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Big Bend National Park Trip


Big Bend National Park Trip (BBNP)
November 18-25th, 2000
"Big Bend National Park and West Texas Spectacular Retreat!"
A narrative by Keith Rosen

The following is a narrative of the eight days and seven-night trip that Ellen Marcus and I made to BBNP
and other sites. I lead the trip. It began on Saturday, November 18, my birthday, and ended on Saturday,
November 25, 2000. I scheduled at least one and frequently two events per day.

We departed in my Toyota Sienna minivan at about 8:45 AM on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. The
weather was miserable: rain, much of it heavy, throughout the day. It was the worst weather that we
experienced and quite a contrast to the rest of the trip. The poor visibility and slick road conditions
slowed us by a couple of hours. We ate lunch, bar-be-que, at Tom's Ribs in San Antonio. We arrived at
our first destination, Sonora at about 4:30 PM. We went on a tour of the world famous Caverns of Sonora.
We had a wonderful tour by a guide who showed us some off-tour cavities, including an underground
auditorium with over 100 seats! The caverns were primarily made of limestone and as such were very
clean. It also had an underground lake, and an area where several people have wed. We had dinner in
Ozona, and made it to Balmorhea by the end of the day.

We stayed at Balmorhea State Park, where we had a motel room with a kitchenette. It was built during the
New Deal of former President Franklin Roosevelt. The heater worked great as the temperatures fell into
the low 30s. There was ice and frost on the ground the next morning. Balmorhea is an oasis in the
northern portion of the Chihuahuan Desert. It has a natural hot spring that releases 1 million gallons
of water per hour at between 72 - 78 degrees. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s built a
cement wall and pathway around it, giving it the appearance of being a human-made V shaped pool. It is
recognized as the best place, with crystal clear water, to go snorkeling or scuba diving inside Texas. A
variety of aquatic life lives within the pool. I took pictures of carp, catfish, turtles, and more. The
runoff is used to irrigate desert farms. After receiving some needed help from Ellen to fit into my wet
suit, I went snorkeling. It was great! The water was warm; the air temperature was in the 40s. After
getting some help to extricate myself from the wetsuit, we ate lunch there before moving on.

We made it to Fort Davis National Park that afternoon. Fort Davis was a US fort from 1854 - 1891.
Buffalo (Black) soldiers were stationed there from 1867 - 1885. Indians who had never seen Blacks gave
the moniker to these new frontier soldiers. The first Black graduate of West Point, Henry O. Flipper,
served at Fort Davis as a quartermaster. They helped subdue the Comanche Indians from attacking the
merchants who used the trade route that went through there from El Paso to San Antonio. Many of the old
buildings have been restored. We saw a couple of the buildings and watched a documentary about the
history of the fort. We then headed to find our lodgings, the Prude Guest Ranch. We ate dinner at the
Black Bear Restaurant in the Fort Davis National Park.

On Monday, we awoke to find colder temperatures, in the 20s, and more ice and frost. After this day, the
temperatures would range from the 40s to the 70s and progressively get better with clear weather and all
blue skies for four of the next five days. We ate breakfast at the Prude Ranch, and I took a short hike
to the foothills of the Davis Mountains. We then headed for the University of Texas McDonald Observatory
in the Davis Mountains. We saw live images of the sun and sun flares, and went on a two-hour tour of the
facility where we saw the third largest telescope in the world, the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. We went
inside two of the five observatories that McDonald operates. It was an excellent tour with lots of
scientific information. Ellen shopped and bought lots of gifts.

We then returned to Fort Davis. We saw more of the old buildings and went on a two-hour hike into the
mountains. We saw great vistas and this hike was a good way of preparing for a major challenge on
Wednesday. Afterwards, Ellen shopped and bought lots of gifts. We left, drove through Alpine, saw the
mountains continue to rise, and made it to the Big Bend area that night. We stayed at a hotel in
Lajitas; just one minute from the restaurant and saloon, and two minutes from the livery stable where we
rented horses the next morning.

