Tried and tested honeymoon itinerary: Big Bend National Park, USA

I’m really pleased to have travel writer Helen Ochyra back on the site today with her report on her recent trip to the rather fabulous Big Bend National Park in Texas. This is a great honeymoon option if you’re looking for a USA honeymoon destination with a bit of a difference – and to explore a state that we Brits don’t often think about holidaying in. (You can read Helen’s other pieces for The Honeymoon Project here.)

Big Bend National Park, Texas

The sky is bigger here. Vast, endless and piercingly blue, it seems to fill every single inch of space, edging out the land, filling every photograph. But then they say that everything is bigger here in Texas – and they’re not wrong.

Big Bend National Park is over 800,000 acres large. Its rise in elevation is some 6,000 feet – from the Rio Grande river on the border of Mexico to the peaks of the Chisos Mountains in the centre of the park. Here there are vast deserts, plunging canyons and towering mountains. There are bears, mountain lions and hundreds of species of birds. And there are burritos the size of your head and steaks so vast they flop off the sides of your plate. Everything is abundant – except perhaps, the rain.

Marathon: gateway to the park

Big Bend National Park, Texas

We spent our first night at the historic Gage Hotel in Marathon, just outside the entrance to the national park. This small town is surrounded by flat Chihuahuan desert and one of the first things I’m told is that they are still recovering from a historic drought – 18 months of no rain. Local birders Heidi Trudell and Matthew York who run birdwatching tours around the area tell me that the birds saved their energy by not breeding, so numbers are down on average. But there’s still plenty to see if you try and so we head to Post Park just outside the town for an afternoon’s birdwatching.

“As soon as you sit the birds encroach”, says Heidi and sure enough just a few minutes stillness is all it takes to start spotting bird after bird. Through our binoculars we see a yellow-headed blackbird perched in a tree, a blue grosbeak in the long grass and a vermillion flycatcher above the water. We are the only people here (and probably for miles around) and the stillness and silence is beautiful.

Even more beautiful is the sky as night falls. Darkness descends with speed and back at the Gage we find ourselves suddenly sitting in blackness in the courtyard outside our room. Big Bend has some of the darkest skies on the continent and stargazing here is unbeatable – the stars pop out of the sky like lights switching on. Our walk to dinner only involves a stroll next door but it takes us at least 15 minutes, pausing hand in hand every few steps to look up at the Milky Way. Could anything be more romantic?

Into Big Bend

Landscape of Big Bend National Park, Texas

The next day we drive into the national park proper, heading south into the Chisos Basin. The landscape has been flat for miles but suddenly it starts to change, rising up in ridges around us, making the road twist this way and that. We enter woodland for the first time – juniper, oak and Mexican piñon trees sprouting around us as we climb ever higher, our ears popping with the change in elevation. It is jaw-droppingly beautiful and I have to keep stopping the car to avoid craning my neck out of the window.

After a couple of hours we reach the Chisos Basin, our base for the next few days. Here the Mountain Lodge provides the national park’s only accommodation. Rooms are basic but the meals served in the restaurant are surprisingly good – and the location couldn’t be more spectacular. Dinner that night is accompanied by a dazzling sideshow – of a sky turning from blue to black through bright yellow, orange flame and fuchsia above the rugged Chisos mountains. It is unspeakably romantic and leaves us both completely speechless.

Taking a hike

The next morning we head out before the heat of the day to tackle the Lost Mine Trail. This 4.8-mile round trip climbs more than 1,100 feet to the top of the ridge for superlative views over the mountains. It begins with ease but the upper trail is steep and before long we are panting and stopping frequently. The rocky turrets of Casa Grande loom above us to the left and all around us are plants. More species of cacti have been identified here in Big Bend than in any other national park, and we distract ourselves from the hike by identifying plants listed in our guide – the sotol with its sharp teeth and juice that can be distilled into a fiery Mexican drink; the native lechuguilla which shoots a beautiful blooming stalk some 15 feet into the air just before it dies.

We are so distracted by the plantlife that we don’t see the signs warning us of mountain lions and black bears until much later. We haven’t seen another person on the trail and all around us is quiet. The idea that these predators are out there is chilling, but I can’t help wanting to see one, just to say I have. Fortunately though, we see nothing but scenery – expansive mountain views and arid high desert grasslands as far as the eye can see.

Santa Elena Canyon

Helen Ochyra hiking in Santa Elena Canyon, Texas

Our second hike of the trip takes us through even more spectacular scenery. In the park’s southwestern corner, right on the Mexican border is Santa Elena Canyon, the park’s crowning glory. It is a scenic drive of some 50 miles from the Chisos Basin to the canyon but the stopping points along the way make the drive a memorable one – from the wildly scenic Sotol Vista viewpoint to the historic general store at Castolon.

It is only a short walk into the canyon, across a small tributary of the Rio Grande and up the rocky face of the canyon’s northern edge. Mexico is just a few metres away, facing us as a sheer rockface across the water. It is eerily quiet and quite staggeringly beautiful and makes me realize for the first time just how close America and Mexico really are. A raging torrent this is not – it feels as if I could step across the river in three strides.

On to Lajitas

Further along the river is Lajitas, our final destination. This used to be a border crossing point but since 9/11 things have changed and now the old trading post is the resort’s golf shop. My husband is excited to get out on the course but I am more taken with the pool and the promise of a few days relaxation. From its utterly imposing wooden lobby to its luxurious rooms, Lajitas is a truly opulent hotel. We sit by the courtyard pool for hours, dine on Southwestern cuisine on the verandah of the Candelilla Café and settle in for margaritas in the wonderfully named Thirsty Goat.

Lajitas resort, Texas

There are spa treatments and horse riding, plus good ol’ fashioned shooting on-site but the highlight is a trip to nearby Terlingua, once a thriving mining town and now home to the park’s best nightlife. Here we feast on family-sized burritos before joining the locals at the Starlight Theatre where knock-out margaritas are thrown back with abandon, and cowboy boots stomp across the stage. We kick back to live country music and forget the far-away real world we travelled here from so seemingly long ago. Somewhere in the depths of my mind I articulate one thought – isn’t it ironic that this so-called ghost town is the liveliest place for miles around? But then the music and the margaritas seep into my soul and I abandon myself to this intoxicating state. Everything really is bigger in Texas – including the memories.

 
 
 
 
 

All photographs © Helen Ochyra

 

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