Everything you need to know about getting around in Big Bend, from where to stay inside the park to where to get diesel fuel.
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Before I try tackling Big Bend, how do I prepare?
Get in shape and study up. I can’t help you on the physical fitness aspect, but for study aids, I’d start by surfing the Internet. Normally, I’d suggest accessing the official Big Bend National Park Web site (nps.gov/bibe), but the Department of Interior has shut down all national park sites in response to a judge’s ruling in a case involving theft of funds from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. (Don’t ask me how that affects national parks, I’m just the messenger.)
The next best thing is the Big Bend Natural History Association’s Web site (bigbendbookstore.org), or you can contact the association via snail mail, phone, or e-mail (P.O. Box 196, Big Bend National Park, TX 79834, 915-477-2236; [email protected]). This organization stocks all the books for the park’s visitors’ centers (the best selection is at Panther Junction) and publishes the official park handbook ($8.95) and the official park guides, which are written by national park staffers. The books range in topics from hiking the Chisos and driving the paved roads to driving the back roads and floating the river. Order these in advance and get busy reading. The Web site also posts the schedule for upcoming park seminars—which are sponsored by the Big Bend Natural History Association—covering subjects such as geology, black bear, desert survival, paleontology, birding, bat watching, and tracking. Most seminars run one or two days and cost around $50 each. The official guidebooks are also for sale in bookstores in the Trans-Pecos including Front Street Books in Marathon and Alpine, the Terlingua Trading Company in the old ghost town, and the Barton Warnock Environmental Center near Lajitas.
For deeper reads, I recommend the following books:
I’ll Gather My Geese by Hallie Stillwell
Lizards on the Mantel, Burros at the Door: Big Bend Memoir by Etta Keck With June C. Price
For All Seasons: A Big Bend Journal by Roland H. Wauer
Big Bend: A Homesteader’s Story by J. O. Langford With Fred Gipson
Adventures in the Big Bend by Jim Glendinning
Hiking Big Bend National Park by Laurence Parent
Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History by Paul Horgan
I’ve also found the following Web sites informative:
How do I get there?
Your best bet is to drive. The closest airports with commercial service are El Paso and Midland, but it’s another four hours by car from either airport to the park.
From the east, the easiest access points are via Interstate 10 and Fort Stockton to either Alpine and Texas Highway 118 if you’re headed to Terlingua or the western part of the park, or Marathon and U.S. 385 if you’re going to park headquarters at Panther Junction, the Chisos Basin, or Rio Grande Village down on the river.
For a more scenic route, take U.S. 90 from Del Rio. You’ll cross the stunning Pecos River Canyon, pass Judge Roy Bean’s Saloon near Langtry, and follow the same string of springs that established the path for explorers, wagon trains, stagecoaches, and railroads all the way to Marathon, the gateway to the national park.
From the west, exit I-10 at Van Horn and take U.S. 90 to Marfa, where you’ll turn south on U.S. 67 to Presidio. Then head east on Texas Highway 170, the River Road, which is a longer, picturesque route—one of the most majestic drives on the continent—to the park; or from U.S. 90, head south at Alpine on Texas Highway 118, or from U.S. 90, head south at Marathon on U.S. 385.
What else should I know about driving in the park?
Gas and oil are available inside the park at Panther Junction and Rio Grande Village and outside the park in Study Butte and Marathon. (You can get diesel at these spots as well, except at Rio Grande Village). Gas runs about 5 cents higher per gallon inside the park. For repairs or towing, call either Terlingua Auto Service (915-371-2223) in Terlingua or Sixto’s Shell Service in Marathon (915-386-4551). The 45 mph speed limit on paved roads inside the park is strictly enforced, though a 5 mph overage is usually tolerated.
What should I bring?
Plenty of water. Hydrating is the single most important activity for any visitor. A gallon a day per person is the recommended minimum. Drinking water is free at camp grounds and the four visitors’ centers in the park.
A flashlight and pocket knife. You never know when either will come in handy.
A spare tire, especially if you plan to drive off the pavement.
Any necessities or medications. Terlingua Medics (915-371-2222) provides emergency care west of the park, and the Big Bend Family Health Center (915-371-2661) can also handle your medical problems. Alpine, the closest commercial center, is 83 miles from the park’s west entrance. The nearest Wal-Mart is in Fort Stockton, 145 miles away.