On Tuesday, we went horseback riding into the Chihuahuan Desert. We arrived at the stables at 8:45 AM
and returned at about 3 PM. We rode into the mountains, through the desert, and to the Rio Grande where
we tied our horses to trees. A Mexican with a johnboat transported our party of about 20 people across
the river into Mexico to Paso Lajitas, a town of about 50 people. There, we walked about a quarter of a
mile to eat lunch at the Comanche Café. The food was authentic, and the atmosphere was relaxed. By now,
Ellen, on her first trip to Big Bend, was giving advice to other travelers about what to do and where to
go in the area. We shopped in the local tienda, returned to the US on the johnboat, and rode back to the

Later on Tuesday, we took a drive along the 50-mile stretch of the Camino Real, the river road to
Presidio, Texas, and Ojinaga, Chihuahua, Mexico. We saw old stone ruins of homes along the way, and
stopped at Fort Leaton, a state park operation. The park ranger was in the process of closing the
facility, but enthusiastically gave us a private 1.5-hour tour of the buildings. She said that we asked
more questions than any other visitors. We made our way into Mexico, shopped at pharmacies, liquor
stores, and had a fine seafood dinner at the Buccaneer. At the border patrol, my minivan was search, and
the US police interviewed both Ellen and I separately. They said that they were looking for drugs. There
was no charge to go into Mexico, but a charge of $1.50 was assessed to go into the US. Throughout the
day, the temperatures were in the 40s and 50s, and the skies were completely blue.

On Wednesday, we pushed ourselves to do the grandest of all hikes, the South Rim. We began in the Chisos
Basin, where the temperatures are colder than many of the areas of the Park. We hiked up the Laguna
Meadows Trail to the South Rim and down the Boot Canyon Trail to the Pinnacles Trail. Along the way, we
saw the famous Window View, an opening between two different peaks. The geography was that of a forest,
unlike the desert that we had seen the previous day while horseback riding, and what we would see on
later hikes. The hike was approximately 13.75 strenuous miles, as we also hiked over 2,000 feet
vertically to approximately 7, 440 feet. We began at 10:45 AM, and returned at 7:10 PM, almost 8.5
hours. I was huffing and puffing while going up, and Ellen repeatedly waited for me to catch up and
offered words of encouragement. However, only one other party passed us; we virtually had the mountain
to ourselves. I wore a tee shirt in 40-degree weather, yet was covered in sweat. We reached the top at
about 4 PM. One can see over 130 miles on a clear day, and it was a clear day. It was a fantastic
achievement for us. With the wind blowing at the top of the mountain, I made a couple of cellular phone
calls; it was the only place in the Big Bend area that I had reception. On the way down, Ellen sang folk
songs and worried about potential bear attacks. We hiked the last fifty minutes, 6:20 - 7:10 using my
flashlight to see. When we reached the Visitors Center at the origin, Ellen went shopping, and bought
more gifts. We ate dinner at the Chisos Mountain Restaurant in the National Park, and did more shopping
at their gift shop. That and the next night we stayed at Study Butte. We slept peacefully.

Thursday brought our rafting trip. We were part of a group of 15 rafters, 4 river guides and 4 rafts. We
met at 7:45 AM. We departed from the outfitter in the ghost town of Terlingua by 8:05 AM, and put in the
water by 9 AM. We went down twenty-one miles of the Rio Grande: the US was on the north/left side, and
Mexico was on the south/right side. The last seven miles went through the Santa Elena Canyon where the
walls rise some 1,600 feet. We went through some white water rapids, with the most powerful one being of
a Class 3 grade. Ellen and I were in the same raft along with a single elementary school teacher from
Austin named Kyle, and our river guide. Kyle was apparently a devout Catholic. Before we left shore, he
pulled out a vial of holy water from Our Lady of Fatima in Panama or so he told us, and blessed our raft
with sprinkling of the water and a prayer on the aft and stern. Kyle turned out to be a newly found
friend as he invited himself later for dinner, breakfast, and more hikes with us. We saw the park from a
very different view from the river, and saw different vegetation, and animals. The temperatures rose
into the 60s outside the canyon and dropped into the 50s inside the canyon. The outfitter provided and
packed lunch for all of the rafters. We had lunch just before we entered the canyon and it was a
wonderful lunch with three spreads, and crackers, and bread along with fruit as appetizers. We had a
variety of lunches that we could make from several meats and breads and desserts. We then entered the
canyon. Ellen took a number of pictures including one of me rowing the raft. Our guide handed over the
oars to me to take over at one point while we were in the canyon. I only rowed for about fifteen
minutes. It was fun. We left the river at about 3:30 PM, and returned to the outfitter at about 5 PM.
Ellen went shopping and bought lots of gifts at the Terlingua Trading Store, adjacent to the outfitter.
In the meantime, Kyle and I played horseshoes, found an old mineshaft, and an old cave that we hiked

