RV Saga

Unexpected Joy in Big Bend National Park

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon. Photo by Stephen Jones

Because of the remoteness and the enormous size of Big Bend National Park, not many people make the trip to this part of the country. We finally left Las Cruces and traveled a long way to Big Bend at the end of March. We took Highway 385 into the park. Yuccas accentuated the vast desert with long and huge white yucca blossoms. Yellow and white wildflowers blanketed the roadside. Cacti also bloomed with waxy yellow or hot magenta flowers. Creosotes were covered with yellow blossoms. As we drove deeper south into the desert, we were excited at the sight of the ribbons of blue colored Big Bend bluebonnets along the edges of the road. “It’s like a blue corridor!” Exclaimed Stephen. No other plants like the spiky ocotillos. They were leafless most of the time. But now the tips of the bare and spiky branches swelled with red hot blossoms glowing like chili peppers or firecrackers. The unexpected super desert bloom cheered us and filled our hearts with joy.

The park is surrounded with mountains on three sides. The Chisos Mountains, created by volcanic eruption, rise in the center of the park. Layers of mountains loom in the distance. We drove past the sleepy Chisos Mountains and stopped at Panther Junction Visitor Center. Rio Grande Village Campground was still another 20 miles away. Driving through a short tunnel, a different scenery unfolded with the looming Sierra del Carmen and an oasis at the low land. Rio Grande Village Campground is right on the Rio Grande River and by the border between the United States and Mexico. The campground was full with tourists from every state. After settling down the trailer, we were immediately attracted by the bright red and black colored vermillion flycatchers. They were chasing insects in the air and flew from one branch of the tree to the other. Their bright red plumage stood out among the new green leaves.


Sunset at Big Bend National Park. Photo by Stephen Jones


Sierra del Carmen in Mexico at Sunset

In the evening, we took a walk along the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail. A sweet aroma from the flowering trees and bushes instilled the air. A couple of trees by the bridge were laden with little fluffy golden balls of fragrant flowers. They were huisache (pronounced “WE-satch”). A big turtle climbed to a rock in the pond. Small fish jumped above the water. Then a fat beaver emerged from the water and swam around the stream. It rest by the bank and opened its mouth. I got a good shot of its teeth. It turned around and chewed on the water plants waging its tail. Another two beavers were playing with each other at the far end of the pond. Colorful blossoms of cacti and tall ocotillos attracted bees and other insects. The reward of climbing to the top of the bluff is overlooking the Rio Grande river and gazing at the imposing walls of Sierra del Carmen in Mexico. The river takes a deep bend at this section, and runs across the desert. The dramatic peaks of Chisos Mountains sat on the northwestern horizon. The spectacular sandstone and limestone layers of the Mexico’s Sierra Del Carmen Mountains glowed in the sunset, changing colors from gold to orange, and to crimson. Boquillas, a small Mexican village sat at the foothill across the river.


Weiwei and Desert Blossoms with Chisos Mountains in the Background. Photo by Stephen Jones


Rio Grande River at Santa Elena Canyon

We had to move our trailer to a different site the next day. Then we were free to explore the park. On our way to Chisos Mountains, we stopped to appreciate the spectacular scene of the sea of Big Bend bluebonnets. The intoxicated aroma of the blue flowers was so sweet in the morning. Then we took the long Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Our destination was Santa Elena Canyon. The canyon could be seen from afar at Sotol Vista. The gap on the distant mesa was the canyon. From the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook, we were awed at the sight of this gigantic chasm that split the mountain apart. Down to the canyon, the sheer cliffs rise 1,500 feet above the Rio Grande River. The river was cloudy with sand and silt and appeared to be quiet at the entrance of the canyon. But the rapids in the 8-mile long canyon are difficult to negotiate. It was spring, yet it felt like summer with the high temperature in the 90s under the sun. So we didn’t hike the trail into the canyon. On our way back on the scenic drive, we stopped at the Tuff Canyon. White volcanic ash and volcanic rocks cover this area. The field was blanketed with lovely blue colored bluebonnets. The Sotol Vista offers a panoramic view of the desert with the distant Santa Elena Canyon and the nearby mountains. There were black baking pits and some uprooted blackened sotols laying on the ground. Sotol bulbs were roasted and the hearts of sotols are edible. We stopped at Mule Ears Overlook to view the distinctive rock formation. Solidified volcanic magma flowed into rock fractures and was eroded into its unique shape.


