A Road Trip Through Big Bend National Park
Seems like there's a lot of talk about the U.S.—Mexico border these days, usually from folks who don't live anywhere near it and who perhaps have never even been there. That's a shame, not just for all the rich cultural and political implications of understanding the region, but also because it is home to one of the most beautiful jewels in our National Park Service: Big Bend National Park. Here, in West Texas, the Rio Grande winds through stunning limestone cliffs, the warm breezes quickly dry you after a paddle downriver, and the vistas are as limitless as the dreams of the people who've traversed this borderland for centuries. In hopes that you'll embrace this unique landscape, Budget Travel shows you how to get here, find reliable lodging and good eats, and get the most out of one of the least-visited—and most majestic—of our parks.
Texans, getting to the beauty of Big Bend ain’t easy. But that’s one of the charming things that have kept the park a “hidden gem.” The nearest airport is in Midland, more than 160 miles to the northeast. Best known as the city where future vice president and president George H.W. Bush made his name in the oil industry, and where one of his sons, future president George W. Bush, did the same, Midland has been booming in recent years thanks to the hotter-than-ever business of drilling and refining oil. But even Midland’s residents admit that it’s not exactly a tourist magnet, and most of the Big Bend-bound will pile into their rental cars and head southwest on Interstate 20.
Spend a comfortable night in Marathon at the Gage Hotel (102 NW 1st St., Highway 90 West, Marathon, Texas, 432/386-4205), which includes a historic original hotel plus a variety of rooms, suites, and houses on the property at a variety of price points, including 16 rooms in the original hotel, 20 adobe brick rooms in the Los Portales property surrounding a courtyard with a fountain, and a number of historic homes. A steak or seafood dinner at the on-site 12 Gage restaurant (102 NW 1st St. Highway 90 West, Marathon, Texas, 432/386-4205) is utterly called for, followed by a drink at the White Buffalo Bar, even if you belly up to the bar just to see the massive head of the distinctive eponymous animal mounted on the wall. Next morning, spend some time getting to know this authentic western town. Don’t leave town without chowing down—you won’t find restaurants on your drive through the park. Shirley’s Burnt Biscuit (109 NE 1st., Marathon, Texas, 432/386-9020, legendary fluffy biscuits with sausage gravy and fried pies including apple, cherry, pecan, nad peach) is a highly recommended spot for breakfast or lunch—their huge biscuits and satisfying sausage gravy are the fuel you’ll need for a day in the park, and, if you have room, their array of fried pies (don’t judge, just enjoy) won’t disappoint either.
Because Big Bend National Park has ample spots for picnicking but few places to actually buy food, make sure your car is stocked with snacks or lunch and plenty of water (a gallon per person per day is recommended). Then hit U.S. 385 South toward Big Bend. You’ll soak up about 69 miles of expansive West Texas scenery on your way to Panther Junction. Stop at the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center for maps, brochures, and to ask park rangers for advice about the day’s weather and park conditions. At Panther Junction, take some time out to explore the Panther Trail, a self-guided nature tour that is a nice introduction to the desert landscape you’ll be exploring (a trail map is available at the visitor center), before driving the 19 miles to the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which will take you through the heart of the park. The trip from Panther Junction to the western side of the park and its stunning Santa Elena Canyon can be done in one day, but if you intend to stop at many of the overlooks (and we suggest that you do!) or take the hiking trails that allow you to explore dry waterfalls, canyon floors, historic ranches, and other one-of-a-kind sights here, you should consider either camping in the park or returning after a night in a hotel to spend at least one more day taking in this amazing place.
BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is one of those unforgettable stretches of road that unfolds before you in a series of vistas and experiences. Like better-known drives in better-known parks, such as Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, and Glacier, this is a carefully plotted out route that is literally part of the land, allowing you both convenience and authenticity at the same time.
Stop off at the Sam Nall Ranch, the evocative remains of one of the many homestead ranches that once dotted this landscape. Here, you’ll see an original windmill that still pumps out water and is a magnet for some of the park’s thirsty wildlife, including javelinas, painted buntings, green-tailed towhees, and mockingbirds.
The Blue Creek Ranch Overlook offers another look at one of the ranches that were active here before it became a park. You'll look down at the Homer Wilson Ranch and, if you like, follow a short trail down to the ranch buildings and to additional hiking opportunities on the Blue Creek Canyon and Dodson trails.
