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Big Bend National Park, TX   11/21-23/08 (Day 770-772)
Big Bend Bound

It covers 800,000 acres of Texas and is one of the least visited parks in the National Park system so of course we had to visit Big Bend National Park! It’s also one of the few parks that pretty much shutters up in the summer--when temperatures can become not just unbearable, but dangerous too--so right now is a great time to visit.

Well, sort of. The Rio Grande, which runs through the park, crested more than 25 feet above normal two months ago and the flooding has left a trail of destruction and debris and silt behind. More than half the sites in each of the park’s two campgrounds remain closed. On the other hand, almost half of each campground has been re-opened, and we actually have no problem finding a home for our Airstream in Cottonwood Campground.

Rio Grande River enters Big Bend National Park through Santa Elena Canyon
The Rio Grande River enters Big Bend National Park
through Santa Elena Canyon. That's Mexico on the left.

As we drive through the park at dusk a family of javelinas, which look like a wild boar crossed with a warthog with a smidge of rhino thrown in, crosses the road in front of us—in no great hurry it should be added. They may be short but they’re dense and we give them the respect (and the brakes) they deserve.

That evening, back in the campground, we hear a group of coyotes calling very near our site. But it’s not until the next day that we realize that javelinas and coyotes are far outnumbered by the birds in this park. Over coffee we watch a woodpecker with a vivid red splotch on the top of its head and a neon yellow swipe down its neck bedevil a plain-Jane dove that seems to want to land on a tree that the woodpecker considers its own. Factor in the seemingly never-ending stream of birds of prey and Big Bend is a tweeter’s dream.

Out on one of the roads through the park we slam on the brakes and pull over to admire something that more often factors in people’s nightmares than their dreams: a tarantula as big as a human hand. The prehistoric looking thing is slowly ambling across the road, and then it heads off into the rocky dusty desert on impossibly fragile looking legs.

Why did the tarantula cross the road? We don't know, but they things are so
big in Big Bend that we have no trouble spotting them while they do it.

The animals that really get us revved up, however, are far bigger and hairier than any tarantula. Park staff and visitors report around 130 mountain lion sightings in the big Bend every year, which is extraordinarily high. Black bears, once common in the park’s Chisos Mountains, had disappeared by the mid 1940s when the park was created. However, since the 1980s, black bears have slowly repopulated the park by crossing into Big Bend from neighboring Mexico.

This year the bears are extremely active with many sightings. With all this big predator activity, the park is peppered with tantalizing warning signs about how to behave if confronted with either animal.

We’d love to catch a glimpse of another black bear, but a mountain lion sighting would really be special since neither of us has ever seen one in the wild. With that in mind, we head for the park’s backcountry to hit the trial. At the urging of a fellow camper, we set our sights on the Pine Canyon Trail which is reached via about 10 miles of single track dirt road. 

Pine Canyon Chisos Mountains Big Bend National Park
Beginning the Pine Canyon hike into the Chisos Mountains.

A wonderful sampling of the park’s diversity, the four mile roundtrip walk starts off through scrubby classic Chihuahua desert, working almost imperceptibly up Pine Canyon. The terrain quickly gets steeper, more narrow and more forested until we reach trail’s end literally at a rock wall which is the site of a dramatic waterfall whenever it rains.

Though we see a big fresh pile of bear poop right on the trail (oh, you’d recognize it if you saw it too), we make it all the way back down to our truck without seeing a bear or a mountain lion.

In addition to the extraordinary number of mountain lion sightings and the rare mix of Chihuahua desert and Chisos Mountains and Rio Grande, the other truly unique thing we take away from Big Bend National Park is a reminder of the randomness of borders. Here in Big Bend the Rio Grande is the border and we can literally see Mexico from almost anywhere in the park.

Rio Grand near Boquillas Canyon Big Bend national Park
Looking out over the Rio Grand near Boquillas Canyon.
Mexico starts on the left side of the river.

Craftsman from villages and towns on the Mexican side of the river used to be allowed to wade across with goods to sell to Big Bend visitors, and then return to their homes at night. Post 9/11 border crackdowns ended all that and now just a few intrepid souls sneak across the river, set up makeshift craft stands with donations boxes and signs in butchered English, then return to Mexico and hope that someone buys a carved walking stick or scorpion sculpture and puts something in their cash box (though park officials warn that buying these goods is against the law). At night these stealthy shopkeepers return to collect their unsold goods and any revenue.

We’ve crossed a lot of borders in our time and we hope we’ll be lucky enough to cross many more. But somehow it never seems right that a river/wall/line in the sand should be powerful enough to create such a divide.


** This isn't a normal photo gallery with a slideshow because this post originally appeared on our Airstream blog. **

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