Casa Grande


Cactus Wren

Leaving Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, we drove into Chisos Basin. The volcanic highlands receive 29 inches of rain per year and are cooler and wetter than the surrounding desert. The basin is surrounded with Chisos mountains and shaped like a bowl. The scene in the Chisos Basin is different than the surrounding deserts. It is a woodland with forests covering the slopes of the mountains. The prominent Casa Grande rises high above the basin. Hardened lava flows below Casa Grande’s igneous rock cap indicate it might be one of the volcanic vents that spewed lava and ashes around. The Window View Trail is a well paved trail leading to the V-shaped slot of the high Chisos,  the “Window” of the Chisos Basin. Huge pines punctuated the fields. And colorful wildflowers hugged the ground. On a huge cactus, a cactus wren called nervously on its nest. The tall structural dried century plant flowers are good perching places for birds. From the “Window,” we saw the desert below the mountains expanding into the horizon. I could imagine the sunset of the “Window” is spectacular. The wind kicked up in the late afternoon. And it was really windy at the top of the bluff by the campground. But the sunset was more colorful than the evening before.

The coolest thing we experienced at Big Bend was soaking in the natural hot springs by the Rio Grande River right by the border. We had to negotiate a one-way narrow winding dirt road to get there in the morning. I felt like walking into a different world at the sight of the distinctive rock formations and big palm trees. The neat lines and patterns of the rock formations looked like mason’s work. A stately palm tree grows by a historical post office which was built by the settler J.O Langford in the early 20th century. Some empty buildings still stand by the cliffs. The short trail to the hot spring pool winds its way along the cliffs and the Rio Grande River is only several yards away. Bright yellow rock nettle flowers hung on the cliffs like hanging gardens. Cliff swallows built their nests on the cliffs. Soon the hot spring pool appeared below the trail by the river. It is a pool above the river surrounded by stones. There were several people in the hot spring. The temperature of the hot spring was as warm as the water in the hot tub. But it was a little bit too hot for such a summer like day. It was hard to believe that we were soaking by the border and looking at Mexico across the narrow Rio Grande River. The currents of the river were fast. Some said it might be 8 to 9 feet deep. Looking up to the cliffs, ocotillos with red blossoms reached up to the blue sky. Cacti and other desert plants decorated the cliffs. What a place to soak in the natural hot springs!


Weiwei and Stephen Riding Donkeys to Boquillas, Mexico. Photo by the Mexican Guide


Weiwei at Boquillas, Mexico. Photo by Stephen Jones



A Display of Handicrafts on the Street of Boquillas.

The main reason I came to the Big Bend was to ride a donkey in the small village, Boquillas, Mexico. The Port of Entry opens from Wednesday to Sunday in winter. We made the excursion on Wednesday, our last day in Big Bend. As soon as we walked to the river, the Mexican man started to row the international ferry crossing the border – the Rio Grande River. It only cost $5 for a round trip. Only a couple of minutes, we landed on Mexican soil. A stable filled with donkeys, horses, and Mexican guides was located right by the bank. Stephen got on a white donkey, and I rode a brown donkey. My little brown donkey followed the white donkey riding on the sandy road towards Boquillas. The floodplain was lush with low growing green desert trees, and masses of yellow and white wildflowers shined on the sandy soil. It didn’t take long for us to arrive at Boquillas, a small village at the foot of Sierra del Carmen. Small shops lined the street with handicrafts and souvenirs. There were lots of embroidery crafts, such as aprons, bottle cooling cuffs, purses, and tortillas towels, and so on and so forth. “No Wall” were printed on T-shirts or embroidered on crafts. Other crafts included painted wooden canes as well as small iron wire crafts shaped into scorpions, cactus and roadrunners, etc. I bought a purse with an embroidery donkey with a small straw hat sewed to it.


Jose Falcon’s Restaurant. Photo by Stephen Jones

The Jose Falcon’s restaurant has a gift shop with local crafts and beyond. The owner of the restaurant told me that Boquillas is a remote village which is 160 miles of dirt road from the closest town. Each week they spend two days to get the supply for the business. I asked them if they have AC in summer. The answer was no and she said that they only have solar power in town. Once a mining town, now a town mainly relies on tourism. She liked the design of the purse I just bought from another store and showed me the handicrafts she designed and made. I bought a bottle of vanilla, a basket from her store. The restaurant has tiled floor and was crowded with American tourists. An elderly Mexican man wearing a straw hat played guitar and sang Mexican songs by the patio. I had 5 mini corn tacos stuffed with ground beef, cabbage and tomatoes. They were good with salsa. Stephen had chicken tortillas. From the patio, the sweeping view of Rio Grande, Boquillas Canyon, Sierra del Carmen, and the Chisos Mountains was magnificent. Returning to the U.S., we scanned our passports on the kiosk, and declared the stuffs we bought in Mexico over the phone. Our adventure to Mexico was a success again.

We only experienced a small slice of Big Bend. The diversity of its landscape, plants and animals are outstanding due to its many ecotones (the transition area). The super desert bloom, the distinctive Chisos Mountains and Chisos Basin, the gigantic Santa Elena Canyon, the hot springs soaking by the border, and the donkey ride to Boquillas made our Big Bend adventure a joyful one.


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