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Trip 10, Park 1: Big Bend National Park

Big Bend is a very large national park; it is ranked seventh in size for national parks in the continental United States and is larger than the state of Rhode Island. It is also one of the most remote parks in the continental United States, but well worth the effort to get there. The park is almost like three parks in one because of the geographic variety of the terrain -- a mountainous forest, a stark desert, and grassy riverine areas. It's worth a multi-day visit to be able to experience all the sections of the park.

The Chisos Mountains form the heart of the park and are the only mountain range in the United States to be fully contained within the boundary of a national park. This is also where the only lodging in the park is located, although camping is available in other areas. There are several hiking trails to enjoy the mountain habitat. We hiked the Chisos Basin Loop Trail (about 2 miles roundtrip), which provided nice vistas of the mountains, and the Window View Nature Trail, which gave a nice view of the 'window' between the mountains looking down into the basin area. There are also several longer trails in the vicinity of the lodge. It was worth staying at the lodge mainly because it enabled us to explore the park over a couple of days, although the accommodations themselves were not great. Staying outside of the park boundaries would have been very difficult due to distance and very limited hotel availability. There was also a restaurant and bar at the lodge, which we enjoyed (no brew pubs for this part of the trip!). The lodge will be undergoing a complete renovation starting in spring 2024 and should have expanded capabilities once the rebuild is complete.

The west side of the park includes the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, with great views of the Chihuahuan Desert landscape. (The desert landscape was the predominant one throughout the park...we saw a lot of scrub and cacti!) The drive ends at the Santa Elena Canyon, which is one of Big Bend's most scenic spots. The canyon cuts through what seems like a solid wall of rock, forming an opening for the Rio Grande River to flow. There is a relatively easy 1.4-mile hike that takes you into the canyon along the river. There is also an overlook area of the canyon which provides a nice perspective of the mountains and canyon (see the video). We also stopped at several locations along the scenic drive to do short hikes, including at Tuff Canyon, the Mule Ears View Point, and the Sotol Vista.

The Rio Grande Village is on the east side of the park, where we hiked into the Boquillas Canyon along the Rio Grande River (about 1.5 miles). The river is not very wide here and Mexico was literally a stone's throw away across the water! We also hiked the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail, which begins on a boardwalk over a marshy area then climbs a hillside with views of the river and mountains. The area also includes a hot spring, which formerly housed the historic Langford Hot Springs Resort, remnants of which still remain. A short walk past the historic buildings takes you to the remains of a bathhouse on the banks of the river, where bathing in the 105 degree water is permitted.

The north part of the park includes the Fossil Discovery Exhibit, which we found educational and enlightening. The exhibit includes fossils excavated in Big Bend, some of which have been found nowhere else in the world. The bones on display give a good sense of the enormous size of some of these dinosaurs, including the largest known flying creature of all time and a ginormous crocodile, large enough to eat other dinosaurs! A short trail leads to an overlook of the area of the Chihuahuan desert where some of these fossils have been found.

In terms of wildlife, our most interesting sightings were of a tarantula and a road runner. We also saw several deer near the Chisos Mountains Lodge. Other visitors to the lodge said they saw a black bear near the lodge, although we personally did not encounter any bears.

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