You’ve been officially warned: long post alert! This is a very detailed summary of our recent trip to Big Bend National Park. If you’re interested in a trip there someday, check this out! Otherwise, maybe just scroll through the pictures – it’s a lot of detail. I will try to post pics along with my account so you can see what I’m talking about as the story progresses so keep scrolling after each set of photos. Also, it probably comes up better on a computer versus a mobile device.
We recently returned from our first kid-free vacation in over two years. And even on the last one we took which Scott referred to un-affectionately as our “vegan yoga retreat” (see here), I was pregnant with Rex. Being super pregnant is obviously limiting, so to say that this was a colossal treat is a gross understatement! I’d also like to give a huge shout out to Scott’s mom and dad for watching our “big” kids and my mom for watching Ty Baby. Without them, this trip would not have been possible for about 18 years more years! I’d also like to thank our amazing neighbors Chad and Chrissy who went with us for being the best company, and additionally, Chad’s parents for watching Chad’s and Chrissy’s kids too! I guess specifically, however, I really need to thank Chad for being such an old dude – I mean after all, the whole purpose of the trip was to celebrate his 40th birthday! So besides the amazing scenery (which you’ll see and hear about in this post), ribbing Chad for being “over the hill” was another major highlight of the trip! Believe me, I wore as much black as possible (you know, to mourn the loss of his 30’s), and tried to refer to him as “sir” as much as possible since I was taught to respect my elders. I must say though, it was extraordinarily refreshing to get away – even more so than I could have ever imagined! I made it an entire WEEK after returning home without losing my patience with the kids and yelling at them (which usually occurs multiple times daily). I feel like I’m a better mom now, and I can honestly say that nothing has ever recharged my batteries more than this trip did. Spending quality time with Scott, our best friends, and enjoying the great outdoors is exactly what my soul needed. And then to top it off with adventure, meeting new people, hiking, some history and booze, it really was a picture perfect trip. I think the other three would agree!
This wasn’t our first trip together, the Heishoff’s as we’ve started calling ourselves, but it was our first trip together without kids (you can read about our last trip together to seaweed-y Galveston two summers ago here). The trip started out like they all do…Chad, Chrissy and I spent the lunch hour loading the entire car and were basically just waiting on Scott to just show up. Somehow that dude always manages to avoid all of the boring and hard parts of a trip (like packing). We finally got on the road for the 5+ hour drive by midafternoon. We stopped at Lum’s in Junction for what apparently is world class Texas bbq. As expected, the guys were in heaven. Along the way, we discussed potential hiking routes and our hopes for the trip. The drive there is quite scenic, although long, and we took the route through Fort Stockton to get there. We regretted not finding the town’s unofficial mascot- a giant roadrunner named Pete apparently. But we made it and arrived after dark at The Gage Hotel in Marathon, our “home base” for the trip, and upon checking in, were amazed at this incredible oasis in the middle of west Texas. Just to give you some perspective, the town of Marathon doesn’t even have a single traffic light. It’s TINY. We stayed in the two bedroom carriage house on part of their property behind a bigger house. The decor was fabulous and the rooms lacked nothing – even had a Keurig! After making about two dozen trips to unload the car (everyone EXCEPT Scott over packed for the trip), we headed to The White Buffalo Bar located at our hotel. It was there were we introduced to a special cocktail called “Ranch Water” that became a daily staple of our trip! Go figure, we hadn’t been seated for 15 minutes before we realized that the folks next to us were all from Alamo Heights. What a small world. We chatted with them for quite some time and after doing this trip the last 14 years, they shared their favorite hikes with us and helped us finalize our plan for the next day. We all went to bed happy and ready to begin our adventure!
The next morning we were all so excited to get going – it ended up being the earliest morning that we would ever leave the hotel (about 8:30am). Thus, I was only able to squeeze in a 2-3 mile jog before our departure. That didn’t matter too much though because I had somehow managed a half marathon the morning we left and as it turned out, we would end up hiking a solid 10-12 miles that day with quite a bit of elevation. So off we went, headed towards Big Bend National Park! Here is where I would insert my advice for those of you reading this with hopes of one day taking his fabulous trip yourself and your main objective is to hike the park(s): stay at The Gage on your way to BB and then on your last night before you head home (stay in the park for the bulk of your stay). While it was a phenomenal hotel with all of the amenities that you could ever dream up, it was a long, long drive to the park everyday (probably 1.5 hours-ish? each way). Then, depending on where in the park your trail is, you have another long drive INSIDE the park (slow speed limits) which is enormous to say the least. I failed to notice the time we began our first hike but I’m guessing 11ish maybe? Which to me was very late, especially considering that we left around 8:30.
