The Big Bend Area Of Texas
In part I, we covered the general history of the Big Bend area, including the establishment of the Big Bend National Park in 1944.
Due to WW II, post-war, and the Korean Conflict, no funding was provided for the park, other than a Superintendent position and two maintenance workers for almost a decade for one of the largest national parks in the United States.
There are four things to do in Big Bend: float the canyons, hike, car-hop and viewing, and bird watching.
The 330 miles of canyons from Redford below Presidio, Texas to Langtry above Del Rio, Texas offer five main canyon float runs.
I. The first section is the Upper Canyon Run, covering a distance of about 27 miles from below Redford to Lajitas just above the park boundaries. This section includes Topado Canyon, a short, scenic section consisting of 5 major rapids from class II to class IV. Farther down, you will float downriver next to the Big Hill section of the Texas Border Hwy. 170, containing a 16% grade descent on the road and the site of several auto wrecks.
Here you will see several overturned vehicles on the steep hill section between the road and the river, including a semi-trailer that contained liquid oil and asphalt, splattering down over the many rocks almost to the river. Due to the steepness of the terrain, none of the vehicles have been removed.
Section II (17 miles) of the river: start at the little tourist mecca of Lajitas, an old Comanche Indian crossing point. Unfortunately, Markham Land Company, of Houston, Texas, bought the town of Lajitas in the mid- 70’s. At that time there were about a dozen or so adobe dwellings, an old trading post and a small whitewashed Catholic mission church. Soon everything was bulldozed other than the church and replaced with wooden boardwalks through a small newly built “western” town along with a small hotel, motel and nearby nine-hole golf course down by the river. Ah, progress!
Within four river miles downriver, you cross into the boundaries of Big Bend Nat’l Park and begin floating into the Mesa San Anguilla guarding the entrance to the legendary and picturesque Santa Elena Canyon. This canyon was not successfully run and fully explored until 1895, almost two decades after William Powell ran and explored the Grand Canyon.
One and a half miles into the canyon is the fabled Rock Slide, where a portion of the Texas wall, some 1500 feet tall, has fallen into the river producing a short but dangerous Class IV obstacle to river travel.
I have run this rapid four times: twice in a tandem canoe unsuccessfully and twice in a solo canoe successfully. I strongly recommend the difficult 1/8-mile long boulder-strewn portage on the Texas side even though this will add over an hour to your trip. The rest of the canyon contains fairly gentle class I-II rapids.
By the way, right below the Rock Slide is a fantastic canyon bench campsite on river right, on the Mexico side. It is a truly magical spot with the canyon walls rising up to 1200 feet and narrowing to a 50 yard width between each wall with the narrow river in the middle.
Santa Elena Canyon exits at the major Texas tributary of Terlingua Creek (sometimes dry). Up the road a short distance near the river is the NPS operated Cottonwood Campground located near the old village of Castaloon.
Section III: Mariscal Canyon (22 miles), from below the old quicksilver Maverick Mine to Solis at the canyon exit.
You must take the River Road in order to reach Mariscal Canyon, on a very rough but scenic auto trail that parallels the Rio Grande on the Texas side. This road requires either a 4-wheel drive vehicle or at least one with high clearance.
At the put-in is a rough 18” deep river ford for a 4-wheel drive vehicle over into San Vicente, and then into the Sierra Del Carmen which rises to just below 10,000 feet in Mexico. Not recommended at any time! This is probably illegal and there are allegedly bandits in the mountain passes that await your arrival.
Mariscal Canyon is about 10 miles long, three miles longer than Santa Elena Canyon. While its walls rise to 1800 feet above the river they are not as sheer as the Santa Elena Canyon Walls. However, right in the middle of the Canyon is a low pass called Poncho Villa Crossing, once allegedly used by the famous Mexican revolutionary Gen. Poncho Villa of Chihuahua, Mexico. The break in the canyon has also been used by Comanche Indians for a millenia. On the Texas side sits a beautiful sandy camp spot marked by several large random boulders.
Section IV: Boquillas Canyon (third and last of the three great canyons) 26 miles. From below Rio Grande Village, a huge NPS operated RV camp to Boquillas Springs and Crossing. Here there are two warm springs on the Mexico side of the international boundary.
The boundary is the middle of the Rio Grande River. You will usually find a couple of lads who will gladly row you across the river for a few pesos so you can visit one of two small bistros, 1/2-mile hike into town. This side trip into Mexico is safe and well-used by American tourists. But beware if you are traveling with females, the Mexican Indian culture in this area, disapproves of women drinking in a cantina.
Also about four miles upriver from Rio Grande Village, along a mile-long gravel road and followed by a 1/4-mile hike down river, lies Langford Hot Springs. Do not let this stop you because this place is magical as well as relaxing.
An adobe four-foot wall contains the 103.5 degree clear hot springs, and 50-degree water temperatures in February, in the Rio Grande, lies just on the other side of the wall. You can jump in the cold, swift river and float about 25 yards down to an eddy and then climb back into the hot springs – and do it all over again. A great experience!
