The original plan was to wait until we were tired of the cold Winter weather and then we would go someplace warm for relief. Instead, the 2015-2016 Winter was the warmest in recorded history. In Austin, there was no cold from which to get relief. I think I wore my coat twice. But we still needed a vacation, so we packed up Emily’s Honda Element with a week’s worth of supplies and drove into the desert.
Thursday: Dagger Flat Illegal Campsite
After stopping in Ft. Stockton for groceries, we finally made it to Big Bend National Park. It was after hours and the visitor center was closed. We decided to drive into the park to look for a place to camp and we would pay for our permits the next morning. After a short drive, we turned onto Dagger Flat Auto Trail and almost immediately found a clearing where we parked and setup camp. Emily opened the kitchen, while I dug a latrine.
It was already dark and we were tired from the long drive, so Emily prepared a modest meal of ramen. Boiling the water on the butane stove took far too long and I began to suspect that the stove would not be adequate.
Our first night served as a real world test of the sleeping platform that Emily and I recently built out of plywood. The platform was two boxes that folded away to make room for the front seats and storage while driving. Once camped, the front seats could be shoved all the way forward and the boxes extended to make a sleeping berth that splits the Element cabin space in half horizontally. This allows a sleeping platform on top and storage space underneath. Otherwise, all the gear would have to come out of the car at night. It was a good design, but we suspected that we had used plywood that was just a bit too thin and the open-ended nature of the boxes with fold-down sides might not provide enough stability to hold our weight. The boxes creaked and groaned as we tentatively crawled onto the bed, but the boxes held and functioned perfectly.
Unfortunately, we had only packed a sheet and a couple of blankets which were not adequate for the temperatures that dropped into the 40’s that night. I had packed flannel sleepwear, but Emily had been less practical and suffered for it that night. I did my best to keep her warm, but she had a miserable night trying to sleep in the cold. Still, we were camping!
Friday: Terlingua, DOM Rock, Big Bend Resort & Adventures
The next morning, I got up and made some camp coffee while Emily slowly stirred out of bed. After breakfast, we drove to the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center at the park entrance to pay our fees. After an awkward and confusing conversation with one of the park rangers, we drove to the Panther Junction Visitor Center and found a much more helpful park ranger. We told him what we had done that night before and he told us that was not a legal campsite and if a park ranger had happened upon us, we would have been issued a ticket. He also informed us that there were no campsites available for that night, but he helped us select and reserve campsites for the remaining three nights of our trip. Though we hadn’t mentioned such a requirement, the park ranger had a charming concern for our “privacy” and selected campsites that were remote, or at the end of a road.
Not having a campsite in the park that night was actually perfect. I had wanted to show Emily the Terlingua Ghost Town and (of course) the DOM Rock, which was just a few more miles up the road, but I wasn’t sure if we would have the time. Like our Marfa trip, I thought my plans might have been too ambitious. But losing a night in the park gave us the time we needed. We still had the better part of the day to explore, so we decided to drive the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which circumnavigates a good portion of the park and gave us a good overview of the area.
The view from the trailhead to the Homer Wilson Ranch.
An ash flow along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.
Volcanic rock formations along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.
We drove out of the park and were heading towards the Terlingua Ghost Town when we approached the old location of La Kiva. The unique La Kiva had closed in 2014 after the mysterious murder of its owner and the last time I had looked online, it was still closed with no mention of new ownership. As we passed, I looked over and much to my surprise, there were cars in the parking lot! We turned around and sure enough, it was open! I was thrilled, because I just knew that Emily would enjoy this strange watering hole and its unusual artistic details.
We ordered a couple of local beers and the bartender told me they had reopened the bar in October. The kitchen was still closed, but there were plans to offer food in the near future. I would have liked to have spent more time there, but daylight was burning and we needed to get supplies before the stores closed. I also wanted to go see the DOM Rock and we still needed to find a place to camp for the evening.
Emily on La Kiva’s petrified tree throne.
In Terlingua, Emily bought a nice, cold-weather Coleman sleeping bag that could be unzipped to make a warm comforter for us. Once that critical provision was acquired, we set off for dinner at the High Sierra Bar & Grill in the Terlingua Ghost Town.
Emily’s film noir portrait of me at the High Sierra Bar & Grill located in the Terlingua Ghost Town.
