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Big Bend, Texas Thanksgiving Adventure

Written by  Phillip Jones
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FJ Cruisers exploring Big Bend, Texas FJ Cruisers exploring Big Bend, Texas

East of El Paso, the Rio Grande carves a scenic path south of the Solitario Flatiron Mountains, through Santa Elena Canyon, and at the base of the Sierra Del Carmen as it turns northward. On the U.S. side of the river, the diverse geological structures spanning the Big Bend Ranch State Park (BBRSP) and Big Bend National Park (BBNP) prevent uniformity, keeping things interesting for the traveler. Across the brown river, Mexico stands tall and beautiful, providing an alluring backdrop of seemingly unobtainable mountains.


For the adventurers seeking unpaved roads and 4x4 trails, these two parks, as well as surrounding territories, do not disappoint. Nestled between the two parks, the eccentric Texan communities of Terlingua and Lajitas offer unique dining experiences and night life. As with any locale off the beaten path, never assume a constant. Yes, each town has a gas station. That does not mean fuel is always available. Bring extra fuel canisters.

One can never get enough of the Big Bend region. Rare birds, frequent coyote sightings, and colorful sunsets illuminating the mountains redefines the meaning of being one with nature. Find the right spot and camping becomes a treat as the sun goes down and the stars bring the night to life.
An annual gathering of off-roaders and rock hunters usually occurs over the Christmas and New Year’s timeframe. For the Yota crowd, the event is organized in the Texas section of FJCruiserForums.com. Camp is based in the hilly Rancho Topanga Campground west of Terlingua. In 2015, an additional gathering took place over Thanksgiving week and I jumped at the opportunity.

The day before Thanksgiving, with passports in hand, we set out to cross the border into Mexico. The village of Boquillas del Carmen sits atop a hill above the Rio Grande. For years, tourists were able to park their vehicles in BBNP and cross the river via a small ferry to enjoy a cerveza or a pure cane sugar soft drink in Mexico. After 9/11, the border closed and the small village suffered financially.

The U.S. built a border patrol station and port of entry in BBNP at the exact spot, re-opening the border in April 2013. Despite the added bureaucracy, and the passport requirement, it is still worth the effort to take the excursion and enjoy some Mexican hospitality while taking in the scenery of Boquillas Canyon. We climbed into the ferry and crossed the river. Upon arrival, we paid the famous Singing Mexican, Victor, our $5 for the ferry ride and another chunk of cash for the donkey transport up the hill. I wasn’t keen on riding a mule, so I upgraded to a horse for an additional $5.
Dining, drinks, and shopping are typically all that occurs. Our group, made up mostly of rock hunters, went the extra mile…literally. We hired a local guide to take us to the Cave of Crystals. What that meant was we climbed into his pickup truck (some of us sat in the bed) and endured a trip to the trail head via 4x4 roads in a decades-old 2WD truck. We hiked up and down the hills for almost 2 miles toward Boquillas Canyon. Although the cave is near the river, it faces south and is thus hidden from one of the popular trails on the U.S. side. This neat little cave is completely made of crystals:  floor, roof, and walls. Well worth the hike.

For Thanksgiving Day, we ventured up the 4.5 mile Christmas Mountains trail. These mountains are just north of BBNP on land owned by the University of Texas. While camping is not permitted, visitors can obtain a day use permit. Our guide, David Aurzada, led us with his yellow FJ Cruiser. The rough road kept us under 5 mph on average, or maybe it was the astounding scenery that slowed us. The route winds through valleys, across the sides of mountains, at the edges of steep cliffs, and eventually terminates at a high overlook at an elevation of 5,400 ft, which is quite high for Texas. We spent nearly an hour taking in the fabulous views of the mountains below.

The return trip was on the same trail, yet it felt completely different as the weather changed, the clouds cleared, and more mountainous scenery was revealed. Upon arrival at David’s cabin, we feasted on traditional Thanksgiving fare while discussing other trails we plan to conquer in the future.
While many people were venturing to their favorite retailers for Black Friday, we chose to hit the famed Black Gap trail in BBNP (cover photo). High clearance and 4WD is certainly a must for various sections. Tanya Cole guided us in her red FJ Cruiser on the 38-mile route. We visited the fascinating Marsical Mine remains. After we exited the unpaved roads, we drove up to the Chisos Basin where clouds greeted us as fog dancing around the peaks.

For our final day of off-roading, we first hit the Las Burras Loop 4x4 trail in BBRSP, which is only one of many 4x4 roads in this park. The tip of the loop stops near high caves.

After lunch in at the famed Lajitas Resort, we headed to the county roads north of Terlingua:  a network of unpaved roads winding through medium sized canyons and smaller mountains. We did a 26-mile run that became a bit more challenging as darkness took over. As I led us back to civilization, my 7-inch Zero Dark LED lights lit up a black cat that was too big to be a house cat, but the head wasn’t quite big enough for a panther. What the heck did I see? Possibly a Jaguarundi. Google it.

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    • latitude: 29.1275
    • longitude: -103.2425
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