For spring break this year, the Fab Fam took a camping road trip across the Southwest. We went from our home in Austin to Big Bend Ranch State Park in West Texas, the Antelope Canyon area in Arizona, and Zion and Arches National Parks in Utah. I'll share our overall road trip route, itinerary, and recommendations in a few weeks, but leading up to that I am highlighting each of our destinations in detail. Today's post is about our family camping trip in Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas.
Now, I have done a lot of camping in my day. I've been camping as long as I can remember, on average of every three months. Both of my boys camped for the first time when they were each four months old, and are now properly outdoorsy as Camp Fire Kids. With all that being said, I have never experienced camping quite like our experience in Big Bend!
Big Bend Ranch State Park prides itself on being rugged and relatively untouched, which gives you this incredibly unplugged feeling. Most of the roads in the state park are unpaved, with a vast majority of them being rocky. But don't be deterred - there are camping and even drive-through options that are accessible for those seeking a less primitive experience than we had (see details on all the camping options in the State Park here). But when we do it, we do it. So, we decided to camp in the Backcountry Zone. The benefit to camping in this zone is that you can't camp within 1/4 mile of the next camper, so you have total privacy and solitude. For these spots, high-clearance vehicles (like Jeeps) are recommended. But some are close enough to the main road that SUVs, like our Toyota Highlander SUV, could get to.
We checked in at the Fort Leaton Historic Site in Presidio, TX at the west entrance of the park. We were a little surprised to learn that we required a "toilet system" for our spot (insert wide-eyed emoji), so purchased said system at the station. And by "toilet system," I mean "bucket." But that's a story for another day.
At Fort Leaton we also received Junior Ranger packs to borrow. This is an awesome program by Texas Parks and Wildlife to help get kiddos engaged in the outdoors. These backpacks were ours to use until we checked out, and included guidebooks on the local wildlife (birds, plants, insects, snakes, etc.), activity journals, crayons, binoculars, and magnifying glass, and more. The boys got great use out of everything in the pack.
My Junior Rangers at the Fort Leaton Historic Site
About the wildlife at Big Bend: While we were aware that there was a chance we could encounter a rattlesnake, mountain lion, or black bear, we didn't see hide nor hair of anything like that. We heard that bighorn sheep, mule deer, and javelina are more common, but didn't see any of them either. It was really very quiet and peaceful with mainly birds and insects to discover while we were there.
After leaving Fort Leaton, we had a lengthy drive (several miles) towards our camping spot in the Backcountry Zone, which is why they recommend checking in before 4:30, so you can ensure you have daylight to find your camping site and set-up. There is very little cell phone reception in the park, and very few services.
One of the smoother roads on our drive to our campsite
The massive park was full of these beautiful mountains and other great views
The sign for our campsite
We camped at Yedra 1 (named for being in Yedra Canyon), which was as far as our Highlander would have been able to drive before it got far more primitive. These sites are completely secluded, while also including a breathtaking panoramic view that is yours to share with only the local wildlife. After spending so much time in a corporate office with a downtown commute, I have to say that this breath of fresh air was just what the doctor ordered.
The view from our campsite. The photo does not do it justice... it seems like the mountains just go on forever, with no civilization in sight.
The boys wasted no time doing what they do best on a camping trip - playing in the dirt and exploring. Their Junior Ranger packs helped them focus their explorations, which was so cool to see. Luckily, since they are experienced campers and scouts (from their years in Camp Fire), they are smart about exploring safely and being aware of potential wildlife or dangers.
S loved using the guides in his Junior Ranger pack to identify plants, birds, and insects
Gettin' dirty, and so happy!
When the sun started to set, the mountains in the Chihuahuan desert glowed red. I was excited, since sundown meant that we would soon be treated to an incredible star show while being this far from any city lights.
After making a camp fire dinner, we roasted marshmallows (our spot included a picnic table and a fire pit), and enjoyed the breezy March desert night. G even spotted a shooting star!
The first night camping went from calm to windy really quickly. While the boys slept just fine, it woke the hubs and I up quite a bit to make sure our tent was still secure (we have a tall tent, which is nice because you can stand in it, but incidentally also catches the wind pretty hard). Fortunately the second night was mild and calm most of the night.
After waking up the next day, we got back in the Highlander (who we named Moira during this trip) and trekked a few miles to the park's Sauceda Ranger Station, the central headquarters. Here we had an actual bathroom (yay), a tiny bit of Wi-Fi (I am an addict), and friendly park hosts that recommended some kid-friendly hikes for us to explore that day.
Displays at the Sauceda Headquarters that encouraged you to "please touch," and of course they did!
These too are such goofballs! I love it.
Once we had our plan of attack, off we went in Moira. First, to find a viewpoint of the park's crown jewel, El Solitario. We didn't have time to trek into El Solitario on this trip, so we settled with a view.
The view opposite of the El Solitario viewpoint
El Solitario is an ancient, 10-mile wide collapsed volcanic dome. The boys were incredibly fascinated with learning how it was formed.
The view of the "flatiron" edges of the El Solitario dome in the distance
G was especially intrigued with this geological wonder
The boys used the tools (binoculars and magnifying glass) from their Junior Ranger backpacks to explore and observe every time we were out of the vehicle
Next, we went on a hike to see the Cinco Tinajas, water-filled rock basins. Though it was only March, it was starting to get warm in the desert, so we made sure to bring water and sunscreen to do the upper and lower loop trails.
Stacked stones marked the primitive trails
We saw many types of cacti, and the boys tried not to get "brickles in their britches" (to quote one of their favorite Dr. Seuss stories)
The top part of the trail is the shorter hike, and ends with a panoramic view. But that wasn't enough for us; we wanted to see at least uno of the tinajas up close.
G at the top
We made it to one of the pools!
The water was amazingly calm and reflective! The shade in this area also created a nice break mid-hike.
Since we knew this was our last full day in Big Bend, we decided to do one more hike before retiring to our private haven at Yedra 1. The park guides recommended hiking Ojito Adentro Trail, so that's where we were headed next.
Ojito Adentro trail is good for families since the hike isn't terribly long, since it leads to a shaded oasis (therefore you're not hiking in the sun the whole time), and since it involves getting to climb over and between boulders (a kid's dream).
Though S made us hold his backpack at this point, he was still using his field guides from the Junior Ranger pack to explore and identify plants and wildlife during our hike
Beautiful Chihuahua desert landscapes as seen from our hike on Ojito Adentro Trail
Boulder climbing = kid hiking win!
Just when you are convinced you are lost (remembering that the trails and landscape in Big Bend are purposefully minimally developed to "capture the spirit of the land"), the trail ends at a natural spring and waterfall!
Another magically reflective pool... a surprising find in the middle of the desert!
After being thoroughly wiped out from a day full of hiking and exploring, we retired back to Yedra 1. The evening was peaceful and calm.
We woke up the next morning, and had to pack up and head out pretty early to make it to Albuquerque for the night. Since you tend to rise with the sun when you camp, this wasn't a problem for us.
G gazing out towards the road on our last morning in Big Bend
Overall, the ruggedness of camping, hiking, and driving around Big Bend was a test of character for the whole family, which is always worth it in the end. But making it even more worthwhile were the incredible views from our private, wide-open camping haven, the stars, the fresh air, and the digital detox.
Stay tuned next week for a recap of the next part of our trip in Page, Arizona and Navajo country for Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend, and pin this one for future reference if you take a trip to Big Bend!