Big Bend view

A Muddy Adventure in Big Bend National Park

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Big Bend National Park is an anomaly really. Buried in remote southwest Texas and forming the border with Mexico for nearly 250 miles, it’s simultaneously one of the largest and least-visited national parks in the United States. While somewhere like Yellowstone sees three million people per year through its gates, Big Bend is nine times the size yet gets less than ten percent of the visitors.

The reason, I guess, is that it just isn’t really on the way to anywhere. We were staying in Alpine, the only town of any size in the vicinity… and even that only had 6000 residents and was around a hundred miles away.

Populated this part of the country is not… and that, of course, is exactly why we went there.

With only a single day in such a huge park and a two hour drive each way, we knew that we were going to be rushed. Knowing that, I probably should have paid a little more attention to the map before setting out – and promptly driving in the wrong direction for half an hour.


Lion and bear warningFinally arriving in the park late morning, we headed straight for the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos mountains. This five mile round trip seemed like the perfect introduction – a decent walk without being out in the heat for hours, apparently great views and plenty of vegetation.

And, just to keep things interesting, bears and mountain lions. Fun.

Thankfully, the hike was big on views and smaller on predators. To be honest, though, I wasn’t too concerned – after three months of dining out in the US, the advice to ‘appear large’ was something I definitely had covered.

In keeping with the deserted nature of Big Bend, we saw a grand total of seven other people on this, the most popular trail in the park. The deceptively flat, paved section of path only lasted for about two minutes from the trailhead, but the rest of it wasn’t particularly difficult even in the midday sun. Crickets chirped away loudly in the bushes, stopping briefly as we passed before resuming their activities. All of their activities.

Big Bend crickets

To be fair, they weren’t the only ones stopping. We did a lot of that too, sometimes to drink a few mouthfuls of water but mostly to admire the landscape. There was a lot of admiring to be done…

Big Bend view 1
Big Bend view 2

… and the higher we climbed, the better the views became. After a little over an hour of zigzagging up the side of a mountain, we suddenly emerged from the cover of the trees and out onto the ridgeline that marked the end of the trail. Following a tip we’d read somewhere, we carried on a little further, scrambling over some rocks and out onto a plateau of sorts that afforded amazing views all the way to Mexico.

Strangely enough, we weren’t in a hurry to leave.

Big Bend view 3
Big Bend view 5

The surprises didn’t end at the top of the hill, however. We hadn’t seen a single spider on the way up, but they’d decided to have a full-on tarantula party as we descended. Lauren overcame her fear of big hairy spiders in about three minutes as we stepped over or round several of them, while I idly wondered whether I could keep one in my backpack as a pet.

Big Bend spider

Cooling off in the air-conditioning of our mighty Hyundai, we pondered the next move. With dark clouds on the horizon, we were looking for something that wouldn’t leave us exposed on the side of a mountain if a storm rolled in. The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive it was, then.

Although we only ever got spatterings of rain on the windscreen, we could see a downpour off in the distance as we drove. Dry creekbeds turned into small rivers, quickly covering low-lying parts of the road in an inch or two of water. It was never dangerous to drive through them… but it sure was fun.

Big Bend rain

One of the highlights of the drive was Tuff Canyon, a fairly narrow crack in the earth just off the side of the road. Even late in the afternoon with some cloud cover, it was stiflingly hot at the viewpoints – I can only imagine what the heat was like down below on the canyon floor.

Big Bend canyon

Towards the end of the paved section of road lay our destination, the Santa Elena Canyon. Carved out by the Rio Grande, it looks like a big crack in otherwise impenetrable rock walls. There’s a half hour trail that runs a short distance from the canyon entrance, and we were excited to get a little more hiking in before the end of the day.

Sadly, however, nature had other plans.

The rain that had quickly come and gone on our drive in was apparently not the only downpour the park had seen in recent days. I was prepared to get my feet wet crossing the river to the start of the trail… but I wasn’t quite as prepared for the deceptive mud flats that lay in front of it.

Big Bend river

Literally three steps after taking this photo, the mud became far softer than it appeared. The kind of mud where, say, a man might end up submerged to his knees and sinking fast.

Amidst much swearing, sweating and risk of losing both shoes, I slowly clambered back the way I had come and attempted to wash large amounts of mud from the lower half of my body. Now that wasn’t in the brochure.

Muddy Dave

Back in the parking lot, barefoot and with my shoes in a plastic bag, it seemed an appropriate time to call it a day. There was so much more of Big Bend to see, of course, and we could easily have spent a week exploring just the marked trails. In the future, I’d like to.

It’s a beautifully desolate place, and although it deserves far more visitors than it receives each year, I’m glad that it doesn’t get them. Crowds would ruin a wilderness like this, the sounds of the crickets and wind in the canyons drowned out by tour buses and chattering hordes.

No, I’ll take it just as it is, thanks.

Mud or otherwise.

Where We Stayed

We stayed at the Maverick Inn in Alpine, in a clean, comfortable room that was much nicer on the inside than it appeared from the outside. There was an unlimited free breakfast in the morning, friendly staff who found my Kiwi accent almost as incomprehensible as I found their Texan one, cold air-conditioning and decent WiFi. We liked it a lot.

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  1. Loved reading your posts about Monument Valley and especially Big Bend. My husband and I have been to Big Bend and we love it. It is probably the most favorite of all the national parks we have visited. The beauty is breathtaking! It looks untouched! I also love too that it is not crowded with tourists! Thanks for your humor and great narrative! I’m going to put you on my “favorites” list & check back time to time to see what you are “up to”!