The Park that Texas Claims is So Big, it Needs Two Posts

We came into Big Bend expecting it to be “alright,” even though so many people had told us they loved it, and a surprising number of people claimed it as their FAVORITE national park.  Whoa.  That’s a Texas-sized claim right there. Even though Big Bend is supposedly this amazing, it gets pretty low visitorship, and you don’t hear a ton about it.  We figured out why…it’s not very easy to get to.  You really have to be going there on purpose to visit, as it’s about 5 hours from El Paso or Midland.  The drive all around west Texas is really good, though…state highways that are surrounded by ranches and open land with picnic pullouts at least every hour or so along the way.  And you have it pretty much to yourself…at times we would drive a full hour and not see another car.  The pretty, open landscape that we had pretty much to ourselves with no rushing or stress really made for good driving the whole time we were in West Texas.

Our base for the first part of our Big Bend stay was in a little town outside the park called Terlingua. Since it took so long to get to Big Bend, we planned to stay 6 nights…longer than most of our stops, but the timing was great because it allowed us to really relax and take our time exploring.   And since Big Bend is “soooo big”, this will be a two part post, one part for each of our campsites. Once we set up in the campground, we headed over to check out the old graveyard and “ghost town” part of Terlingua.  It was founded as a mining town, and the ruins there are really cool.  Since the buildings were made of stone and adobe, and there is very little rain in the area, they degrade really slowly.  The old company store was still operating, as a general store and massive gift shop, and we were able to walk through the ruins of the old school.  This is also where we first saw people standing around drinking beer from coolers in the back of their pickup trucks…which we saw several more times while there.  Welcome to West Texas!

The campground was not much to get excited about…in fact, it was one of the worst ones we’ve been to in a while with dusty spots that are basically in the middle of a rock field.  Pretty much all of Terlingua and Shady Butte (the “just next door” town that we were actually in) didn’t seem have any soil though…it was loose rock that of the kind that chips off in sheets.  At first, we thought that a lot of the bare rocky hills were just mine tailings that had been left left piled up, but after going through more of the region, that might just be the barren landscape that they have in the area.  

I drove into the park that first afternoon, just as far as the pay gates to get an official map, a park newspaper and a hiking map.  Once you leave Shady Butte and drive around the corner, the landscape opens up and includes that rocky barren soil in rolling hills, but also starts to reveal canyons and peaks and hints and the wide open nature of what is ahead.  I went back to the campsite and grabbed some snacks and the family, and we returned for sunset.  It wasn’t one of the most dramatic sunsets because the sky was very clear, but the dropping sun painted all the peaks and canyons behind us with a gorgeous rosy-golden glow.

Our first day in the park, we headed for the southwestern corner and drove 10 miles along a gravel road to get to the Santa Elena canyon, one of the more famous features in the park.  The canyon is a deep cut made by the Rio Grande, with Mexico on one side and the US on the other.  The side creek was low enough so that we were able to cross over and hike back along the US side, climbing up a bit and going back into the shaded canyon.  The walls of the canyon were dramatic and gorgeous, and as we hiked back into the canyon we found a big stand of bamboo and other green shrubbery along the path, making it seem very different from the rocky barren land before the canyon.  We would have loved to have canoed in the canyon but unfortunately our timing was off — the water was low and the charter groups weren’t doing trips in that part of the park.

Shortly outside of the canyon we found the remains of a small village at Castolon.  Unfortunately a major fire jumped the river and spread up through the area about a year ago, burning much of what hadn’t decayed already.  But we had some good ice cream, enjoyed overlooking the Rio Grande from high atop the rise, and did get to see a house of some of the earliest settlers in the area.  We moved on to a 5 mile hike to Mule Ears Spring, which was a hot, dry hike through more of the same rocky terrain, but with a view the whole way of the Mule Ears rock formations. No one had to tell us which rocks were the Mule Ears…they look exactly like a pair of big pointy ears.  The spring was a tiny little feature, but it was enough to house some leopard frogs.  We sat still for a while very, very quietly (which was not easy for all of us), and did indeed see several of the little frogs with yellow markings in the springs.  