As you enter Boquillas Canyon, 12 miles long, you notice the walls rise to 2400 feet above the river but are not sheer.
The run through Boquillas is strictly class one water, but it is scenic with lots of beautiful camp spots located on both sides of the river canyon. You exit the river at La Linda, an old Dow mine site on the Mexico side. This marks the end of the Boquillas trip and beginning of the 85-mile trip to Dryden Access or 112 miles to Lanytry, Texas, the former home of Judge Roy Bean “The Law West Of The Pecos”.
These runs are known as the Lower Canyons Run or the Reagan Canyon Run, all protected by the status of the river, designated as a National Wild and Scenic River in 1972.
About 40 miles downriver on the Mexico side is a popular campsite known as Warm Springs. There is a wide shallow pool just off the river on the Mexican side that is not hot, but averages around 85-88°. Nonetheless, the warm water is welcomed to wash off a few days worth of sand and grit. Watch for rattlesnakes here especially at night. The rapids on this desolate stretch of the river rarely exceed Class II unless the river is running at a high level, rare in February.
If you elect to take out at Dryden Ranch, you will first have to obtain permission and the gate lock combination numbers from the owner. The contact point for her in 1999 was the Sanderson, Texas Ford dealership located in town on US 90.
The private, rough “dirty and gravel ranch road” to Dryden Crossing is 25 miles long and recommended mainly for four-wheel drive vehicles, and can take up to 2.5 hours to traverse.
If you take the Texas Farm and Ranch Road south to La Linda, just outside of the Park boundaries, about 15 miles north of the Rio Grande, you will find the old Stillwell store. It’s the last chance to purchase forgotten items such as towels and shirts, sunglasses, fuel and snacks. The old-time store was built by Hallie Stillwell’s dad around 1910. I believe the store is now run by her son. Hallie was formerly the longtime local Texas Magistrate and Justice of the Peace in this county for decades. And, her biography book is naturally for sale here, and it is a very good read. I believe Hallie died in 1999, in her eighties.
Again, at La Linda on the Texas side in 2000, there was located a small out-door hacienda that served Mexican cuisine including homemade guacamole. I hope it is still there. I intend to find out during next year sometime.
Upon looking at a road map, you notice Big Bend National Park is off the beaten path. This, in my opinion, has been a good thing for the park, as it has helped to keep the delicate desert park from over-crowding.
US Hwy. 90 leads to Marathon, Texas, the site of an old hotel bed and breakfast along the railroad, and US 385 leads south from Marathon into the park at Panther Junction. You can also take scenic Texas Hwy. 118 south out of Alpine, Texas to Terlingua, later joining Texas Hwy. 170 to the south.
If you are short on time, I strongly recommend two stops in the Park: Langford Hot Springs previously mentioned. The other ‘no miss’ spot is Chisos Basin. This area contains lodging and stone cabins from the old CC camp built during 1932.
Reservations are urged, even for the Campground.
The Chisos Mountains surrounding the basin (5400-ft. el.) go all the way up to Emery Peak (7875-ft. el.). The Chisos Mountains are generally considered the southern tip of the great Rocky Mountains in the US.
Here there are tremendous hiking trails: to the pour-over at the Window, the Lost Mine Trail, the Chisos Rim trail, and Emery Peak trail. Carry your own water since there are no reliable springs available on most of these trails. But you will be rewarded with some of the best vistas in the USA.
When I try to describe Big Bend to someone unaware of its splendor, I always say: “Think of the Grand Canyon, but on a smaller yet just as beautiful locale.”
Note: Big Bend is a great place for bird-watching or just auto touring. Be sure and have good rubber on your auto and a full tank of fuel and plenty of film and battery power.
I like to visit Big Bend in November or especially in February. Why February? Because by then the thrill of winter is gone, and I am ready to warm my old joints. Also if there has been any rain recently, Texas bluebonnets, Century cactus and many other cactus are beautifully flowering. Along the river in mid-February you can expect 70-75 degrees during daytime, and 30-40 degrees at night. Perfect camping and touring weather!
And as I was writing this article, even though I used to do some guiding on the Rio Grande in the Big Bend during the seventies, I realized that for some curious reason, I haven’t visited Big Bend for 19 years. Therefore, be sure and call ahead for your various stops, unfortunately you can’t rely on my personal knowledge as it is dated.
One other thing. NEVER leave your riverside camp unguarded and never leave your vehicle even if it is locked, for long periods of time when close to the Rio or in some remote parking spot. This is an unfortunate fact of life for the Big Bend. Remember this is extremely remote countryside and occasionally banditos travel through the area especially along the border, where there is very little presence of law enforcement.
When I did a lot of traveling in Big Bend, I soon realized that everything that I had loaded into my crammed Suburban vehicle was valued more than most of our poor neighbors across the river in a different third-world country would ever possess.
Now, get up and go enjoy our beautiful Ozarks outdoors!