Ten dollars, which is the entry fee charged per vehicle (good for one week). If the gate at Persimmon Gap is closed or the Study Butte entrance is closed, pay the fee at Panther Junction.
What should I leave at home?
Your guns. Hunting is banned, and all firearms must be unloaded, broken down, and kept out of site. Fishing in the river is legal as long as you pick up a free permit from one of the visitors’ centers, but I’d be wary of eating anything caught, which usually means catfish.
Don’t bring pets. Leashed dogs are allowed inside the park, but they are banned from trails, which defeats the purpose of bringing them. Terlingua Kennels (915-371-2348) west of the park boards pets.
What should I wear?
Big Bend is in the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest desert in North America. Big Bend is the only national park to have its own mountain range—the Chisos—entirely within its boundaries. Basically the weather varies. Days in March are warm to hot with highs running from the sixties to the nineties, though nights tend to be cool to chilly with lows sometimes dipping near the freezing mark. Whenever it gets too hot down by the river or on the desert, the high country promises relief, even during the summer. The hottest months are May through July. The wettest months are July, August, September, and October. The coolest months are December and January, when nighttime temperatures dip into the twenties and daytime highs occasionally stall in the forties or fifties. Layers are the way to go, from T-shirt to sweater to jacket. Sun protection is mandatory year-round.
Where do I stay inside the park?
Big Bend is a wilderness park, and camping in the backcountry at one of the seventies sites is the best way to see it. Camping in the desert is assigned on a zone basis at the visitors’ centers at Panther Junction, Persimmon Gap, Chisos Basin, and Rio Grande Village. Everything that’s packed in must be packed out, no exceptions. But don’t despair if you crave comfort; 25 spaces with full hookups for trailers at Rio Grande Village can be booked through the park concessionaire (915-477-2291). Just so you know, Rio Grande Village offers the only public showers in the park in addition to a laundry facility. (The Big Bend Motor Inn three miles from the western entrance of the park also has public showers.) There are almost two hundred sites at three permanent campgrounds—one in the Chisos Basin and the others at Rio Grande Village and Cottonwood on the river. These are booked on a first-come, first served basis for $8 a night. Camping is limited to 14 days from February through April and a maximum of 28 days each year, and groups of ten or more can reserve sites in advance.
In Chisos Basin there are 72 sixties-era motel-style rooms without televisions or phones that start at $71 a night, as well as five stone cottages, which start at $84 a night. Both are in high demand during peak periods; consequently, March 2002 is completely booked and a few vacancies remain for Thanksgiving and Christmas 2002 and March 2003. Rooms can generally be booked on a walk-up basis the rest of the year. For lodge bookings, call 915-477-2291 or log on to chisosmountainslodge.com.
The closest lodging options outside the park can be found in Study Butte and Terlingua, 25 miles west of Panther Junction; Lajitas, 50 miles west of Panther Junction; and Marathon, 70 miles north of Panther Junction.
How can I get one of those prime camping spots on top of the Chisos so that I can watch the sunrise from the South Rim?
Just show up at the national park visitors’ center in the basin at eight in the morning and ask for a permit. The 42 backcountry sites in the Chisos are on a first-come, first-served basis (no charge). Sites with a view up on the rim include SW3, TM 1, and all SE sites. Note: The sites in Laguna Meadows offer the best protection from the wind.
Where do I eat inside the park?
Hot meals are served in the Chisos Mountain Lodge restaurant from seven in the morning to eight in the evening. The fare and service have improved considerably since a new concessionaire took over management last year. Vegetarian fajitas, Southwestern dishes, and beer and wine have been added to the menu. Boxed lunches are available for hikers. Still, bland and canned is the norm. Better eats can be found in Terlingua, Study Butte, and Marathon.
Snacks, chips, drinks (including beer and wine), and propane are sold at convenience stores at Rio Grande Village, Panther Junction, and Castolon. In the Chisos Basin you can also pick up dehydrated trail meals, especially good for backcountry trips.
All I see is a bunch of rocks. Am I missing something?
Big Bend can be overwhelming. The most memorable visits I’ve had were in the company of guides who could tell me what I was looking at. On one trip, Bill Bourbon showed me a petrified forest. I would have missed the brown fossil remnants of giant clams five feet across if Mike Long hadn’t have pointed them out on Old Ore Road. Guides are worth their fees. If you don’t want to spend the dough, free ranger talks are helpful as well. Weekly schedules are posted at the visitors’ centers and on the park’s Web site, if it ever goes back up.
