I just returned from West Texas last night, and have been fielding lots of questions from readers who want to know how the government shutdown has affected park operations in Big Bend.
Planning a trip west? Here are eight things to know before you go:
- Yes, Big Bend National Park is open – but no services are available. That means all campgrounds, visitor centers and restrooms are closed, nobody is issuing back country permits and certain heavily used areas are shut.
- No, you can’t just camp without a permit. Well, you could – and I saw at least 20 people doing that, some on the South Rim Trail in the Chisos Mountains and others in the desert – but you shouldn’t.
- Will you get in trouble if you do? Maybe. I saw more law enforcement vehicles on park roads than during any other visit. You could get ticketed for camping without a permit.
- Again, all campgrounds are completely closed. No one is allowed to camp without a permit.
- If you have reservations at the Chisos Basin Lodge, you’re fine. The lodge, which is run by an outside concessionaire and not the federal government, is operating as usual. So are the restaurant and park store in the basin.
- Restrooms are closed, so please plan according. Pack out all toilet paper. I was discouraged by the amount of toilet paper I spotted tucked behind bushes and boulders. Think of the park as your yard; act accordingly.
- The Santa Elena Canyon trailhead and trail are closed. So is Old Maverick Road and the Boquillas border crossing.
- Don’t speed. Stick to the park’s 45 mph limit. I saw law enforcement pull over two vehicles during my stay.
Should you still go to Big Bend if you already had a trip planned? Yes, as long as you understand you can’t camp while you’re there.
I’ve read reports of people trashing areas around restrooms at other national parks (Yosemite, for example), but so far that’s not happening at Big Bend.
If you can get a place to stay outside the park – Study Butte, Terlingua and Marathon are all in easy driving range – or if you have reservations at the lodge, you shouldn’t be affected by the shutdown.
I had planned to camp two nights in the desert at the national park before checking into the lodge in Chisos Basin. I diverted those first two nights to Big Bend Ranch State Park farther west, where the only slot open was a space in the group camping area near the park headquarters at Sauceda. Actually, it’s not bad for a group camping area, with a dozen nicely separated tent pads, each with its own covered picnic table.
A brisk cold front blew through our first night. We ate steak dinners in the cab of our truck as the temperatures plummeted and the wind kicked up, then got progressively colder as the seams on our old car camping tent failed and our air mattress slowly lost air.
We ditched the tent and grabbed beds in the park’s bunkhouse the next day. That worked out well – the facility is divided into a men’s side and women’s side, with no-frills cubby holes for people to sleep and a community kitchen where we cooked up chicken stew. (Cost is just $35 per person per night.)
The diversion gave us a good excuse to hike to the Fresno Canyon overlook one day (access via the Puerta Chilicote trailhead), and revisit lovely Cinco Tinajas, where it’s an easy walk up a creek bed into a twisty slick of stair-stepped, water-filled pools. The park is big and beautiful and full of rugged (and deserted) trails.
The next day we loaded up and drove Highway 170 (aka River Road) to Lajitas, where we spend about three hours on my favorite little-known trail at Big Bend National Park – the Mesa de Anguila trail, which departs from a trailhead behind employee housing for Lajitas Resort. (It surprised me to discover a few years ago that this trail is part of the national park, not the state park.)
Follow the trail about 30 minutes through the flat desert, then make the climb up the gully. When you get to the top (it took us about an hour and 15 minutes), look for a spur trail off to your right. Climb that hill. From the top, look south. You’ll get a perfect view of a huge horseshoe bend in the Rio Grande – one of the best views in all the park.
We headed to the national park next, where we checked into the fully-functioning Chisos Basin Lodge.
We tackled 15 miles on the South Rim and Northeast Rim trails in the Chisos the next day (a classic Texas hike), and squeezed in a stroll up to Balanced Rock (off of Grapevine Hills Road) the next morning before driving back to Austin.