A mother and daughter take an unforgettable adventure to one of America’s least-visited landscapes.

By Valerie Rains
September 21, 2020
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Light and shadow color the walls of Santa Elena Canyon.
Tara Donne

The giddiness sets in about a mile into the Lost Mine Trail, 6,000 feet up in the burnt sienna Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. Beyond the peaks, hundreds of miles of Chihuahuan Desert spread out on every side, yet the trail is bursting with life. Vibrant yellow goldenrod and damianita; spiky-petaled, neon-red mountain sage blossoms; and ghostly white clouds of flowering mountain mahogany crowd the path in bushy abundance. At scenic lookout after scenic lookout, I dawdle in the hot October sun between patches of shade from pinyon pine and oak trees, sharing the views of the deep, green crease of Juniper Canyon and the volcanic ridges of the Chisos range with absolutely no one.

A little farther, a gentle rise in the trail gives way to switchbacks, and I ascend several hundred feet higher for the big panoramic payoff: To my left, minerals and volcanic ash in the rocks have painted a movie screen-size watercolor in lilac, blush, dusty lemon, and the palest aqua on the side of the next mountain over. Straight ahead, a massive rock juts up from the side of the nearest slope, splashed like a Pollock painting with lime green lichen. Behind it, Casa Grande Peak presides over it all, the spitting image of a gently eroded ancient ruin perched at 7,300 feet. It’s like I’ve clambered my way into my own private art museum, and I can’t stop marveling at my luck to be here—or snapping photos to share with my travel-buddy mom, Carole, who has decided to rest her knees and browse souvenirs at the Chisos Mountains Lodge more than 1,000 feet below. 

All told, I have encountered only a handful of hikers since I left the small (and completely full) parking lot at the trailhead, which is the only visible evidence of the Lost Mine’s popularity. Stepping off the path to allow a pair of fellow hikers to pass, I grin like I had personally sculpted the stubbled, carmine-colored crags all around and say, “What a place, right?” The couple smiles back and nods with the patience of longtime visitors whose shared passion for a particular spot has mellowed from the fireworks of first love to the enduring, if less dramatic, devotion of marriage.

With more than 800,000 acres, this is the eighth-largest national park in the continental U.S., but it sees less than half a million annual visitors, making it one of the most sparsely touristed parks in the system. Chalk it up to the remote location, more than 400 miles away from Austin or San Antonio and a three-hour drive from the nearest airport in Midland. Many travelers never come out here, but those who take the trip once tend to make a habit of it, drawn back by Big Bend’s distinctive West Texas ecosystem, inimitable character, and welcoming vastness—a contradiction I still can’t explain.

Left: Tepees are among the lodging options at Basecamp Terlingua. | Photo: Tara Donne
Right: You can stay in a bubble and take in the incredible West Texas scenery at Basecamp Terlingua. | Photo: Tara Donne

Back to the Beginning

My mother and I had embarked on this trip with modest aspirations: to add another national park to each of our life lists and to secure some quiet quality time together, away from the crowds and clamor of my urban routine and the familiar, well-worn grooves of hers. And if we managed to rack up a few Mexican-food feasts and country-radio sing-alongs on the way? Even better.

The shortest drive from Midland, where we had started our trip, to the park’s northern entrance is roughly three hours, but we had heard the scenic route through the adjacent Big Bend Ranch State Park was worth the extra mileage, so we plotted a course that would take us there, following the River Road along the Rio Grande and making it to Terlingua, our Big Bend base, by nightfall.

Together, the two parks tip 1,700 square miles and comprise a patchwork of desert, mountains, waterfalls, canyons, open grazing range, and 141 miles of Rio Grande frontage. Both parks possess a stunning beauty that shifts steadily as we roll along over kiddie-coaster hills that make our stomachs swerve. At every turn, the mountains take on a different shape, texture, or hue. Some are stiff skirted and dotted with spiny ocotillo and slim, bristly sotol. Others are sandy and silken, washed in shades of sage, salmon, ivory, and rust. On the horizon, another ridgeline glows rosy pink like the cover of one of my father’s beloved paperback Westerns.

At the aptly named Big Hill lookout, we park the car for a bird’s-eye view of the shimmering green ribbon of the Rio Grande, snaking its way along the valley floor between the canyon walls. It is around this time that my mother, who’s celebrating her 75th year at the same time as the national park itself, coins the term “wow overload.” It’s a spontaneous utterance that will come to describe the rest of our days in West Texas, including moments later, when a family of javelinas (bristle-haired, round-bellied creatures with a jaunty gait and a scent to rival the skunk’s) crosses the road directly in front of us, with a bouncing baby javelina bringing up the rear.