Don't miss the Sotol Vista Overlook—one of those awesome spots that our National Park Service does so well. Here, high above the floor of the desert you'll be able to scan the western side of the park and whet your apetite for the majestic Santa Elena Canyon, which you'll see in the distance. (Don't worry, you'll get to the see the canyon up close later in the day and it's worth the wait.)
Burro Mesa Pour-Off requires you to pull off on a mile-and-a-half side road to get to the clifffs of the Burro Mesa, where you can take a short half-mile hike into a canyon and savor the desert foliage and a waterfall that does not, in fact, "pour off" at all—it's dry.
From the Mule Ears Overlook you'll take in the distant twin peaks and won't have to ask how they got their funny name. If you're up for more hiking and can afford to add some time to your stay, find the two-mile trail from teh overlook's parking area that takes you to a desert spring. Another overlook along the highway lets you view Tuff Canyon (named for the volcanic ash taht formed the rocks—which isn't actually "tough" but rather soft.)
Castolon Historic District will seem like a bustling little city compared with the trails and overlooks you’ve been enjoying. It’s a preserved district that was a cavalry camp at the turn of the last century. Spend some time at the visitor center, but the most fascinating place in the district is La Harmonia Store. On the surface it’s an ordinary convenience store, but the shop’s history is extraordinary, dating back more than a century to the days when the border between the United States and Mexico was far more porous than it is today and government resources were stretched thin. The store played an important rold in the coming and going of Americans and Mexicans back and forth across the border, touching on not only commerce but also law enforcement and even international relations.
If you're not quite ready to move on to the far western side of Big Bend just yet, you can spend a night at the nearby Cottonwood Campground for $14 per night (no hook-ups, just 24 campsites with pit toilets, grills, and clean running water.)
Big Bend saves the best for last. The Santa Elena Overlook provides a stunning look down Santa Elena Canyon, cut into the limestone over the eons by the Rio Grande. Marvel at the 1,500-foot- high canyon walls and the fact that the left wall of the canyon is in Mexico, the right in the United States. If you’ve got time, or if you come back after a good night’s sleep, follow the trail along the river that takes you down to the canyon floor. Better still, contact Big Bend River Tours (FM 170 West, Terlingua, Texas, 432/371-3033, offers floats, hikes, and other tours of Big Bend National Park) and sign up for a float down the gentle, shallow waters of the Rio Grande with the canyon walls on either side.
Tuckered? Of course you are. Drive into Terlingua dusty and damp and check into the El Dorado Hotel (Highway 170, Terlingua, Texas, 800/371-3588), a reliable option near the park in this former ghost town. Yes, you read that right—the mining community of more than 2,000 cleared out after WWII and in the ’70s folks began coming back. These days, the hotel and its High Sierra Bar & Grill (Highway 170, Terlingua, Texas, 432/371-3282) are a great outpost for visitors to the western side of Big Bend.
National Parks Closed? Try These State Parks and Local Attractions Instead
In these bizarre times, it's best to keep an open mind, especially when the government suddenly throws a wrench in your national park vacation plans. As Budget Travel's Digital Editor, I've been keeping track of how the recent shutdown has affected the travel industry—and it isn't pretty. For starters, more than 800,000 "non-essential" government workers are temporarily out of a job and most, if not all, of the country's National Parks and Monuments have been closed. You're not even allowed to stop on roads that happen to go through National Parks to take a photo. Camping enthusiasts around the country were given a 48-hour grace period to vacate the parks, while others who held reservations for National Park lodges were technically allowed to stay, though not permitted to hike or otherwise enjoy themselves while inside the park. I recently tried to get ahold of my usual media connection for the TSA to see if the shutdown reached as far as the airline industry, but alas, my email to him was returned, as he had, as it turns out, been furloughed as well. Still, for those seeking take a trip anytime in the forseeable future, all is not lost. In the coming days, prepare to be flexible with your travel plans and check in with the state or county tourism office, local outfitters, and guide services for updates and insider tips on what's currently open and available in the area you wish to visit. Has the shutdown shut down your National Park vacation? Try these alternative State Parks and nearby local attractions instead: UTAHRather than mourning the closure of popular parks like Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Zion, the Utah Office of Tourism has come up with a list of 50 Awesome Alternatives to Utah's National Parks, a lineup of State Parks and other points of natural beauty and historical significance that are also worth a visit. All Navajo Nation Tribal Parks are currently open as well, including Little Colorado River Navajo Tribal Park, Lake Powell Navajo Tribal Park, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Four Corners Monument, Bowl Canyon Recreation Area, and Window Rock Navajo Tribal Park. Among the many alternatives for visiting Arches and Canyonlands are Dead Horse Point State Park, Edge of the Cedars State Park, Goblin Valley State Park (pictured above), Goosenecks State Park, while those for Capitol Reef include Anasazi State Park, Horseshoe Canyon, and Otter Creek State Park. Alternatives for visiting Bryce Canyon include Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Kodachrome Basin State Park, and Red Canyon, while alternatives to Zion include Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Gunlock State Park, Quail Creek State Park, Sand Hallow State Park, and Snow Canyon State Park. Please click on the links above for a full list of alternative parks, monuments, and scenic byways; visit this website for updates on park closures. SOUTH DAKOTABadlands National Park and Mount Rushmore are both closed at the moment, but that doesn't mean your trip to this part of the country is ruined. Custer State Park is located just an hour's drive south of Mount Rushmore and is one of those places where reaching it is half the fun—there are plenty of twisting mountain roads, gorgeous views, and incredible wildlife encounters to keep you on your toes, and very few places on earth where you can actually get stuck in traffic because a herd of buffalo decided to cross the road, so keep those cameras handy! Once inside the park, opt to spend the night camping in the South Dakota wilderness or visit one of the Custer State Park Resorts—I stayed at The Game State Lodge, a beautiful historic property that once served as the "Summer White House" for President Coolidge in 1927 and was later visited by President Eisenhower in 1953. The best part: it's the launching point for Buffalo Safari Jeep Tours, a spectacularly intimate way to get up close and personal with the park's diverse wildlife—we drove right up to a grazing herd of bison, past fields of noisy prairie dogs, and ended the night with a traditional chuck wagon cookout. Admission to Custer State Park costs $4 per person per day, or pay $15 per vehicle for up to seven days. Children ages 11 and under get in free. Rooms at The Game State Lodge start at $115 a night. Adults pay $82 each—children ages 12 and under pay $62—for the Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour plus Chuck Wagon Cookout. Prices for just the Jeep Safari are $43 for adults, $36 for kids 12 and under. Prices for just the Chuck Wagon Cookout are $47 for adults and $37 for kids 12 and under. Rather than harp on how you won't be able to get a close up shot of Mount Rushmore, visit nearby Crazy Horse Memorial, soon to the be the world's largest mountain carving, and located about a 30-minute drive southwest of Mount Rushmore, just 10 minutes outside of Custer. Luckily for visitors, Crazy Horse Memorial is privately funded, meaning no matter how bad things get in D.C., it will still stay open. Don't leave without trying the Tatanka Stew at The Laughing Water Restaurant (it's delicious!). Visit the museum to learn more about one of the Sioux's most famous leaders and to view Native American artifacts from around the area. You can even take a $4 bus ride to the foot of the mountain for a closer look at the stone carving, still a privately-run work in progress, or you can make a personal donation of $125 or more per person and get an escorted trip to the top of the mountain carving to meet the famous warrior face to face. Admission is free for Native Americans, military personnel with a valid I.D., uniformed Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, and residents of Custer County, SD. General admission is $10 per adult or $27 per car; those on motorcycles are charged $5 per rider. NEW MEXICOWhile all 13 National Park Service units in New Mexico—including Carlsbad, Gila, White Sands, Chaco and Bandelier, among others—are currently closed, the bright spot is you can still visit portions of Petroglyph National Monument since the Boca Negra Canyon and Piedras Marcadas Canyon sections are technically owned by the City of Albuquerque. Another good thing about New Mexico: there are several opportunities to explore Pueblo culture on tribal lands. A great day trip from Albuquerque is the Sky City Cultural Center at the Acoma Pueblo, located 60 miles west of the city center, where tours are given daily and you'll get a chance to meet the locals of the longest-inhabited city in the U.S. If you prefer to stay closer to town, take a ride on the scenic Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway for some of the best views in New Mexico, and stop by the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center for a taste of Albuquerque's unique history and culture. Admission to the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway costs $20 for adults and $17 for seniors over age 62, active military with a valid I.D., and teens ages 13-20; children under age 5 get in free and those between 5-12 pay $12. Admission to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is $6 for adults over 18, $5.50 for seniors over age 62, $4 for residents of New Mexico, and $3 for students with a valid I.D. and for children ages 5-17; children under 5 get in free. HAWAIIVisiting the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor is a major bucket list item, and unfortuntely, it's not possible as long as the Congressional craziness continues, however, you can still visit the Battleship Missouri Memorial next door. You'll be able to experience a special complimentary pier-side interpretation of what happened the morning of December 7th, 1941, from the 1,000-foot long pier located a few hundred feet from the closed USS Arizona Memorial. You also have the option to pay admission for access to and tours of the Battleship itself. On nearby Ford Island, the Pacific Aviation Museum gives visitors a look at the way the are was impacted by the attack on Pearl Harbor—you can still see bullet holes in the outer walls of some of Ford Island's buildings if you look closely enough. General admission to the Battleship Missouri Memorial is $22 for adults and $11 for children ages 4-12. Military personnel and Hawaiian residents can obtain special discounts with a valid I.D. Admission to the Pacific Aviation Museum is $20 for adults and $10 for children ages 4-12.
