onions and, with a big orange soda with ice at my side, I savored the wonderful desert landscape stretching out for miles in front of me. I loved this little place called Chilicotal and told myself that I’d come back and camp here again someday. It was a perfect evening, absolutely wonderful. In fact, all things considered, it was the best camping experience I’ve had in years.
Big Bend (East)