When you're in Big Bend National Park, which occupies 800,000 acres of desert, mountains and river canyons north of the Rio Grande along the Texas and Mexico border, it is easy to feel like you're the only person on earth. Standing at the top of the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend's Chisos Mountains, formed from volcanic activity 35 million years ago, the incredible 360 degree views with absolutely no sign of human habitation are both breathtaking and humbling.
If we felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, that's because we were. Our guide book informed us that to get to north entrance of the park, you take US 385 from Marathon, which made Marathon sound like some sort of major hub. In fact, Marathon is a tiny place with 400 inhabitants and one gas station 59 miles from I-10, the nearest highway, and 250 miles from the nearest international airport in El Paso. Driving from Marathon to the park's northern entrance was a further 39 miles, and once we had entered the park, we drove another 46 miles to get to our campground on the banks of the Rio Grande. Luckily there are two gas stations within the park itself, otherwise no one would ever make it out of here.
Big Bend is an amazing place for hiking. Lost Mine Trail is well worth the five mile round trip, but we also did shorter hikes to Standing Rock, Hot Springs, where you can take a dip and see pretroglyphs dating from 1000 to 100BC carved into the rock face, and along the Boquillas Canyon Trail, which takes you along the Rio Grande, with gorgeous views over to Mexico (see our gallery of photos from Big Bend below). We also went on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which provides access to many more trail heads and overlooks with spectacular views over the mountains, mesas, Chihuahuan desert and the Santa Elena Canyon, carved 1,500 feet deep into the surrounding cliffs by the Rio Grande. The drive takes you to overlooks closer and closer to the dramatic canyon and ends with a hike right into it, which offered yet more panoramic views and echoed every word we uttered back 1000 times louder.
Although black bears live in the park, we STILL have yet to see ONE bear on this trip, despite being on the road for three months. When will our bear drought be over? Much to Sonny's disappointment, we didn't see any mountain lions in Big Bend either, although one of our fellow campers reported seeing one in the picnic area right by our campground. Nor did we see any rattlesnakes, scorpions or tarantulas, although we were pretty happy about that.
We did encounter a coyote and several roadrunners, which aren't hard to spot, because they are exactly as they appear in the cartoons. They sprinted across the road in front of us at tremendous speed – far too fast for us to get a photo – with their necks stretched way out in front of them, like a horse straining to cross the finish line in the Kentucky Derby. We also saw our first javelina feeding near our campground at dusk, which look a bit like extremely large hairy pigs, but are not related. Big Bend is also the site of some of the world's most important dinosaur bone discoveries, including the Bravoceratops, among the largest of the horned dinosaurs (about the size of a dump truck), which has only been found here. There's a new fossil bone exhibit in the park, which is definitely worth a visit.
There are two other memories that stand out from our stay in Big Bend. One was watching the sunset as we drove back towards our campground, which suddenly set the whole Sierra del Carmen mountain range ablaze with orange and then red light. The other was seeing the stars as we've never seen them before from our campground on a moonless night. Those above appeared incredibly close and the size and intensity of car headlamps, while those on the horizon twinkled constantly. As Shane commented, you only realize what a drastic aesthetic impact artificial light has made on our lives when you come to a completely dark place like this, where it becomes obvious why cultures throughout history have sought their gods, myths and futures in the stars.
Goodbye, Big Bend. You were special.
Kathryn Tully and Shane Sesta are a married couple, one American and one Brit, who are spending a year traveling across America and writing about their discoveries. Sonny is their rescue cat and fried chicken aficionado.