Marilyn's Journal    

Camping Trip to Big Bend National Park,  December 31, 2003 to January 8, 2004


Big Bend National Park, in southwest Texas, is the most amazing place. It has desert and river, mountains, forest, and 395 species of birds, some of which don't live anywhere else. It's the largest and least visited of all the national parks--least visited mainly because it's very remote. It's 100 miles from the nearest supermarket, hospital or pharmacy, isn't on the way to somewhere else, and is one of the very few places in the whole country where no cell phone will work.


The first time I went to Big Bend National Park was 1959 when I was 12 years old. The second time I must have been about 15, and I managed to go every few years until moving to Illinois. For me, going to Big Bend is like going home. Actually, it's as close as I can get to going home since the house I grew up in burned down and the neighborhood has long since gone commercial.


John and I spent a week in Big Bend less than a year after we were married, and that was 17 years ago! We hadn't been back since we moved to Illinois because it isn't easy to get there from here. Since it is too far to drive without plenty of vacation time, the usual car camping trip needed to be modified somewhat, as we had to fly to El Paso, rent a car, and drive 6 hours.


We packed all our camping gear (making a few smaller and lighter weight substitutions for the flight--tiny single mantle lantern and a one burner stove) into one large suitcase and 4 duffle bags, all just at the size limit, and flew to El Paso. There we rented a car, and after packing the car, drove to a supermarket where we had to buy all the groceries for the week as the camp stores are very limited. After buying an ice chest and groceries for a week, we could hardly find room in the car for them!


Originally, we had planned to drive all the way to the park and spend that first night in the campground. But luckily, a few days before we left, I realized that there was no way we would get there in time to set up camp before dark, so I made a reservation at one of the two motels in Alpine Texas, 100 miles from our destination, and since we didn't even get that far until 8 pm, that turned out to be a very good decision. That allowed us to get a good night's sleep, leave early the next morning, and set up camp in

daylight. But meanwhile, that night it was New Year's Eve. We hadn't had dinner and everything was closed, but we had been to the grocery store and had a car full of food. So we had apples, crackers and tuna, and wine and tea in the motel room and watched the ball drop in New York at 11pm our time, and went to bed.


On an email list I am on, there has been a recent discussion about going home--how you can't really go home again, or you can, but either it is different or you are. Well, going back to Big Bend, I can pretty well count on it being much the same. It's as if those mountains have just been sitting there waiting for me to come back. This time, though, we found a couple of minor changes. Apparently, due to several drier than usual years, some of the javelina have moved into the campgrounds. I had never even seen one close up before. (Javelina are collared peccaries. They look a bit like wild pigs, or wild boars, but they are not even related.) We stopped to talk to the campground host before going to our campsite, and she warned us about them. She said that we should not leave ice chests or food boxes unattended even long enough to walk from the car to the picnic table--that it takes two to cook dinner, one to guard the table and one to run back and forth to the car where we should leave all the food except what we are using for that meal. And she said we should collapse our tent whenever we leave the campsite, because the javelina can unzip tents and enter looking for food! They are not aggressive unless you try rescue your food from them once they've got it, just opportunistic, and make the rounds every day looking for careless campers. I was a bit irritable at first because this meant rummaging in the trunk all the time, which I just hate. And collapsing the tent every day sounded like a lot more trouble than it turned out to be.


But sure enough, as soon as we located our campsite and started to back in, there were two javelina standing right there waiting for us! I hopped out of the car and chased them off. We set up camp and quickly developed a system for keeping a javelina resistent campsite, and we never had any trouble with them. I think they are pretty good at sizing up new campers, and every morning and evening we would see them parading around looking for campers who didn't want to believe that they really had to take all those precautions. The campers in the site next to us, 3 young girls and their dads, didn't want to bother collapsing all their tents. That night we heard them all laughing because the javelina had unzipped a tent and "eaten" someone's pillow! After that they collapsed their tents each time they left camp, but the javelina had already decided that theirs was one of the more promising campsites and visited regularly. One morning I heard one of the girls say, "Dad, what did the pigs do now?"


After setting up camp, having lunch and cleaning up, we collapsed the newly erected tent so we could go do a couple of short hikes. We did the beginning of The old ore terminal and Marufo Vega trails so we could show Zachary some of the ruins from the old ore trams, buckets and cables. We either didn't go far enough to find the buckets or they weren't there. I don't know why anyone would move them, so they must have been farther up the trail. (John and I did both of those trails when we were there last.) Boquillas Canyon was also in the area of Rio Grande Village, so we went there next. (Big Bend is a huge place, so we did the things nearby that first day.) There is a short trail at the canyon, 1.4 miles roundtrip, which ends at a huge sand dune below a cave. Of course, Zachary climbed to the top, and when he ran down John got a picture of him just as he wiped out at the bottom. I won't write a lot here about the hikes because we have photos on the website with notes.


