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Old 25th November 2023, 11:33   #1
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Road trip to Big Bend National Park in Texas, USA

I had a week off from work due to Thanksgiving and my girlfriend and I decided at the last minute to do a trip to the Big Bend National Park in the western part of Texas. The pictures we took were taken by our phones and without a great deal of planning. We wanted to make the most of our time there and we were always on the move. All this to say that the pictures included here may not live up to the standards set by other travelogues, and serve only to offer a taste of a very small trip to a very big place.

Day 1:

At around nine in the morning, I book an Uber to a neighbourhood location of an Enterprise Car Rental, about 15 minutes away from my apartment. I was keen to get an early start, despite not having done any planning or packing the night before. I get into the Uber and notice that it starts driving in the opposite direction to where I am supposed to go. I look at my phone and find out that I have selected "Uber Share" and that I am on my way to pick up another passenger. I stare at my phone in dismay and wonder whether I should ask the driver to pull over and let me out so I can book another one. Good sense prevails – doing that would take even longer. We pick up the other passenger and fortunately I get dropped off first. At the Enterprise, I am given a choice between three Jeep Grand Cherokees and one Dodge Durango. The person working at the desk says that this particular Jeep has the lowest mileage (~27k) of the four options. I have a look inside to verify that it's clean and smells OK. I sign the documents and get in the car.

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My daily driver is a beater sedan, so the size of the Jeep at first felt a little cumbersome, but also fun. I drove it back home, went inside, ate some food, packed my clothes, and my girlfriend and I put our luggage into the car and set out. Google Maps shows three different ways of getting to Alpine from Houston: you either go through San Antonio or Austin, and from San Antonio, you can either take I-10 (which is a longer distance, but also quicker) or the US 90. Going via San Antonio is faster, so we headed west on the I-10 to San Antonio. It was raining as we got out of Houston. I fiddled with the wiper settings, we listened to music and made some phone calls. Alpine is 570 odd miles from Houston, which according to Google Maps should take around 8.5 hours of driving.

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I was in two minds about whether to take the I-10 or US 90. The former would reduce (albeit slightly) the driving time, which could be crucial as I was going to the be only driver on this trip (my girlfriend does not have a license). The latter would be more picturesque. As we were driving into San Antonio, Google Maps indicated "25 minutes faster" for I-10, and I decided that I should minimise the risk of fatigue and take it. I attempted to do as I decided. But I missed my exit and instead got rerouted to US 90. It was a good decision – not made by me – as the 90 is truly very beautiful past Del Rio.

The rain stopped as we got out of San Antonio and it got very sunny. The AC in the Jeep was terrible. We were sweating like dogs even with the "Max AC" setting selected. The car showed an outside temperature of 84 degrees Fahrenheit. We tried listening to an audiobook (Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy) but could not pay any attention to it as the heat had made us delirious. I had to periodically lower the windows to have the wind at 80 miles an hour cool us. It is too noisy at that speed to keep the windows open throughout, and our periods of relief were all too brief. We consoled ourselves with thoughts of how cold west Texas would be and how we would not need any AC very soon.

This was true. Past Bracketville, the outside temperature began to drop (78 according to the car dash), which was very welcome. The US 90 goes along the US-Mexico border, and the landscape gets more desert-like the further you go west. We stopped for a meal at a place called Pizza Depot (not a chain, but a standalone highway restaurant) where we had a few slices of pizza and jalapeño cheese fritters. It was the first proper meal we had after fiveish hours of driving and it tasted supreme. We stopped once again for gas just past Del Rio, as I had read that there are no gas stations in the 180 mile stretch between Del Rio and Marathon. There is one part where the you drive on a bridge over the Rio Grande, which was incredible – the stark blue river against the brown, desolate desert, in the setting sun, with no human settlement or activity in sight.

It got dark eventually and the last hour and a half to Alpine we did not see anything. But the US 90 albeit only two lane is a great piece of tarmac, and from the looks of it hardly patrolled. I could go at 90-95 mph consistently. I had go slightly faster than that a few times to overtake, and the Jeep with its 300hp V6 felt adequate to the task. We reached the hotel at around 7.30pm, showered and went for a meal at the only restaurant that seemed still open. It was a sports bar called Amigos, serving Tex-Mex fare. We were famished and our meat and fish tacos were very good.

