Finding Adventure Along the Rio Grande

Six Flags Over Big Bend

Brian SumnerPhotographer, Writer

We were itching for a new adventure after working through the winter on projects and performing modifications to our 4x4s. We loaded our camping gear, fueled up, and set our sights on a park for a new adventure. No, not a theme park or a water park or even an off-road park. Our destination was Big Bend National Park along the Rio Grande in Texas. National parks are found all across America and offer many recreational and camping opportunities. Some parks even offer four-wheel-drive trails within their boundaries such as White Rim in Canyonlands and Black Gap in Big Bend.

Big Bend has a long and interesting history. The land within the park has been governed under the flags of six different countries including Spain, France, Mexico, Republic of Texas, Confederate States of America, and the United States. Prior to becoming a national park in 1944, the area was used for mining, farming, trading, and military activities. Today, Big Bend is one of the largest, most remote, and least-visited national parks in the lower 48 states. While that scares off most of the RV crowd, it is exactly these traits that piqued our interest. Big Bend lives up to its name, covering 801,163 acres of Chihuahuan Desert in southwestern Texas and borders 118 miles of the Rio Grande River.

Big Bend is one of the largest, most remote, and least-visited national parks in the lower 48 states.

We arrived to the western edge of the park in early spring and entered through Maverick Junction mid-afternoon. Right away we hit the dirt along Old Maverick Road on our way to Santa Elena Canyon. A short hike led us to our first glimpse of the river flowing out of 1,500-foot-tall canyon walls. Our hike was cut short by the clock, since we still needed to secure our backcountry permits before the visitor center closed for the day. Once our backcountry camping permits were in-hand, we started the western end of River Road, a 51-mile trail that connects Castolon to the Rio Grande Village. This end of the road is recommended for high-clearance vehicles only and starts in a small, sandy canyon. The road crosses several dry washes and provides great views of the surrounding terrain. As the sun began to set—casting its warm light on the Chisos Mountains to the north—we reached our reserved backcountry campsite for the night, Johnson Ranch.

This was our first sight of the Rio Grande and its calm waters just outside Santa Elena Canyon. The canyon is a popular place for visitors to the park offering a hiking trail and some great views. Through our entire visit we would only be this close to the river on a few occasions.

The next morning we broke camp and continued along River Road to Mariscal Mine to do some exploring by foot. Soon we back-tracked to the Black Gap trailhead. Black Gap is known as the hardest 4WD road in the park, and we were anxious to see what it had in store for us. The 8 1⁄2-mile trail had a few short sections that commanded our attention twisting our suspension and testing the traction of our tires, all while providing more great views of the park that many do not get to see. From Black Gap we drove up Juniper Canyon to get a closer look at the mountains before taking Glenn Spring Road back to River Road. With daylight remaining, we decided to visit the Rio Grande Village and Boquillas Canyon after taking another short hike to the hot springs.

The west entrance of River Road warns of remote travel ahead. We carried extra fuel; however, gas is available on the eastern end in Rio Grande Village. Remember to stay on the trail as no cross-country travel is allowed in any national park. With our backcountry camping permits in hand, we started towards our first campsite late in the afternoon.

On our third and final day in the park we left our second campsite, Gravel Pit, and got an early start on Old Ore Road. The 26.4-mile trail was used for hauling ore from the mines to the railroad line in the early 1900s. We stopped a few miles into the trail for a relaxing hike to Ernst Tinaja before continuing north once again. The road crossed several dry washes and was only rough and rocky in a few spots before joining the smoother Dagger Flat Road. We drove to the end of Dagger Flat Road and then returned to pavement leaving the park through the Persimmon Gap station.

No campfires are allowed in the park so instead we reclined back to look at the stars. In February 2012, Big Bend National Park was designated a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association. Big Bend is thought to have one of the darkest measured skies in the lower 48 states.

Our adventure was complete with exploring historical ruins, hiking to interesting places, camping under the stars, and doing some mild four-wheeling while discovering a national park. Driving primitive roads through the parks is a great way to take in the scenery and avoid the crowds. The next time we have that itch to get out and see something new, we will look for what other national parks have to offer. To find a national park near you, visit and plan your next adventure!

Mariscal Mine, abandoned since the ’40s, produced mercury. The site is on the National Register of Historic Places and consists of many different buildings spread over a large area. We spent some time hiking around the ruins imagining what the operation would have looked like 70 years ago.
Found at the start of Black Gap Trail is this sign recommending high-clearance four-wheel drives only. We would also recommend good all-terrain tires to negotiate the loose sand and dirt found on several climbs out of dry washes, as well as the sharp rocks found near the trail’s namesake.

Tips for Planning Your Next Adventure
Pick a general destination that interests you. This may be a historical place such as an abandoned fort or ancient cliff dwellings, a terrain-based area such as a mountain range, river or desert, or finally a place you may have read about in a book or even in these very pages.

4x4 guide books make a great starting point for planning your trip. We have even found some great backcountry trip ideas from state tourism and small town chamber of commerce websites.

Research the area you intend to explore and find what type of roads and trails are available to use and other points of interest nearby that might make a great addition to your itinerary.

Buy an old-fashioned paper map of the area. Yes, they still exist in today’s high-tech society, and they don’t rely on batteries! We prefer National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps when available. Paper maps help you visualize how to string roads and trails together over a large area.

Use Google Earth to virtually prerun the area. Google Earth is a powerful tool that can create paths, measure distances, and mark waypoints to transfer to your GPS. Make sure to turn on the Panoramio photo layer to see pictures that others have uploaded near your route to give you even more ideas of interesting things to see or do.

Don’t over plan. Leave some time for hiking or making detours. See an interesting dirt road along your route? Take it and see where it goes! If you travel alone be sure to tell someone you trust beforehand the general area you will be exploring and a basic timeline of your trip.

We stopped briefly to explore this homestead site, known as McKinney Ranch, along Old Ore Road. The ranch was used from the early 1880s until 1910. Not much remained other than a few rock walls, ruins of a corral, and a windmill.