Big Bend National Park: To the Rio Grande

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Cerro Castellan from Cottonwood Campground

Sean and I flew from Chicago to El Paso on Friday evening, November 8, after work and after having both taken our gear to work that morning. There’s something fun about wearing a full backpacking pack on the CTA during the morning commute. I had been a bit nervous that our backpacks would surpass the 50-pound limit, but without water, they didn’t. It was the first time we’d checked our big packs.

In what has become a new tradition at O’Hare, we had dinner at Frontera Tortas. Complete with vacation-launching margaritas.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

The flight was slightly delayed but otherwise uneventful, and at about 10:30pm we were on the ground in El Paso. We picked up our rental car, a white Chevy Captiva, and drove to the Hampton Inn where we’d spend the night. The hotel room was huge, with a kitchenette and a sitting room. Much more than we’d been expecting. We sorted our gear before falling asleep.

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In the morning, I sat with a cup of hotel room coffee watching early Saturday traffic speeding past on I-10 and noting that apparently El Paso had both public transit and food trucks. In the distance, the sun rose over Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico.

We drove to a grocery store to stock up on water, peanut butter, wine, and other foodstuffs that we hadn’t wanted to bother with on the plane. We loaded up the car and began the drive to Big Bend at around 10am. Even that morning we agreed that camping and hiking at a park like Pinnacles had been one thing, but for big western parks where we’d backpack, we’d probably in the future need a day on the ground to finish getting supplies without having to rush. It being November, I was afraid we’d get to the park too close to sunset at 6pm to see much, particularly with the switch back to Central Time from Mountain Time.

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Some sort of air force craft outside Marfa, Texas. Image: Sean M. Santos

Big Bend National Park is a long way from anywhere, but it is a gorgeous drive. We got off I-10 in Van Horn and headed southeast toward the art town of Marfa. Unfortunately, we didn’t stop for lunch because I was a little worried that we’d arrive at the campground after 4pm, when the store closed. And we still needed to get a canister of propane for our camp stove. Fires, because of the scarcity of wood and the fire danger, are banned at Big Bend.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

At the town of Alpine, we turned south again for the final 80 miles to the park. The Chihuahuan Desert landscape turned lunar. Huge expanses on either side of a straight highway with mountains or whole mountain ranges rising like tremendous islands from the desert floor. Eventually, off in the far distance to the left, we saw the lavender-gray silhouette of a range that I guessed was the Chisos Mountains in the center of the park.

Outside of Study Butte, the tiny town closest to the park’s west entrance, I slowed down as the speed limit decreased. But then I made a mistake and started increasing speed too early as I headed out of town on the final mile or so before the park entrance. I got pulled over for speeding by a Brewster County sheriff. White, overweight, middle-aged, he was like something out of central casting for “Texas sheriff.” Not a big deal considering my completely clean driving record and the fact that I needn’t worry about my insurance rates since we don’t own a car. And it was funny to be pulled over in an obvious speed trap, but going the other way.

The only disconcerting thing was that my hair color was listed as black and my race was listed at Northern Hispanic. I am basically Irish Italian with medium brown hair that tends toward red highlights in the sun. I have been mistaken in my life for Jewish, Italian, and Canadian. But… As Sean observed, “He appears to have his standard template.” It wouldn’t be the only odd or vaguely foreboding thing we’d notice here along the southern border.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

But just moments later we were there at the park entrance. The ranger at the entry kiosk explained that the $20 weekly entrance fee was waived because it was Veterans Day weekend. She gave us a map and a copy of The Paisano, the park newspaper, and we proceeded into Big Bend.

We rolled down the windows, and the first things that struck us were how green it was and how beautiful, fresh, and spring-like it smelled. There had been an unusual amount of rain recently, and the desert had come to life. The ocotillos boasted leaves and even flowers, the creosote bush and mesquite were fragrant. And the mountains were stunningly clad in green and yellow.

We turned off the main park road onto the 23-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive toward Costolon and the Cottonwood Campground. On the way we passed west of the Chisos and decended Burro Mesa into the lower desert north of the Rio Grande.

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The westerly view from Burro Mesa. Image: Sean M. Santos

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Santa Elena Canyon in the distance. Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Cerro Castellan. Image: Sean M. Santos

We arrived at the store in Castolon at three minutes to four. Luckily, despite the park’s website, the store was actually open until 6pm. We picked up propane and matches at the store and then stamped our National Park passports at the Castolon visitor center, promising to return to their cozy reading room of selections from the Big Bend Natural History Association.

We proceeded to the campground to select the site for our first two nights in the park. Cottonwood Campground was everything I hoped it would be, quiet and lovely, adjacent to the Rio Grande and filled with wonderful old Cottonwood trees and lots of birds, beneath the shadow of Cerro Castellan.

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After we set up camp, pitching our tent beneath a sweet acacia tree, we took a walk to have a look at the Rio Grande and Mexico, stupidly close but lawfully very far away.

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Rio Grande

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Rio Grande

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Cerro Castellan

Back in camp, we noticed a woodpecker in the cottonwood at our campsite. Sean identified it as a female Ladder-Backed Woodpecker. She had her supper while we prepared ours.

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Ladder-backed Woodpecker, female

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Ladder-backed Woodpecker, female

A pair of rangers strolled through camp, checking people in and warning the newcomers to be careful of their food and gear because of javelina, or collared peccaries. The entire campground was fenced in order to keep them out. Otherwise, they would destroy tents and packs in search of food. As they departed, they said, “Enjoy your park.” Nice.

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The sun set swiftly and dramatically at 6pm, setting cliffs ablaze.

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Cerro Castellan

We dined by the light of our headlamps and then went to sleep. We were tucked in by 7:20pm. We both got quite a lot of sleep waiting for the sunrise around 7:15am, but somewhat fitfully, particularly since the temperature plunged into the low 40s from the mid-70s it had been the previous evening.

I climbed out of the tent at about quarter after six, in time to watch Orion fade in the western sky. While we made coffee and breakfast, the sun rose, bathing both the campground and the Sierra Ponce across the river in light.

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Huisache, or Sweet Acacia

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Red-Naped Sapsucker

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Sierra Ponce

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Sierra Ponce

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Sierra Ponce

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Cottonwood

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Wilson’s Warbler

After breakfast, we collapsed the tent (to discourage the javelina), made sure all our foodstuffs were in the car, and set out under a cloudless sky on our first full day at Big Bend.

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