Back in early May, my little family of three--soon to be four--sat packed in a full car headed out to West Texas for the long-awaited adventure my husband and I had hoped to take prior to having children: Big Bend National Park. The stars hadn’t aligned until now, and sometimes as a military family you just have to take what you can get when you get it, and make the best of it. So that’s what we did...
As we drove further out west, the landscape began to shift dramatically. The trees shrunk, the fields of bluebonnets changed to fields of lavender, the ground flattened and became rocky, and the sky just kept on growing bigger. Cheerful yellow wildflowers accompanied us along the sides of the highway, guiding us for most of our journey. We listened to Alabama, the Josh Abbot Band, and some John Anderson, sharing a bag of gummy snakes which I realized were a fitting choice on my part over the gummy worms at the gas station. We were headed to the desert, afterall.
While there was not a whole lot to look at along our journey, the change of scenery was far from boring and prompted conversations with our two year-old son about all kinds of new things--like windmills and cactus blossoms.
After nearly eight hours of driving, we arrived at our cabin in Terlingua in the late afternoon. Our son pushed his little yellow dump truck around in the clay dirt as we unloaded the car and explored what would be our home for the next few days. I had picked this cabin for a few reasons other than it’s close proximity to the park and lovely accommodations such as air conditioning and running water. Situated on almost twenty acres in the Crystal Valley, named for its rich supply of natural crystal rocks, we had no neighbors in sight. The lot also provided a clawfoot bathtub on the patio--which sounded like a fantastic way for a very pregnant person such as myself to end her day after a long day of hiking and very sore feet.
We spent the evening getting our bearings in our new and unfamiliar home. We each did this in our own ways...our son sampled the different rock and dirt terrains for the best place to push around his monster trucks. I explored the new kitchen, searching for a strainer for the noodles figuring out the grill for our BBQ chicken. My husband looked at maps of the park as I cooked, and we discussed plans for the morning and our first day of hiking. We continued to get our bearings long after we tucked our son in bed as we tried to work the telescope and navigate the giant black starry sky, as this place was known as one of the best in the world for stargazing.
Our first morning was a bit chaotic. As I’m often guilty of, I was trying to make too many things happen at once...enjoying coffee at sunrise, making a big breakfast of eggs and muffins with jam, packing lunches, water bottles, and backpacks for the day, and getting us all dressed and ready for the big day of hiking ahead.
We drove into the park shortly after 9:30am heading to our first hike, the Santa Elena Canyon trail, known by tourists for its picturesque wedding-backdrop-worthy landscape (there was actually a wedding going on when we got there), its short distance and relatively flat terrain--certainly suitable for our two year old. Prior to arriving at the trailhead, we encountered a giant tarantula crossing the road which was so large my husband slowed down so we wouldn’t hit it. Our ears popped as we drove up and down the mountains in the park, and I found my “emergency” bag of lollipops and gummy bears (usually meant for quieting our son in restaurants and stores) as a good way to cure his popping ears as we drove to the trail.
The view was absolutely breathtaking from the moment we stepped out of the car. We started walking down the sandy path toward the giant rocky canyon that summoned us with tempting shade and cool waters to wade in. Along the way, our son enjoyed searching for lizards and climbing boulders, although he was hesitant to wade in the swimming hole with us, so he rode on Daddy’s shoulders instead. The end of the trail landed along the border of Mexico, which was great timing on our part because we realized it was Cinco de Mayo!
By the time we arrived back to the car it was about noon, and we drove out to the desert for our next hike. Our son napped in the car and we ate our picnic lunch at the next trailhead, which did take us quite some time to get to because we had to take it slow driving down several miles of unleveled gravel road.
When we set foot on the Grapevine trail, the afternoon sun greeted us and remained our companion as we walked among a bouldered landscape where trees were scarce, snakes were not (luckily we did not see any), and temperatures were above 100 degrees. Our motivation to push through the heat was the historic landmark we were promised at the end of the trail, called “Balanced Rock.”
We left the park around the dinner hour, and in honor of Cinco de Mayo, decided to stop at a Mexican restaurant--the Chili Pepper Cafe--on our way through Terlingua. We enjoyed chips and salsa, burritos, and some refreshing ice cold Mexican cokes.
We had a relaxing evening back at our cabin. We gave our son a bubble bath in the outdoor tub, letting him splash to his heart’s content and then put him to bed early. I then enjoyed an outdoor bath myself, propping my feet up on the edge of tub and reading my new novel until the end of sunset when I could barely make out the words on the pages any longer. Before bed, in an effort to improve the pace of our second morning, I packed lunches and prepped the coffee pot and hiking backpacks.
The second morning did go much better than the first. I microwaved frozen breakfast burritos for the road. We woke our son up right before leaving the house and put him in the car in his pajamas, and we began our drive to the park before the first sign of morning.