Yellowstone May Be Your Best-Ever Winter Break!
I'll admit it. When it comes to our national parks, I'm a fair-weather friend. I've lingered for days in Glacier at the height of its summer splendor, popped into Yosemite for a peep at its fall foliage—but when it comes to winter in the parks, I've only ogled the classic Ansel Adams photographs, sighed, and solemnly vowed that some day I'll get there in what is somewhat erroneously referred to as the "off-season." This year, the Yellowstone Association Institute (YAI) proves that Yellowstone National Park does not go into hibernation mode with the first snowfall. YAI has put together a new slate of fall and winter field seminars, private tours, and "lodging and learning" programs that may actually get me out of New York and into the mountains. With 35 field seminars, including eight brand-new programs, Yellowstone will be hopping all winter, putting up eager visitors at cabins and bunkhouses at the Buffalo Ranch in the Lamar Valley and at log cabins at the Overlook Field Campus in Gardiner, Mont. New programs include: The Wildlife Weekend Escape. Spend two days (December 14-15) in the Lamar Valley searching for bison, elk, and Yellowstone's renowned wolves ($220). Old Faithful Fall Photography. Shutterbugs will visit the area's rivers, geysers, geologic formations, and wildlife at dawn and dusk October 16-19 ($358). Wildlife on the Hoof. Focusing on bighorn sheep, bison, elk, moose, and other hooved mammals, this program is held during migration and mating season, November 23-25 ($330). Visitors can also book private tours tailored to families and small groups or "lodging and learning" programs offered in partnership with Xanterra Parks & Resorts. To learn more, visit yellowstoneassociation.org.
You've Never Seen Anything Like This Yosemite Video!
One year ago, 30 filmmakers descended on Yosemite National Park, in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, and spread out to shoot the locations, people, and animals that make the park one of the most popular travel destinations in the U.S. The result is not just a solid, accurate depiction of what the park looks like on a beautiful day in early summer, but it also has something extra, an ineffable, tranquil beauty that is quite moving. Watch the video! TALK TO US! Have you visited Yosemite? Did this video bring back happy memories? Are you planning a trip to Yosemite? Did this video help inspire you?
A Great New Yosemite Guidebook
Though I'm something of a travel website and app junkie, I have to admit that one of the best travel resources I've come across lately is a good old-fashioned book. That's right—paper and ink and everything. The Road Guide to Yosemite, published by the Yosemite Conservancy, is the national park guidebook of my dreams. Designed to match up with newly placed markers throughout Yosemite National Park, the book takes you down all 200+ miles of the park's roads, noting not just what you'll see out your car window but also where you should stop, what you should do when you stop (including hiking trails and photo ops), and in many cases sharing tidbits of natural and human history along the way. Written by Master Interpretive Ranger Bob Roney, who has worked at the park since 1968, the book boasts full-color maps, illustrations that provide background on the landscape's geological and botanical variety, and a cast of characters that includes Sierra Club founder John Muir, photographer Ansel Adams (who made his first trip to Yosemite at the age of 14 and took his first images of the park with a Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie camera), and President Theodore Roosevelt. The Road Guide to Yosemite fulfills the wish of the park's earliest rangers, who hoped to teach the public to "read" the Yosemite's roadsides like a book. From iconic one-of-a-kind sights like Half Dome and El Capitan to lesser-known paths and meadows, this is the one book you'll want under your arm as you explore this gem in Northern California's Sierra Nevada Mountains. Spring is a great time to visit Yosemite National Park, with the park's waterfalls brimming over, most roads open, and mild temperatures during the day. Check out road conditions, weather, and any special seasonal considerations at nps.gov/yose. TALK TO US! We want to know: what's your favorite travel guide?