A Dad’s Passion for Desert Hikes in Big Bend National Park
We went to Big Bend so frequently that the trips all blur together in my memory. The multitudes of javelina — small, blind pigs — that were always running across the road. Rafting on the Rio Grande and realizing I was looking at Mexico on the other side. Dad teaching me to drive on the winding mountain roads. The time I saw an armadillo shuffling off into the dark during a midnight bathroom walk. Walking on a narrow ledge trail behind my dad on our first backpacking trip, trying not to show him that I was scared.
We hiked all around Texas and in the Rockies during summer vacations to Colorado, but it was Big Bend that captured Dad’s heart, and eventually mine. As we drove out from Dallas for our frequent trips, it was thrilling to watch the population get more and more sparse the farther West we went. By the time we got to the park, we were virtually alone in the wilderness. Big Bend is vast, with dramatic landscapes completely foreign to the flat terrain of our home.
The twelve-hour drive was grueling, but my sister and I passed the time with our favorite movie soundtracks on cassette, and sometimes the whole family would listen to long books on tape. Later, when I left Texas for college, I enjoyed telling people that you could drive that long and still be in the same state. It blew the minds of my friends from the Midwest and New England.
Our favorite campground, Cottonwood, became familiar and comfortable over the years. Because fall was usually perfect camping weather, we started a tradition of spending Thanksgiving at Big Bend. We’d pack up precooked turkey, sides, and a whole pie and heat them on our camp stove, and it tasted better than any holiday meal I’ve had since. I didn’t realize until I was older that our holiday ritual was pretty out of the ordinary.
Photographs from our trips show my sister and I doing homework at the campsite, lounging in hammocks, helping cook pancakes at breakfast, and posing proudly on hikes. I remember that feeling of pride at the end of a long hike. My memories also include the range of wildlife we’d spot on our trips. Besides javelina and armadillos, there were birds of prey, tarantulas, deer, and the occasional rattlesnake.
There were moments of frustration, of course. One year, my dad and I were going on our own, and the suitcase on top of our car blew off on the interstate. I remember being terrified as Dad picked up all of our stuff while 80 mph traffic whizzed by. Another time, Dad dragged us on one of his creative side trips – to a fish hatchery. He loved taking scenic detours to interesting attractions off the beaten path, and for the most part we didn’t mind indulging him. We’d stop at a you-pick raspberry farm or historic marker, no problem. But the hatchery delivered an awful smell and not much else, and we haven’t let Dad live that one down yet. When he comes to visit, I still ask him if he’s found any good hatcheries for us to check out.
Dad loves to research and plan, and in those pre-Internet days he would scour guidebooks and trail maps to choose the best hikes. He frequently made choices that were challenging for my sister and me, but they always ended with a rewarding view or secluded swimming hole. Looking back, especially now that I’m a parent, I realize just how much work he put into making these trips as rewarding as possible. He wanted to share his love of this spectacular landscape with us, and in the process he turned two city kids into avid hikers who are passing that passion for the outdoors to our own children.
I live in upstate New York now, and it has plenty of natural beauty and hiking opportunities. There are the scenic Catskill Mountains; a wide variety of lakes, ponds, and streams in my county; and a serious diversity of wildlife just outside of my front door. But there’s never been a place that’s stayed with me quite like Big Bend, and I’ve never gone on a hike that’s felt as adventurous as those desert treks with my dad.
Visit Big Bend
Big Bend National Park and the surrounding areas offer experiences ranging from backcountry treks to comfortable resort stays. There are plenty of great campgrounds for car camping, hikes for all ages and experience levels, and fun things to do on day trips to nearby towns.
Within the national park itself, you can stay at the Chisos Mountains Lodge and Cabins, or choose between Cottonwood Campground (easier access) or the Basin Campground (more challenging access, but with terrific views). In nearby Marathon, the Gage Hotel offers more upscale accommodations.
Desert Hiking Gear
I’ll be honest: when I hiked with my dad as a kid in the 80s and 90s, my gear consisted of a cheap windbreaker, a baseball cap, and a fanny pack. Now that there are more high-quality options on the market – and I’m able to choose my own clothes – I value a few key pieces of gear for a desert hike.
- Lightweight but durable pants in a moisture-wicking material to protect your legs from hazards like cactus and insects.
- Layers. Temperatures in the desert can change rapidly, and it can get surprisingly cold at night. A merino wool base layer is a good idea if you’re camping, and at least one warmer layer will keep you safe if the weather changes on a hike.
- A quality sun hat for maximum protection.
- A good backpack or fanny pack to comfortably carry plenty of water and trail snacks.
- Sturdy shoes. For moderate hikes on well-maintained trails – with fewer cactus threats – I like hiking in trail runners.
I haven’t been back to Big Bend in many years, but I’m hoping to take my kids there someday and show them the beauty a desert hike in one of my favorite corners of the world.