Think remote – really remote!
The little town of Marathon, TX is the closest town to the northern border of Big Bend National Park. We chose to stay in Marathon because Our Way is longer than the maximum length RV recommended for this park. When we finally arrived at the visitors center, we were glad we left the RV back in Marathon. It took over an hour to get to the park border and another half hour to get to the northern-most visitors center, Panther Junction.
And we thought Marathon was remote…it has nothing on Big Bend!
This park is a huge place, encompassing more than 1,200 square miles of west Texas (or 801,163 acres). Most of the park is in the Chihuahuan Desert, a rough, desolate place. Yet, in the center of the park (and desert) are the Chisos Mountains which are home to pine and juniper forests as well as Emory Peak at 7,832′ of elevation. The third primary feature is the river area featuring 118 miles of the Rio Grande River that also serves as the US-Mexican border along the southern boundary of the park.
Ok, so it was Monday morning and we got an early start (yeah, for those of you who know Siobhan, right around noon!). The plan was to go to the Visitor’s Center, talk to a Park Ranger, find a short hike for the day and make plans for another, earlier visit on Tuesday. At the Panther Junction Ranger Station and Visitor Information Center we learned that it would take at least another half hour to drive to the Rio Grande Village or about 20 minutes to drive to the Chisos Mountains Lodge. The third option, Santa Elena Canyon Overlook and Cottonwood at the far west side of the park, was more than an hour’s drive past the Chisos Mountains Lodge. Remember, it took more than an hour and a half just to get to Panther Junction. We ruled that third option out pretty quickly!
The Rio Grande Village won the coin flip for Monday afternoon. The Chisos Mountains Lodge would have to wait until Tuesday. The drive to the Village was a lot like the ninety minute trek to get from Marathon to Panther Junction, desolate. It’s amazing how slowly the miles roll by when everything looks so barren, so little change in scenery. Anyway, a few miles before we got to the village there was a sign for “Hot Springs” pointing down a dirt road. Since that was the name of the previous National Park we visited and we had not actually gone in one of the springs there, we agreed to venture off-road in search of it here.
Siobhan was driving at the time and didn’t hesitate for even one second. She threw the Jeep into four-wheel drive and took off. The road was in pretty good shape as we started the journey as anyone could tell from the ear-to-ear smile on her face. It didn’t take long, though, for things to get interesting. The road split into one lane in each direction, winding along a gulley that must have been created by the last significant rain (no telling how long ago that was). When the road made a hairpin right turn as the other side of it fell off by four to five feet into the ditch, Siobhan’s eyes were wide open and her knuckles white! The trail (could no longer refer to it as a road) got bumpy enough to slow us to a crawl before merging back with the other lane, ending just a bit farther out at a parking area with room for about a ten vehicles. We found two there when we arrived. That was fun.
Oh, did I mention it’s kinda hot here…
The trailhead sign indicated the walk/hike to the Hot Spring was only about one mile and a half so we grabbed our Camelbaks (really small backpacks that also carry up to 100 oz of water) and headed on down the trail (after reading the warning signs about rattlesnakes, javelinas and scorpions, that is). There were four or five old out-of-use buildings, part of a long-ago settlement, that we explored along the way. In one of those areas we stumbled upon some hand-crafted wire sculptures of scorpions, hand-carved and painted walking sticks and a covered tin can. Seemed curious that it was just sitting there on the ground? Anyway, we continued our journey along the path at the bottom of some high cliffs to our left, tall reeds swaying to the breeze on our right. As we continued, we could hear the rush of the river flowing by, although we still could not see it. A short distance afterward, through the opening in the reeds on the right, we could see the Rio Grande River. Along the river’s edge we found the hot spring. It appeared as though a man-made frame of stone had been created around it, maybe 12′ x 12′ in size, to protect the natural hot spring from the river. The temperature of the spring felt warm, not hot. Disappointingly, only the small spot in one corner of the spring where it bubbled up out of the ground was clear. The rest of the pool area was full of green algae so we took a pass on this hot spring too. Fun to see just the same.
Another hiker arrived to explore the spring as we were heading out. He told us that he saw some guy ride his horse across the river, pick up the money from the can, drop off a couple more trinkets and ride back across the river. He pointed downstream across the river, indicating approximately where he had witnessed this entrepreneur illegally cross the border. He told us that he could see a “hut” built into the far bank of the Rio Grande, set in an advantageous position to monitor the contents of the tin can and the quantity of trinkets next to it.
As we made our way back toward the Jeep we looked more carefully at the trinkets to see that each had a price tag affixed to it. Knowing what the other hiker told us, we looked across the river, visually searching for the the hut and the horseback rider. Sure enough, we spotted the very well-hidden hut directly across the river, in Mexico! We didn’t see a person nor a horse but we assume we would see both very quickly if we were to take one of the trinkets without leaving money in the tin can!
We finished our hike and continued the drive on to Rio Grande Village to check it out. Sure didn’t take long to do that, though. The village consisted of one building that housed a tiny convenience type store, a laundromat and a gas pump. All closed at the time we arrived. There was also a small RV camping area not far from the building. Guess that was the village…not so memorable.
Since we were this far out into the park, we continued the drive to the Rio Grande and the Boquillas Canyon Overlooks. Both were interesting vantage points from which to view a small Mexican town just across the border (or river).
After a ninety minute drive north we were exiting the park boundary, heading back to Marathon. We didn’t get too far up the road before we got routed into a U. S. Customs & Immigration Services Border Checkpoint. The two armed agents looked around the Jeep and asked us both for our identification. They quickly lost interest in me as an American citizen, however, things got tense for a few minutes as Siobhan (not a U.S. Citizen) searched for her permanent resident card. For a minute, she thought she might have left it in the RV back in Marathon and that seemed like it was going to be a serious issue. Everybody relaxed and the smiles returned once she found that card and we were allowed to continue our travels.
On Tuesday morning we were feeling tired of driving and really did not want to commit another four hours of our time to getting to the park and back so we didn’t get to the Chisos Mountains Lodge. Maybe next time. This choice caused us to decide that when a place is that remote, we will bring a go-bag so we can stay overnight if we are interested in further exploration the next day.
So Tuesday became a day to relax and enjoy exploring Marathon.
Next up – New Mexico.