At this point I should say that there are two main areas in which to camp: The Chisos Mountain Basin campground, and Rio Grande Village on the river, 30 miles away. My favorite place to camp is the basin, but it gets too cold up there at night in the winter. On the other hand, the river campground is too hot in summer, but great for winter trips, so that's where we camped. For hiking, we planned each day based on the weather. If it was expected to be cold in the mountains we hiked in the desert where we had highs usually in the 60's and 70's. If it was going to be too hot in the desert (one day it was 88!) then we hiked in the mountains.


After returning to the campsite and popping the tent back up, we cooked dinner. We put onions, carrots, polish sausage, a jar of Newman's Own Spicy pasta sauce in a pot, cooked that for a few minutes and added pasta and zucchini. Since we only a one burner stove, I put the pasta in the same pot with everything else and added enough water for it to soak up as it cooked. It worked fine. Actually, I knew it would because I had done that before. After dinner we had to figure out how best to wash the dishes. There is a closet size room at the restrooms with running water where you can wash dishes, but there is no hot water or anyplace to set things down. And if you wash dishes at your campsite, you can't throw the wash water on the ground because it will attract javelina. And I wanted to use hot water to wash dishes, especially as it was getting chilly after dark. So we wiped all the dishes off with paper towels and heated some water on the stove. I washed the dishes in about an inch of warm water, and then John or Zachary took them up the the restroom to dump the wash water and rinse the dishes in cold water. Then we bundled up and played a card game called XACTICA, by the makers of SET, by lantern light. I think that first night was the coldest. We were wearing hats and mittens that evening, but the rest of the trip we were in a warming trend.


Jan. 2

It was hard to get up early because, being at the western edge of the central time zone, sunrise wasn't until 7:48! And since it was cold before sunrise, we weren't too motivated to get up in the dark! So most mornings we were awake and waiting for light by 7:00 or so. Then we'd get up and put water on to boil first thing. Our first morning in the campsite we had instant oatmeal. Zachary mixed 2 packages with one package of instant hot chocolate. I had a tiny bite out of curiousity and it was kind of like eating solid hot chocolate with a spoon--the sort of thing that only tastes good on a camping trip.


After cleaning up and collapsing the tent, we packed our day packs with water, trail mix and power bars, and drove up to the mountains to hike the Lost Mine Trail, a good 4.8 mile moderately strenuous warm up hike with some elevation gain and great views. See photos.


Dinner back at the campsite was lentils, a can of rotel tomatoes, carrots, onions, spices and ham all cooked in the same pot. Made instant brown rice to go with it. After dinner we played XACTICA again, but that was the last time we did that. Most nights we just went to bed after dinner. Usually it had been dark for 3 hours by then anyway. (Sunset was about 6:11.) When you live outside, the sun tells you when to go to bed and when to get up.


I think it was that night that I saw the most amazing sight. I was walking to the restroom when I looked up at the full moon and saw something I had never seen before. It LOOKED like someone had taken a cookie cutter and cut a large perfect circle in the clouds with the moon in the middle of the circle. But I thought, how was it possible that the clouds could form such a perfect circle like that? I ran back to the campsite to tell John and Zachary. They both knew what it was. They said it was a moonbow! I had never even heard of one before! But, on closer inspection, I could see that there were no clouds at all. Stars were visible both inside and outside the ring that looked like a circle of clouds. Zachary wanted to take a picture of it, but we had no tripod, and it would require a long exposure. So he put the digital camera on the back window of the car. I crawled into the backseat so that I could see the screen and tell him when he had it in a good position. Then he took the picture with an 16 second exposure. It turned out pretty well, really.


Jan. 3

Pancakes and ham for breakfast.

Since this was predicted to be a hot day on the desert, we drove to the mountains again and hiked the window trail. It's 5.2 miles roundtrip with and 800 foot descent because it ends at the "window", a notch in the ring of mountains that form the basin where the water runs off after a rain. I had forgotten that that trail is so pretty and interesting. I remembered the flat part at the beginning that is so hot in summer, and of course the view at the end, but I didn't remember the carved steps up and down both sides of the rock path the water takes. See photos.


Back at camp for dinner we heated up some canned chili, rice, tortillas and salsa.


You know what I find interesting? At home, you can trash the kitchen cooking dinner, spend a long time cleaning up even with a dishwasher. Yet you can go camping, cook a great meal with one or two burners, wash everything in a little dish pan in an inch of water, everyone pitches in, and everything is cleaned up and put away in minutes. Now, what's that about? There's a lesson in there somewhere.


