Wednesday, December 2 Through Wednesday, December 9, 2020
As a Covid response, the Cracker Barrel by the airport didn’t open until 7:00 AM. After eating a large breakfast, we went home, got the dog, loaded last minute items into the Jeep and drove to the RV storage place. We were on the road by 9:00 AM.
The drive from San Antonio to Big Bend National Park is eight hours without stops.
When we first started camping in Big Bend National Park, we would drive I-10 from San Antonio to Fort Stockton where we would catch US-385 south into the park. Several years ago, tired of battling the (in) famous West Texas wind, we decided to take US-90 west from San Antonio. US-90 crosses US-385 at Marathon.
Both routes (I-10 west to US-385 south and US-90 West to US-385 south) take roughly the same amount of time. I-10 has speed limits up to 85 MPH. US-90 supports speeds up to 75 MPH. US-90 also goes through a number of small towns along the way. There is a bypass loop around Del Rio. The other towns along US-90 often slow traffic down to 30 MPH.
The US-90 route is shorter with slower speeds yet takes the same amount of time as the I-10 route. The wind isn’t as bad on US-90 as it is on I-10. The wind. In West Texas, wind is everything.
The worst ever fuel mileage (F-450 carrying slide in truck camper and towing Jeep Wrangler) was this trip on US-90 between Del Rio and Marathon: 6.94 MPG. Typically fuel mileage ranges between 9.5 and 10.5 with an overall average value of 10 MPG. It was a bad wind day. Glad we weren’t on I-10.
With Covid, the National Park had implemented “special” rules with regard to human population density (AKA social distancing). Half of the campsites in the Rio Grande Village Campground were taken out of service. The half in service were the reservable sites (above map shaded boxed site numbers). None of the non-reservable sites were available.
Other changes can be seen by comparing the new 2020 campground map to the 2019 one. The no-generator zone has been expanded. Reservable and non-reservable site designations have changed on a number of campsites. A boat ramp is now shown on the new campground map as are the group campsites.
Empty non-reservable sites made it look like there was hardly anyone staying in the park. So empty that javalinas were seen mid day cruising around the campground. Javalina are not uncommon. They are generally not seen at 10:00 AM wandering about like they own the place.
We saw lone coyotes crossing roads in the morning hours. More than usual. In the campground, coyotes are often heard calling out at night. Always keep pets on a leash.
Campground full signs were posted all over the park like this one at the campground’s Reservation Station. All of the reservable spots weren’t occupied. One potential cause might have been campers staying home to avoid the extra cold temperatures.
At Panther Junction, December high temperatures average 63 degrees. Average lows are 39. On this trip, in the campground, the lowest low was 20 degrees Fahrenheit. The warmest it got was in the sixties. One particularly cold day was stuck in the forties.
In general, temperatures in Big Bend National Park are highly variable. Don’t be surprised with temperatures going plus or minus 20 degrees off of the averages. This year it was much colder than average. Three years ago it was much hotter. It just depends on warm/cold front timing and strength.
It was cold enough to need the heater during evenings and mornings. There are no hookups in Rio Grand Village Campground. The heater ran off the camper’s house batteries (and propane tanks). Most RV campers, ourselves included, used generators and/or solar panels to keep batteries charged. On the coldest nights, some campers ran their generators overnight even though generator hours are restricted to 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM.
The truck camper is four season and has excellent insulation. Overnight (8:00 PM until 6:00 AM), without running the heater, the camper reached the low forties inside when the outside low plummeted to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. There was more than enough reserve battery power to run the heater to raise and maintain the temperature at 68 degrees through the morning hours.
Rio Grande Village RV Campground, a full hookup RV park with 25 sites run by the park’s concessionaire, is near by. Reservations are advised during peak times.
In addition to occasional generator use, this portable Zamp 160 Watt Solar Panel with controller was used to supplement the camper’s 90 watt rooftop panel. Several years ago, the panel cost $750 and had all the hallmarks of a high theft item. It is always put away before leaving the campsite.
This year, we saw several portable 100 plus watt solar panels left out in the sun while campers were away from their campsite. It is hard to tell if campers left portable solar panels out because the campground felt empty or because the panels aren’t high theft items.
In the above picture, the solar panel is charging a portable battery used to power my CPAP. The CPAP allows me to sleep. I can easily get two nights sleep off this battery so long as I turn off the CPAP’s built-in humidifier.
After this trip, the above portable battery has been replaced with an EXP Pro Lithium Ion Battery Bank. The new battery still needs to be tested to see if it better meets our boondocking needs. It is lighter weight, less bulky, easier to charge and should provide more usable power than the above battery. The downside is it was four times more expensive. More on this topic over the next few months.
