big bend national park

We drove to Texas to avoid being stranded at the El Paso airport. Originally we were going to fly into El Paso a few days before Christmas, rent a vehicle, loop down to Big Bend, and then head north to a few other national parks around the TX/NM border. After a few too many stories from friends and family about canceled flights, combined with an unpleasant update from American Airlines, we got a refund for our tickets and decided to drive to Texas instead. Yes, drive. For 25 hours. Just two years ago we were doing little 2-3 hour drives around North Carolina and here we are attempting a cross country road trip. Not sure how we got to this point! 

From the beginning, Greg was obsessed with the Rio Grande. Could we swim in it?? Should we bring a raft?? Were there any whitewater rapids?? The answer to all of these questions appeared to be no, due to time of year and water depth. I was more concerned with other preparations, mainly maps and menu planning. Our neighbor Ed, who’s really a kid at heart, talked through every step of the route with us, made sure we were stocked with car activities like road trip bingo, and even contributed a box of diapers for Rachel! We borrowed a cooler large enough to hold provisions for two weeks, and most importantly, updated our “ramble” playlist with every Texas-themed song you can imagine. 

I broke the drive into three “easy” 8-hour days so we would arrive in Texas fresh and energetic, instead of limp and bedraggled. The first day took us to Mobile, Alabama, with a stop along the Chattahoochee River outside Atlanta and a visit to the historic Tuskegee area in Montgomery, AL. 

I tried out a new idea for this trip and brought my instant pot to make dinner in our hotel room. Apparently this is pretty popular with large family travelers! I was surprised at how well it worked. Pictured (above) is our first dinner, at a Home2 in Mobile – of spaghetti and meatballs. Chaotic, yes, but also simple and tasty. 

Day 2 was a tour of Louisiana, through New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Lake Charles, complete with pralines and an Ella Fitzgerald soundtrack. We stayed that night in Houston, where we did not see Dan Crenshaw but did have a fantastic gluten free dinner at Bellagreen. It was when we drove into warm sunny Houston, after two days of cold and gloomy rain, that I began to see why they call it God’s country.

Our third day was my favorite part of the route, going through San Antonio with a stop at the San Jose mission, our first glimpse of the Rio Grande in Del Rio, and a thrilling drive along the Mexico border as border patrols and military planes buzzed around us. We spent the night at a “casita” (tiny house) in the tiny town of Marathon, TX, only an hour from the entrance to Big Bend. It was here in Marathon that our trusty air mattress, a faithful companion on many road trips, died after an accidental run-in with a sharp metal bed frame. It was also here that Greg & I said to ourselves, what would we be doing this evening if we didn’t have a gaggle of children? The answer was sipping a fresh squeezed margarita at the highly rated White Buffalo Bar, so that is what we did and it was quite enjoyable. The children devoured a plate of guacamole + chips while we raised a glass to a successful trip deep into the heart of Texas.

It was immensely satisfying to drive into Big Bend after three days of travel! The landscape there is absolutely stunning. It literally took our breath away. Our first stop inside the park was the Fossil Discovery Exhibit, our first taste of the giant sky and incredible views at Big Bend. We spent a sunny afternoon at Boquillos Canyon (“little holes” in the rock) where my children’s main goal for the trip (seeing a cowboy) was fulfilled by Mexican men on horseback perched along the trail, displaying a variety of trinkets for sale. Enticed by mariachi music and the smell of fresh tortillas, Greg hopped into the Boquillos hot springs and swam across the Rio Grande (or as my children had begun to call it, “The Grande”). Was this an illegal border crossing? Perhaps. 

Eight months earlier, we had booked two small rooms at the Chisos Mountains Lodge, the only place to stay inside Big Bend. We checked into our rustic accommodations (i.e. no internet) and then headed back out for sunset at the Window View and stargazing snuggled up on our new Rumpl blanket. I have learned a few things about stargazing with kids since our experience at Shenandoah in 2020. First, it doesn’t happen right after sunset. Plan on at least an hour for the sky to get dark enough to see stars. Second, bring snacks. Third, it will always be colder than you think. Bring blankets. Fourth, it won’t be long. Little kids will get tired, which makes them restless and noisy, both of which disturb the rapturous stargazing experience you were hoping for. Aim for a few quiet minutes to marvel at the beauty of our night skies. 

The stargazing at Big Bend is fantastic. The sky looks like velvet, and it feels like you could reach out and touch the stars. We were so grateful to have a clear night and mild temperatures! 

We meandered through the west side of Big Bend on Thursday, making our way toward Santa Elena Canyon with stops along the way to run around at Sotel Vista and pick up a stamp at Castolon Visitor Center. There are five visitor centers at Big Bend and I had the fun idea to get stamps from all of them. We hiked Santa Elena Canyon, which has walls as tall as the Empire State Building, poked our toes into the chilly Rio Grande, and picnicked on the river bank where Greg taught Aaron Henry how to skip stones. 

We hiked Tuff Canyon on the way back toward Chisos and spent an hour on the canyon floor making a city of rock cairns. We could have stayed even longer if someone hadn’t filled up her diaper and needed to be changed. There was some excitement on the drive back when Greg spotted a tarantula on the road. 

Our second night was another amazing sunset at Window View and showers for everyone. We got up super early Friday morning to hike the Chisos Basin loop at sunrise before driving up to El Paso for Shabbat. Our main memory from the Chisos Basin hike is, sadly, not the beautiful sunrise or scenery, but the time when Eva picked up a prickly pear and spent the next half hour wailing as Greg picked cactus spines out of her fingers. Apologies to anyone who was out for a peaceful morning stroll that day. 

Big Bend is my new favorite park! I loved our time there and I’m so proud of my tiniest explorer!

When we left Friday morning, it felt like we should be heading home – but instead we had another week of travel and three more parks ahead of us.

To be continued…

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