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Camping in Big Bend National Park

by Adam Lupiani 3 months ago in activities
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The first two days of a 10-day camping trip

Ian looking at the Chisos Mountains from the outer loop water cache.

In 2019, my co-worker and I took a few weeks off work to drive from Houston, Texas and visit the iconic Big Bend National Park, in west Texas. Our plan included nine nights of camping and hiking in the park during March, which is when the weather is typically the most mild. Ian did the bulk of the planning, but we spent a lot of time looking at maps and deciding what our hiking priorities would be during our time there.

All-in-all, it was a bit more than a month between when we decided to go, and the first day of the trip. That month came and went quickly. We went over our packing lists together every day for the three days prior to departure, wanting to ensure we didn't miss anything important.

The idea was to be on the road by 8 or 8:30 Sunday night. But I was having some trouble with my stove situation and so we didn’t get the car loaded until about 8:30. From my house we drove to a friend’s place and he lent me his propane stove. I was a bit skeptical about the size, but decided it was better to have one than not.

From his house we hopped onto I-45 and zipped north to 610 and then onto I-10 west. On the road by 9:30. Only an hour behind schedule!

It seemed like no time at all before we were seeing San Antonio on the horizon. The city passed by in a blur and from there it was all darkness. On the west side of the city we moved from I-10 to US-90. Low clouds kept us from seeing the stars and blocked the light from the nearly full moon from illuminating the landscape.

After another couple hours we began to pass through hills where the road was carved through them. The rock towering on either side of the road would catch the headlights, cast in an eerie white glow. We pulled up onto one of these hills to stretch our legs and watched an 18-wheeler roar past on the road below us. We peed on a wire fence, asking each other, do you think this is the border fence?

In the glow of the headlights made the carved hills seem to stretch into infinity.

Outside Del Rio we passed a Border Patrol checkpoint, but heading towards the border there was no stopping. Del Rio itself was asleep, as far as we could tell. Yet, somehow, with no other traffic and nothing of any note to distract us, we drove right past our turn. It wasn’t until the sign that read LAST TURN BEFORE CHECKPOINT that we realized we were about to unwittingly try to cross the border into Mexico.

Ian whipped the car around and we regained our bearings and got ourselves out of Del Rio heading west.

More driving in the darkness followed, only this time with deer poking their heads up from the ditches by the side of the road. Their ears and eyes catching the ghostly light of the headlights, making it hard to distinguish them from the tall grass and bushes.

After being stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint, we pulled over for our final gas stop before the park in Marathon. We took a couple minutes to pee, stretch our legs and properly appreciate the cold morning air.

The time we made was unbelievable. With our original plan to leave at 8:30 we were hoping—hoping—to arrive by 10a. Instead, we pulled into Marathon around 6 in the morning, having driven through the night with no stops except to get gas and pee.

After taking a photo of the sign at the official entrance, we moved onward, south into the park. The drive took us an hour between Marathon and the ranger station at Panther Junction.

At 7:30 when we arrived at the ranger station there were already a few people in line to get checked in and registered for their campsites for the week. I took a quick nap in the car while Ian suffered the cold in line. When I woke up, it was drizzling and there was only about 15 minutes before the station opened.

We got checked in and set our plan for the following days, thanks in large part to the park ranger who was able to walk us through our options and give advice about how to maximize the following nine days.

The sun was well up and the drizzle subsided by the time we pulled away from Panther Junction. It was time to get started exploring the park. Even though we only had about 50 miles to drive, it would take us the better part of the day to crawl timidly along the high-clearance dirt roads.

Ian and I at the water cache site, Chisos Mountains behind us.

We cached water in preparation for our 4-day loop hike of the Chisos Mountains. From there we headed further south, toward the Rio Grande. The dirt road was narrow and winding, through dried up seasonal watersheds and over rocky hills. All around us were desert plains spanning the distance between mesas and small mountains.

We stopped to admire some large boulders, mused about potential climbing in the park and loudly proclaimed to any onlooking mountain lions that we were, assuredly, not tasty. We stopped again to poke around the collapsing shells of houses from a century-old mining town. The remains of the mine stood on the mountainside in the distance.

It wasn’t until we arrived at our campsite that it dawned on us how remote this part of the park really was. At less than 2 miles north of the Rio Grande, there wasn’t a single sign of any other people as far as we looked. Even the mines and abandoned houses were on the opposite side of the mountain overlooking our campsite. I set up the tent down the hill from where the car was parked, just to emphasize that feeling of isolation.

Not a single other person within sight for as far as we could see.

With some more time before sundown, we walked down to the river and watched the water flow lazily by. It was surprisingly small. And looked shallow. We joked about the ease of crossing the river, or not even realizing that this was supposed to be the Rio Grande.

The mild disappointment of the river behind us, we walked back to camp and cooked dinner. Then we crawled into the tent after an exhausting 48 hours and were both asleep before sundown.


About the author

Adam Lupiani

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