Princess Craft made a number of improvements to the camper over a year ago. One improvement was to install an Expion360 EV-BM350 Battery Monitor. The battery monitor acts like a gas gauge. It accurately tells us how much energy remains in our batteries. In the above picture, the battery monitor indicates that the batteries have 162 Amp Hours of available energy. That is, the batteries are 100% fully charged. Additional battery information in the display shows:
- 13.24 Volts
- 0.943 Amps discharge rate
- 12 Watts discharge power rate
The battery doesn’t really have 162 Amp Hours of power available. As explained in the House Batteries blog posting, lead acid batteries are damaged when discharged below 50% of capacity. Therefore the practical working capacity is really 81 Amp Hours or half of the total.
The battery discharge shown above is to support the refrigerator electronics, gas detector and other always-on systems within the camper. LED lights don’t use that much electricity but the water pump and the heater do.
It is worth noting that since the aforementioned House Batteries blog post we left the batteries connected and completely drained them. That was bad. We killed our batteries. Princess Craft replaced the batteries at the same time they installed the battery monitor. Since the new batteries were installed, we have been careful not to murder the batteries again.
While boondocking, the battery monitor received lots of attention. It never went below 140 Amp Hours even though we had the heat on and ran the water pump every evening and every morning.
This experience has made us feel confident that we can comfortably boondock. The batteries are sufficient to support our camping needs so long as we can use solar panels or a generator daily to charge the house batteries.
The camper’s tanks are small enough that we need to dump black (18 gallons) and gray (20 gallons) tanks and fill the fresh water (30 gallons) tank every three days. Rio Grande Village Campground has the only publicly accessible dump station in the park. The dump station has non-potable water for use in flushing black tanks.
Even though the park’s fresh water tasted good, bottled water in gallon containers was used for drinking water. The National Park Service asks Big Bend RV visitors to arrive with full water tanks to reduce water demand inside the park. We do this whenever staying in no-hookup campsites.
With the closure of the Boquillas border crossing due to Covid restrictions, the town of Boquillas del Carmen is experiencing severe loss of tourism revenue. Horses from Boquillas have crossed the Rio Grande River to find food. These beautiful animals are congregating in and around campground areas.
When in Big Bend, we often drive the National Park’s back country roads. Some of the roads can usually be driven with a typical passenger car. Terlingua Ranch Road shown above and Dagger Flat Auto Trail are two such roads. We drove down Terlingua Ranch Road for 10 minutes. The road has a 25 MPH speed limit. Realizing that doing the loop (From US-385: Terlingua Ranch Road west to TX-118 south to Rio Grande Village) would end up being a four hour trip, we turned around. On the way back to camp we drove the Dagger Flat Auto Trail. At the end of Dagger Flat, there is a loop with a wonderful yucca forest.
Old Maverick Road and Old Ore Road have recently begun to require four wheel drive. This year we drove Old maverick Road south toward Castalon.
Now that back country campsites are on the reservation system, we stopped at some of the remote campsites along the way to see if they were suitable for our truck and camper. Some parking for the campsites like the one above are too small for the truck. The roads to other campsites were a little too rugged, narrow or tippy. Others were just right.
Old Maverick Road ends at and turns into Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Another campground, Cottonwood, is a nice campground for smaller RVs and tents. This campground has limited potable water, vault toilets and smallish campsites. Sites are fairly level. Some of the campsites will hold a truck camper. Generators are not allowed in Cottonwood.
In May 2019, a fire that originated in Mexico jumped the Rio Grande River and burned up to the Rio Grande River facing side of Cottonwood Campground. This isn’t visible in the Cottonwood Campground picture above. Just beyond the trees on the right, all the vegetation burned to a crisp.
The same fire continued on to Castalon where several historically significant buildings were severely damaged like the ranger station slash general store shown above. At this point, it isn’t clear whether or not restoring/rebuilding the above building is even practical or possible.
The ranger station moved to the above building.
At Castalon, a temporary store has been opened.
We took Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive back to TX-118 (main park road). This scenic drive is one of the top roads to drive for amazing views. I’ve driven this road so many times and taken so many pictures that this trip I didn’t bother to pull into scenic overlooks to take pictures. Sotol Vista is the best scenic overlook. The views are beyond description. While pictures taken at Sotol Vista always look great, they pale in comparison to just standing there in person and looking out over the seemingly infinite layers of valleys, ridges and mountains.