How do I stay connected to the rest of the world in a place like this?
Television is nonexistent in Big Bend National Park. If you need to stare at something, look out at the Window in Chisos Basin; it’s more inspiring than HBO. Radio reception during the day is pretty much limited to Terlingua’s community station, KYOTE-FM 100.1, whose eclectic mix of Tex-o-centric-roots music can be tuned in around the western part of the park and in parts of the basin. At night, KRLD-AM 1080 in the Metroplex and WOAI-AM 1200 in San Antonio come in clearer than most stations. Daily copies of the San Angelo Standard-Times and the Odessa American are sold in the lodge restaurant, at the basin and Rio Grande Village stores, and at the store in Study Butte outside the park around midday. Sunday editions of the Dallas and Houston papers and the New York Times are usually available on Monday. The quarterly Paisano, the official park paper published by the National Park Service and the Big Bend Natural History Association, is free at the park visitors’ centers. The Terlingua Moon, a one-page mimeographed weekly that is edited anonymously on a rotating basis, is posted on bulletin boards all around Study Butte and Terlingua. If you need to call someone, there are pay telephones at Panther Junction, Persimmon Gap, Rio Grande Village, Castolon, and in the Chisos Basin.
Just in case, where’s the nearest civilization?
You’ll find restaurants, convenience stores, motels, liquor, rock shops, an ATM machine, boat outfitters, jeep rentals, horse stables, pizza and barbecue joints, a dance hall, and a health food store beyond the west entrance of the park along seven miles of Texas Highway 118 and Texas Highway 170 between Study Butte and Terlingua.
Isn’t it crowded during Spring Break?
Crowded is a relative term. The lodge and campground in the basin and backcountry campsites on the rim and on the desert may fill to capacity, but even during the peak periods—the entire month of March, Thanksgiving, and Christmas—there’s no more than four thousand others to share Big Bend with, working out to one person per two hundred acres.
Spring arrives as early as mid-February, when the giant-size Big Bend bluebonnets start to bloom, and extends into April, the peak of the migration for birding enthusiasts. Oddly enough, the visitor count is lowest when the park is greenest, during the summer monsoon season from July through September. Even if it’s 110 degrees at Rio Grande Village, temperatures rarely climb above 90 degrees in the Chisos Basin, with nighttime temperatures typically dipping into the fifties and sixties.
Can I ride horseback in the park?
Organized horseback trips inside Big Bend National Park are no longer permitted, which is one reason why the hiking trails in the Chisos Basin are in such great shape. However, individuals may still rides horses in the park.
Two liveries outside the park, Big Bend Stables in Study Butte (915-371-2212) and Lajitas Stables in Lajitas (888-508-7667) organize horseback trips outside the national park and paddle-saddle trips in Texas and in Mexico. Prices start at $270 per person, which includes equipment, meals, and lodging.
What about renting equipment to enhance my park experience?
There are several outfitters near the park that rent vehicles, boats, bikes, and other stuff.
Here’s who they are, what they have, and how much they charge.
Big Bend Touring Society, Lajitas
Sam Richardson, a trove of Big Bend history and lore, guides individuals and groups of up to fifty on hikes or in a vehicle. Prices range depending on options.
Big Bend Birding Expeditions, Terlingua
e-mail: [email protected]
The birding in Big Bend is world-class, which explains why the Audubon crowd is a user group in the national park. Birders congregate around Rio Grande Village and Cottonwood down by the river during spring migration, when the species numbers peak in mid-April just before the searing summer heat sets in. In summer the binoculars are focused on the Chisos, the only place in the United States where the Colima warbler nests. Even untrained eyes like mine can feast on the red-tailed hawks that winter here and the dive-bombing peregrines that can be found year-round on mountainsides.
Jim and Barbara Hines of the Big Bend Birding Society know all the prime spots and do individual and small group tours in their own vehicle for $110 per person per day (two people minimum). Take your own vehicle and they’ll show around a group of up to four people for $150 for the day. They’ll customize tours to seek particular species or maximize the potential number of species in a given day.
Texas River and Jeep Expeditions, Study Butte
800-839-7238 or 915-371-2633
e-mail: [email protected]
All river trips are guided and last from half a day to ten days. All gear is provided except for a sleeping bag and personal items, like a toothbrush and clothes.