After dinner and a couple of local beers, we drove up the road to the DOM rock. The DOM rock is featured in the 1984 film FANDANGO, which is one of my favorite films. The DOM rock is simply a large rock with the word “DOM” carved into it. In the film, it is the intended destination of a group of friends on an epic road trip from Austin to the border of Mexico. The film is loosely based on the true story of such a road trip made by the director, Kevin Reynolds, and his college friends in the 1970’s. So, at the same site is the original DOM rock made by Reynolds and his friends and the larger one made for the film.
The DOM Rocks.
I made sure to screen FANDANGO for Emily before we left on our trip, so that she could appreciate the pilgrimage. This was my second time to visit the DOM rocks, the first was in 2013.
The rock ledge on which Gardner Barnes (Kevin Costner) toasts his friends, “Here’s to us, by God…”
One of the only photos of us together this trip.
As night fell, we drove back towards Terlingua. On the way, we heard the chirps of a bat as it followed us through the dark, winding hills. Our headlights attracted insects and the bat was following us like a dolphin in the wake of a boat. We also got a good look at a gray fox running down the road. As he scrambled up an embankment, I stopped the Element at an angle to better see the cute critter. He looked back at us for a moment and then scurried on his way. In town, $16 got us a space at the Big Bend Resort & Adventures RV Park.
Emily rests on her new sleeping bag/comforter in our sleeping berth.
Saturday: Hot Springs, La Noria
The next morning, we took advantage of the amenities including the empty break room, where we helped ourselves to the Wi-Fi and the complimentary coffee. I thought the coffee was fine, but Emily found it to be so repulsive that she had to throw it out. After another supply run for a new (more powerful) propane stove and a hat for me, we drove to the Hot Springs Historic District of the park. Yes, even when we go to the desert, we always find the water.
The Hot Springs Village Post Office.
Emily splashes in the Rio Grande.
When Emily gets tired of me taking pictures of her, she usually gives me an incredulous or exasperated look or she will put her finger up her nose or stick her tongue out at me. Here she hides behind a tree branch. She’s right there, near the center of the photo.
Pictographs on the limestone cliffs near the hot springs.
Tree on the trail to the hot springs.
The limestone cliffs along the trail to the hot springs.
Emily sits on the ruined wall of the Langford bathhouse on the bank of the Rio Grande. The source of the hot springs is by her foot.
Inside the hot springs pool.
The hot springs were beautiful and inviting, but we had failed to bring our swimwear from the car so we decided that we would return the next day.
Racing through the tunnel near the Rio Grande Overlook.
After the hot springs, we drove up Old Ore Road to our campsite, called La Noria. The rustic campsites are nothing more than a flat area scratched out of the scrub. The only amenity is a permanent bear-proof box in which to store food and refuse. The La Noria campsite is particularly rustic. It’s located in the flat, dry flood plains of Tornillo Creek and offers no protection from the sun or the wind. However, it has good (if distant) views of Chilicotal Mountain and the Deadhorse Mountains.
La Noria 1.
Sierra del Caballo Muerto – The Deadhorse Mountains
As the sun fell, we saw these interesting clouds (which we called jellyfish clouds) whose rain was evaporating before it could get to the ground.
After sundown, we were further rewarded with one of the most spectacular night skies I have ever seen. In fact, I couldn’t remember a time when I had seen a sky with no light pollution whatsoever. No matter where I have ever been, there is always something compromising the darkness. It was beautiful. We turned off all of the lights and lay back on the tailgate to watch the sky. We spotted satellites and falling stars. We stared deeply into the the distant galaxies of the Milky Way.
Sunday: Hot Springs, Rio Grande, K-Bar
The next morning, we woke to very high winds shaking the car and the sounds of camp items being strewn about. It was so windy that we had to put the propane stove inside the bear box to keep the flames from going out while we heated the water for coffee and oatmeal. We had wanted a more substantial breakfast, so we packed-up camp and drove back to the hot springs. But first we setup our kitchen under a beautiful group of palms. Everyone knows you should have two huge breakfasts before swimming.
Emily makes second breakfast on Easter morning in the desert oasis.
Emily in the Rio Grande.
The Boquillas Hot Springs has 105Â°F water that bubbles up from a hole in the old foundation of the Langford bathhouse.