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Day 2:
We stayed at a Hampton Inn (a chain hotel) in Alpine. Breakfast was included in our tariff and I made the most of it by having two generous helpings. The plan for the rest of the day was to drive to Big Bend, park at the Lost Mine trailhead and do the short-ish hike up to the summit. We had a slow morning and left the hotel at only around 10. I filled up on gas in Alpine as I was down to half a tank and wasn't sure whether there was another gas station near the park. The drive to Big Bend was stunning. Pictures do not capture how vast the vistas under the sky are, how open and barren and limitless the land looks. There was little traffic, and in the interest of saving time, I drove quickly. We saw tabletop mountains or mesas ("table" in Spanish) along the side of the road. At least a couple of times during the drive, we rode atop and across these crests in the topography that opened up to fantastically broad views of the landscape. We could see mountains of various shapes and sizes on all sides, all at once, in one ultra-wide angle of view, which was incredible.

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We arrived at the park without incident. There was a short line of vehicles at the entry where we paid $30 for a week-long pass. The ranger gave us a receipt to tape to the car's windshield and a map of the park. We were stopped again a little further, and a ranger came along to tell us that as the parking stops inside the park were full, they'd let a car go in for every single car that came out. There were two motorcyclists and four cars ahead of us, and we only had to wait about 10-15 minutes before we were waved along. I noticed as we waited a long line of cars (about 15 or so) form behind us, and I was glad to have made haste.

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There is no cell network in that area but my Google Maps destination was set to the trailhead for the Lost Mine Hike and we followed along. It was a direct route in. The parking at the trailhead was full, but a little further, about 300 metres or so, following a steep downhill, there was a little clearance to the right where a few cars were parked. I saw a spot there and pulled in. We loaded our backpacks, I changed into my trekking shoes, and we walked back up to the trailhead via the road. It felt treacherous as the road was very steep and curvy and several cars were making their way down. That road itself eventually would culminate in what is called the Chisos basin, which is where the visitor centre of the park is located.

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There were several other people and many families also doing the same hike. I had downloaded a map of the trail, but it was strictly unnecessary as it was well-marked and straightforward. It's an out-and-back trail that is 4.8 miles roundtrip and can be done in three hours. You ascend about a thousand feet. The views from the top are stunning. We chatted with a couple of people as we went along, one dad with his two kids, one woman who was hiking by herself. They offered to take pictures of us, we did the same. The trail is rated "moderate" in terms of its difficulty. It's rocky and there are a few places where you may to have scramble using your hands, but it's overall not too difficult. We reached the top soon enough, from where the view was otherworldly. We took it in, took some pictures, and then had a little picnic of oranges and nuts. It was beautiful sunny weather and we hung around there for a while before heading back down.

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By the time we got to our car, it was getting dark, and we were hungry. So we decided to drive out of the park and find a place to eat. The plan was at first to snack in the car and get to a restaurant in Alpine. But as we got to Terlingua (a town that abuts the national park), we were keen to eat and stopped at a gas station store that advertised its pizza and coffee. We got our coffees and ordered our pizza. Half an hour (or possibly more) passed but our pizza did not manifest. The proprietor told us there had been an mistake in making the pizza, and they were about to start making it again. We were too hungry to wait. We left, started driving, and saw a Tex-Mex restaurant by the side of the road about three hundred metres from the gas station. I swung into the lot and we went inside. There we ran into the lone woman hiker we'd met at the trail. I asked her to join us for dinner, which she did. We had an interesting chat about her travel plans and her work as a staffer for a senator in DC. The drive back to Alpine took place in the dark. We were knackered when we reached our hotel and went to bed right away.