On other days, we scouted other remote campsites. Above is the road to Nine Point Draw. Its intersection with US-385 is unmarked. Nine Point Draw is the nearest campsite to the US-385 Persimmon Gap entrance to Big Bend National Park. The road to the campsite is just north the Terlingua Ranch Road intersection.
North of Panther Junction on US-385 is another unmarked road leading to the Hannold Draw campsite.
The Hannold Draw Campsite is nothing special.
The campsite wasn’t particularly attractive. The road passes a road making materials depot on the way to the campsite.
South of Panther Junction on TX-118 (road to Rio Grande Village Campground) is the K-Bar Ranch Road. We turned down this road to checkout the road and the campsites. The old ranch house has been turned into a research station. In the above photo, taken on the way back to TX-118, the ranch house roof can be seen on the left. To the right are RVs to support the researchers. The views are impressive.
The ranch house looks like a comfortable place to work. Rocking chairs sit on the wide front porch.
We met a fellow RVer coming up the road towards us pulling a trailer. On roads like this, the rule is downhill traffic must yield to uphill traffic. We were travelling downhill. Regardless of the rule of the road, we backed up the hill a distance to allow the travel trailer to pass. We had the smaller, more robust and maneuverable off-road vehicle.
The first campsite seemed ideal for our purposes even though it wasn’t level.
The second campsite, also not level, would work for our truck camper.
The Glenn Spring Road has a number of campsites. Glenn Spring provides access Pine Canyon Road and Juniper Canyon Road, both of which also have remote campsites. Glenn Spring’s northern end is south of Panther Junction on TX-118. The southern end of Glenn Spring road is on River Road East.
Glenn Spring Road is good in some places and challenging in others. The above section of road in uncharacteristically nice in that it affords good visibility and is smoother and wider than usual.
The first campsite, Nugent Mountain, isn’t level but its large size make it ideal for small groups. The downside is the views are just OK.
Next is the Campsite Chilicotal. This is my personal favorite on Glenn Spring Road. It is some distance off road. It feels very private. Views are excellent. It sits on its own little private rise above the surrounding area. It too is slightly unlevel. It is smaller than other campsites.
Rice Tank Campsite has some strong pros and cons. The campsite is next to a “tank.” On Texas ranches, tanks are earthen rainwater catchment dams used to provide a seasonal water source for livestock. Wildlife use the tank seasonally as a source of water. Inside the tank, behind the dam, different plants grow than what is seen in the surrounding desert. Camping in this site means visitors will occasionally stop by to look for wildlife in the tank area. Privacy may be an issue. The park has bears, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes and javalina. All can be dangerous under the wrong conditions. All would be attracted by a water source. But these same factors can make the campsite ideal for some folks. The actual site is neither particularly large or particularly level.
Pine Canyon Road starts at Glenn Spring Road just after the Nugent Mountain campsite. Pine Canyon has five primitive campsites. The road seemed safely passible for the truck camper through the third campsite. After the third site, the road became tippy and narrow in places. Each campsite provides excellent 360 degree panoramic views.
The second campsite is typical for Pine Canyon Road. The above panorama was taken looking up the road from the second campsite.
This panorama was taken looking down the road from the second campsite.
Grapevine Hills has five primitive campsites. The road became rougher, less stable after the third campsite making campsites four and five unreachable by the truck camper. Leveling the camper in the first three sites was possible. These three sites seemed larger than average. Traffic along Grapevine Hills is a concern. Between campsites three and four is the Balanced Rock Trailhead. The trail is very popular making the trailhead area a choke point with too many parked vehicles in a disorganized parking area. Because of the Balanced Rock Trail traffic volume, dust will be an issue for campers in the first three sites. Road noise may also be a factor affecting camper enjoyment.
Views along Grapevine Hills road are unremarkable until the Balanced Rock Trailhead. After the trailhead, the terrain becomes more extreme, the road maintenance gets dicey and views dramatically improve.
Paint Gap Road has four campsites. Campsites are slightly off-level. Views aren’t great. Campsites are of average size.
Road quality changes for the worse between the third and fourth campsites. We took the fourth Paint Gap campsite out of consideration.
Croton Springs Road has two campsites. The road to the campsites is fine. The views are unremarkable. The campsites are next to each other and near TX-118, the main park road between Study Butte and Panther Junction. Too much traffic noise. Not enough solitude. These campsites are not on our list of primitive campsites to try out.
Big Bend National Park is one of our top two favorite Texas parks. We try to camp in this park every year. We never tire of this amazing park. It consistently inspires awe, wonder and an appreciate for wild and remote places.
Hope to see you on the road ahead!