We stopped at Panther Junction – the main hub inside the park – to use the restroom and check out the souvenir shop. Pretty soon we were on our way to find our biggest and baddest hike of the whole trip, Lost Mine. The book (which we would highly recommend) modestly refers to this trail as a “moderately strenuous…day hike to mountain overlooks with some of the best views in the park.” The “moderately strenuous” part to me really only had to do with the elevation factor not boulder climbing or anything tricky like that (I want to say that my Fitbit said I climbed close to 150 flights of stairs (I also went up and down and explored off the trail some though too). PS. It’s approximately 5 miles.
In a nutshell, Lost Mine was incredible. From visiting with everyone I know that’s been to the park, this one comes up as a favorite hike all the time. And it didn’t take long to see why! Although incredibly windy that day (note our hair in the photos), it was gorgeous, sunny weather – not too hot and not too cold. Especially lucky considering that Marathon had snow today! And photos cannot do the landscape justice. The enormity of the canyon walls and mountain peaks is almost incomprehensible. You have to see them in person to truly understand how large they are. Some photos with us in them can help give perspective such as this one with the yellow arrow. And then of course Chrissy and I did a tripod headstand at the top to make a fun photo!
After Lost Mine, we went to eat at the Chisos Mountain Lodge which would be a wise place to stay if your main objective is hiking the park. Apparently reservations are tough to get though so you need to plan far in advance. The restaurant there was great with a tremendous view. As an aspiring 100% raw vegan, I was blown away by the quality of their salad bar. It would have been very good by any standards, but throw in the fact that it was in the middle of nowhere and I was extra, extra impressed and extremely happy. Everyone else seemed to really enjoy their meals as well. It was here at their little gift shop that Chad found me a selfie stick (I had meant to purchase one for the trip and forgot) so that was exciting and allowed us to take more landscape photos with people in them! After lunch (still day one), we decided to hike Cattail Falls, which had been recommended by our new friends from the previous evening. It was a beautiful hike through the dessert that led to a random little oasis of ferns and oaks at the base of a (at the time) semi-trickling waterfall. It was gorgeous and so unexpected! We had hoped to squeeze in a visit to The Window (another famous trail) at the same time, but we had a dinner reservation at the hotel and we had a long drive back. Later on we read a story about some guys who repelled down into this canyon (some lived and some weren’t not so lucky) – more about this book farther down.
During our many hours on the trail and in the car, we spent the time not only admiring the beauty around us of course, but also what we would name Baby Lehnhoff #4 should we ever be blessed with such a miracle. Okay, I guess I should clarify that. By “we,” I mean Chad, Chrissy and I because anytime the subject arose, Scott threatened to throw himself off the nearest cliff, LOL! But, in case you were interested, the three of us settled on Luke Bryan for a boy and Elena for a girl. <insert Scott rolling his eyes here>
The next day we got kind of a late start. I’ll go ahead and blame that on the “Ranch Water” that I mentioned earlier. We headed off towards Alpine which is only about a 30 minute drive from Marathon. We spent a couple hours shopping the main drag and exploring the town. I had a nice raw vegan smoothie at Plaine Coffee. In fact, Chad even got a green juice. Did I mention that the Ranch Water may have caused our late start? Even Chad felt a need to detox! Anyhow…two other interesting things to note about Alpine, home to Sul Ross University: 1) They have numerous beautiful murals on many of their buildings (see a few of them below), and 2) They have the worst farmer’s market ever, LOL! There were a few folks selling scoops of casseroles or something out of giant tupperwares and one guy selling kohlrabi. To be fair, I didn’t know what kohlrabi was, so I was excited to learn a new vegetable. Anyhow, don’t feel like you need to hit up the farmer’s market in Alpine (at least in the winter). You ain’t missin’ much!
Next we headed to the park where after much debate, we tackled two smaller trails. I’m going to go ahead and say that hiking with someone “over the hill” is like having a governor on your car. Just kidding! I honestly can’t help myself with the old jokes. Now you can start to get a sense what the trip might have been like for Chad. PS. He was a really good sport. Upon arriving at the park, we decided to start with Santa Elena Canyon. This hike started off with a bang when Chrissy innocently went for something in Chad’s backpack (that he was wearing). Next thing I know, poor Chrissy had somehow been violently hurled into the dirt shore of the Rio Grande and I see Chad’s knee come down on her head and he falls on top of her!! We were all cracking up and both of them covered in dirt, tried to figure out what the hell just happened. Basically I think that Chrissy was holding onto Chad’s backpack when he spun around rather quickly not realizing she was there (and hanging onto him), and then Chrissy didn’t let go, and being half the size of Chad, she was flung around like a small stuffed animal! Funny part was that she never let go and despite that she is a tiny human, somehow pulled Chad down as she fell! It was totally an accident and caught everyone by surprise! Maybe it’s one of those “you-had-to-be-there” stories, but it was pretty hilarious because they were both relatively okay. Chrissy sustained some minor ankle injuries, but was able to recover. And surprisingly old man Chad was fine, maybe because he landed on Chrissy. You’ll see a little later on that he didn’t stay so lucky as far as the injuries go. Oh, come on, you really thought a 40 year old wouldn’t get injured at Big Bend?!