Day 3

I hadn't really planned anything for this day. As I was having breakfast, I was researching trails on my phone and came across one called the Santa Elena Canyon trail. It's a relatively short trail, only about 45 minutes one way, but the pictures looked great, and the trailhead was at the end of a stretch of road called the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which I was keen to do anyway. We did a rinse and repeat of the previous day and got to the park. The Santa Elena Canyon trailhead is about 40 miles from the entry. You are not supposed to go very fast inside the park (due to animals, hikers, etc.) so it took us a good deal time to get there. But the drive was incredible. We stopped at a place called the Sotol Vista Point that let us have a panoramic view of the park, and from where we could see the canyon and beyond into Mexico. We drove on and saw this mountain called Mule Ears, named for its resemblance to mule ears, naturally. We stopped at a place called Castolon, where a store and restrooms are located. We purchased two chicken salad sandwiches and a bag of chips and some iced coffee for our lunch. We pulled into the picnic spot at the "Cottonwood campgrounds" and could see around us various RVs parked and a few people taking their mountain bikes out for a spin.

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Having eaten, we drove the remaining twenty minutes to the canyon trailhead. The parking there was nearly full. As the hike is categorised as "Easy" many families with kids had come. The hike was along (and into) a rocky gorge with the Rio Grande river, in a very attenuated form, flowing in the middle. We learned that the flow of the river was so anaemic because of the various dams built on its way. The US-Mexico border line is along the river, and one can easily cross into Mexico and come back, so to speak. The gorge narrows as you walk in to become almost cave-like, and even normal conversation begins to echo. The kids on the hike made good use of this and were screaming all kinds of things to hear the echoes, which was pretty funny and enjoyable. The trail eventually ends where the path vanishes into the rock and there's no way to continue walking further. We took some pictures and sat there for some time. As we returned we saw people kayaking back from their day-long excursion along the river. I overheard the trip leader say they had gone about two miles in. I read online later that the US government requires people booking that trip to have valid passports as it considers kayaking on the Rio Grande to constitute a border crossing.

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It was around 3pm when we got to our car. We began driving back to Alpine. There we had a coffee and croissant at a cafe and walked around the town a little bit. Most places were shut because it was the day before Thanksgiving. The town felt peaceful and quaint. We read about its history on a few signboards. Then we headed to our hotel, showered and changed, relaxed for a bit, and then set out for dinner. The first restaurant we found had a long waiting time, so we called another one – called Reata – and made a reservation. We dilly dallied in the car, drove out of the town a little bit and looked at some stars, then drove to the restaurant at the designated time. Our meal was sumptuous. We returned to the hotel very relaxed and full and crashed.

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Day 4

This was Thursday, the actual day of Thanksgiving. We packed, had our breakfast, and left the hotel at 10am. I drove briskly and decided to take I-10 in the interest of saving time (this time I could actually choose). The posted speed limit on the freeway in this part of Texas is 80 mph. Going 10 over is customary almost everywhere in the US. I added two more for the sake of Thanksgiving, figuring the state troopers to be in a genial mood given the holiday. I set my cruise control to 92 and just held on the wheel for the next few hours. We stopped four times on the way to Houston: first, at a gas station in Fort Stockton to fill up, second, at a freeway rest area to use the bathrooms, third, at a Starbucks in Kerrville to get some food and coffee, and fourth, a little before San Antonio to get some more gas. We drove home first, dropped off our luggage, then drove to the Enterprise location, parked the Jeep and dropped the keys into their return box. We got to Houston around 5.30pm, beating the Google maps time by a significant margin.

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Thoughts on the Jeep Grand Cherokee

The rental Jeep was in fantastic shape and great to drive. Our only issue with it was the ineffective A/C, but we didn't need it after that first day as it stayed cold for the rest of our trip. I enjoyed the high seating position and overall size and heft of the car. It consumed far more gas than, say, a Corolla would have, but I think it was worth it as the Jeep was truly fun to drive. The roads and the scenery were also conducive to enjoying driving and I am glad I picked the Jeep to do the trip in.

Note on Custom and Border Protection

The US CBP has checkpoints in a few different places in the area. On the US 90 before Marathon, there is a checkpoint where we had to stop and show our passports and visas. Then, on both days, driving back from Big Bend to Alpine, there is a checkpoint where we asked to produce those documents as well. Just a heads up to anyone who is planning on going that carrying your passport, visa, etc. is strictly essential.

Last edited by karanddd : 26th November 2023 at 11:48.
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Old 26th November 2023, 14:56   #2
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Re: Road trip to Big Bend National Park in Texas, USA

Thread moved out from the Assembly Line. Thanks for sharing!
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