Craggy canyons tower over the mighty Rio Grande in west Texas, separating the United States from Mexico. The Big Bend area of Texas offers a blissful coexistence of mountain terrain and desert plains. Entire mesas covered with branchy ocotillo plants and blooming yucca reach sky high. More than a national park and state park, Big Bend is a region and a way of life. With only a few days, I sampled the area heartily, from the outdoor recreation and diverse topography, to the local eateries and unique accommodations.
A long, starry drive from El Paso finally landed us in the charming town of Marathon—and more distinctly—at the historic Gage Hotel. Authentic western touches filled the adobe room beyond the carved wooden Mexican doors. Feeling welcomed and cozy, we snuggled into our plush digs for the evening.
After breakfast, we wandered through the Gage Gardens, tantalized by the aroma coming from the smoker at the Brick Vault Brewery and Barbecue. We wandered in and out of a couple of shops and galleries, and watched the train roll through town. We grabbed sandwiches from the French Company Grocer, and hit the road for Big Bend National Park, specifically en route to the Lost Mine Trail. This 5 mile roundtrip hike is awfully rewarding, with stunning views the entire way of the valley below (once the sea floor!), to the distinctive Casa Grande Peak always in sight.
Just before nightfall, we crawled into our tipi for the evening. Not just any sort of tipi, the one at Buzzard’s Roost was complete with a soft bed, a sofa, coffee maker, small fridge, and heater. Trendy western touches included the bull skull below the bulb lights, and a cow skin rug on the floor. As night fell, we stretched outside and gazed longingly at the Milky Way and millions of stars above.
We crawled out at sunrise, and found caffeine at Espresso …y poco mas in Terlingua Ghost Town. Feeling a bit more refreshed, we scooted down the highway to Big Bend River Tours, and met with our knowledgeable river guide for the day, Anna. On the drive, Anna pointed out geographic points of interest, famous landmarks from feature films, and explained medicinal plants. We glided our canoes onto the Rio Grande, and floated through the invisible border between the USA and Mexico. The enchanting float was mellow and quiet, and scenic the whole way. We spotted red-tailed hawks in Dark Canyon, and kept our eyes peeled for Aoudads up high.
After waving Anna goodbye, we rolled back into Big Bend National Park, to the famed Santa Elena Canyon. As late afternoon set in, we were mesmerized by the golden light through the canyon and were practically running to chase it. We reached the terminus of the trail, listened to our echoes dance off the walls, and shook our heads at the fact that we had this gorgeous setting to ourselves.
By nightfall, we wandered into the classic Starlight Theatre, a Terlingua staple. Our local beef selections and “Ranch Water” beverages were well-accompanied by a local musician, strumming country favorites in the corner. Near the stage remains the taxidermy “beer-drinking” goat, Mayor Clay Henry… but that’s a story for another time. We returned to our casita on the hill, the Candililla House. The sweet lights lining the roof of the adobe home beckoned us in, and we crashed from a thoroughly wonderful day of adventure.
A few miles down the road from Terlingua, we rolled into the Big Bend Stables in Study Butte to meet our horseback guides for the morning. Haley and Armando showed us the ropes. They led us through the historic mining area, under massive mountains, and atop desert mesas. We hopped off at one point and observed pictographs on some nearby boulders. Meanwhile, the horses snacked on ocotillo branches–their favorite desert snack. It was a lovely, relaxing ride under the warm January sun. Talking about Mexican food favorites like goat tacos got our stomachs rumbling, and we made our way to DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ for some real Texas BBQ brisket, complete with a Mexican Coke. Feeling satisfied, we fought the urge for a nap, and instead booked it to Lajitas for an afternoon of ziplining.
We checked into our comfortable room at the Lajitas Golf Resort, set around a historic military outpost. We, and fellow travelers, rode the Pinzgauer all-terrain vehicle up to the first zipline. Locked in, I whizzed over a steep canyon at 50 miles per hour. I reached the end of the line, then slowly retreated back over the canyon. The views were stunning, and my adrenaline was pumping! When I got back on my feet, I couldn’t help but hoot and holler, never wiping the smile off my face. That was only the beginning, and the three lines that followed only got more and more fun.
Dinner that evening was an easy call, the Candililla Cafe. The server recommended the pork tenderloin with guajillo cream sauce, and their homemade selection of sorbets for dessert. I happily obliged, and happy I stayed.
Morning came, and I wandered a bit around the peaceful grounds of Lajitas Golf Resort. It was the perfect place to reflect on the wonderful time we shared in the Big Bend area. The drive back to El Paso was easy, and we made sure to take the scenic southern route along the Rio Grande.
This article was created in partnership with Visit USA Parks. All photos by Emily Sierra Photography.