Big Bend Nat'l Park: Birthdays, Canyons, & River Crossings To A Foreign Land
I'll be honest with you. Big Bend National Park in Texas was never on our radar. In fact, I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't even recall that it was a national park or know what the place had to offer in terms of things to do for families. It feels crazy saying that now after having been there and loving the diverse experiences this park allowed us to discover. Perhaps we never went because of its remote location, or maybe because it was a lesser known national park. All I know is I have a long-lost hometown friend to thank for urging us to go (you know who you are, girl!). We are so glad you shared your stories, photos, and tips with us because Big Bend has so much to offer people of all ages. Hopefully this post will give you a little glimpse into the fun things to do in this huge national park. Here, we'll explore a free natural hot springs on the US/Mexico border, walk across the Rio for an epic day in Mexico, and take in the wonders of the Santa Elena Canyon. Also, the boys turn FOUR!
Making our Way There
After White Sand Dunes National Monument, we headed south towards Big Bend via Marfa, Texas. If you haven't heard of Marfa (I never had) consider adding it to your itinerary if you ever venture to the far reaches of southern Texas. This quirky town has made a name for itself and after spending a couple days here we could see why. It is an artsy fartsy little place (see photos below) and is also known for the "Marfa Lights" which are mysterious orbs that can often be seen at night. We didn't have time to see the UFOs, I mean lights (darn), but we enjoyed the art scene and our campground, Tumble In, and even managed to arrive on the day they unveiled The Marfa Pillars. Because these pillars are situated only steps from the campground we were invited to the happy hour, dinner, and unveiling for free! We had planned to stay for less than 12 hours but managed two days here (and that's not even because we were hungover from all the free booze).
We actually had errands to run like...
- Shop for tons of new clothes at the local Target.
- Buy a couple new pairs of shoes at my favorite store, Prada.
- Bake a birthday cake at the campground. Actually I'm not kidding with this one. I too thought "What kind of campground has an oven?!" But the only oven we found the ENTIRE YEAR happened to choose us the day before the boys' birthday. #ParentingWin
Happy Birthday to you (Two)!
Our first official morning in Big Bend will surely be one to remember. We snagged one of the few remaining campsites at the Rio Grande Village Campground the previous night. The birthday decorating committee was put to work the instant the boys had fallen soundly asleep in their top bunks. Chip and I spent way too much energy expanding our lungs (and cheeks) blowing up colorful balloons of all shapes and sizes. But it was worth it. We sprinkled our floor with them (try sneaking into your bed after you've done that! POP!), hung the obligatory birthday sign on the inside windshield, and called it a success. So to bed we went.
The next morning I heard Reid begin to squirm above us and pretty soon he was whispering to Bennett with excitement "Hey look! There are balloons all over Spud!" They peeked down from above, their heads dangling upside down with big smiles on their faces. “Is it our birthday today?!” they asked with anticipation (they had asked every day the previous week). Chip and I quickly sat up in bed and exclaimed in unison "Happy Birthday!!"
After wildly dancing around the balloons, and maybe popping a few, we threw the sliding door open wide. Balloons tumbled out along with two FOUR year olds and we made our way to the picnic table for birthday cake for breakfast (no shame!). We were ready to continue the celebration by making our way to the Langford Hot Springs, but at the jibs’ request, not before sharing our balloons with our newest campground friends. We also shared Spud!
A Natural Hot Springs On Your Birthday? On the US/Mexico Border? Yes, Please!
Easily the highlight for us on this day was our visit to Langford Hot Springs which sits along the banks of the Rio Grande, the international boundary between the US and Mexico. A half mile long path led us to what was formerly a resort and bathhouse fed by a natural hot spring. J.O. Langford's impressive bathhouse is long gone and today the spring is contained by the foundation ruins. You can almost get a sense of what it must have been like back in the day. The scenery is stunning and knowing that Mexico is a short swim across the river felt exciting. Beside us, the river calmly flowed and if we got the urge to cool down, we’d ease our way to the ledge of the hot springs and plunge off the side and into the river. I’m sure the boys provided extra entertainment to all bystanders (or should I say bysoakers) as they’d wildly jump off the ledge into the "cold" water (which was a warm 80 degrees). We finally drug our pruney bodies out of the hot springs after a couple hours of bathing and called ourselves clean and healed (behold the powerful healing waters from a hot springs!). Then made our way to our second campsite in the park: The Gravel Pit (doesn't sound so lovely but I promise it was!).
