Updated: Jul 14, 2022
At just over 800,000 square acres, Big Bend National Park is one of the only national parks in the United States that incorporates an entire mountain range, the Chisos mountains. The park also includes a vast swath of the Chihuahuan desert. Katie and I decided to take advantage of an extended President’s Day weekend and make the long, slightly boring drive to Big Bend.
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Setting off from the Austin area, we drove about 5 hours west until we made it to Fort Stockton. This town seems to be one of the last stops before making it to Big Bend and offers a multitude of hotel options. Two and a half more hours and you’ll arrive at the park.
Starting off our trip on a cool Saturday morning we decided to make our first stop on the east side of Big Bend and warm up at Langford Hot Springs via the Hot Springs Historic Trail. Many of the smaller offshoot roads in the park are unpaved and best traversed in vehicles with high ground clearance. This is certainly the case when reaching the parking lot of the hot springs. There are park vault toilets for changing into swimsuits along with antiquated housing facilities originally constructed to serve those seeking the healing powers of the mineral rich hot springs. Running into staffing shortages, portions of the park seemed a bit underserviced. The hot springs, which fill with sediment over time, needed to be shoveled out to make the hot pool deeper. Other hiking options near the springs include the Entire Loop trail that is 1 mile long and a three-mile one-way trail to Daniels Ranch that has picturesque desert views.
After making our way back to the car and changing out of our wet swimming trunks, we headed north to hike the 5 mile out-and-back Lost Mine trail. Side note; I designed the route we chose to explore the park so as to avoid back tracking. Lost Mine trail offers some of the best sweeping mountain vistas in the park. With an elevation change of 1,100 feet, the hike typically takes between three and four hours to complete. These mountains are home to black bear and mountain lion, so use caution, hike with bear spray and join a group of people when possible.
Having booked our Saturday night stay at the historical Perry Mansion, we headed west towards the ghost town of Terlingua for check-in and a drink.
This one-horse town was a dusty relic of bygone days breathed alive by parched and ravenous park goers. With lodging sparse, Terlingua offers the only under-roof lodging accommodations for miles around. We enjoyed our stay at the well-appointed Ivey Family retreat. With seven modern, yet authentic rooms, a common kitchen area and star gazing deck, we didn’t feel deprived of any new day comfort while recouping at the mansion.
Head to the Terlingua Trading Company to check in and grab a cold libation. The long wide porch connects to the Starlight Theatre, (the only place to grab dinner) while facing east to take in the grand Chisos mountains and is a common favorite to congregate and share adventurous stories newly fashioned from the day. Terlingua has some of the darkest skies in the United States, making for wonderous star gazing.
Sunday morning, we grabbed two coffees, tasty breakfast burritos and fried potatoes at Espresso Y Poco Mas before heading off to the Santa Elena Canyon trail via Old Maverick Road. Be sure to take advantage of filling up on gas, food, and water when you spot a filling station. Having a distaste for backtracking, I decided to drive Old Maverick Road to avoid traveling along the Ross Maxwell Scenic drive twice. This unpaved gravel route is only about 15 miles through the Chihuahuan desert but at an average speed of 10 miles per hour, it took us a solid 90 minutes to navigate the “road”. With no complaints from us as we enjoyed the slow pace, taking in the vast rugged landscape as the sun’s rays illuminated the mountainous silhouettes, our caffeinated senses were pushed into blissful hyperdrive.
Upon arrival to the Santa Elena Canyon trail (1.7 mile out-and-back hike) we changed into our water shoes as one must wade across Terlingua Creek twice to begin the hike. Once across, we dried our feet and changed back into hiking shoes to complete the walk through the towering rock walls of Santa Elena Canyon.
Hopping onto the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, one has many pull-off options to take in exceptional views. Some of those stops include Tuff View Overlook, Mules Ear, and Sotol Vista Overlook. Our last hike in the park was the Window Trail. If we had the extra time, another hike we had our minds set on was the Grapevine Hills trail but because the park is so large, drive time inevitably eats up schedules more than one would prefer.
The Window trail is a five mile out-and-back trail that ends with a waterfall. Depending on the time of year, one could be crossing Window Springs creek when there is water flowing, so be prepared with wet shoes. The trail ends at the top of waterfalls. Be cautious here, as the water has worn away the stone, making it slick as ice. To be frank, we weren’t as excited for the Window Trail due to it’s descent into a canyon with the prospect for exceptional views close to nil. However, upon exploring the hike, we found ourselves mesmerized as we looked up towards the towering cliffs that seemed to swallow us as we descended into their ancient bellies. Another side note worth mentioning is that due to its southern local, February is one of the park’s busiest months. We were blessed with 70-degree days and the trails were buzzing with our fellow hikers. Consider wearing a light long-sleeve spf shirt and full brimmed hat as black flies and strong sunny rays were ample in prevalence.
Making the drive back to Fort Stockton, stop into Pepito’s Café for their tasty chicken fajitas. The local Lowe’s grocery store is also a great option to stock up on lunch provisions as Big Bend (not to mention the rest of southwest Texas) has minimal food options.
The next day, we headed north-west to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, to explore the vast underground chambers. To secure an entrance time into the caverns, one must go online and pay a small two dollar deposit, as timed entrance is important to keep park visitors safe from overcrowding once underground. We decided to enter the caverns via the natural entrance, as opposed to the elevator option.
The steep 1.25 mile descent to The Big Room is lined with metal hand rails to guide one safely through the dimly lit caves. One has the option to exit the caves via the same natural entrance, but keep in mind that it is a steep ascent and equates to a 2.5 mile out-and-back hike, essentially in the dark. Otherwise, it is a 16 person elevator ride back up to the surface.
While in the caverns, one is expected to keep vocalized volume to a whisper. Stepping into such a subterranean environment takes time getting used to, so give yourself ample moments to acclimate physiologically and physically to being underground. Want an extra special experience? Consider planning your trip so that you’ll exit the cave around twilight, when the massive colony of Brazilian free-tailed bats spiral into the night sky.
There are also paved trails around the natural entrance to the park to take in the sweeping New Mexico/ Texas landscape and the Guadalupe Mountain Range.
After leaving the park, consider stopping by Arti’s Italian Restaurant in Pecos, Texas for some hearty home Italian cooking. Having explored above and below the earth, our bellies grumbled for carb heavy plates. We had sprung for the Arti’s chicken special and the chicken parmesan. I wish we would have ordered two more plates to go.