Left: La Posada Milagro Guesthouse in Terlingua. | Photo: Tara Donne
Right: Casual fare at Taqueria El Milagro in Terlingua | Photo: Tara Donne

When we finally pull into the dusty Terlingua Ghost Town, an abandoned mining company turned scruffy tourist enclave, it is nearly dusk and we’re happy to have beaten the darkness as we inch up the winding gravel drive to the charming stacked-stone La Posada Milagro Guesthouse. And we’re doubly thankful to be within stumbling distance of the Starlight Theatre Restaurant and Saloon, an all-in-one eatery, live-music venue, and de facto community center that has been a gathering spot for decades. The food and entertainment are better than they need to be, with a menu heavy on top-quality steaks from area ranches and a steady stream of local and touring acts performing proper sets on the stage indoors and joining impromptu jam sessions on the front porch almost every night of the week.

Left: Ring Huggins owns Many Stones, an only-in-Texas gift emporium in Terlingua. | Photo: Tara Donne
Right: Many Stones offers gems, cacti, and gifts in Terlingua. | Photo: Tara Donne

Just like that, we fall into a new rhythm: dinners at the Starlight; coffee and egg sandwiches at Espresso Y Poco Mas, Posada Milagro’s beloved breakfast haunt down the hill; and exciting daily adventures in the park, with an hour-long scenic drive each way as our commute. And at the end of each deeply satisfying day, from the patio chairs on our cozy casita’s pebbled, sunset-facing ledge, we agree that maybe sticking to a routine isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Angell Expeditions leads a river adventure in Santa Elena Canyon.
Tara Donne

Paddling the Rio Grande

“Pretty much everything here works its way into the Rio Grande eventually,” explains our guide from Big Bend Boating and Hiking, Cassidy William, a twenty-something river runner with a deep tan, a bun, and a moustache. He’s talking primarily about the region’s wildlife (which may travel hundreds of miles to reach the river) as he narrates the hour-long drive to our put-in site the next morning. But he might just as well have been talking about Mom and me. One of the only musts on our West Texas checklist was a float trip on the Rio Grande, a surefire way to get up close and personal with the Big Bend’s defining feature.

At the riverbank, we drag our boats into the water and settle in, me in one kayak, an older solo traveler in another, and my mom riding shotgun in William’s canoe—she’s called a “bow belle,” in river-guide parlance. The water is a pale brown here, like milky tea, and lined with reeds and grasses, some native, some not. We paddle for about an hour, watching migratory birds and yellow and orange butterflies flit along the banks, and I can’t help but think back to the family float trips we took in Oklahoma when I was a kid. I imagine my mom traveling to the same place in her mind, smiling at me from across the water.

We break up the trip with a stop at Langford Hot Springs, a rock-walled, shallow pool set into the river’s edge by a homesteader (and Wild West wellness entrepreneur) back in 1909. From here, we set out to stretch our legs on a short hike with sweeping views of the river and Mexico’s Sierra del Carmen mountains. As we pick our way among the candelilla and beavertail cacti, pausing to gape at delicate, bright red pictographs drawn as early as 4,000 years ago, the broken shards of limestone shale underfoot make an almost musical sound—high, tinkling notes like an old saloon piano—and I’m reminded just how much quiet we’ve been immersed in.

After lunch under a thick cluster of palms, our little crew troops over to the spring for a soak, stripping down to our swimsuits and sinking our toes into its muddy floor. Even on a warm, clear day, the hot water feels restorative, and we take turns sliding over the rim that separates the hot spring from the river to perch on a stone ledge in the cool stream while hot water pours in a natural waterfall over our shoulders. It’s such a special spot, and so unassuming at the same time, a perfect encapsulation of the West Texas experience—underrated by those who haven’t experienced it, treasured by those who have.

The second half of the float feels dialed up a notch: Canyon walls are stacked around us, and ahead, the flat-topped Sierra del Carmens, with their terraced-looking sides, morph into stone pyramids and back again. When William directs us to paddle toward the bank at the end of the trip, I’m reluctant to climb out of the kayak. The rhythms of life measured in the strokes of a paddle can exert a pull you have no desire to escape.

The view from your Basecamp Terlingua bubble.
Tara Donne

Big Show in a Big Sky

There are no rituals more relished in West Texas than those natural ones that bookend every day, and to miss a sunrise or a sunset is to miss some magic. Each morning in Terlingua, we make time to watch the sun hoist itself over the mountains, shoulders first, and reach its arms across the valley to the Ghost Town hill, lighting up each tumbledown rock house, yurt, and casita in turn. Like the solitary ocotillos that dot the desert, their hopeful fingers outstretched, we wait to be washed in gold.

On our last full day in Big Bend, we’ve planned to capitalize on another indelibly luminous moment with a late-afternoon outing to one of its marquee attractions, Santa Elena Canyon. The park’s very first superintendent, Ross Maxwell, designated the canyon’s mouth as the end point of Big Bend’s first scenic drive in the mid-20th century. Its status as a must-see was cemented, with good reason: The canyon’s sheer limestone walls rise up to 1,500 feet high, with a width of only 25 feet across at its narrowest point—one rock face in Mexico and one in the U.S., the Rio Grande between them.