All this hiking and big Texas sky scenery had us pretty hungry by the time we went to dinner.  Our original plans were to get some brisket we had heard about, but we were disappointed to find that they were only open from 11 until they sold out…which was way before dinner.  It was Valentine’s night, and there weren’t many options open so we pulled into La Kiva which looked like it had a pretty wide menu.  The restaurant turned out to be partially underground or something, and they were only serving pizza that night…and the wait was 45 minutes.  Wyatt was NOT happy because he was pretty hangry by this point, but we waited it out.  Dennis was excited to find out that it was named as one of Men’s Journal’s 50 Best Bars in America in 2003, although I can tell you that they didn’t win that prize based on their wine list. 

One of the biggest surprises of the trip so far came near the end of dinner when they cranked up the karaoke machine.  Maya was IMMEDIATELY interested, and maybe they do serve some pretty good drinks or something because Dennis and I agreed to join her.  I suggested the easiest song I could think of that could be mostly talk-sung, King of the Road, which was a pretty good choice for us, if you think about it.  Anyway, we hung around the bar for a few of the locals to do their performances and Maya met a local opera singer who was so excited to give her all kinds of encouragement once she found out Maya was interested in theatre.  She also volunteered to join us on stage.  Sure, why not!  Wyatt was having NOTHING to do with it of any sort, so we let him take a few pictures to prove it all actually happened.  He was tucked in between some tables and reported that once the song came on some of the locals said “well I didn’t see that choice coming” in a surprised voice.  I guess he was expecting Taylor Swift or something.  Maya managed not to be too embarrassed by her parents and their total lack of talent.  Honestly, I am not even sure she actually paid attention to us..she was just singing to her adoring crowd.    

Our second full day in the park we headed in for a short hike so we could make it back to the camper in time to go get some of that brisket, and to watch the UK afternoon game.  The hike from Grapevine Hills back to Balanced Rock was less than three miles round trip, and was mostly flat as it wove through a wide, small canyon, until the end where we had to scramble up about 100 feet of boulders.  The kids loved climbing up over the rocks and once we got to the top we had amazing views of where we had come from, as well as of Balanced Rock.  This huge boulder, barely perched on two other big stones looks like some ancient giants were playing with rocks and placed them just so.  The rocks themselves were full of waves and gradation patterns, suggesting all kinds of animals and faces…just like picking things out of cloud shapes.  We saw one that looked like a perfect face, with cheeks, ears, and even a gust of wind coming out of his mouth.  But, the hikers next to us couldn’t make him out!

The second attempt at DBs Rustic Iron was far more successful.  We ordered brisket, pork, potato salad and beans.  We waited while he cut our order and he passed out a piece of burnt end as an “appetizer”.  We stood there and oohed and aahed while we ate the chewy, salty, smokey, meaty bit with grease dripping down our fingers.  It was amazing.  DBs is in an old trailer on the side of the road, and wow, it’s the real deal.  We rushed back to the camper as quickly as we could and gobbled down the best brisket any of us had ever had.  The pork was good too, but next to that brisket, the pork never had a chance. Oh and UK won, too.  

We went back to Terlingua that night for dinner; we knew that in our primitive site for the next few nights we would be eating three meals a day in the camper, so didn’t feel too bad about eating out twice in one day.  The High Sierra Bar and Grill had looked pretty hopping every time we passed, so we decided to go in.  There was live music (seems there is live music nearly everywhere in West Texas) and the first thing we saw when we came in the door was a cigarette vending machine. I didn’t even know those were legal any more!  They sat us up in the loft, which shook every time someone walked through…my guess is building codes in that part of the country are like everything else and are second to a spirit of independence and people who do things their own way.  The carpet on the floor was something that had been recycled from a casino.  There were gorgeous landscape paintings on the walls next to the beer neon signs.  Eclectic for sure.  The guys in the band had long white hair and black cowboy hats and mostly played honky tonk tunes.  It definitely was a place full of character, even thought I don’t remember anything about the food we ordered.