March 24 – 31, 2018 Special Edition: Our Big Bend Adventure
The truck is loaded and we are eagerly anticipating our departure for West Texas in the morning. Brian and I have been home since our last big trip that ended in early October. Brian had minor eye surgical procedures spread over a few months and I had brain surgery to remove a benign meningioma that was discovered two years ago during an ER visit in Homestead, Florida. All is well now for us to travel and reconnect with the wide open spaces of Big Bend National Park. We are especially excited about this trip because our son, Mark, and his family are going with us. It will be the first national park visit for our grandchildren: Logan (age 5), Caleb (almost 4), and Araceli (just turned 2 years old last week).
The drive to Big Bend National Park from our home southeast of Houston is almost 700 miles so we decided to drive halfway and take frequent playground stops with the kids and stay in a motel in Junction, TX. It was about 10:00 a.m. when our little caravan of two pick-up trucks headed out from our driveway. We spotted bluebonnets and other wildflowers along the interstate west of Houston in the usual locations. We drove up state highway 71 from Columbus to Austin and found a safe place to pull over and take pictures of the kids in a patch of bluebonnets. As usual, it was hard to get all three to smile at the camera at the same time.
After checking in at the motel in Junction, we made the short drive to South Llano River State Park for a pleasant hour on the trails. We found a bird blind and did some bird watching (hummingbirds, titmouse, cardinals, and others).
Three hours from Junction to Fort Stockton without stopping as the kids napped in their carseats. Picnic and playground time at a nice park in FS before heading south to BBNP. If you are unfamiliar with that stretch of highway, there is only one small town, Marathon, between FS and the north entrance to BBNP. We did not stop at the BBNP entrance sign for pictures because the kids were sleeping and we still had another 50 miles to go before arriving at our Rio Grande Village campground.
The picture below was taken four days later on our way out of the park:
We set up camp while the temperature was still in the 90s and cooked dinner. Krystal and I walked around the campground with the kids and spotted a group of 12 javelinas. The bear box at the campsite had a caution message about bears and javelinas. Cloudy skies prevented any star-gazing and the heat made it difficult to fall asleep.
The boys help Mark and me pitch the tent
Celi seems to enjoy her first camping trip.
The campsite had a great tree for little boys to climb.
Camping breakfasts taste soooo good so we fueled our bodies before setting out to explore the park. First stop of the day was the visitor center at Panther Junction to pick up Junior Ranger booklets, postcards, and a copy of a children's book, The Three Little Javelinas. The park film was very good, as usual.
Our first hike in the park was on the Grapevine Hills Trail. The kids loved bouncing along the 7.5 miles of bumpy gravel road to the trailhead. Kitted out with binoculars, we set out for Balanced Rock just over a mile away. Cloudy skies meant comfortable hiking weather. The kids did well and had a great time climbing on the rocks (their daddy did, too). This grandma came prepared with snacks in her hip pack so we ate them while sitting under the balanced rock. On the hike back to the truck, I heard a rock fall and looked up to the ridge and saw some big horn sheep silhouetted against the sky. The animals below the ridge were hard to spot they were so well camouflaged.
setting out on the Grapevine Hills Trail
Grapevine Hills Trail
Caleb and Mark
Mark and his daddy ham it up for the camera.
Mark and his boys
Grandma doles out snacks
Below Balanced Rock at the end of Grapevine Hills Trail
looking south from Balanced Rock
Bumpy gravel road back to the main paved park road and then the lovely drive up into the Chisos Mountain Basin. Brian and I camped up there in 2009 and it is cooler and forested up there.
