Thursday, February 25, 2016

Big Bend Parks & Recreation

Our fourth and final national park visit of 2016 took place over the Thanksgiving break.  As we do most Thanksgivings, David and I found ourselves organizing a non-traditional holiday.  This year, we decided on a road trip to West Texas to spend time in Big Bend National Park and Marfa.

We left early Saturday morning and drove nearly eight hours to Lajitas, a small resort town along the Rio Grande nestled between Big Bend State Park and Big Bend National Park.  The trip was beautiful – we don’t get a lot of colorful fall leaves in Texas, but the tall grass along the highway was starting to turn a dark shade of purple, and we were careful to watch out for the herds of deer on the side of the road.

When we arrived, we had dinner at the resort’s Tex-Mex cantina, and then checked into our room at the Cavalry Post.  The post was established in the early 1900s for Texas rangers stationed in Lajitas protecting US citizens from raiders like Pancho Villa’s gang.  Today, it consists of hotel rooms filled with rustic furniture surrounding a cozy fireplace.  I kicked off my cowgirl boots and we turned in for the night.

On Sunday morning, we grabbed cinnamon rolls and coffee for breakfast at Licha’s Bakery at the hotel, and then headed to the General Store down the road to pick up a couple of boxed lunches, since we planned to eat in the park while hiking. 

The General Store is also home to Lajita’s mayor, Clay Henry.  Clay Henry is no ordinary mayor … in fact, he’s a beer-drinking goat!  Clay and his friends were hanging out, having their breakfast, when we pulled up to say hello and pick up our food.

We dodged countless roadrunners as we drove through Big Bend to Santa Elena Canyon.  This area of the park is one of the most visited, and the hike was an easy two miles roundtrip.  It offered spectacular views of the canyon and mountains in the background. 

From there, we made the mistake of taking the Old Maverick Road along the Terlingua Creek badlands.  The dirt road is only fourteen miles long, but it was a rough ride my poor Altima was not prepared for.  We were very relieved to finally see pavement after driving for an hour on the Old Maverick! 

Big Bend is divided into two geographic areas … the dry desert and the lush mountains further north.  There are great hiking options in both, so we decided to try out a bit of each on Sunday and again on Monday. 

After fuelling up on sandwiches from our boxed lunches, David and I started our mountain trek to ‘The Window,’ a pour-off that offers panoramic views of the desert below.  The trailhead starts at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, and is six miles roundtrip.  We planned on using all afternoon for the hike, and then having dinner at the lodge once finished. 

We descended into the Oak Creek Canyon, leaving behind cacti for tall trees and steps carved out of rocky creek beds.  At one point along our walk, David suddenly stopped and pointed ahead.  There was a doe in the woods just in front of us.  She came closer, and crossed the path directly ahead of us.  We stayed still, and were rewarded for our patience when her fawn followed a few moments later. 

David and I had read about the wildlife in the park before our trip, and knew that there were deer, roadrunners, mountain lions, and bears.  Because of the mild climate, Big Bend’s black bears do not hibernate, so they can be spotted year-round.  We were crossing our fingers that we’d see at least one, whose story is remarkable …

In the early 1900s, Big Bend was full of black bears.  But by the time the park was established in 1944, they had been nearly wiped out by hunters and ranchers, or moved out of the area due to loss of habitat.  Then sometime in the 1980s, a female bear and her cubs made the journey from Northern Mexico into Big Bend.  They probably encountered a lone male, and now there are approximately 20 black bears living in the Chisos Mountains.  The black bear’s re-emergence into the park is incredibly rare, as once a large animal has been eliminated, it is almost unheard of for them to return on their own without human intervention.

After our dinner at the lodge, David and I were driving down the mountain when I saw a tiny black spec ahead on the road.  I slowed down the car and cautiously approached, hoping that I saw what I thought I saw.  And it was!  A small bear cub was crossing the road in front of us!  We watched him scurry across the street and into the woods.  David had heard that there was a mother with three cubs recently spotted in the mountains, so we waited for the rest of the family to make an appearance.  Luckily, we were the only ones on the road at that time of night, so I just pulled over slightly and dimmed my lights.

