A Holiday Bender
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Q: A group of around five to ten of us intend to take a two-to three-day trip to Big Bend National Park during the Thanksgiving holiday. Any advice for a group visiting the park for the first time? Thank you,
— Ling, Austin, Texas
A: That depends on what kind of gear you’re packing, and how you feel about crowds. Unfortunately, you’ve picked one of the most popular times of the year to visit Big Bend—in order to find anything resembling an isolated nature experience in two or three days, you’ll have to wrangle some steeds of the two-wheeled variety and pedal off the beaten path.
Even in the least crowded times of year, this park is best viewed by bike. More than 150 miles of dirt roads give you access to parts of the interior that most visitors never see. Much of the terrain is numbingly non-technical, and you’ll have to share the road with the occasional monster truck, but it’s still my recommendation for a time-restrained Big Bend adventure. If you start out along the River Road, which parallels the Rio Grande on the park’s (and the country’s) south border, you’ll ride past several river-close primitive campgrounds. From the west end, it’s a 15.6-mile ride to the Johnson Ranch campground, where a short walk from your tent to the ranch house ruins gives you access to across-the-river views of Mexico’s Sierra Ponce. Check the weather before you go—too much rain can make this a painful, if not impossible, ride.
An easier option (though almost certainly a more crowded one) is to ride or drive the unpaved Old Ore Road to the Ernst Tinaja primitive campground. Walk less than a mile up a sandy wash to find the area’s main attraction: terraced rocks that drop down to an eerie natural pool. It’s non-potable and non-swimmable, but awful pretty to look at. For camping permits and other info, contact park headquarters: 915-477-2251 or