Alas, I digress with my ridiculing. Back to Santa Elena. Another gorgeous trail – very short and easy (about 1.6 miles round trip)… you get to explore a canyon that the Rio Grande cuts through. It’s pretty crazy to know that the other side is another country. Chrissy and I did another headstand pic here (so Mexico is the large rock on the left). We all agreed that it was a phenomenal place.
Next up, we did the Dorgan-Sublett trail, mostly because of its proximity to Santa Elena (like I said, all the driving from place to place can get old). Dorgan-Sublett was pretty cool because it was a bunch of ruins. If you have the book I mentioned earlier, you can read more about it, but they also have plaques too so you know what you’re looking at. It was a very easy one mile round trip.
After this, because we didn’t have a dinner reservation, we decided to drive to Terlingua for dinner at the famous Starlight. Terlingua, an old and abandoned mining town, is a ghost town now pretty much and is mostly just a random tourist attraction with hardly anything there. Sadly, now the town might be most known for a violent murder that took place there. I heard there was even a TV show about it. Anyhow, we went to the famous Starlight Theater. We picked a bad day to go because we had to wait about two hours for a table. Bad timing – there was a huge race the next morning (50k, marathon, half marathon, etc) and they were hosting the pre-race meal for the runners. There were a few shops though so that entertained us and we eventually got to eat and it was pretty good too! Unfortunately though, Terlingua is far, so it was about 11pm by the time we finished eating and drove back to Marathon. Needless to say, this was the only day where Ranch Water did not make an appearance and clearly explains why we were able to get an early start for our third and final full day at the park the next morning.
I also failed to specifically mention that traveling with our neighbors, specifically Chad, is crazy awesome because he is prepared for not only the apocalypse, but also a civil war, zombie attack, hurricane/tornadoes/monsoon, etc, etc, you get the gist. Being somewhat paranoid in general myself, I appreciate this greatly, even though I do tease him sometimes. Seriously though. At one point I mentioned that I needed some dental floss while hiking, and not only did Chad have some, but he had two packages of it! He had both red and green signal lights in case we got lost with batteries that would last a month, water filters and purifiers, multiple fire starter kits and kindling, bivy’s (which I learned are basically emergency sleeping bags), and the list went on and on and on and on…I think we counted 7 Fenix flashlights…multiple GPS devices, and even an emergency chopper rescue button for worst case scenario. Hold on. Let me repeat that. He even had an emergency chopper rescue button for worst case scenario. Yes, “chopper” = helicopter. Like I said, the man takes being prepared VERY seriously. But probably most impressive was the five pound bag of peanut M&M’s that he carried to share with the group! Like I said, he’s “prepared.” LOL! Turns out that there was one hike that I felt good knowing that he had his Bag of Possibilities with us and that was Devil’s Den.
Oddly enough, we randomly chose Devil’s Den just minutes before doing it when Chrissy suggested it after realizing that we still had close to 2 more hours of driving to make it to the Mariscal trailhead that we had initially chosen for our last day. And for those of you who have done some of the crazy hikes at BB like the South Rim trails, etc, maybe this is easy-peasy, but to us, it was a hugely fun adventure as the trail was at times quite tricky, going over large boulders in a huge wash, and most difficult, there were no signs!! As described in our book, there was a “lack of any maintained trail” and this hike required “route-finding.” Chrissy was our navigator, and brought the book along to read us the specific clues as to how to find the “trail.” I think we all agreed that this was the most fun trail because of its adventurous nature (trying to figure out where the hell to go)! It was neat too because we hiked inside a wash that eventually turned into a canyon (Devil’s Den). There was also a fair amount of climbing involved too (not elevation, so much as over giant boulders, through small spaces, etc). And sadly, this was where our 40 year old sustained his knee injury. You knew this was coming. I’m not entirely sure what happened, but I think Chad twisted it climbing a boulder. It was bad enough that he wrapped it and had a
limp cool swagger for the rest of the trip (and even now a week or so later!). Such a bummer! But he was a rock star and made it not only through the rest of the hike, but did two more small hikes afterwards! PS. He has already made one visit to the orthopedic surgeon.