A year To remember
At the end of the day, I recalled thinking how great this era is. Four! There are times I feel like this age snuck up on us, and other times I don't. Having young children can be challenging and rewarding all in the same minute. Or should I say second!? But their enthusiasm for the small things in life, their willingness to learn (everything!), and the joy they exhibit to be be around us is priceless. I try not to take this time with them for granted. When all I need to simply do is play, give them love (& food), be silly, teach them about the world, and answer their (million) questions. I know that will soon be so different as they get older. On birthdays or holidays so often we get caught up on the next best toy or 'thing'. But this birthday taught me to get caught up in moments together as a family. To enjoy the day as an incredible experience that we got to share. Despite the fact that we had no gifts for them, they never once asked or expected to receive any. They simply enjoyed the small things like waking up to balloons scattered on the floor, or gobbling cake for breakfast. I'll never forget this birthday with my boys. Especially holding their little hands during that epic sunset...
Choosing Campsites in Big Bend
We actually weren’t aware of the unique process to choosing a campsite in Big Bend until we rolled up to show our parks pass. This is especially important during the busy season in the springtime. When we first entered the park on the previous day, the park ranger at the entrance station directed us to stop at Panther Junction Visitor Center to “pick out our sites.” We learned there are reserveable campsites, first-come first-serve spots at the campgrounds, or you have the option to pick out dispersed/back-country camping sites (primitive) at the ranger station, ahead of time, and all at one go. A 14-day permit costs $12 during the 2018 season. We ended up choosing three nights of dispersed/back-country spots at the ranger station and lucked out snagging one a walk-up site at the Rio Grande Campground. Here is another online article to help clarify the Big Bend sites.
You Boys Ever Been To Mexico?!
I know we were just in Mexico (although Baja) but we were intrigued by the Boquillas Crossing in Big Bend. The research we discovered online prior to arriving piqued our interest. Some articles coined it as an epic adventure and some a sketchy jaunt into Mexico. After hearing about and seeing that it was very much a part of the park experience, we decided to go for it! When in Big Bend, I say…
Temps were rising in the park (it was in the upper 80's and 90's in March!) so we made the executive decision to cross earlier in the day. We were greeted with a very friendly US border patrol agent in a small shack. He went over the basic information which consisted of how to cross, how to get to town, and the directions for coming back through to the US. If you know us at all by now, then you know we were not about to pay $5 per person for a boat or pony ride across a slow moving river. What’s the fun in that?! So we whipped off our shoes, hiked up our shorts, and held hands as we crossed the river by foot. That’s really all there was to it. It took less than three minutes and we were there. Well, across the river that is. Another 15 minute walk to town on a dusty road and THEN we were in Boquillas, Mexico. With only two restaurants in town we chose Jose Falcons where an old man serenaded us with guitar and a raspy voice while we ate. The food was not up to par with Baja but we still enjoyed the Spanish flair. An hour walk around town and we were ready to head back to the US border. Boquillas is definitely a must if visiting Big Bend!!
The Crown Jewel of Big Bend
From miles away we watched the Santa Elena Canyon rise from the ground and slowly make its way high into the sky as we approached from the east. Even from afar it appeared massive. We pulled into the parking lot in the late afternoon and all agreed that we needed to come back to fully explore the following morning. After enjoying another dispersed campsite that evening, this time at Terlingua Abajo, we packed up early that next morning and drove back to see the mother of all canyons.
After arriving, the boys begged to play with their dump trucks in the Rio so we decided we would take turns hiking in alone. I will gladly accept solo time if the opportunity arises! After climbing then descending into the canyon I immediately felt at ease. This place was the truest form of peace I recall experiencing in a long time. If this hike existed in Colorado, or any of the busier national parks, it would be teeming with people by 9 am (probably 8!). But here, it was quiet, empty, cool, and serene. Excitement in my chest rose as I dipped out of the sun and in between the giant canyon walls. My eyes had a hard time believing what they saw (Chip also agreed). The reflection of the walls on the water made it appear never-ending. It was hard not to be in awe of everything that surrounded me. The placid water, the towering walls, the blue sky. The hike is rather short (1.7 miles roundtrip) but it packs a huge punch. If ever visiting Big Bend, it’s a must-see!
Onward To See the Rest Of Texas...
We decided our time in Big Bend was coming to a close as we eagerly planned to see more of Texas. Not only that but work had asked me to help fill in so we were in search of reliable internet again (there is little to no service in Big Bend). Join us next time as we meet friendly Mexican free-tail bats, tour around San Antonio with friends, camp along the Gulf Coast, and fall in love with Austin, Texas' capital.
Big Bend Stats:
Miles Driven Since June 2017: 18,239
Number of Break-downs: 0
Item I almost Left in Boquillas, Mexico: My Nike shoes at Jose Falcons
Location of Passport Agency in Boquillas, Mexico: Unknown...we just kept on walking and no one stopped us
Type of Birthday Cake We Made The Boys: Confetti Cake!
Bennett Received A _______ On His Birthday: Wasp Sting (OUCH!)
Things Caught In The Rio Grande: Tadpoles, Go Pro, & Water Bottle (we returned all three!)
This state is the bees knees, we've decided. Has Anyone Been And Feel The Same?!
Thanks for reading along!