My RVing friend Suzanne (TakeToTheHighway.com) and I rolled our Winnies into Big Bend National Park on a gray and blustery Sunday afternoon in mid-March for a week’s stay in this vast park well off the beaten path. For such a giant park, there are only 2 roads that get you in and out, and the park is anywhere from 120 to 150 miles to the nearest town with a full-service grocery store (Alpine, TX). Verizon cell service starts vanishing about 30 miles before you enter the park, so we prepared and expected to be “off the grid” this particular week.
We arrived to our campsites in Rio Grande Village, on the far southeast corner of the park, as clouds were beginning to lift and the lower elevation also brought warmer temps too! The campsites here were beneath the shade of bright Spring green mesquite and cottonwood trees—a literal oasis from the ocean of desert browns that surround it for hundreds of miles!
I’d have 2 campsites this week—starting across the green common area from Suzanne’s site, and later moving to the site next to her. We found that site being occupied by fellow View-Navion owners, Sara and Charlie from Connecticut, who are on a grand loop tour of the US and Alaska this year. Always a thrill to get to meet and camp with other “Skinnie Winnies”!
Since the campsites did not have hookups, we all just parked with our windshields facing towards the lush green common area. We later discovered that Rio Grande Village was quite a bit more stocked and comfy than we thought it was going to be—we had a nice, free dump station nearby to get water or dump tanks if needed, and a great camp store just down the road that offered free Wi-Fi, basic groceries and supplies, fuel, and even propane (I had been unable to find propane in Alpine and was very relieved to not have to drive 150 miles to Fort Stockton to get my motorhome tank refilled!).
As we drove along the park roads the next day, we saw more signs of Spring in the lower elevations—bluebonnets and other wildflowers were in full bloom and just gorgeous!
My little yellow Tracker had not been for an off-road drive since our trip to Arizona two winters ago, so I was itching to try one of Big Bend’s fun 4WD roads. I happened to see a postcard at the Visitor’s Center of an interesting watering hole that was not too far from the campground along a 4WD route, so that was our first morning’s destination.
It was a little over 5 miles up the 4WD-only Old Ore Road to get to the trailhead for the Ernst Tinaja. According to the park brochures, a “Tinaja” is Spanish for an “earthen water jar”, or more accurately, a pothole within a stone bed that holds water. While many other tinajas in the park tend to only have water right after rain storms, the Ernst Tinaja is one that tends to have water all year.
Suzanne likes to describe me as a photographer who hikes a trail to get to a good photo subject, while she is a hiker who happens to take a few photos along a really good trail. Fair assessment! Our trail to the Ernst Tinaja was short and fairly easy—not much of a hiking challenge but sure a pretty photo destination on this sunny morning!
The canyon cut through hundreds of thin layers of limestone (some almost paper thin!).
The layers were fun to climb to get up above the tinaja for a better view.
Just as advertised, the Ernst tinaja was full of water—what a gorgeous sight in this dry river of rock!
Another interesting spot was just upstream of the tinaja where a portion of one of the canyon walls had folded and warped into a bizarre pattern next to a small walk-in “cave”. What fun this was to explore!
After our short hike, we decided to go ahead and drive the remaining 20 miles of Old Ore road. How hard could it be, right? Well, parts of the road weren’t too difficult, but other sections made me very grateful to have a capable, low-gear rock-crawling Tracker rather than just an all-wheel-drive SUV! In a couple of spots, we had to actually get out and pile a few rocks together to level out some of the deeper spots so we could continue driving!
But we did manage to find some pretty plants along the way, like these Spanish Dagger yuccas, white desert primrose, and prickly pear cactus.
While the first 13 miles of the trail were fun and enjoyable, the last 13 miles got a bit redundant and took much longer than we thought. It ended up taking us over 3 hours to drive the full 26 mile road and, by that point, we were both pretty ecstatic to finally see pavement again in front of the trailhead sign!
But honestly, doesn’t that Tracker look like it’s smiling just a little bit?!!!