We were so excited to visit Big Bend National Park, one of the most remote and drop-dead gorgeous parks in the country. We stationed ourselves just south of Marathon, TX, parking overnight in a picnic area with killer views of the mountains. This would make for a short, easy drive the next day to our campground in the Rio Grande Village.
Big Bend covers more than 800,000 acres and is one of the most ecologically diverse parks in the country. It’s the only US national park to have its own mountain range (Chisos) completely contained within park parameters. Yet it’s also one of the least-visited parks, probably because of its remote location. But trust us, it’s well-worth the trek.
Big Bend was already an adventure before we even really got started. We noticed when we got to our campground in Rio Grande Village that one of our front tires was looking a little flat. Turns out, it was really low on air, and somehow this one escaped our attention because we were a little preoccupied the last couple of weeks with exhaust issues followed by our fan belt/idler pulley hiccup. The result was a freak tire incident that left our tire deformed, and therefore cooked.
That’s okay, we were only in the far corner of nowhere, with the closest town located across the river over in Mexico. This rounded it out to three auto mishaps in three weeks. At this point, we were convinced that Texas was just testing our mettle. But hey, that’s why we have 6 tires on our truck. We sat in our lawn chairs, poured some whiskey, and thought up solutions. Shane, ever our automotive superman, decided that we’d use our hydraulic legs to lift our girl up so that he could swap the front tire out with a rear one. That way we could hobble along out of the park and make it to the nearest American town, which would be the ghost mining town of Terlingua.
But first, we had our campsite for two nights and decided to enjoy the park as much as we could. Once we settled in, we climbed the quick and easy nature trail that leads out of the campground to a summit that was perfect for watching the sunset over the Rio Grande. You get a 360-degree panoramic view of the river, mountains, and neighboring Mexico. It’s stunning up there.
You could even spot our campsite and truck from the summit:
You also can see the small town of Boquillas, Mexico. You’re able to cross the border and do a day trip in town. You show your passport to Border Patrol and then pay $5 for a local to row you round trip across the river. There are a couple of family-owned restaurants in town with fresh, amazing food. And you can even ride a horse or donkey up to town for $10 round trip. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t end up having time to do it after swapping our tires out. But everyone who’s done it has wonderful things to say about the experience. And, as the woman in the visitors center mentioned, tourist money keeps that whole town running.
We watched the sunset paint the mountains red and then purple. Afterwards, we stopped to chat with another couple as we made our way back down the trail. They told us about a green comet that’s going to be visible on the horizon in a few days, and that hasn’t been spotted for 50,000 years, which sounded cool. This was apparently the talk of the campground. An old guy later that night jumped out of the bushes as I was walking by (not as weird as it sounds, I promise) to ask if I’d heard about the green comet, haha.
At night, the stargazing from camp is something else. The West Texas region, including the park, falls under a dark sky ordinance, so you’re treated to a brilliant view of the night sky from almost anywhere. We could see the Milky Way right overhead as we sat in camp. We also set up a small telescope we have, and we were able to spot Jupiter and the Moon.
That wasn’t the only spectacle we were treated to. We had our first encounter with javelinas. These critters are only found in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. They resemble wild boars but are actually more closely related to the hippo. And they just could not be fazed by nosy humans getting in their faces for pics. They just graze and poop all over the place.
On day 2, we packed our backpacks and headed on a hike through the mountains to Langford Hot Springs, aka Big Bend Hot Springs, aka Boquillas Hot Springs. The springs were discovered by JP Langford, who was searching round for treatment for his malaria. He was told that medicinal waters could heal him, so he bought this property, built a bathhouse, and moved his family there in 1909. He vacated in 1912 after some bandit attacks, but his family returned in 1927 and built a spa resort that flourished in the 1930s and early 40s. Langford deeded the property in 1942 to the state of Texas, when the area became a national park. Today, you can soak in the foundation remains of the bathhouse.
You can drive to the springs and do a short, super easy hike to get there. But we opted for the 2.8-mile hike from the campground. Never mind that oversized vehicles are discouraged from taking the dirt road to the springs (which was verified by a woman who said she was white-knuckled as she plowed her RV down it), which we didn’t want to test. We knew that the longer route would reward us with scenery, and we weren’t disappointed.
From our truck to the springs took about 2 hours each way, and it was an easy/moderate hike. We were treated to sweeping, panoramic views of the mountains and the Rio Grande herself. When we were at a river overlook, we witnessed a rancher on horseback herding his cows across the river, which was really one of those special moments you don’t get to see every day.
