A Planned Trip in 2019: Big Bend National Park

At the end of summer in 2019, Bruce called and said that he and Sharon would like to come to visit us at the end of October. They were going to visit Sharon’s sister, and then would be going to Santa Fe, and they wanted to make a detour into Texas before heading home to Colorado. I thought that coming all the way to Austin would make for a very long return trip to their home near Denver, Colorado, and so I suggested we could meet them at some mid-point between Austin and Santa Fe. I thought of Alpine, in the mountains of West Texas, because I had long wanted to go back to McDonald Observatory and the Big Bend National Park, which I had visited some years before. The trip would be about 500 miles for Bruce and 450 miles for me, almost equal drives for each of us. We agreed to meet in Alpine, Texas, the closest town to the McDonald Observatory.

I had heard a lot about West Texas from friends in my bicycling days. Some of my bicycle buddies would go out there and ride for several weeks each year when the weather was cool. On our long rides in the Austin area, they would spin great stories about all their adventures: riding long miles on mountain roads, slogging up long, steep climbs and then descending effortlessly, or getting off the bike and doing some hiking to explore the old abandoned mining and ranching sites in the area. Of course I knew about McDonald Observatory because I had always been interested in astronomy. The Observatory had hosted a radio program, “StarDate,” that I had sometimes listened to when I was driving home from work, and Marilyn knew a little about the Star Parties that were hosted by the Astronomy Students at the University of Texas at Austin while they were doing their fieldwork periods at the Observatory each semester. So I had been interested in seeing the mountains of West Texas for some time.

Bruce could only stay a couple of days, so on the first day, I planned to go to the McDonald Observatory, and on the second day we would go down to see the Big Bend National Park.

The following describes, with pictures, the various legs of the trip on the map below, and what is found on the various legs. The map is below, and the individual driving routes are described below the map.

Alpine to Santa Elena Canyon Overwatch

  • Old Maverick Road – There is a short cut from the west gate of Big Bend National Park to the Santa Elena Overwatch, which cuts off a few miles and shortens the time to the first stop. This is not a route suggested for cars, and it is often impassable in rainy weather when the road can be washed out or submerged. We probably need an all-terrain vehicle to travel on this road. However, it sounds like it is an interesting drive, and we would not have to backtrack over the same route for 30 miles when we make the return trip to the entry point. If we use the Old Maverick Road, we must ask at the gate to find out if the road is currently usable.
  • Santa Elena Overwatch is a very distinctive place where the Rio Grande River emerges from the Santa Elena Canyon, and it is considered one of the prettiest sights in the park. The Santa Elena Canyon is 8 miles (13km) long and 1,500 ft (450 m) deep. There is a hiking path that goes into the canyon, which is one of the prettiest short trails in the park. The trail crosses Terlingua Creek, and then climbs some concrete steps. From there, the trail slopes gradually down to the river’s edge, inside the canyon, and continues for a short distance, winding among large boulders, until it ends abruptly, where the canyon wall meets the river.
The Santa Elena Canyon at the Big Bend National Park.

Santa Elena to Chisos Basin Visitor Center

  • Costola – This spot features the remains of a small settlement that was started in about 1901, when people began to live and farm along the banks of the Rio Grande, downstream from the Santa Elena Canyon. The fields were fertile, and as the farming community grew, the community of Castola was established. Farmers in the area raised corn, beans, wheat, squash, tomatoes, and melons. All that remains of Castola now is the oldest standing adobe structure in Big Bend National Park (the Alvino House), plus another store building (Old Castola), and numerous adobe ruins that were once homes for the many Mexican-American and Anglo families that lived in the area.
Abandoned building at the Big Bend National Park.
  • Burro Mesa Pour-off – This is a parking area for the trail of the same name. The trail is 3.7 miles long, and lightly trafficked. It is an “out and back trail” that returns you to the parking area. Under the right conditions (after a good rain in moderate weather), it can feature beautiful wild flowers. Difficulty of the trail is rated as moderate.
The end of the Burro Mesa Pour-Off Walk
  • Homer Wilson Ranch – This was once one of the largest early twentieth century ranches in the area, before it became part of the Big Bend National Park in the U.S. state of Texas. The ranch was established by Homer Wilson in 1929, at Oak Springs, west of the Chisos Mountains, and it ultimately comprised a total of 44 sections of land, amounting to more than 28,000 acres (11,000 ha).
The Homer Wilson Ranch residence measures about 24 feet (7.3 m) by 60 feet (18 m) with a 16-foot (4.9 m) by 60-foot (18 m) screened porch on the south side of the house. The single-story residence comprised two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen, with a large central fireplace.
  • Eating – The only restaurant available in the park is in Chiso Basin, at the Chisos Mountains Lodge Restaurant, but it has very restricted hours. It opens around the first of December and stays open until the weather gets too hot, usually around the end of March. We would have missed it for our planned trip.
  • Hiking – Click on the link below for a list of hikes from Chisos Basin. Gary and Marilyn might do the Window View Trail (Difficulty: Easy; 0.3 mile round trip) and Sharon and Bruce might do the Window Trail (Difficulty: Moderate; Distance:, 5.6 miles round trip). Both are in the same area and have the same start and end point.

Supplies: Chisos Basin Visitor Center and Big Bend Visitor Center

  • Get gas.
  • Get food and drinks, especially water.
  • Check for books and gifts in the book store.

Panther Junction Visitor Center to Rio Grande Village Visitor Center

  • Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico – if time permits. This is a very small village just the other side of the Rio Grande. Boquillas Port of Entry hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Boquillas, as it is known to locals, has a population of about 200 people. Don’t forget your passport!
  • Hot spring water is considered old water, fossil water, ancient and irreplaceable. Heated by geothermal processes and emerging at 105° F., the water carries dissolved mineral salts reputed to have healing powers.
  • Rest up at Rio Grande Village Visitor Center – for the long trip back to Alpine at the visitor center.

Rio Grande Village Visitor Center to Alpine, TX

  • Dugout Wells — The Green family homesteaded. 
  • Fossil Discovery Exhibit – At the Fossil Discovery Exhibit visitors can experience the changes to Big Bend’s plants and animals, and the world they lived in, through 130 million years of geologic time. Specimens from Big Bend’s remarkable fossil record and vivid artwork illustrate the fascinating story of Big Bend’s ancient life.

Summing Up

Back to the hotel after 6 hours of driving and 300 miles.

I presented my plan to Bruce and Sharon and they felt it was too much for one day, and they decided to add one day to the trip. So for the first day we would do the western side of the loop and the second day we would do the eastern side. That would be a lot better.

What to bring:

  • National Geographic Big Bend National Park  Map – Folded Map – For large portions of the park there is no cell phone reception.
  • Passport – We will be on the Mexican border and there is a lot of border patrol agents and we may decide to go into Mexico at some point.
  • Some protection from the sun. We will be in the desert and at high altitudes.
  • Water and food.
  • Full tank of gas.

As it worked out:

Marilyn and I had been on a trip to Omaha, Nebraska, and we had come down with a very bad case of flu. First I got it. I was miserable on the plane ride home, and for several days thereafter, and Marilyn took care of me. Then, just about the time I was feeling better, Marilyn came down with it. I was hoping we would both be better by time to leave for this trip, but we finally decided that we had to call Bruce and cancel the trip. We didn’t want to spread the bug to him and Sharon.

I still have hopes that we can do this some time in the future. Perhaps we could spend a little more time and take in some of the hiking trails, or some of the floating trips. It is something to look forward to when we get past this COVID pandemic.

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