Kyle was an interesting character. Having told us that he was an accomplished camper, he did not know
how to set-up a tent. He had arrived at Big Bend on the previous night, unsuccessfully attempted to set
up his tent in the desert, and then became lost for a time. He finally found his vehicle, which he slept
in and planned on sleeping in again that night. Then Kyle, having invited himself, Ellen, and I ate at
the Starlight Theatre. It was called the Starlight because for years, the theater did not possess a
roof, and one could see all of the stars. The Starlight is the place to go for nightlife in Terlingua,
and Study Butte. We ate eight-ounce filet mignons for under $10. Then we listened to great folk music,
ballads, and blues from a man and woman. I had them autograph a copy of a take out menu that our
waitress said we could take. Later I bought a tape of their music, and have listened to it repeatedly.
We headed for our motel at about 10:30 PM. We had had a long day.

On Friday, we had temperatures in the 60s and 70s. Ellen and I went to a little restaurant owned by a
British lady that our river guide recommended for breakfast. Indeed, the restaurant had a southwest US
and British/Princess Diana motif. How odd! The previous night at the Starlight, Kyle had expressed his
desire to join us for breakfast and hikes. I accidentally had given him the wrong directions to a
restaurant about 20 miles away and on a different road. To give an idea of how few people and
establishments are in the area, Kyle found us. The threesome was off and running. I planned a number of
short hikes, all within 1.5 miles and mostly in desert terrain. One lead to an abandoned hot springs
from a former resort in the park that closed in the 1950s. The hot waters continue to bubble up, and mud
for mud baths can still be found in one part of the encasing that buttresses the Rio Grande. We all
brought swimsuits and changed into them. Imagine sitting under completely blue skies, mountains around
you, birds flying overhead, trees and bushes on two sides of you while you sit in water that is between
95 - 105 degrees, and watch the Rio Grande's 40 degree waters rushing right at you while you. The
river's waters bounce off the wall of the hot springs so that you feel the mist of the cold water in
your face, while the rest of your body is rejuvenating in the spring water.

After the invigorating visit to the Hot Springs, we hiked a little more. We helped Kyle put up his tent
and bid him adieu. We began the trek back home. We had hor d'ouevres and ate dinner at the Gage Hotel in
Marathon. This is the best hotel in Marathon, and probably the best restaurant. The food was excellent.
As each of us were too tired to drive, we spent the night at a small hotel in Sanderson.

On Saturday, we made two stops for site seeing. In the morning we visited Langtry, home of Judge Roy
Bean. He served as the Law West of the Pecos from about 1881 - 1903. We visited his saloon, where he
held court, found people guilty of public drunkenness, and fined them to buy everyone a round of drinks.
Later, we went to Brackettville. This is the remote reconstructed Alamo and western town. It has been
used for over 100 films and television shows, including John Wayne's The Alamo, and Lonesome Dove. We
ate dinner at their cantina that has been used in a number of films. We arrived in Houston at 8:30 PM.

In approximately one week, we had traveled over 1,500 miles and gone spelunking, snorkeling, horseback
riding, hiking, rafting, touring, seen great vistas, and more. We shared a lot of laughs. It was hard to
recall a highlight when there was so much we had done. I am ready to go back again.