I loved sleeping in the tent. The wind came up every night which made the tent seem so cozy. And the light from the full moon cast moving shadows on the fly of the tent. I would lie there listening to the wind and watching the shadows of the trees dancing on the tent until I fell asleep.


Jan 4

We took a "day off" from hiking since we had a long one planned for the next day, but by the time we went to see several different places, with all the short walks included, it still added up to 4 or 5 miles.

Tuff Canyon

Chihuahua Desert Nature Trail

Santa Elena Canyon--such a beautiful canyon. It's about 10 miles long, but you can only walk a short way into it. See photos.

Sam Nail Ranch



tortillas, instant black beans, salsa


Jan 5

Today we tried to start early because we had planned a 10.5 mile hike and needed to be finished by dark, but by the time we drove an hour to the trail head for the Chimneys trail, it was about 10:00. We carried flashlights just in case, but knew we shouldn't have any trouble getting back before dark. We had perfect weather for a desert hike with a high of around 70 or a little higher. This is a hike you would never do in the summer as there is no shade at all except at the chimneys (rock formations complete with petroglyphs). We saw a few desert plants in bloom, and Zachary took some artsy photos through an Ocotillo (a plant that looks like a type of cactus, but is actually the only member of the Ocotillo family). For lunch we stopped in the shade of the chimneys and then hiked on past the chimneys to Pena Springs before turning back. As the sun dropped toward the end of the hike, we could watch the shadows gaining on us, and then they passed us up. It's amazing how fast the temperature drops once that happens. We made it back to the car just before sunset. Not far down the road we stopped at Sotol Vista to watch the sunset where we saw another strange sight. Two lights appeared low in the sky that sort of looked like headlights. At first we thought it must be sunlight reflecting off clouds, but they never moved or changed. We tooked pictures and watched them until they disappeared after the sun went down. We have no idea what it was.


None of us can remember what we had for dinner that night. But we made chocolate pudding afterwards because we had to share the chocolate pudding experience with Zachary, and also we wanted to test it and see if it would work again. So now I have to tell you the chocolate pudding story. When John and I went to Big Bend seventeen years ago, it was about the same time of year, during winter break. It was generally much colder on that trip than this one. But in all the times I had been to Big Bend, I'd only gone in the summer and camped in the Chisos Mountain Basin. So that's where we set up camp for the first two nights before we moved down to the river. We just about froze to death in the evenings. We hiked the South Rim Trail (13 miles) while we were camped up there and that second evening it was too cold and windy to cook outside without finding a way to block the wind. The campsite had a shelter, and luckily we had 2 tarps with us. So we tied them around the shelter to make a wind break and cooked dinner. Afterwards we made chocolate pudding. John thinks it was instant, and I thought we cooked it, but either way, it was Royal pudding mix in a box. We couldn't believe how good it was! Honestly, we both thought it tasted as good as the best chocolate mousse we'd ever had! How was it possible, we wondered, that a pudding mix could be so good! So when we returned home, and our daughter Elaine returned from visiting her father, we had to share our discovery with her. We whipped up a batch of Royal chocolate pudding, knowing Elaine would really appreciate our discovery because she loves chocolate of all kinds, and guess what---it just tasted like pudding made from a packaged mix. We couldn't believe the difference. So if you want packaged chocolate pudding to taste like high quality chocolate mousse, just make sure you are very tired, very hungry, and make it in a frozen wind whipped campsite! So back to the current trip. We made the pudding after our 10.5 mile hike with Zachary, and it was okay, but it wasn't mousse. We just weren't tired and hungry enough, and, although it was chilly out, we weren't miserable enough for that magical transformation to happen.


Jan 6

We wanted to hike the South Rim Trail, and since it is a strenuous 13 mile hike with lots of switch backs, we saved it for the end of the trip so we could work up to it. It's my favorite hike, and it's in the mountains 30 miles from where we were camped on the river. I knew it would be a good idea to camp in the basin the nights before and after the hike in order to make the best use of daylight hours, but It's colder up there at night than in the river campground. There is a motel in the basin, so I had reserved the last two nights there.


That meant that this was our last morning in the campsite. We had a leisurely morning at the picnic table before packing up all the camping gear. We watched the 5 javelina parade by and we were visited by lots of birds that morning for the first time. Among others, there were cardinals, a kind of woodpecker, and a TINY bird that looked sort of like a goldfinch in it's winter colors, only shorter and rounder, and maybe with a longer beek. The birds would land on branches only about 4 feet away from us, much closer than the birds at home will get to us.


When you live outside, you realize how different each day is in ways that you hardly notice when you live in a house where the artificial light and thermostat settings are the same from day to day. You notice the change in moonlight, clouds, wind, temperature, and the animals that come and go from day to day. You experience all these things more directly and constantly.