We arrive just as the sinking sun has begun to paint the canyon walls coral pink and then remove our shoes to pick our way across Terlingua Creek, which separates the parking lot from the trailhead into the canyon. Up stone stairs and down again, the path leads three-quarters of a mile in, where the imposing walls take on a different character—still majestic but now intimate, almost embracing. A crow calls out and sounds like he could be 2 feet away, though I suspect it’s him I see soaring hundreds of feet above me. I imagine him flying over this canyon, following its 7-mile course, calling out to every hiker and rafter he sees and reveling in the perspective he alone enjoys—the sight of the full canyon lit up like a portal to another, even more magical, realm.

A room at the Gage Hotel in Marathon, TX.
Tara Donne

Plush Bunkhouse

Having tested our mettle on mountain trails, plied the Rio Grande’s waters, and accumulated a decent tally of desert wildlife sightings over the better part of a week, Mom and I are ready for some creature comforts of our own, so we pack up our boots and take a last scenic drive through the park on the way to tiny Marathon. The town’s center of gravity is undoubtedly the Gage Hotel, a carefully restored historic property opened in 1927 by wealthy local rancher Alfred Gage. It’s our treat to ourselves on our way back to real life.

But first, lunch: fiery, cheesy chicken enchiladas at the go-to Oasis Cafe down the block. The wiry waitress who delivers the dish returns in a moment to ask, “Is it good? Is it spicy?”—two questions that, in my book, might as well always go together. (The delicious answer to both is yes.) Fed and fueled, we make the rounds on Marathon’s main drag, perusing stunning large-scale prints of desert storms and moonlit foliage in local photographer James H. Evans’ gallery and trying on breezy embroidered tunics in the Gage’s gift shop. 

Left: Enjoy a Mexican Style Chile Relleno at 12 Gage Restaurant. | Photo: Tara Donne
Right: The dining room at 12 Gage has Western flair. | Photo: Tara Donne

By the time we’re ready for another meal, the patio at the hotel’s well-respected restaurant, 12 Gage, is completely full and every seat in the adjacent (and iconic) White Buffalo Bar is taken. But a corner table in the main dining room awaits, and we linger over spicy tomatillo soup, thick tenderloin, and sweet potato-stuffed chiles rellenos in apricot mole under the watchful eye of the white steer head mounted over the fireplace. When the last plate has been cleared and the last highlight from our time in the park replayed, we are sure of one thing: Tonight, we’ll sleep like babies.

One Last Look

Before heading out the next morning, Mom and I have massages at the Gage’s modern yet homey spa. Then, together, we walk three blocks to the hotel gardens, a 27-acre park planted with native flora, a small orchard, and herb plots that supply the kitchen at 12 Gage Restaurant. Down a shaded, meandering path we find ourselves in a hedge-walled rose garden, with the last hardy blooms of the season hanging on in a state of elegant decay. The garden, like so much of the trip, feels like a secret whispered just to us, one that chants, “Come back, come back, come back…” In our minds, there is only one suitable reply.

Catch McKittrick Canyon’s spectacular show in autumn.
Tara Donne

Side Trip

If sunsets and wildflowers aren’t enough seasonal hues for you, head for the deciduous-tree-lined canyons of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, a three-hour drive from Marathon. Grab a picnic lunch at the well-stocked French Co. Grocer in town—the park has no refreshments to speak of—and head northwest. In Alpine, stop by Taste and See Bakery for a fresh breakfast (think zucchini bread made with veggies grown on-site) and more goodies for the afternoon. 

Roadside art near Marfa honoring the movie 'Giant,' filmed in West Texas
Tara Donne

The timing of peak color varies from year to year and even from one part of the park to another. Head to McKittrick Canyon, where vivid foliage cradles hikers in its crayon-box array. (The lower section between Pratt Cabin and the Grotto is particularly spectacular.) If you’ve missed McKittrick’s peak weeks—or arrived too late in the day to get a spot in the trailhead’s parking lot—park ranger Michael Haynie recommends hiking Devil’s Hall Trail, a 3.5-mile out-and-back trek along a white-pebbled wash that terminates in a slot canyon perfect for photo ops. Its colorful corridor tends to turn a bit earlier in the season—and see fewer crowds. Book a night at the newly renovated Indian Lodge, a serene 1930s retreat in crisp white adobe nestled in Davis Mountains State Park. You’ll shave about 45 minutes off the return trip and might be able to squeeze in an outing at one of the regular constellation-viewing Star Parties at the world-class McDonald Observatory, located just up the road.

Editors Note: COVID-19 may have caused closings or partial closings of some destinations. Please check the status of each place before planning your trip.