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Tips for Visiting Big Bend National Park

By Guest Author: Pat(rick) Curry

A visit to Big Bend National Park is definitely a winter trip. Even in April and October it's probably too hot. We usually go at Christmas, although I've also been there in Feb. The nights can get cold (lowest I recall is about 14 F one night) but the days are beautiful, usually in the 70's.

Big Bend has 3 distinct eco-systems: there's a river environment long the Rio Grande, of course the desert, and then high desert in the Chisos Basin. It's amazing how quickly the environment will change as you drive; for example in just a few yards it changes from thick vegetation along the river to barren desert.

Two quick points before you go:

1) You definitely need to tour the park in a towed or tow vehicle. The park is 50 miles east to west, and there are many very interesting trails, but unless you're a really experienced hiker you'll need to drive them. Additionally there are some other interesting drives outside the park. The main roads are paved, but if possible get off on some of the major trails for some interesting terrain. Take a lunch and carry lots of water.

2) You need it bring it with you - groceries, paper products, etc. This is a very remote area and things are very expensive, like almost $3 for a loaf of bread. Even the (concessionaire) stores in the park are expensive, and they have permission to add a percentage (5% last time we were there) to the already high price to compensate for utilities cost. Additionally, many things may not be available. The closest big grocery store is in Alpine, about 118 miles away.

Big Bend National Park Visitor Center

There are two campgrounds suitable for RVs in the park, both in the very east end of the park, and essentially adjacent to each other. Cottonwood Campground, run by the NPS, has no facilities at all so you have to be totally self contained. It does have large spaces and is located in a beautiful area along the Rio Grande. It features a lot of wildlife, mostly Javelina but we did see a mountain lion in the campground one time. This is where we always stay. Water and a dump are available. Rio Grande RV Village is run by the concessionaire that runs the small store next to it. It has full hookups but is nothing more than a parking lot with stripes painted on it.

If you have a small rig there is also a campground in the Chisos Basin that is beautiful, but more geared toward tenters. The road up to the Basin is marked as prohibited to rigs over 24 feet long. The campground will handle small motorhomes and camping trailers but check with the Rangers.

You can also stay outside the park in Study (pronounced "Stoody") Butte outside the west end of the park. There are a couple of commercial cg's there.

There is a relatively new resort type campground in Terlingua outside the western end of the park. I've never seen it but it's supposed to be very nice and a new owner has reduced prices to something reasonable. (Don't miss Terlingua Ghost Town, and see if the Mayor of Terlingua - a beer drinking goat - is holding court at the local bar. (And as Dave Barry used to say, I swear I am not making this up.)

Fuel is available at several points in the park. Propane is available at Rio Grande Village store.

Things to see inside the park:

Santa Elena Canyon, where the Rio Grande comes out of a big canyon with 1000 foot walls. You can walk up into the canyon for a short distance and it's well worth the walk. Cottonwood CG is on the road to Santa Elena Canyon, as is the historic district of Castolon where there used to be a military fort and some settler cabins. The drive out to the Canyon is a beautiful example of desert scenery.

Chisos Basin. There's a concessionaire hotel up there with a small restaurant. Have lunch in the restaurant and sit next to the glass wall so you can look through the notch in the mountains down to the desert below. There's a beautiful short trail up there that is well worth a visit.

Boquillas Overlook. Nice view of the Rio Grande and the Mexican village of Boquillas across the river. You used to be able to take a boat across the river, then rent a horse or burro to get to the village, but that is now closed for security reasons.

Visit the hot springs - wear your swim suit and have a good soak. Some nut tried to develop a hotel and spa here, but obviously didn't make it. Ruins of the old hotel are still there, as are the remains of an old store that operated until the '50's. Road in is unpaved and pretty rough, but doable.

Drive the River Road, a somewhat improved trail that runs along the Rio Grande all the way from the west end of the park to the east. Doable in a regular car with care. Stop at the old mine along the way but heed the biohazard signs. Allow all day for this one.

Drive the improved dirt roads in the park. All are doable in a standard car. Just check with the rangers for road conditions before you go. You'll see some fantastic scenery. Unless you have a capable off road vehicle like a Jeep stay off the unimproved dirt roads. Don't miss Dagger Flats road to the giant yucca forest. A lot of the roads have ruins of old ranches easily accessible from the road.

Things to see outside the park:

Eat dinner at the Kiva Restaurant along Ranch Road 170 between Study Butte and Lajitas. Make sure you visit the restrooms :-) If it's cold out get a seat by the pot belly stove.

Drive Ranch 170 all the way to Presidio for some gorgeous scenery and views of the Rio Grande. A lot of people visit Ojinaga, the Mexican town across the border from Presidio, but frankly we were unimpressed. Be prepared for some 9% grades.

I already mentioned Terlingua Ghost Town. A weird place.

You'll love Big Bend.

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