Take a road trip to a national park on the Mexican border and a truly remarkable desert destination: Ruth Brindle drives.
Having many (many) years ago followed Route 66 across the U.S. in a Volkswagen caravanette with my husband and young son, and taken a diversion to south west Texas, I had always been yearning to go back there to experience it again.
In more recent times, my videographer son and I were to travel hundreds of miles to get to our ultimate stop – Big Bend National Park in the Badlands of the Chihuahuan Desert. It is one of the most remote areas of the lower 48 states and the most ecologically diverse park in the US with more species of birds (450), plants, butterflies, bats, reptiles (including rattlesnakes) and even more ants than any other.
It’s a protected area and its 800,000 acres nestle in the ‘bend’ of the Rio Grande river on the Texas-Mexico border. It is the only national park to contain a complete mountain range – the Chisos Mountains.
With a 6,000ft difference between its highest point Emory Peak to the desert low point, there can be extreme temperature differences, more of which later. This is a wild place and that’s why it is loved by its 440,000 visitors each year.
Wild indeed. We had been booked to stay in what must be one of the most eccentric, but fascinating hotels in the region – the Perry Mansion. It was once a wealthy businessman’s house, sitting on a slight hill looking out over the desert landscape and the tiny hamlet of Terlingua.
There’s parquet flooring, dark wood furnishings, Victorian fittings and wooden shutters. No TV or phone signal, but there is wi-fi! Thank goodness.
Plus a huge outdoor barbecue and a private fire pit where you can hold your own party.
I stayed in Mrs Perry’s Room furnished in antique style but with all modern comforts, including access to a huge balcony verandah from which to enjoy the sunset and the view of the Chisos Mountains and the distinctive Mule Ears peaks.
This tiny town is like walking into the past. Terlingua Ghost Town did not sound encouraging as we drove in, but it has quite a buzzing atmosphere as there are very few places here to stay or find a place to eat. It has a few homes, a shop and a restaurant, and is a mix between a hippy commune and an outpost from a Mad Max film.
If you are laid-back, take things as they come and feel yourself to be a throw-back to the hippy years, this is the place for you.
The famous and rather haunting cemetery is filled with the graves of mine workers who lived and worked in the area in the 1930s. Terlingua was rich in cinnabar, from which mercury is extracted.
You can sit on the porch in front of the Terlingua Trading Company, once the mining company’s store, and enjoy some impromptu music. Visitors strum on guitars which are left outside for any would-be musician to take up and play. The former cinema, now only open in the evening, is an extremely popular eatery with an amazing choice of dishes and a well-stocked bar. There’s a surprisingly large menu – mains are from around $10 (£7.75) for a burger or sandwich to $30 (£23) for steaks and also includes, surprisingly, venison, wild boar sausage, quail and antelope. There’s also ‘award-winning’ Terlingua chilli with cheese and onions.
On the first Saturday in November the town’s population swells to 10,000 with ‘chilliheads’ who flock in for two world-famous chilli cook-offs. In neighbouring Study Butte there is a well-stocked supermarket and ‘gas station’ to help visitors buy essentials and fill up for the miles ahead into Big Bend National Park itself.
Astronauts have studied the geology of this region and it has prehistoric treasures too. But we particularly loved the ‘romance’ and tranquility of the place. It’s where Indian tribes roamed and hardy settlers lived a very hard life. There are 200 miles of trails, ranging from short, even wheelchair accessible, to longer treks for the more hardy.
On our first day we headed to the spectacular Chisos Basin to take on the Lost Mine Trail, about a 30-minute drive away. A stop-off at the nearby Panther Junction visitor centre provides you with all the park information you need and plenty of advice. The trail is a 4.8 mile round trip and there were plenty of hikers striding off to tackle the whole route, but because of limited time, we stopped at the Juniper Canyon Overlook about a mile up to gawp at one of the best views in the park in the 80 degree sunshine.
Sadly, there is no ‘lost mine’ but it didn’t matter at all.
Another place to stay is the Chisos Mountain Lodge, where you can also have a meal, but it gets booked up quickly, so you have to plan ahead, although there are campgrounds in the park too.
Those changeable weather conditions kicked in spectacularly on our second day. A storm had moved in overnight and our planned excursion to Santa Elena Canyon, carved out by the Rio Grande with its 1,500ft rock walls, had to be delayed for a couple of hours because of icy roads! So a relaxed hot breakfast at Terlingua Ghost Town’s La Posada Milagro, Mexican dishes a speciality, was welcome.
Eventually the roads were opened up and we were on our way to the canyon, where I had camped all those years ago, along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive taking in desert and mountain vistas. It didn’t disappoint. We also stopped to take funny shots of ourselves in front of the ‘Mule Ears’.
But it was a return to the Chisos Basin that provided the big surprise of a frozen, winter wonderland, after the previous day’s hot sunshine.
If you love adventure, desert landscapes, a touch of the wild and free, this is definitely the place for you…. and me. Can’t wait to go back again.
Take an inflatable boat river trip along the Rio Grande with Big Bend River Tours in the nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park. The half-day float includes an elaborate ‘snack’ of crackers, cheese, fruit and goodies – tablecloth and all – at the water’s edge.
Stop off in….
Fort Davis National Historic Site, nestling beside the Davis Mountains and during its operational days between 1854-1891, a crucial outpost of protection for travelers, settlers and mail coaches from marauding Apache and Comanche Indians. Take a tour around the barracks, home at one time to 700 African American troops of the 9th US Cavalry. Learn about the Buffalo Soldiers, who got their nickname because the Indians likened their hair to the curly tuft on a buffalo’s head.
Have a coffee in the tiny town of Fort Davis, at Big Bend Coffee Roasters. Nearby, McDonald Observatory is a stargazing hot spot.
Look around Alpine, with a population of 6,000, the largest town in the Big Bend region and home to Sul Ross State University and Big Bend Museum. Study the street murals, one of which celebrates actor Dan Blocker, a Sul Ross college student who became better known as Hoss Cartwright in TV’s Bonanza series. Stay at the Quarter Circle 7 Hotel which has its own rich Texas history.
Take the 118 from Terlingua to Marfa, a haven for artists, drawn by the influence of minimalist artist Donald Judd who moved to the Marfa from New York in 1971. Since his death in 1994, two foundations – the Chinati and the Judd have worked to maintain his legacy.
Stay in the gorgeous Hotel Paisano, where Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean stayed during the filming of Dean’s last film Giant in the area. The black and white stills of the stars on the set featured inside are fascinating.
The town can also claim fame from another, more mysterious, attraction – the Marfa Lights. These ‘ghost’ lights were first seen in the sky by rancher Robert Ellison in 1883. UFOs, wandering spirits? No one knows.