Sure enough, a few minutes later another bear cub scrambled over the retaining wall on the right side of the road and then walked over to his brother waiting in the woods.  And a second after that, the third and final cub showed up! 

The next day, we saw a group of cars parked along the side of the road right where we’d seen the cubs the night before.  When we pulled over, we realized everyone was stopped to watch an adult black bear climb the ridge above us.  That was our fourth bear spotting!  We ended up seeing more bears in West Texas than we had in Yellowstone a month earlier!

On Sunday, after our final bear encounter, we did two more hikes.  The first was a two-mile loop along the Grapevine Hills Trail to the balanced rocks.  The beginning part of the trail was an easy stroll along flat ground, but the last quarter-mile was a more difficult scramble on the boulders.  But it was nothing we couldn’t handle, and we had fun climbing around the rocks and taking pictures.

Our last excursion before heading to Marfa that evening was the trek along Chimneys Trail.  The chimneys are a series of volcanic rock formations.  The desert trail is five miles roundtrip, and even though it was late in the afternoon, we figured we’d make it back before sunset. 

We hurried along the path with the chimneys looming ahead of us.  After an hour, we’d made it to the arch!  We began to look for the petroglyphs we’d read Native Americans carved into the rock.  We had no idea where they were, so we left no stone unturned (literally) in our search. 

Just as we were about to give up, David spotted them!  They had been in plain view along a huge rock face next to the trail the whole time.  We snapped some pictures, and then got the heck out of there, as it was beginning to get dark.  We made it back to the car just as the sun set. 

That night, we drove to Marfa, a sleepy, one-stoplight desert town.  Imagine the setting for No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood, and that is Marfa.  (No, really, it is … both movies were filmed there.)

Recently, Marfa has become ‘the’ destination for American and international artists, designers, and restaurateurs.  It has exploded in popularity, and every weekend, people flock to the town to eat, shop, and view.

David and I stayed at the historic Hotel Paisano.  In 1955, Warner Brothers made the hotel its headquarters for the filming of Giant.  James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor stayed at the Paisano for a number of weeks, before moving to private residences for the duration of the filming. 

Because we were in Marfa on a Tuesday, and not over the weekend, many of the galleries were closed.  We made the most of our day-trip, though.  After having breakfast at Squeeze across from the courthouse, we drove past the Chinati Foundation, a former army barracks converted into a world-class museum by contemporary artist Donald Judd.  The museum was closed, but we were able to see the cube sculptures in the fields.

We continued to drive, and drive and drive.  About thirty miles outside Marfa, along Highway 90, is the famous Prada Marfa sculpture.

Once back in town, we stopped by the Marfa Book Company and picked up lunch across the street at The Get Go.  For dinner that evening, we ate at Cochineal, known for its simple, elegant food.  The menu changes weekly, if not daily.  That night, we had steak frites.  

It was a clear night, so after dinner, we bundled up and headed to the Marfa Lights Viewing Center to see the unexplained phenomena.  The lights were very active on Tuesday night, and we spent a good hour watching them appear, and disappear.  They sometimes changed colors and moved erratically.  Whether they were really UFOs or just headlights of distant cars, we’ll never know. ;)    

On Wednesday morning, before our long drive back to Austin, we stopped at Marfa Burrito for some breakfast burritos.  These were not the average breakfast tacos we were used to in Austin.  These were huge burritos meant to sustain us throughout the day! 

Apparently celebrities visiting Marfa can’t get enough, because there were multiple pictures of Matthew McConaughey and the owner, Ramona, all over the small dining room.  Marfa Burrito is a family-run establishment, and everyone inside welcomed us like family.  They offered us free coffee, and explained which salsas were spicy vs very spicy.  Most of the patrons seemed to know each other, and when we were getting back into our car to leave, we noticed all of the cars around us were still running (with no one inside them).

With all of the changes lately, Marfa is still the kind of small town where people leave their doors unlocked, and make time to catch up with their neighbors over their morning coffee and breakfast burritos.


  1. We're taking you two with us for our next national park adventure so we can see some wildlife. Nice trip. As always thanks for sharing.