This park is reportedly larger than Rhode Island! However, with the free map and a few drives along the main routes, you quickly capture the layout and realize the opportunities that lay before you! Admission to the park allows a visitor to stay for 7 days. There is an additional fee for camping at the improved campground areas or back-country camp sites. The park does not allow bicycles or dogs on the trails, only in campgrounds and along roadways. But we managed to work with that and still experience the opportunities of Big Bend!
There are three campgrounds, each with very different features and terrain. We spent the first night at Cottonwood Camp. The dogs loved the grassy location, and we let them run a bit in the fenced area. This is an irrigated, grassy, low desert campground, on the shores of the Rio Grande in an area of the park that is low desert with mountains in the distance. A storm brewed over the mountains and brought us some light rain and cooler temperatures. We hiked to Santa Elena Canyon, along the Rio Grande and saw the Mules Ears formation through the clouds in the distance.
The icy cold wind stayed around, and we moved to a different camping area called Rio Grande Village. This area of the park is high desert with desert hiking opportunities. From here we took a trail called Hot Springs Trail and hiked for just over 3 hours. It was beautiful scenery
There are many stations along the trail such as this which have been set up by Mexicans from the other side of the river. We never saw the vendors, but they seem to be doing a brisk business based on the amount of cash in the can. They are selling twisted wire scorpions, roadrunners and ocotillo and hand painted walking sticks. I should mention that there is a hefty fine for possessing one of these items according to the Park Service brochure- as this traffic along the trails is illegal, and so are the folks crossing the Rio Grande. However, in our time there, we never saw any immigration activity at all.
The Hot Springs Trail ends at the site of a former hot springs retreat and small homestead. It was a cold day, but we vowed to return when the weather warmed up. Luckily there is a road to within ¼ mile of this because I did not want to hike it again!
The next day we had the unique experience of crossing the border through a cooperative agreement between US Border Patrol and US Park Service. They operate a crossing station designed to allow Big Bend visitors to cross the Rio Grande to a small village (Boquillas Del Carmen). Then entire arrangement is very official, with passports required and visas completed. The crossing takes place in a flat-bottom boat which is paddled across the Rio Grande in about 4 strokes, by a Mexican cowboy while a Mexican grandfather is sitting in the shade singing from the shore. Upon landing they want to sell you a ride to the village on their donkeys. The village is about ¼ mile from shore, and operates exclusively for this commercial exchange. The return to the US side leads you through the same office where passports are again checked and you have returned to the US with your requisite bag of Mexican souvenirs.
The weather cleared and we moved into the higher mountain area of the park. This is the Chisos Basin. It offers mountain vistas and viewpoints that reach through many small ranges towards the desert This area includes a store, campground, lodge and restaurant. The wildlife are unfazed by the structures, as you see these two small deer wrestling, the lodge is their backdrop.