Things I did not miss while we were camping:


cell phones



microwave or other kitchen gadgets

hot showers (or any shower, actually)

central heat (or any heat, actually)

I can honestly say I didn't give a thought to any of those things. Well, I may have thought briefly about a shower once, but I got over it.


So after enjoying our feathered visitors for a while, we packed up all the gear and headed up to the mountains. We checked into the motel where we took turns taking showers and mostly goofed off until dinner. We were resting up from the previous day's hike since we had the longest one ahead of us the next day. That night in the motel room, I had a terrible time sleeping. I missed the tent! It was after 3am when I finally fell asleep, and we had to get up early for our longest hike the next day!


Jan. 7

We were up at 6:30 or so, dressed, packed our day packs, and went to the lodge for breakfast where we waited for sunrise and picked up the trail lunches we had ordered. (We were all getting a bit tired of trail mix and power bars and backpacker bars.) As soon as it was light, we headed out. Again, we carried flashlights, just in case, because we had a rugged 13 mile hike and 10 hours of daylight. We definitely did not want to be finishing the hike after dark. Attacks on humans by mounain lions are rare, but there have been 3 in recent years. And they are most active at dawn and dusk. (I was glad to see several deer, because that meant there was plenty of food for the mountain lions.)


It was a little hard to know how to dress for this hike. The high was supposed to be in the 50's, but of course it was colder than that when we started just after sunrise. I decided to start off wearing long underwear thinking that I would probably regret it later when I had to strip down to take them off and stuff them in my daypack. As it turned out, I never took them off and was very glad I had worn them! We were hiking in clouds ALL DAY! Of course we hoped they would burn off by afternoon, but they never did. And we never saw a high in the 50's. By the time we reached the South Rim it was 37 degrees and misting. The activity kept us warm enough, but we didn't want to spend much time sitting around at any of our rest stops!


There are a lot of truly spectacular views from the South Rim Trail--but we didn't see any of them this time, hiking in fog the whole way. Because of this, we didn't take many pictures. I was really hoping the clouds would clear by the time we reached the South Rim so Zachary could see the view from there. As you stand on the South Rim, which is the southern edge of the Chisos Mountains, it is a sheer drop of 2000 feet to the desert floor below, and you can see 80 miles into Mexico. But the clouds were too thick. We sat on the rocks near the edge, ate lunch, and moved on. But it was fun anyway, and a different experience hiking the whole trail in dense fog instead of bright sunlight.


Near the beginning of the hike before entering the clouds, in Laguna Meadows, Zachary found it fascinating that there were such a variety of plants in that one spot--desert plants, meadow, and forest all in one place, so I took a photo attempting to capture that, and you can see the clouds above that we were soon to inter.


Boot Springs where the trail crossed it was dry as a bone. I've never seen it without water.


The park service used to offer horseback trips on the South Rim Trail. This has been discontinued because the horses were too hard on the trails. But because it is a long popular trail and because they were taking groups on horses every day, they had put outhouses in 2 or 3 locations. This time, however, we found an exciting change. The outhouses have been replaced with composting toilets! I was so glad to see this! I just love the idea of composting toilets and would love to have a house with one! It makes such perfect sense, both in remote locations (easier and more sanitary to maintain) and in homes (no wasted water and free compost for your flowers). These didn't have an odor at all. John and Zachary found it very entertaining that I got so excited about a toilet.


I was feeling so good after about 10 miles that I said I felt like I could do the hike again the next day with a quart of water and no food. (Not that I WOULD do such a stupid thing, I just felt like I COULD). Well---it's that last 2 or 3 miles that get you. We were dragging in at the end. The last mile or so was definitely the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other routine. But we finished the hike well before dark, in just over 7 hours (mainly because rest stops were cold and wet, so we didn't rest much). So we had plenty of time to rest, shower, and have the car packed and ready for early departure in the morning.


Jan. 8

Up at 5:30 and on the road by 6am since we had to drive to El Paso and catch a 2pm plane. We had a one hour time zone change we gave us an extra hour, so we actually had time for lunch at Chili's near the airport once we reached El Paso.


All in all, it was a great trip. And a big plus for me was that Zachary loved it and wants to go back. I would like to go sometime when we can stay longer--at least 2 weeks, maybe a month or more. It would be fun to hike the same trail under different conditions, say the Window trail before and after a rain, and to have the time to do some serious bird watching, and maybe even some limited backpacking. It sounds like I'm alreading planning the next trip!


Well, if you've read this far, I hope you enjoyed it, and be sure and check out the pictures. John did a couple of 360 degree panoramas, and you can use your mouse to get the whole view. Fun stuff!