Paddling depends on whether you rent a raft or a canoe. If you are in a raft, then the guide does the paddling, but if you are in a canoe, then the paddling is done by you. Mind you, recent river levels have been too low to accommodate rafts.
River Trips (call to get a quote for more than 12 guests):
Half-Day Float (usually outside the national park): $60 per person for 4 to 7 guests, or $55 per person for 8 to 12 guests.
One-Day Colorado Canyon (outside the national park): $125 per person for 2 to 3 guests, $120 per person for 4 to 7 guests, or $110 for 8 to 12 guests.
One-Day Santa Elena Canyon: $125 per person for 2 to 3 guests, $120 per person for 4 to 7 guests, or $110 per person for 8 to 12 guests.
One-Day Mariscal Canyon: $130 per person for 8 to 12 guests.
One-Day Temple Canyon: $120 per person for 8 to 12 guests.
Overnight Colorado Canyon (outside the national park): $295 per person for 2 to 3 guests, $275 per person for 4 to 7 guests, or $265 per person for 8 to 12 guests.
Overnight Santa Elena Canyon: $295 per person for 2 to 3 guests, $275 per person for 4 to 7 guests, or $265 per person for 8 to 12 guests.
Overnight Mariscal Canyon: $295 per person for 4 to 7 guests, or $285 per person for 8 to 12 guests.
Overnight Temple Canyon: $275 per person for 4 to 7 guests, or $265 per person for 8 to 12 guests.
Three-Day Santa Elena Canyon, TRE’s recommended river adventure: $450 per person for 2 to 3 guests, $399 per person for 4 to 7 guests, or $385 per person for 8 to 12 guests.
Three-Day Boquillas: $450 per person for 2 to 3 guests, $399 per person for 4 to 7 guests, or $385 per person for 8 to 12 guests.
More Than Three Days: Add per day: $140 per person for 2 to 3 guests, $120 per person for 4 to 7 guests, or $110 per person for 8 to 12 guests.
Seven- and Ten-Day Lower Canyon: 7 day $1,200 per person 2 to 3 guests, $995 per person for 4 to 7 guests, or $950 per person 8 to 12 guests; 10 day $1,750 per person for 2 to 3 guests, $1,295 per person for 4 to 7 guests, or $1,195 per person for 8 to 12 guests.
Apache Trail: 2 hours $30 per person, leaves daily at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Camp 360 (recommended): 3 hours $50 per person, leaves daily at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Moon Valley: 2 1/2 hours $45 per person, leaves daily at 9 a.m.
Lone Star Mine: 3 hours $55 per person, leaves daily at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. This trip departs from both Lajitas and Study Butte.
Round the Bend (recommended): all day $99 per person, leaves daily at 9 a.m.
All prices are per person; tax is not included. Minimum age is 4, with parent supervision. Ages 4—12 receive a $5 discount (certain restrictions apply). Wear comfortable shoes, a cap, and a jacket. Water and cups are provided, as well as lunch on the all-day tour.
Rio Grande Adventures has raft, canoe, and kayaks for rent and provides guided river trips, which range from 3- to 4-hour raft floats to a 5-day or longer trip. You can also hire a guide for $125 per day to assist you, carry gear, and answer questions on self-guided trips. Paddling is optional in rafts; mandatory in canoes. For overnight trips, bring your own sleeping bag and personal items.
Shuttle prices range from $75 to $300 per group for full service and from $60 to $300 for a backward shuttle (you drive your car to the take-out point first). There are some additional fees for private land usage, for extra drivers, or for drivers to move your vehicle.
Guided trips vary from $50 to $150 per person per day:
Lower Colorado Canyon (outside the national park): 3 to 4 hours $50 per person, leaves daily morning, noon, afternoon. Sunset and moonlight floats also available.
Colorado Canyon (outside the national park): 5 to 7 hours $100 per person, one- or multi-day trips available. This is RGA’s most popular river adventure.
Santa Elena Canyon: 8 to 11 hours $125 per person, long one- or multi-day trips available.
Upstream Santa Elena: 3 to 5 hours $85 per person, leaves daily morning, evening, and sunset. Full day $100 per person. Canoes and kayaks only.
Mariscal Canyon: 8 to 11 hours $140 per person (minimum of 3 persons), long one- or multi-day trips available.