After we found the trails’ end, we used one of Chad’s numerous handy dandy GPS devices (and Scott’s eerily accurate sense of direction) to take us back to the car “as the crow flies.” It was pretty cool to walk across the wide open country, not on any kind of trail, knowing that it could have been decades since any human stepped in the same spot as you. Chrissy and I ventured up a very large hill (or small mountain? – not sure which) and took some photos of Devil’s Den from above. It was pretty cool to see way off in the distance (pic). Once back at the car, we ate lunch on the side of the road before hitting our next destination. I somehow managed to get myself a ginormous salad. Yes, I travel with massive quantities of vegetables. You think a raw vegan wouldn’t dice a cucumber on the tailgate? It was amazing. Even brought my bowl from home (see pics)!
Next on the stop was the Hot Springs (inside the park). And thank goodness because I had worn my bikini under my hiking gear in hopes of getting to strip it down and take a hot soak! And yes, for those of you wondering, that was in fact a Luke Bryan reference. According to the book, there was a small health spa that used the hot springs water back in the early 1900’s, and you can see the remains of the motel and post office on your way down to the water! Also interesting at this location are the pictographs and petrographs painted and carved on the rock faces by various Indian groups that lived in and traveled through the area. The springs are about 105 degrees and sit immediately on the bank of the Rio Grande (which has a strong current at this spot). The book warns park visitors to not submerge their heads underwater in the hot springs due to organisms that can enter through the nasal cavity. No surprise that Chad was too paranoid to enter the springs, but Scott and I bravely took a dip along with about a million other curious folks. I have to admit, it was kinda gross to think that we were all in there with no formal sanitary measures in place, and I almost wanted to take Chad up on the shot of antibiotics he kept offering. Now we will all know why Baby Lehnhoff #4 could have a third arm or eye, haha! And in case you just started reading, NO, I’M NOT PREGNANT! LOL! And by the way, let’s just be honest, Chad’s decrepit knee could have used the healing waters of the hot springs.
After our dip in the springs, Scott and Chad wandered back to the car, leaving Chrissy and I to adventure on our own. We walked farther down the Rio Grande, admiring its beauty and were able to see a horse and donkey across the river. We also found some bobcat tracks in the soft sandy bank before the river rock began. Chrissy was a little worried that we were the next plot of a horror film…two blonde girls roaming the banks of the Rio Grande alone (one in a bikini no less!) who are lured by what they thought were wild horses over in Mexico, haha… but we survived though! No murder in BB that day – although, we did read about a few murders later in the book I mentioned earlier that I still need to debrief. [Note: The walk to the springs is only about a mile maybe each way. They also have changing facilities at the trailhead, i.e. I didn’t need to wear my swim suit under my hiking gear all day. Because that sucked.]
We ended our trip on a high note, with our last hike being down into Boquillas Canyon. Listed in the book as being “easy” and only 0.7 miles each way, we arrived at our third hike of the day just before sunset. We made the quick descent into the canyon, and marveled at the beauty in front of us. On the way we bought handmade Mexican trinkets that we found in the brush. We could see the Mexicans across the Rio Grande keeping watch over their crafts. They had left a jar for money and as soon as we bought something, they snuck across the river to collect their earnings. I say “snuck” because we never saw them do it – it was incredible! There were several places along the way to the bottom of the canyon where hikers had an opportunity to purchase these beautiful items. I ended up buying two wire and beaded scorpions and one rooster (for Rex since we call him Rooster sometimes). At the very end of the trail, we were suddenly overwhelmed by the “Singing Mexican Jesus.” Lo and behold, across the Rio Grande stood an old Mexican belting out beautiful tunes such as Cielito Lindo. And sure enough, there was a rock in the grass next to a jar that had a sharpie message written on it, “Donations for the singing Mexican Jesus” on it! Same thing – he paddled over to get his money as soon as he saw that anyone had put anything on his jar. But as with the others, we never saw him do it! The canyon was gorgeous and the sun set shortly after. We loved this beautiful hike.
It was so hard to leave this beautiful slice of Texas and its unique charm and I’m already looking forward to going back. We all agreed that our only regret was not making a trip to the Famous Burro Bar in Marathon. That Ranch Water at the White Buffalo Bar in the Gage just always kept us a little too long and the Burro was closed by the time we made it over there (on several occasions)!
On the long drive home (this time through Amistad), we read short stories out of an incredible book – Death in Big Bend by Laurence Parent. We figured that it was better to read after our visit, haha! And of course hearing the awful stories about ill prepared hikers just made Chad feel even more strongly about how many supplies he brought as preparation too. Knowing him, next time he’ll bring twice as much stuff! Well, maybe not since now that he’s over the hill, his memory is likely to be not as sharp. Again, just trying portray the atmosphere on the trip with all the old man jokes, LOL! Anyhow, Death in Big Bend is a very interesting book though and neat if you are familiar with the trails that they write about. There are definitely some very sad stories though, but luckily there are some happy endings too.
If you are thinking about taking a trip to Big Bend and want to chat about it or have questions, let me know – I’d love to share my experience! And then we can plan how to fit me in your suitcase too!
Here are a few random leftover pics!