Then we had just a bit more trekking to do:
The springs themselves were well worth our effort and we soaked for a good hour. We’d dunk ourselves in the river when we got too heated, then pop back into the spring, just like a spa hot and cold plunge. It was such a luxury after our hike.
The hike back during golden hour was just as gorgeous, and we stopped one more time at our river overlook to watch the sunset. The whole day was pure magic.
We got down to business the next morning. Shane had helped our camping neighbors repair their solar charger a day prior, and they kindly offered to loan him their tools so that he could have an easier time loosening our tire bolts. We also picked up the phone number from the campground store for Diego’s Roadside Repair service, which was based out of Terlingua. Someone at the store placed a call for us but we got voicemail.
Meanwhile, Shane used the store parking lot to raise our hydraulic legs so that he could lift the tires off the ground and make the swap. Once he got that done, we were able to make our way out of the park like grannies on a Sunday drive, at 45 mph with the hazards on. But we made it to Terlingua, no problem.
We’d read that Terlingua is “easily one of the most eccentric (and thoroughly Texan) places in all of America”, and it certainly lived up to that description. What a cool place! It’s a little like Burning Man in its more renegade days – from the chalky white dust to the colorful campers covered in fairy lights that dot the hills, to the can-do attitude, grit, and open, friendly conversation anywhere you turn. It also has an interesting history: It was founded as a quicksilver mining town in the 1880s and thrived for years under booming business. The Great Depression, however, hit Terlingua pretty hard and the demand for quicksilver shrunk. The mines and town were abandoned by 1942 (hence its identity as a ghost town). Terlingua’s now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and you can still see the traces of the old days from the mines to remnants of miners’ homes to the cemetery. Today, it’s a town that caters to Big Bend tourists with its outfits for rafting, mountain biking, and ATVs. It’s also host to two annual chili cookoffs, drawing thousands of people from all over.
We pulled into a place called DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ. The sheriff appeared in Shane’s window out of nowhere as soon as we parked. He spotted our bad tire and wanted to make sure we were aware. We explained our situation and he recommended Diego’s auto repair, even though he thought that Diego might be on hiatus right now, so he also wrote down another number for us: Scott Tunney, “the Shop”. He said, “This is kind of an interesting place to have auto issues.” We asked if we could park in town for the night. He said, “Sure, you can park right up the street at the cemetery. I’m working this area and I’ll be here tonight, so I won’t mess with you.” In the end, though, we got the okay from the owner of DB’s BBQ to stay parked in his lot (we had some of his delicious bbq for dinner). Upon hearing about our tire problem, they also suggested Diego and tried calling him for us. Diego was apparently far away on a call and would be returning late night.
We wanted to do a little sightseeing and ended up walking ten minutes up the road, passing the cemetery on the way, to the Terlingua Trading Company. It was formerly the company store for the Chisos Mining Company, but is currently a gift shop/general store that sells everything from hooch to old Mexican postcards to jewelry and knives. We watched the sunset over the Santa Fe de Los Pinos mountains from the front porch, which we’d heard was the thing to do. It’s BYOB and the benches were occupied by friendly locals telling crass stories. Someone started playing guitar, and everyone chatted with everyone. We told them our story and the guys on the porch said, “You should call Diego.” Lol, at this point it was starting to feel like we part of some running gag in an episode of Schitt’s Creek.
We journeyed onward the next morning to Diego’s, in search of the elusive man himself. We were thrilled to find a small lineup of cars already in his driveway. We were even more thrilled twenty minutes later when he told us that he had our tire. He replaced our tire for fifty bucks and had us back on our merry way within two hours. Diego’s a good soul and we’re super grateful for him, as well as for a best-case-scenario outcome.
We’re both firm believers that everything happens for a reason. When Shane was swapping tires, he happened to notice that the ball joint for the control arm to our steering was out of whack. He only noticed it after raising the whole truck, when our hydraulic legs froze for a minute and wouldn’t go back to the reverse position. As much as we were like, “You’ve got to be kidding” when that happened, it ended up being a lifesaver because his attempt to get the legs to reverse showed him this other issue. Our next campsite was in the Chisos Basin and would’ve involved taking a road to get there comprised of twists, turns, and a ton of switchbacks through the steep mountains. We may or may not have pushed our luck and unwittingly put ourselves at risk. (Not for nothing, I did have a dream the week prior about riding that very road and veering off a cliff.) So we’ll just thank our lucky stars for this one, and try to get back to this part of the world another time. We’d still love to experience Chisos Basin and do the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.
For now, though, it was time to journey back up to Highway 90 and experience more of the wonders of West Texas…