Exploring the Rio Grande

Peter and Kathy Holcombe Peter and Kathy Holcombe  |  05.27.2016

As we headed south, down roads that stretched endlessly out to the horizon in front of us, I still had some lingering doubts about our destination.  Although countless friends had recommended Big Bend National Park as one of their all time favorite places, we had also heard faint rumblings of dangerous incidents involving banditos, the cartel, and coyotes (of the two legged variety) that left us questioning our decision to bring our eleven year old daughter anywhere near this vast expanse of lawless desert.

001-11The further south we ventured, the more desolate our surroundings became until we finally reached the last town on our map before Mexico.

001-7The surreal desert town of Terilingua, TX is a must see destination en-route to Big Bend National Park.

We sauntered into the dusty, run-down town of Terlingua, TX hoping to top off our tanks and grab a bite to eat before heading into the park for a few days in the remote desert wilderness.  We wound our way through town, up twisty, winding roads with ramshackle trailers scattered across the barren landscape.  As I looked around I couldn’t help but think I had just walked onto the set of an old western movie.  The muted colors of the desert, coupled with the swirling dust and sunlight glinting off of corrugated metal roofs and an erie silence gave the impression that we were stepping into an ambush with John Wayne standing watch just over the horizon.  While looking for a place to park Winnie, we discovered an old ghost town complete with a cemetery dating back to the early 1900s.  The realities of the harsh struggle for survival of the early mercury miners who lived there became apparent as we wandered among the dilapidated ruins and gravesites notated by a pile of rocks and wooden crosses.

001-5The Terlingua cemetery dating back to 1908 is a testimony to the harsh conditions early mercury miners faced.

As we continued up the road, I had to wipe the dust out of my eyes as I stared in disbelief at the pandemonium that laid out before me.  The desperation that was so prevalent in the ghost town had morphed into a circus-like mayhem on the front porch of the compound in front of us.  Greeting us at the edge of the dusty parking lot were a half-dozen hula hoopers gyrating in a marvelous display of synchronicity.  We shucked and jived our way through the whirling dervishes and stepped up onto the massive front porch only to discover that our surroundings had radically morphed once again.  Strewn across the covered porch, amongst the rocking chairs and scavenging dogs, were miniature communities each completely consumed in their own microcosm.  The first group that we encountered consisted of two guitarists, a banjo player and a trio of dancers clad in whimsical fabrics that flowed like mist in the wind across the porch.  The next ensemble was a karaoke serenade accompanied by dueling guitars.  What they lacked in pitch they made up for with contagious enthusiasm.  Next up was a group of river guides boisterously recounting past adventures, and each subsequent ten steps led us to yet another unique set of circumstances.  As we weaved through the crowd, the wild rumpus on the porch continued to increase in fervor.

DCIM100GOPROG0091648.The front porch of the Terlingua Trading Company is a fantastic playground complete with hula hoops.  Abby shows off her mad hula hoop skills for the steady flow of tourist.

001-8There are community guitars strewn across the front porch of the Trading Company, that become the center of attention as dusk settles and the evening festivities begin.

At last we found the entrance to the Starlight Theater and Saloon with it’s vibrant and eclectic ambiance and feasted on chicken fired wild boar (a fabulous first for all three of us).  We rounded out our evening perusing the fantastic mercantile next door before calling it a night – full, tired and thrilled with our delightful and unexpected discovery.

001-9What a thrill to discover fall foliage in the middle of January at Cottonwood Campground.

The next morning we made our way into Big Bend National Park and secured a site at Cottonwood campground and to our surprise, discovered that the mammoth cottonwood trees were still adorned in tawny fall-colored leaves even in mid-January.  We spent the afternoon lounging in the shade while keeping a watchful eye on a rascally road runner who poked relentlessly at our big, yellow labrador, Tucker, possibly mistaking his hysterical gullibility for the notorious Wile E. Coyote himself.  That night, outside our RV, we heard raucous rumblings and rustlings befitting a Sasquatch, but what turned out in daylight hours to be a trio of javelinas running amuck in the campground.

001-19The views in Santa Elena Canyon seemed to improve at every bend in the river.  We plan to return and kayak the entire 200 mile stretch of the Rio Grande River next winter.

The next morning we decided that in honor of our close proximity to the border, a Mexican lunch was in order, so we made our way to Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio Grande River.  The low flow rate of the river allowed us the option of and out and back adventure.  Almost immediately after we launched, we found ourselves crossing through a dramatic canyon gateway with limestone cliffs that towered almost a thousand feet above us.  For the most part, the gentle current through the canyon was easily overpowered and we paddled almost three miles upstream before finding a beautiful side canyon and beach on the Mexico side of the river ideally suited for an afternoon fiesta.  After a quick lunch, we explored the narrow slot canyon and discovered serene emerald colored pools encased in polished limestone.  As the early winter evening descended we made quick work of the paddle back to the takeout, grateful for the helping hand of the downstream current nudging us along.

DCIM100GOPROG0032896.Famagogo straddles the US/Mexico border.  It was a strange experience to cross into a different country with just a couple of paddle strokes.

Our last day in the park was a whirlwind of activity as we tried to squeeze in all the things we wanted to do before we had to leave.  After a beautiful loop hike in Chisos basin, we headed out to Rio Grande Village for a soak in the natural hot springs.  As we hiked down from the parking area we discovered a colorful display laid out on the ground with a plethora of handmade sculptures and carvings carefully displayed with price tags and a can for payment.  There was not a merchant in sight, but when Abby reached to pick up a copper scorpion sculpture, we were barraged with whistles and shouts from across the river.  We looked up to see two men sitting under a lean-to watching us through binoculars, making sure we were not walking off with any of their wares.  We quickly returned the scorpion to it’s place on the ground and continued on down the trail toward the hot springs.  As we were walking away, we noticed another family placing money in the container and we spotted the Mexican merchant swimming across the river to collect the proceeds from his sale.  With so much in the news these days about border security, we were surprised by the fluidity of the border within the confines of Big Bend National Park.

DCIM100GOPROG0094068.The eclectic display of sculptures of carvings that were transported across the border by a quick swim across the Rio Grande.

The hot springs turned out to be a steaming, sulfurous, and algae lined pool that was formed by large stone blocks cemented together to hold the water that was adjacent to the river.  A pipe from the nearby spring transported the continuous flow of smoldering water into the pool with the excess water spilling over the lip and down to the river below.  After a good long soak, we gathered our things for the short hike back to Winnie the View.  Saddened that our time in the park was over, we vowed to return next winter and explore the entire 200+ miles of the Rio Grande and really get to know this incredible gem that we share with our Mexican neighbors.

DCIM100GOPROG0024030.The hot springs on the eastern edge of the park were a fabulous finale to our time in the park.


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  1. deb wheeler Posted on 01.06.2017

    Your photos are brilliant! You really brought the experience to life and my husband is not happy because you made me want to go!