Boquillas Canyon: canoes $125 per person or rafts $150 per person, multi-day river adventure.
The Great Unknown: canoes $125 per person or rafts $150 per person, multi-day river adventure.
Temple Canyon (outside the national park): 8 to 11 hours or more (long drive time) $140 per person (minimum of 3 persons).
RGA also offers backcountry trips in an all-terrain Ford “African truck” with lunch, drinks, and gear. African truck and Jeep trips require a 2-person minimum unless otherwise stated. All taxes, permits, park fees included. All trips leave at 9 a.m. Multi-day adventure trips may be combined. Prices range from $60 to $125. RGA will arrange custom tours as well.
All tours are guided. Water level determines if you’ll go in a raft or a canoe. If in a raft, then the guide does the rowing; if in a canoe, then you get to row. Trip fees are per person and depend on the number of people in your party. Santa Elena Canyon is the most popular trip and highly recommended.
Half-Day Guided River Trips: $62 per person (2 person minimum), $60 per person for 3 to 6 guests, $58 per person for 7 to 12 guests, $55 per person for 13 to 18 guests, or $50 per person for 19 or more guests.
One-Day Santa Elena Canyon: $130 per person (2 person minimum) for raft (discounts for larger groups), $110 per person (2 person minimum) for canoe.
One-Day Mariscal Canyon: $155 per person (2 person minimum).
Two-Day Colorado Canyon (outside the national park): $250 per person (2 person minimum).
Two-Day Santa Elena Canyon: $285 per person (2 person minimum).
Two-Day Mariscal Canyon: $350 per person (2 person minimum).
Three-Day Santa Elena Canyon: $425 per person (2 person minimum).
Three-Day Mariscal Canyon: $475 per person (2 person minimum).
Three-Day Boquillas Canyon: $450 per person (2 person minimum), water levels could make this a four-day trip.
Four-Day Santa Elena and Colorado canyons: $525 per person (2 person minimum).
Four-Day Boquillas Canyon: $575 per person (2 person minimum).
Five-Day Great Unknown and Mariscal Canyon: $675 per person (2 person minimum).
Five-Day Mariscal and Boquillas canyons: $695 per person (2 person minimum).
Six-Day Mariscal and Boquillas canyons: $810 per person (2 person minimum).
Seven-Day Lower Canyons (outside the national park): $1,250 per person (2 person minimum).
Eight-Day Lower Canyons (outside the national park): $1,375 per person (2 person minimum).
Ten-Day Lower Canyons (outside the national park): $1,550 per person (2 person minimum).
Shuttles range from $30 to $535, depending on distance and whether it’s your driver and vehicle or theirs.
Guided Jeep back-road trips and guided hiking trips are also available for $65 per person for half a day, $100 per person for a full day, or $225 per person overnight. Prices include transportation, necessary equipment, and meals for that specified trip but do not include tax or river-use fees.
This full-service adventure sports outfitter offers guided river and mountain bike trips in addition to rentals (rafts, canoes, inflatable kayaks, and mountain bikes). Desert Sports also provides shuttles inside the national park, outside the park, and into Mexico, including the newly opened Museo Maderas del Carmen Nature Reserve. The outfitter designs custom itineraries for backcountry hiking and vehicle-supported hiking and camping. Most of the mountain bike itineraries can be adapted to driving and hiking trips, including backcountry camping in some of the most remote parts of the Big Bend.
Guided River Trips:
Colorado Canyon (outside the national park): $125 per person (2 person minimum) per one day, $250 for two days.
Santa Elena Canyon: $250 per person (2 person minimum) for two days, $340 per person for three days.
Santa Elena Canyon to Rio Grande Village: $775 per person (2 person minimum) for six nights and seven days.
Mariscal Canyon: $325 per person (2 person minimum) for two days, $425 for three days.
Boquillas Canyon: $400 per person (2 person minimum) for three days, $525 for four days.
Mariscal and Boquillas canyons: $650 per person (2 person minimum) for five days.
Lower Canyons (outside the national park): $1,100 per person (2 person minimum) for six nights and seven days, $1,495 per person for eleven nights and twelve days.
Hike and bike and hike, bike, and paddle combination trips are also offered.
Scott Canoe and Raft Expeditions, Marathon
e-mail: [email protected]
This outfitter rents canoes and provides shuttle service. Canoes are $50 per day, with a two day minimum.