Big Bend “must do” the River Road

Last but not least on this short list of things to do at Big Bend National Park is the River Road.  If you really want to get off the beaten path at Big Bend then a trip across the River Road is in order.

Word of caution, however.  You need, at a minimum, a high clearance vehicle with good quality tires and enough food and water to hang out in the desert for a day or two in case something breaks on your vehicle and no one comes around for awhile.   You’ll also need a full tank of gas.  Don’t let the distance – some 60 miles or so depending on your route – fool you.  The last time I took the River Road, it took all of 9-10 hours to traverse!  That did include time to stop and smell the roses, explore, eat lunch, etc, but still, it’s going to be a full day worth of driving and you’ll need to ensure you have enough gas.

All bets are off, however, if it’s been raining heavily.  You’ll likely need a 4×4 and know what you’re doing behind the wheel.  Best bet is to check with the Ranger station before you head out.

I would not recommend under any circumstances to take a car or minivan type vehicle.  That won’t keep idiots from doing it, and every time I’ve been to the Big Bend I am amazed at the stupidity that I see displayed by my fellow humans.  Get a truck, SUV, or hire a guide service to show you around.

Unfortunately, all the images I have off the River Road were lost in a computer crash a few years ago.  However, there’s a fantastic site that will do the job nicely to give you a feel of what you’ll see!

The following wonderful panoramic images come from the site Virtual Big Bend.

Pick up the River Road on the west side of the Park, near Castolon Peak.   The road winds very near the Rio Grande here and for the first 20 miles or so, you will come in and out of sight of our border with Mexico.  The road is more or less flat, and winds in and around the various peaks and river features found close to the river itself.

One of the opportunities to not be missed along the River Road is a stop at the Johnson Ranch.  The Chisos mountains are to your north and the view is spectacular.  All that’s left of the ranch are some walls, a foundation and a little family cemetery.   You can’t help but think about how hard a life it would be here for the ranchers trying to eke out a living – this is as desolate as it gets, folks!

Next up along the River Road is one of the most fascinating features that I’ve seen yet.  The Mariscal Mine is cut into the side of a small foothill facing the Boquillas Canyonlands to your northwest.  The view of the canyon walls is just flat out drop dead gorgeous.   And frankly, the next time I hit the River Road, I plan to set up camp near the base of the Mariscal Mine at the Fresno campsite.   Sitting on top of the hill that the mine sits on and watching the light from the setting sun hit the walls of the Boquillas Canyon is something that everyone should do once in their lives…

If you can drum up the energy to leave the mine area and it’s fantastic view, get back on the River Road and hang a left at the fork in the road toward Glenn Spring.  The road gradually begins to steepen and before you know it, you are on a high ridge with small canyons that appear along the road and the Basin growing ever larger in your windshield.   You’ll pass by Glenn Spring on your left and if you still have daylight left, stop the car and give the area a look, you won’t be disappointed.

Continuing on, you’ll pass by the Rice Tank and hang a right turn at Nugent Mtn and pop out on the main park road just north of Dugout Wells with a heckuva adventure under your belt.

So there you have it, a good 3-4 days worth of adventure and solitude that will expose you to a wide variety of what the National Park has to offer.  Take responsibility for your actions in the park – while there is quite a bit of infrastructure at the park compared to the nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park, depending on where you are, in case of emergency you are going to be on your own for some time.

I have tried to suggest spots off the beaten path, particularly when it comes to setting up camp – when I’m camping in the desert the last thing I want to hear is a rowdy bunch of recreational campers or out of control kids screaming and carrying on all through the nite.  I want to hear the wind running through the mountains and the coyotes calling in the morning and not have my solitude disturbed by someone who is too busy complaining about how hot or cold it is or how hard the ground was, or listening to loud music.

Plan your trip to the National Park wisely, and you too can enjoy the sounds and views  that nature provides without any distraction from anyone else.

~ by Derrick Birdsall on March 10, 2010.

6 Responses to “Big Bend “must do” the River Road”

  1. This has been a great summary of the Big Bend area Derrick. Thanks for putting it together.
    Those interested in the park should check out the Big Bend Chat site. Lots of VERY knowledgeable folks there.
    Thanks again!


  2. Thanks Al – added you to my blogroll!


  3. Thanks for all the info Derrick, I’m going to have to read every ounce of your blog before I ever make it out that way. Aren’t they going to build that wall along the river there?


  4. Wouldn’t that be nice? Could you imaging how big that park would be? I saw the blue print for the park boundaries at a panel discussion for the borderlands. Mexico wants protect all the land from the Big Bend area to the Gulf. That’s a lot of land for a country with big economic problems.


  5. I drove the River Road in 1975 in a 1964 Chevy Malibu. Had no problem except for knocking the muffler loose.


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