We had our picnic lunch there and then made the short walk on the paved Window View Trail. The hike to “The Window” pouroff is quite steep so we will save that for a future trip. Back at Rio Grande Village, we loaded up with quarters and headed for the showers. It's been many years since I helped small children to take showers in a campground, but Krystal and I managed to get the two youngest kids cleaned up. Again, no star-gazing because of cloudy skies, but more comfortable sleeping temperature.
view of "The Window" in the Chisos Mountains
Celi and the bear box at the campsite
The sky cleared off during the night and I woke up before dawn in time to see stars fading from the sky. The morning was cool and sunny as we enjoyed a pancake and bacon breakfast. Our plan for the day was to make the 60-mile drive to the other side of the park to get our first view of the Rio Grande and hike into Santa Elena Canyon. We made a quick stop at Panther Junction to mail postcards and use toilets. We saw the west side of the Chisos from the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. We could see the V-shaped “Window” in the mountains very well.
Our first clear day and a good view of the Chisos
We found a picnic table at the parking area for Santa Elena Canyon Trail and ate lunch. A roadrunner casually strolled by our table. Although the close proximity of animals in a picnic area is due to their scavenging for human food and not desirable, it does give small children a close-up look at them. We set off down the trail and were soon on the bank of the Rio Grande. The hike involves a series of switchbacks and steps that take you up about 80 feet above the river before entering into the canyon itself. It was a sunny day and any little shade was appreciated. At the end of the trail where further hiking into the canyon is impossible, Mark, Krystal, and the kids took off their shoes and waded into the shallow water. They walked across to touch the canyon wall on the Mexico side. The water was only thigh-deep on Logan so they were able to negotiate the slow current safely and splash around.
next to the Rio Grande, Santa Elena Canyon behind us
looking down river from the Santa Elena Canyon Trail
Logan examines a rock for fossils
Mark's family wading in the shallow river
on the Mexico side of the river
Santa Elena Canyon - the canyon walls are 1500 feet high
At last, we had a clear night sky to look at the almost full moon and constellations (a Junior Ranger activity).
Clear skies overnight made for a cold morning – about 40 degrees! Hot chocolate and warm blankets for the kids until the morning sun came up and warmed the air. A morning hike into Boquillas Canyon not far from the campground until we came to a shaded portion of the river and a rock for climbing, of course. We saw people riding horses on the Mexico side of the river.
Boquillas Canyon - standing on rocks is a must!
Another visit to Panther Junction where Caleb and Logan showed their Junior Ranger booklets to Ranger Daphne and received their badges. Ice cream treats from the camp store followed to celebrate. Our last hike in the park was a short one to Hot Springs and a soak in the 105-degree water right at the edge of the big river. We saw some petroglyphs along the trail.
Making the Junior Ranger promise with Ranger Daphne
proudly wearing Junior Ranger badges
soaking in the Hot Springs
Full moon flooded the campground with light so no flashlights were needed to walk around. The campground hosts were gracious and let us view the moon through the telescope they had set up next to their RV. A perfect ending to a great day.
Our last morning in BBNP. After the tent was taken down and all gear stowed away in the trucks, we were on our way. Before leaving the park, we stopped at the new Fossil Discovery Center and enjoy the still-cool morning air in the desert. Just before leaving the park boundary, we stopped at the Big Bend National Park sign for pictures. Quite a few other people waited their turn for pictures. The park will be quite busy now that the 3-day Easter weekend has begun. Our Big Bend Adventure has come to an end, but we were already thinking about a return visit someday when the kids are older. Some day I want to hike the South Rim Trail up in the Chisos Basin and make the Mule Ears Trail hike.
Fossil Discovery Exhibit
T rex had some mighty big teeth!
special play structures in "The Boneyard"
BBNP is so vast and varied that I can understand how some people feel drawn to visit it every year despite the remoteness, or because of it. We have come to love the deserts of the U.S. If you are prepared and know how to deal with its challenges, the desert is a beautiful part of God's Creation.
After a return stay at the motel in Junction last night, we decided to separate from Mark's family for the return drive to Houston. They planned to visit one of Krystal's relatives in San Antonio and we wanted to make geocaching stops. We made our way home on back roads between San Antonio and Houston. Total distance traveled this trip: 1700 miles.
Our next adventure: We plan to leave in late May and head to Alaska for most of the summer.