Wednesday February 13 through Wednesday February 20, 2019
Even though this was the dead of winter and one would normally expect parks to be at their lowest utilization, Big Bend National Park was full the whole week. Not what we expected.
At least this year, it was spring in Big Bend. Wildflowers could be seen along from all the roads. Not what we expected.
Big Bend National Park is a favorite. We’ve been coming to Big Bend nearly every year since the first visit in 2008. On each visit, new experiences keep taking our breath away. Boundless amazement and wonder. The sunset above was taken from our campsite in Rio Grande Village Campground on the first day.
The last day before moving to the next park, at daybreak, the moon could be seen setting behind the Rio Grande Village RV Campground at the same time the sun was rising above RV Village General Store.
Sunrise and moonset. Just turn around.
Walking around the campground, we stopped to admire this restored 1971 Volkswagon Westfalia Camper van. The owner was kind enough to answer questions about his camper. He bought it eight years ago. He spent the first six months restoring it. He takes it to VW camper van meetups. This is his first time in Big Bend National Park. Not bad for a 50 year old RV.
Early one day, we drove Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive down to Castolon and the Cottonwood Campground. Wildflowers were blooming everywhere. Spring comes early to this part of Texas.
The views from the scenic overlook were amazing as usual. This morning was especially clear. The seemingly endless layering of mountain ranges toward the horizon draws in the eye.
Standing on the Rio Grande River side of Castolon, Santa Elena Canyon can be seen in the distance on the right. Santa Elena Canyon has canyon walls up to 1,500 feet tall.
After passing the canyon, we drove Old Maverick Road toward the western entrance to the park. Signs on both ends of Old Maverick Road clearly stated four wheel drive vehicles only. As we drove north, we passed a number of two wheel drive vehicles headed south toward Santa Elena Canyon. Some of the vehicles we passed were low ground clearance cars. Not a good choice. Even high ground clearance two wheel drive vehicles would have had trouble in spots. A Chevy Suburban turned around behind us and then caught up with us. We don’t drive fast on these roads so the Suburban ate loads of dust before we reached a paved road.
Park roads change with each year and season. Rain washes out portions of road. Other bits of road get surly just by being wet. Mud is an ever present problem. Careless drivers create ruts by gunning their engines and spinning their tires.
Visitors should always ask rangers in one of the many visitor centers what the current road conditions are before ignoring posted signs. The risk is having to walk out 10 miles or more to seek help.
We stopped in at Panther Junction, the main visitor center, and asked a ranger about Old Ore Road conditions. There is a patch of road near the north end that is always tricky to drive. Because of all the recent rains through the past summer and fall, the rough patch was even worse than usual. The ranger asked what vehicle we were driving. “Jeep Wrangler Rubicon,” we replied. Ranger said, “You won’t have any trouble.” Linda is not a fan of Jeep Wrangler Rubicon required roads so we opted not to drive the full length. Instead, we decided to drive north from the southern entrance and turn around at Ernst Tinaja trail head.
One of the remote campsites passed had a pop-up truck camper. Made us think about the hard sided camper decision. We would very much like to take our truck camper remote like this. The problem is, the hard sided camper is a bit top heavy. Having the truck and camper fall over is a concern when side to side tilting can be as much as 30% or more.
We also saw a travel trailer in a remote campsite. We didn’t get close enough to see if the travel trailer was an off road type or not. We have read a number of blogger accounts about their off road misadventures with standard RVs. Without off road equipment, always ALWAYS drive without the RV before taking the RV onto roads like this.
Much of the landscape on the southern end of Old Ore Road looks like the above. Looking across the tops of the hills, you tend to forget about the bottom areas.
The roadway in the foreground looks pretty good and relatively smooth. Unfortunately, just over the crest of this hill is an area that is difficult to cross without four wheel drive and high ground clearance. Perhaps impossible when raining.
Rutting is a problem on all these roads. The above is on flat ground but the road is just clay. Slippery when wet. Spinning tires make ruts.
Everyday, in the late afternoon, we drove over to Rio Grande Village General Store to get Internet access. We caught a number of swell sunsets doing this. When the park is full, the free WIFI is slow to unusable at times. Normally we would switch over to a Verizon or AT&T mobile hotspot. However, mobile phone service is hard to find in the park.
Like road conditions changing with the year and season, mobile phone service has been doing the same. We don’t get coverage in the same areas of the park as in the past. 4G speeds have been replaced by old 3G or worse. This year, mobile phone service was the worst we have seen in the past five years.
We drove up to the Chisos Mountains Lodge to check out the general store there. We were completely surprised when we found AT&T LTE service in the basin. Nowhere else in the park had AT&T LTE service.
We spent much of our time in the park enjoying our campsite. We backed the truck in toward the back of the gravel area. The Jeep was usually parked in front of the truck. Cottonwood trees are common throughout the campground. Cottonwood trees require irrigation to survive in the Big Bend desert environment. To water the campground trees, the park service periodically floods the low areas behind and between the campsites.
We pitched our tent and sun shelter in one of these low areas subject to flooding. Before setting up camp, we stopped a park host and asked her if the park was planning on irrigating any time soon. She said they didn’t have any plans for the coming week. She also said, we didn’t really need to worry. Whenever an area is going to be flooded, the rangers give notice to campers around the affected area a few days in advance. Nice to know.
Nearly everyday, a roadrunner would visit our campsite and get the dogs all riled up. Usually, roadrunners completely avoid humans and dogs. It seemed unusual for a roadrunner to be this desensitized to campers.
The park ended up full nearly everyday we were there. Since we had reservations, we didn’t need to find an available site when we arrived. We just went to our reserved site.
Campers without reservations need to find an available spot. Without park host help, a camper would have to find empty sites and check paper tags clipped to site number signs for availability. Not an easy task given the rules around what is or is not available.
The park hosts really did everyone a favor by identifying available campsites in one simple graphic.
Rio Grande Village Campground has water available and restrooms with flush toilets. There are no RV hookups. We were boondocking. I use a CPAP while sleeping to help manage my sleep apnea. The CPAP normally plugs into a 110 VAC electrical outlet. However, when boondocking, I have to switch over to 12 volt battery power. My old CPAP machine could run on a NiCad battery pack for 12 hours. On the first night in the park, my new machine ran the NiCad out of power in 4 hours. Oops. We spent our second day driving up to Alpine to buy a portable car battery.
Why did the new CPAP use so much more power than the old one? It took me a while to reason through the likely cause. Then it took two more nights to confirm my suspicions before I told Linda what the root cause problem was. I had left the CPAP humidifier feature on high. Battery life dramatically improved after the humidifier was turned off.
The humidifier works by heating the water in a reservoir. With that heater on high, power use is roughly three times higher than when it is off.
Even through we didn’t have RV hookups, we still had to charge our batteries daily. Thankfully, it was sunny everyday except one. We used the factory 90 watt solar panel on the camper’s roof as well as a portable Zamp 160 watt solar panel. We only used the portable solar panels while we were present in camp. We were concerned about portable solar panels being high theft items.
For our next trip into Big Bend, we are considering getting a generator. We had one on our motorhome and it was really easy to keep the batteries charged.
Hope to see you on the road ahead!