We arrived at the Chisos Mountains shortly before 8am, after a beautiful drive into the park entrance at sunrise. The Lost Mine Trail would be our biggest hike of the trip, and we wanted to get a head start climbing before the temperatures caught up with us. We changed our son out of his pajamas into some hiking clothes and sneakers, and my husband put on his hiking backpack carrier for the first time of our trip, knowing our toddler wouldn’t make it the entire six miles on his own.
The climb was like nothing I’ve experienced on a hike before. I was so used to hiking back in Virginia where large trees enclosed trails and views weren’t usually accessible until the end of the hike. But the Lost Mine Trail wrapped around the mountains in a way that allowed us to view hundreds of miles of gorgeous landscape all around us.
As we predicted, our son made it about a mile before having his first meltdown. We put him in the carrier, which he initially was not thrilled about. We began calling it “The Lost Mind trail” until he finally calmed down after he realized his screaming wasn’t going to get him anywhere (a pack of gummies also helped). We sang songs with him up the mountain and pointed things out to him--new noises, bugs, lizards, leaves, rocks so he wouldn’t get bored.
Other than forgetting to put snacks in our hiking backpacks, some meltdowns from our son, and a couple blisters on my feet, we collectively decided this was our favorite trail of the trip. The Mountain region of Big Bend completely stole our hearts.
That afternoon we took it easy, exploring the Window Trail view--accessible at the Chisos Mountains Visitors Center. We had then planned to do a nature trail down in Rio Grande Village, but were surprised to find it closed when we arrived. Although it was closed, this actually ended up being one of our favorite memories of the trip, because the drive landed us among beautiful tall trees and green meadows with wild horses. We enjoyed a long relaxing family picnic under the shade of a tree. My husband napped and my son and I waded in the flooded marshes together, sharing a bag of cheese puffs.
That night, I made Frito pie. My son and I both took outdoor baths again, and my husband and I spent our last evening enjoying the firepit and a big plate of s’mores before curling up in bed.
Checkout was at 11 o’clock the next day, which allowed us the leisurely morning we’d needed since we arrived. My husband and I woke up before our son and the sun, and took our chairs and coffees up to the top of the hill to sit out and watch the sun rise. On the way back down to the house, I did search around a bit for crystal, but unfortunately never found any.
My husband and I have had the conversation several times, how we want to make the best out of this lifestyle we’ve been given to raise our military family. While we won’t be able to offer our children a ‘hometown’ or ‘roots’ for quite some time, we will be able to give them so many new experiences by being intentional in exploring the areas around each of the different places we call home.
We drove away from our little desert villa with happy hearts and a new collection of family memories to take with us when we leave Fort Hood, Texas. This was an adventure we would do again in a heartbeat, and would certainly recommend to any family considering making the trip.
Here are some tips and things we learned along our trip that made things go as smoothly as possible:
Prior to your trip, download the National Park Service (NPS) app on your phones. It is such a great tool. You can select any National Park to download all information offline, including maps and trail information. This is primarily what we used to navigate ourselves through the park when cellular service was frequently unavailable. Quite honestly, there were times I’m not quite sure what we would have done without it!
Arrive to the park early in the morning and do your most strenuous hikes before the temperatures get too high. With a few exceptions, Big Bend does not have a lot of shade or swimming holes, so it can be hard to find respite from the sun along hikes.
Print out maps at home before you leave. To ensure efficiency and make the best of your time in the park, plan out routes and driving distances between each trail you plan to do.
Plan to drive a ton, and spend a lot of money on gas! We only spent two full days in the park--and because we wanted to get to several areas, we drove sometimes up to an hour and half to get from one trail to another. The park is very spread out, and you will have to drive a good amount in order to see the different regions (i.e. River/desert/mountains). We were pleasantly surprised how enjoyable these long drives through the park were. It was relaxing to take in the views from the car windows and to enjoy some time in air conditioning and to prop up feet, etc.
Military Tip: If you are military, make sure to get your Military annual entrance pass which grants you free admission into the park each day (instead of paying $30/vehicle). This is not something you can purchase online, but rather must go to a local federal recreation site to obtain prior to your trip.
Tips if you have young children:
Bring gatorade to mix in their water bottles (even if just a splash or two) for a little special something to motivate them to stay hydrated. Dehydration can happen especially quickly in children and in arid environments like the desert.
Pack gummies and lollipops to cure popping ears when driving up and down the mountains in the park. These can also be helpful during long hikes when your children grow restless or bored.
Consider purchasing a hiking backpack carrier. Even if your kids like to hike, they will most likely tire out before you do. We found a used one on Facebook Marketplace for $25, and it was truly a life saver! Our activities would have been much more limited without it.
Don’t be afraid to plan your hikes in different parts of the park. The long drives make for a nice break from the heat, and also allow time for your kids to nap. Our son took his afternoon nap in the car both days and this helped prevent unnecessary meltdowns from occurring on the trails.
When planning out your days in the park, make sure to research the trails to find ones with suitable terrains and distances for little legs to tackle. Big Bend offers a lot of great options for shorter family hikes. Once again, the NPS app is a great tool to learn details about each trail.