My out-of-office message on both voicemail and email said I was on vacation and “unplugged.” My boss knew how to get ahold of me in an emergency, but I warned him that I may not get his messages immediately.
Big Bend National Park is in the middle of nowhere. It’s a you-can’t-really-get-good-cell-service kind of nowhere. It’s 3G cell service in that southwest corner(ish) of Texas and even then, you’re lucky to get two, maybe three bars. And when you do, don’t be surprised when you get a text from your cell carrier saying “Welcome to Mexico where you’re going to enjoy roaming internationally!” because the only thing separating you from Mexico is the Rio Grande, which, by the way, you can easily cross on foot with the water not going past your ankles.
So yeah, getting ahold of me on vacation was going to prove difficult because my phone was in “airplane mode” and yes, I really was unplugged.
When I say, “middle of nowhere,” I mean it.
You aren’t going to see Starbucks, McDonalds or a Subway sandwich chain anywhere around Big Bend. In fact, I hadn’t seen any of those for several days. This is Road Runner and Wyle E. Coyote country. Its palette of brown earth, cyan skies and the occasional red or yellow bloom is empty of the droves of people you find spattered over other Big Daddy national parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion, Bryce and Grand Canyon.
We were at the park during peak season and still, there weren’t the crowds you’d find at other national parks. I remember my first trip to Yosemite back in 1995 and people were at every turn. Tent sites were staked within feet—not yards—of each other and trails were so crowded, you would bump shoulders with others on the trail. Imagine what it’s like walking around Times Square in Manhattan or along the Las Vegas strip—that’s what hiking the trails was like in Yosemite.
Even lesser-known parks, like Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming would have clusters of hikers on the popular trails, passing each other quickly whether coming or going like in an airport as people are scrambling to make their connecting flights. I remember hiking behind a man on one of the trails as he talked on his cell phone and I wondered how the hell he got any cell service in that area while also thinking, are you kidding?
And same for those aforementioned parks, Zion, Arches, Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon. All fantastic parks with geology that your mind has trouble taking in at first. Hoodoos, red rocks, big ass canyons in the earth, and an ominous hike called Angels Landing. These are some of my favorite places on earth, but the problem is everyone else seems to also want to see them.
What we need is a park that either people don’t know about or one that is not particularly easy to get to. That’s where Big Bend National Park comes in.
If you enter at Big Bend from the west—via the scenic FM170 highway—you’ve already been given a preview of the mountains. But that drive is only a snippet of what’s to come. That snippet, by the way is called Big Bend Ranch State Park and it has a whole bevy of activities to do for the adventurous—back packing, mountain biking, and horseback riding.
Back to Big Bend National Park, though.
Shhh. I’d rather no one else know about Big Bend.
Honestly, I’d love it, though, if you’d just keep this find between us, okay? Please don’t tell anyone about the acres of Ocotillo cactus, with its skinny tentacles reaching toward the sky. If you’re lucky like us, you will have arrived in the springtime and you’ll drive past fields of these with red flowers adorning each branch. Close up they look wonderfully delicate as they reach up to the sky in a “jazz hands” sort of way. At a distance, when you see acres and acres of them altogether it looks like a red haze laying on top of the horizon.
Also keep it on the down low about the massive Santa Elena Canyon that’s been carved out by the Rio Grande over the course of 2 million years. The sheer, vertical walls of the mountains on each side of the gorge reach 2000 feet. Right now you can easily cross it by foot, but most people—when there’s enough water—will raft it, following it on to the nearby town of Lajitas. There’s a 1.7 mile (round trip) hike, which is mostly on paved stairs that will take you to great vistas of the Santa Elena Canyon.
Don’t tell your geologist friends either. They’ll start coming in droves because the geology of Big Bend is complex. It’s a mix of sedimentary basin with significant faulting and volcanic activity, which means you’re going to find elevations in the park ranging from 2,000 feet above sea level to just over 7,800 feet. And all makes for a variety of unique bio zones contained just in one park, which leads me to the next thing that is awesome about Big Bend: birding.
Big Bend contains the most species of birds than any National Park in the U.S. That would be 425 birds, making it a mecca for birders. This was really the reason why we were at Big Bend National Park on this trip. We were a few weeks too early for the elusive Colima Warbler, but we weren’t disappointed in what we saw. (Oh, and fun fact for your next dinner party: High in the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park is the only place in the U.S. where you would find the Colima Warbler.)
Also, be sure to not say anything about the fantastic wildlife here at Big Bend, especially the Carmen Mountain White-tail Deer, which don’t seem to mind if you’re standing or hiking two yards away. They’re not hunted and so they’re not wary of humans.
Promise me that you’ll keep Big Bend National Park a secret—especially from those in the office. The last thing you need is a Starbucks or McDonalds with WiFi out here. To unplug is to get away from the madness. Right now Big Bend is far from madness.
It’s pure happiness. Purely unplugged.