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Holiday Camping at Big Bend

By Tom Garrett - August 3rd, 2000

Big Bend National Park is in the middle of nowhere. Literally.

The reward for the journey is great, however. The Chisos are stunning in the early morning light, as multicolored hues flood across mountainsides miles wide. The pristine clarity of the morning air captivates and surprises you, and in a moment, you are rewarded for the grueling journey.

Big Bend is a special National Park. Christmas is a special season. A melding of the two is a wonderful way to spend the holidays.

To give perspective for the actual size of the park, it is 26 miles from the entrance to the Ranger Station. This is one of the places from which the legends of Texas Bigness have sprung. You take pictures and then discover they do not do justice to the hugeness, the empty singularity of the place.

The low desert in the holiday season can be incredibly beautiful, but before you can properly enjoy the trip, personal security and safety is vital in this remotest corner of Texas.

Make certain your vehicle is in excellent mechanical condition. A breakdown 40 miles from the park entrance in the middle of a blue norther, which is possible in late December, can be deadly. There is no such thing as "available water." Bring your own, and plenty of it. A new 5-gallon gas can works well for a resealable water container.

The weather in the Trans Pecos can vary wildly in temperature and demeanor. Make sure the clothing you take includes a season's worth of selection. Short sleeves as well as a heavy coat. A good rule of thumb for the weather is that it usually doesn't last long, unless it's summertime, which can seem endless. The summer heat is a splendid reason to visit the area in what is winter for the rest of the continental US.

A favorite method of attacking the Bend is to arrange for lodging for the first and last nights in the park. A reservation at any of the local hotels can be canceled on short notice, and it's always nice to have a hot shower and a warm bed right before and after a long drive but I have known those who traveled all night and arrived at 5 a.m. specifically to get a good campsite and skip the hotel expense.

In addition, one cannot reserve campsites in the Basin, a preferential camping area. To get the best sites, it is necessary to cruise the campground in the morning as people are departing for other locales, and deposit a cooler or other personal object on the picnic table as the site becomes available.

The region also offers acceptable hotels in the Lajitas area, about 35-40 miles west, and a road nationally known for its scenic beauty follows the Rio Grande, snaking through the mountains and leading to the border crossing at Presidio and Ojinaga.

Campsites also can be had in Lajitas which are comparable to those in the park and offer nearby showers and looming cottonwood trees for shade while affording a more westerly jumping off point for some ventures.

The South Rim loop is a stupendous hike, as is the hike to Emory Peak. Both of these trails offer rugged pathways and some challenging areas, but your chief concern should be water.

In the summer, a gallon a day is recommended, and while the lack of heat in the winter will make this a bit much, it is far better to carry it home than discover yourself in a water bind 10 miles from the trail head.

The challenging switchbacks running up the rills of the Chisos are beautiful in the extreme, but one's altitude should always be considered, especially in the short days of winter. Be sure a sufficiently early departure is in order. Keep a sharp eye on the weather while at altitude, which is around 5,000 feet at camp, on up to 7,777 feet on Emory Peak.

Activities in Big Bend are varied and for the most part, woefully un-utilized in winter. Horses can be rented in the Basin for day trips up to the South Rim, and there are plenty of trails of varying degrees of difficulty in the mountains.

Canoe and raft trips can be arranged in the nearby town of Lajitas, and a pickup or 4WD vehicle provides the necessary means to explore the region between the Chisos and the Rio Grande, the River Road, although precious little of the Rio Grande is visible on the trip. The bumpy but delightful journey rewards the traveler with sweeping vistas and interesting ruins dotting the way.

Sand Slide in Boquillas canyon is a wind-driven ramp of sand rising over 200 feet from the riverbed and ending in a wind-carved niche in solid rock. This formation is near Rio Grande Village, an alternate campground some 25 miles from the Basin, located on the banks of the river. This is the only location in the park that offers hot showers, and a side trip here is almost a must every other day.

The Window formation at dusk viewed from the road into the Basin is another spectacular vista, as is Santa Elena Canyon at dawn.

Ojinaga, (O-HEEN-aga) on the Mexican side, is a splendid destination for a day trip. It has a neat market, several interesting restaurants, and much less Anglo traffic than you would think.

Trip Planner

Getting there:Three paved roads lead to the park:
1) U.S. 385 from Marathon, Texas, to the north entrance
2) State Route 118 from Alpine, TX to the west entrance
3) Ranch Road 170 from Presidio to Study Butte, and then State Route 118 to the west entrance. Big Bend National Park headquarters is located 70 miles south of Marathon, TX and 108 miles from Alpine, TX via Hwy. 118

Address: Big Bend National Park, P.O. Box 129, Big Bend National Park, Texas 79834

Phone: (915) 477-2251


camping nowhere

I would not have such courage nowadays to go on a camping trip to nonwhere... I would choose Belek which is fun, safe and cheap. This is the best choice from my point of view.

Posted on March 8, 2009 - 11:29am
by Cristian

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