Thursday, March 19, 2009

Big, Big Bend

Staying in Marathon, Texas gave us the opportunity to visit Big Bend National Park, a place we've visited before (see Jan 2007 blog), but only the Western side of the park. To understand Big Bend, first think BIG, over 800,000 acres spread along the border. There are three distinct types of landscape to explore; the desert with miles of Yucca and creosote bush, the Chisos Basin area with pine and oak trees, and the riparian areas along the Rio Grande River, with towering cottonwoods and tall grasses. The challenge in visiting Big Bend is the distances involved. From Marathon where we stayed, it was 40 miles to the park entrance, then another 30 miles to the park headquarters. From there, it was another 10 miles to Chisos Basin in one direction, and 21 miles to the Rio Grande in the other, and once inside the park the speed limit of 45 makes these distances seem even longer. We visited Chisos Basin first, a remarkably different area after the miles of desert and barren mountains. The basin, high and cool and surrounded by tall peaks, has the park's only lodge and restaurant, and has a large no-hookup camping area. It's amazing to see Bigtooth Maple and Quaking Aspen amid yucca and prickly pear cactus. It truly is an oasis and the heart of the Park. After a great lunch at the lodge, we headed back toward the park's Southern border at the Rio Grande river. Descending out of the basin, the terrain quickly changed to barren hills with little vegetation. Reaching the river area, everything changed to green; tall Cottonwood trees and high grasses lined the river and we hiked through an area where a ranch once existed and down to the river bank. It was strange to see how little distance there was across the river to Mexico - as you can see by the picture, Mexico (on the left) is just a stone's throw away. There are two small villages across the border, and even in this age of tight security, if you walk down to the bank and wave, someone will come across in a boat and take you across into Mexico to visit the few shops and restaurants. Since the two villages are separated from the nearest other towns by almost 200 miles of dirt road it apparently isn't a security issue for the Border Patrol. In fact, a bridge that allowed crossing between the two countries existed until it was closed in 1997 due to budget cuts. One disappointment in the area was the RV park, the only one in the park to provide full hookups. It was just a parking lot that required RVs to be backed in; however, it was very narrow. With a large motorhome there was very little room in the middle to maneuver and trying to back into a space would be nearly impossible. From the park, it was a short drive to Boquillas Canyon where we hiked over the ridge to see where the river exited the canyon. It's a popular haul-out point for canoe trips, and we met a school science group that had spent the night upriver, had their tents uprooted by 40+ mph winds, and were visibly tired (and bored) by the whole experience. With over 100 miles of travel back to Marathon ahead, we headed back toward the park headquarters and the road to Marathon. We probably won't visit Big Bend again. While it's worth a visit if you're in the area and is an amazing contrast from the environment of rest of West Texas, it's best suited for back-country hikes and short-term camping. Its remote location, without cell phone service, TV, or even radio, and lack of basic services can be an attraction or a hardship depending on your lifestyle.
Next stop; Fort Davis and Davis Mountains State Park - C'mon back!

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