After the hot springs, we drove to our next new campsite – K-Bar 2. This was my favorite campsite of the trip. It was at the end of a road and it afforded the best balance of beauty and privacy. K-Bar has good view of the Chisos Mountains to the northwest and Panther and Pommel Peaks towards the southwest. The Sierra del Carmen and Deadhorse Mountains can be seen to the east.
We dressed for dinner, because that’s just what we do and anyway, it was a special occasion – Emily’s first Hamburger Helper!
After dinner, we chased rabbits out in the field. I also found a huge quartz crystal.
Monday: Window, Pine Valley
After a day of mostly playing in the water, we decided to get serious and drive into the Chisos Mountains for a hike. For me, this was easily the most delightful day of the trip. We drove up the road and as we got into the mountains, I couldnâ€™t have been more surprised at what I saw. The mountains rose out of the Chisos Basin that was lush and green with trees! And there were signs warning of black bears! It was like I was suddenly in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
The Window from a distance.
A flowering cactus.
Another welcome flash of color.
Approaching The Window pour-off.
I was unsure of my footing on the slick rock, so I sat down and slid into the deep pocket closest to the edge. I stood to get take some photos, but the wind kicked me me back. My adventure hat has a clip on it and I had just secured it to my shirt when the wind tore the hat right off my head. I’m generally not afraid of heights or climbing, but the slick rock and high wind made me a little nervous. But the view was worth it.
The view from the edge.
and Tigers and Bears, oh my!
On the hike back, we ran into a bit of trouble. Emily ran out of water, so I gave her my pack, which still had some water left. Very soon after that, she said that she was out of water again. We were both hot and tired, so we joked about it just being a matter of time before we were dead. The hike was not really all that strenuous, but it was 85Â°F in the shade and we had been exposed to the sun for most of the afternoon. Emily was starting to get really hot. We finally made it to a campsite that had picnic tables under a covered pavilion. It also had cold running water. I filled our packs with water, while Emily took her boots off and tried to cool off.
We sat in the shade and drank our water for about half an hour and then I continued to hike back up to the car, while Emily continued to cool down. At the trailhead was an outpost with a general store, so I bought a couple of Gatorades and then drove the car back down to the campsite to pick-up Emily. She was feeling better and the Gatorade helped even more. The daylight was already starting to fade, so we drove to our next campsite – Pine Valley 3.
There was no sign of any pine trees, but the campsite was nestled in a nice little valley. This was probably the prettiest of the three campsites.
My kitchen in Pine Valley.
While Emily took a sponge bath and continued to cool off, I made dinner from the food we had left. We were essentially out of meat, so we had a vegetable medley with the last of the bacon and ranch style beans. As night fell, we sat back with smores and single malt whiskys. We watched the sky, looking again for satellites and shooting stars. In the darkness, we heard something walk through the camp, gravel crunching beneath its feet, but by the time we got a headlamp on, it was gone. Emily saw a kangaroo rat later in the evening, but I’m not convinced that was our mystery guest. Emily and I both had a start when, on separate occasions, we each walked away from camp in the darkness to go potty and our headlamps suddenly came across a man-sized cactus!
After such a full and exhausting day, we crawled into the Element and fell immediately to sleep.
Tuesday: Santa Elena Canyon
The next morning, I got up and watched a beautiful sunrise. I made the coffee and then suddenly felt ambitious, so I decided to push for the summit of the
mountain hill next to the camp. I was so excited that I didn’t even bother changing out of my flannel sleepwear.
The view from the summit.
From where I was standing on the hilltop I could look down and see Pine Valley and our camp below me. I could also see that Emily was stirring, so I shouted down to her as loud as I could, “Is breakfast ready? I’m hungry!” I was too far away to see if I got a dirty look.
Fouquieria splendens I found on the way down the hill.
After a lovely breakfast, we had time for one last hike before going home, so we packed-up camp and made our way to the majestic Santa Elena Canyon.
Santa Elena Canyon from the overlook.
On the Santa Elena Canyon Trail.
Looking upstream into the canyon at the end of the trail.
A French tourist took our picture!
Sheer cliffs rise 1500 ft. above the Rio Grande.
The trailhead of Santa Elena Canyon Trail, where the Rio Grande meets Terlingua Creek.
Emily’s parting shot to the Mule Ears Peaks that can be seen in the background. God, I’m so in love with this dork.
Big Bend is a treasure and we look forward to going back again soon!
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This was very interesting and the pictures were beautiful. Glad you had such a wonderful time. Mom