Southwest Texas, Part 1 - Terlingua and Big Bend National Park

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Southwest Texas, Part 1 - Terlingua and Big Bend National Park

Monday, January 11, 2021

Big Bend National Park in Southwest Texas offers desert and mountain landscapes that are captivating.

Growing up, I traveled every summer out west with my family.  While I have been to several national parks, I had never experienced Big Bend.  We recently returned from this epic road trip, and it may be my favorite vacation our family has ever taken!  Today I'm sharing some highlights from our time in Terlingua and Big Bend.  

Our view from BJ's RV Park in Terlingua, TX.

Southwest Texas, Part 1 - Terlingua and Big Bend National Park

Texas is a vast state with beaches, mountains, farmland, desert, and rolling hills.  As a child, I can vividly remember my great aunt telling me about her RV trip to Big Bend a hot July summer.  She described her experience as being dragged into Hades where there was nothing but snakes, heat, and lizards.  I still laugh thinking about her recounting of a less than favorable experience.  And even her storytelling couldn't deter me from the curiosity of this place.  Since we went during the winter, we didn't see lizards or snakes and the weather was mild and enjoyable.  However, I can also understand why summer might be more than a little warm.  

BJ's RV Park offers an excellent place to stay that is near Big Bend National Park.

Where to Stay

There are quite a few RV parks in Terlingua and the surrounding areas.  We chose to stay at BJ's RV Park.  We loved our stay there.  The Internet was reliable.  The sites are clean and safe.  There are also washers and dryers to do laundry if needed.  One of the best things about their laundry facility is that they use an honor system to pay for this service, and guests leave money in the basket to pay.  This is so much easier than keeping around enough change for coin-operated machines.  

Eating outdoors at sunset was a great way to end the day!

The park itself has beautiful mountain views.  We enjoyed eating outdoors and sitting under the stars at night.  This is a certified dark park.  So, the night time views are spectacular.  Sites are equipped with a picnic table.  It was a very relaxing place to stay at the start of our Texas journey.  Beth was an excellent host, and the staff is so friendly.

BJ's is a certified dark park.  It is a wonderful location to view the stars.

Burn bans are in place throughout much of the southwest during the year.  RV parks many times require that guests use fire pits that they provide for community campfires.  Or, you can ask about using your own propane fire pit.  We brought our Camco Little Red Campfire and used it on this trip with no problems.  But always ask first because the rules are different from place to place.

BJ's is located just outside of the main entrance to Big Bend.  It was easy to get into the park and return to our site at the end of the day.  We would definitely stay there again.  One of the big reasons we chose to stay there was because of the proximity to the park and having full RV hookups!  

Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park is breathtaking and should not be missed.


Big Bend National Park

There are over 800,000 acres in Big Bend National Park.  If you don't know where to start, check out some of the suggested itineraries from the park.  Since we were limited on time, I used the one-day itinerary as a guide for our time there.  It was just right for our family and the time we had.

Winter can be a particularly busy time at this park because the weather is milder during this season.  Combined with COVID, there were record numbers of travelers while we were there.  This meant that the line of cars to gain entrance into the park was rather long.  We also had to wait in a line directed by park rangers at the popular Santa Elena Canyon.  

It is wise to:
  • pack a lunch so that you can enjoy a picnic while there.
  • bring plenty of water to drink.  
  • be sure to get gas before going into the park.  While there is gas located in the park, it is not widely available.
  • be patient.
  • allow for enough time to see the things you are interested in since popular locations can be crowded with long lines of traffic.
  • be flexible because you might have to adjust your plans because of crowds and traffic.
The park rangers are super helpful and friendly there.  One thing we didn't know is that dogs are not allowed on the trails there because of wildlife.  We had to leave our dog in the truck while hiking at the canyon.  We typically take him on trails and just thought we could do this here.  Leave your furry friends at home.  They can ride in the car with you, but you can't take them all over the park.  

The park rangers will also let you know if a road you inquire about requires four-wheel drive or not and things like this.  I really appreciated how detail-oriented and helpful the park staff was during our visit to this park.  They really have some of the friendliest rangers we have encountered!

The hike into Santa Elena Canyon is beautiful.  Take your time and enjoy the effort to get there and enjoy the view.



We thoroughly enjoyed the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive on the way to Santa Elena Canyon.  It is a 30-mile drive down to the canyon from the main road within the park, but it is worth it.  Be prepared to drive slow and take in the beauty along the way.  You might want to stop and take photographs or explore the Castolon Historic District along the drive.  These things took the bulk of our day within the park.  Whatever you do, don't rush.

Castolon Historic Village offers a look into early life as settlers in this area.



If you have more time, I would encourage travelers to consider taking advantage of other hikes within the park as well as a river trip in a kayak or canoe.  These are really popular, and we plan to return to do a trip on the Rio Grand through the canyon where we hiked. 

The scenic drive and canyon were two of my favorite things within the park.  The hike into the canyon isn't terribly long.  There are some stairs and steep places along the way.  Our 8-year-old son did just fine.  I would recommend wearing the right shoes and taking your time to enjoy the journey both into and out of the canyon.  It is breathtaking at every turn.  

The Terlingua Trading Company is located in the heart of the historic Ghost Town.


Terlingua

Terlingua is the location of a mining district and the historic Chisos Mining Company.  The town of Terlingua includes the Ghost Town that visitors can explore for free.  There are also remaining businesses operating in this area.  Plus, there are attractions, shops, and restaurants scattered along with Study Butte and Lajitas.  COVID has impacted what is open and available as well as what feels safe to do.  

Visitors can stop in at the Starlight Theater for a drink and to relax.



We spent a little time exploring the Ghost Town area of Terlingua.  There is a trading company there stocked with souvenirs.  It was a fun little distraction and located next to the Starlight Theater.  People were lined up to get into the Starlight for a drink, and it just felt like a bad idea because of the sheer numbers and yes, you guessed it, COVID.  

If you have time, take a drive through Study Butte and out to Lajitas and take in some of the roadside shops.  There are artists throughout the area that sell and display their work.  We went to one small gallery near the Ghost Town area.  I always find that these places have interesting people to talk to and learn about the local area.  

The cemetery at Terlingua is still in use by residents today and is beautifully kept.


While Ghost Town was interesting, I'm not a huge fan of souvenir shops.  This little area felt more like a tourist trap than anything to me.  I prefer to explore outlying areas and small galleries.  They feel personal and more engaging.  The cemetery within the Ghost Town is one place to stop and view.  The cemetery is still in use and is beautiful at sunset.  

For visitors wishing to drive around to the outer areas as well as going into Big Bend, be sure to get gas before venturing out.  There is one gas station in Terlingua.  However, you could be 80 miles from a gas station.  Don't put yourself in the position to run out of gas.  That is a real thing out west if you are not careful.

We loved all of our time in Southwest Texas, and Terlingua was wonderful.  I would have enjoyed more time to explore there.  We are already talking about a second trip in a couple of years.  Our son would be older and able to do a river trip and more hiking.  If you are considering a trip to this area, do it!  You won't be disappointed.  I'll be sharing more about our trip to Texas in a second post about Marfa next week.  

Until next time...

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