From Big Skies to Burro Rides, Big Bend, Texas Well Worth the Trip
Dec 30, 2015 12:19PM
By Vanessa Orr
Big Bend is a place where the desert, mountains and rivers converge, and at times it seems almost otherworldly. The 900,000 acre Big Bend National Park, in the heart of west Texas, marks the boundary between the U.S and Mexico, and is home to more than 1,200 species of plants, including 51 species of cacti alone, 3,600 species of insects and animals, and 450 species of birds.
It’s important to note the number of animals mentioned above, because you’re going to see them—everywhere. Within five minutes of checking in at the Chisos Mountains Lodge, the only accommodations located within the park, I was basically accosted by a roadrunner on a walking trail. While really beautiful birds, these are not the sweet creatures you remember from cartoons; they prey on lizards and small rattlesnakes, which they kill with blows from their beaks. Just outside my hotel room, I watched one take on a tarantula (yes, I said just outside my hotel room), with the half-a-hand-sized spider losing the battle. I am totally on Team Coyote from now on.
In addition to roadrunners and coyotes, the area is home to jackrabbits, kangaroo rats, golden eagles, mountain lions and bears, as well as herds of mule deer, which roam the area around the lodge like big dogs. I watched two male deer lock horns not 10 feet off a well-traveled trail, and luckily, was slightly too late to see a black bear as we hiked up Lost Mine Trail to the 7,550-foot peak.
If you love the outdoors, Big Bend is paradise on earth. Not only are there hiking trails all over the park, but you can also raft down the Rio Grande River through Santa Elena Canyon, whose 1,500-foot limestone walls, made up of the calcified bodies of sea creatures that date from 70 million to 150 million years old, sits half in America and half in Mexico. You can also take a horseback ride, practice your shooting skills, or explore ghost towns, all before enjoying a refreshing soak in the historic natural hot springs.
To really get a good feel for the countryside, I would suggest taking a horseback ride. I joined a group of first-time riders for an amazing half-day trail ride with Linda Walker, owner of Lajitas Stables, that was completely different from what I was used to. The terrain, which climbs way up out of the Rio Grande River corridor and provides views into Old Mexico, the Bofecillos Mountain Range and the Ouachita Mountains, is extremely rocky and at first it was pretty disorienting to feel the horse’s feet slip on the trails while it found footing. Once I realized that it wasn’t going to fall, I really enjoyed taking in the gorgeous vistas, not to mention the unbelievable lunch spread that they somehow managed to pack into two saddle bags.
One must-do while in Big Bend is to go to the Boquillas Port of Entry, where you can ride in a rowboat across the river into the town of Boquillas, Mexico. The ride across is $5, and then you can take a burro ride for another $5 to travel into the town, which is home to 250 people. This is the coolest river crossing ever, and you’re not going to find anything like it anywhere else. Just make sure to take your passport, because you do have to check in with immigration on both sides.
I mentioned the hot springs before, and this is another must-stop. Back in the early 1900s, a man named J.O. Langford, looking for relief from malaria, heard about the healing properties of the hot springs in Big Bend and decided to create a bathhouse. While most of the original buildings are now in ruins, you can still hike about a half-mile into this historic area and enjoy an afternoon lounging in 105-degree water sitting alongside the much colder, more turbulent Rio Grande.
There are a number of wonderful places to stay while in the area, from the rustic Chisos Mountains Lodge to the more up-scale Lajitas Resort, where they offer a wealth of activities from golfing to shooting to zip-lining. Let me just say that I had a wonderful time channeling my inner Annie Oakley on their shooting range. If you don’t want to do the whole drive to Big Bend in one day, I would suggest stopping in Marathon, TX, for a stay in the elegantly renovated Gage Hotel, which was recently voted the number one hotel in the state and 17th in the country by no less than Condé Nast Traveler. And if you visit the ghost town of Terlingua, (which you definitely should), the Big Bend Casitas offer charming, cabin-like accommodations.
Probably my favorite experience in the area—and there were so many that it was hard to choose—was in Terlingua, which we were lucky enough to visit during its Day of the Dead celebration. I was astounded by the beauty of the local cemetery, where family members built shrines to their loved ones, and gathered as a community to eat, drink, and visit with friends as they paid tribute to those they’d lost. It was a moving, memorable experience, made even more special by sitting under a vast, star-filled sky. Big Bend is actually known as one of the most outstanding areas in the nation for star gazing—on a clear night, you can see approximately 2,000 stars, as well as the Milky Way in its full glory.
To learn more about Big Bend, TX, visit www.visitbigbend.com, or call the Brewster County Tourism Council at 432-386-5635. To learn more about businesses mentioned in this article, see below:
Big Bend Casitas: www.bigbendfarflung.com, 800-839-7238
Big Bend National Park: www.nps.gov/bibe, 432-477-2251
Boquillas Port of Entry: www.boquillas.org, 432-386-5635
Chisos Mountains Lodge: www.chisosmountainslodge.com, 977-386-4383
Gage Hotel: www.gagehotel.com, 1-800-884-GAGE
Lajitas Resort: www.lajitasgolfresort.com, 432-424-5170
Lajitas Stables: www.lajitasstables.com, 800-887-4331