America the beautiful

America the beautiful

Pulling into our dusty campground in Big Bend National Park to find temperatures in the 90s (that’s 32c and up) by midday, I was sure our three nights with no electricity for the aircon and limited water supply was going to be a trial of epic proportions. I was hot and fussed and sure this was going to be just too much of a challenge for me (“I’m not an outdoors person”, I kept reminding John). I was in the trailer, being a grouch, putting together a picnic lunch for us, when I heard shouting outside.

I stepped out of the trailer and realised what John had been shouting: “Roadrunner, roadrunner!”. There indeed was the famous bird, standing, crest raised, right in front of me, likely figuring out where to hide the TNT. And of course my mood lifted – this is why we came, to experience things we would never see at home, or staying in hotels and motels. While in the park we saw roadrunners daily, a stunning vermillion fly-catcher sat over our picnic bench at every morning at breakfast, and we saw our first owl, staring wisely down at us from a cottonwood tree. I nearly cried at this last one, so long have I wanted to see an owl. He was so close, so big, and so cuddly looking, I could have gone home happy right then.

Great horned owl in Cottonwood Campground, Big Bend NP
Great horned owl in Cottonwood Campground, Big Bend NP

By the end of our first afternoon I’d gone from crabby camper to happy hiker, leaping over rocks and up mountains to reach the top of the Lost Mines trail before the sun went down. The next day I embraced cold showers (the hot water in the pay showers had broken and we have limited tank space when we’re dry camping so I always wash my hair in campground showers), and by our last day I felt I never wanted to leave.

Sunset on our first hike - Lost Mines
Sunset on our first hike – Lost Mines

One of the most magical things about Big Bend for me is that it’s three parks in one. The drive in is through desert – rocks and scrubby bushes and cacti growing from the dirt for as far as the eye can see. It’s hot at ground level but there’s a beauty to the desert, particularly as the sun loses its heat and the colours come to life in front of you. As you drive across the park, the Chisos Mountains loom. Marooned by an ice age thousands of years ago, they are an oasis in the desert, home to a whole microclimate in which birds, plants and animals, that would not survive the desert heat, thrive. Driving up and into the Basin, where the mountain peaks form a circle, the temperature drops and hikes that would be unbearable on the desert floor are a pleasure.  And finally, the river. The Rio Grande, from which the park gets its name. Sparkling and powerful she runs through the park, supporting a whole other ecosystem of different plants and birds. It’s got it all, and we wanted to experience it all.

Rio Grande Village campground from above
Rio Grande Village campground from above

Fortunately, we’d had some help to make the most of our time from our new friend Sherry, and her friend Linda, who is a long-time fan of the park and who took the time to tell us all her favourite places, many of which we managed to fit in. It’s such a huge place, you do have to pick what you do and with Linda’s help, we picked well. We hiked in the mountains, cool and shady, with birds flitting by and views across the wide expanses of desert. We walked through the desert, so burning hot in the afternoon sun that we wondered how anything can live there, least of all people. And we followed the river, up and into the Santa Elena Canyon, towering cliffs on either side of us and only the river dividing Mexico and the United States.


Of course all this adventuring called for some R & R, and a morning soak in the hot springs soothed my aching muscles. These old baths were built for people wanting to take the waters, before this was a National Park, and their position on the river is magical. Sitting in 100 degree water, watching the Rio Grande glide by, we felt every bit of our good fortune at being on this journey. John even persuaded me to cool off in the river, the flow so fast we could swim into it and stay in one place.

Enjoying the hot springs, and the Rio Grande
Enjoying the hot springs, and the Rio Grande

We also spent an evening up in the Lodge, in the Chisos Basin, watching the sky turn to pink through a gap in the mountains called the Window. When darkness fell, we sat at the bar for a drink and ate some Elk chilli (really delicious!), watching with interest as the Super Tuesday results came in. This, of course, led to some entertaining conversations with the Americans in the bar and, in a departure from our experiences earlier in the candidacy race, there seemed to be a groundswell of shock and embarrassment that Trump was polling so well. The general consensus seemed to be that people are angry and want to make a point, but no one really wants him to be president. The results that evening suggested otherwise, but there’s a long way to go and we’ll be keeping an interested eye on this as we travel around. We also met some lovely folks called Linda and Rick, who invited us to their home in Michigan, should we make it there on our trip.

America’s National Parks are truly special places, and Big Bend stole my heart. I could have stayed forever but we were only just starting our drive west, ultimate destination San Diego to meet the first of our visitors at the start of April, and we’ve a lot to fit in before then. In the past week we’ve been flashing our $80 National Parks ‘America the Beautiful’ pass everywhere we can (a big money saver when it can cost $20 to drive into one park). We’ve visited Carlsbad Caverns, the biggest natural cave in the Western Hemisphere, and I think the only one where you will find restrooms, a cafe and a gift shop 800 feet underground (only in America!). The stalagmites are up to 90 feet high and with the elevators currently out of action, you wish at the end you only had 90 feet, instead of 80 stories, to climb on the way out!

We spent a morning at White Sands National Monument, surfing down towering white gypsum dunes on a plastic sled, hiked an afternoon around Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and today we’ve returned from a hike up into the stunning rock formations at the Chiricahua National Monument, where John informed me that I’m much better at hiking than I like to make out. I don’t want to get a reputation for this, of course, lest he start making me carry the backpack, but I think I’m safe as in a few weeks I’ll be relaxing with my friend Carly in a California spa for my birthday, back in my natural environment!

John at White Sands NM
John at White Sands NM

Of course we have lots of other parks on our list, starting, we hope, with the Grand Canyon. Weather permitting, we will be making our way north there in the next week or so and as it’s somewhere both of us have wanted to see for years, we’ve got high hopes, though whether it can rival the happiness we found in Big Bend is yet to be seen…




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  • Simon C says:

    Love the Owl – that’s a real hoot!

  • Linda Brannen says:

    WOW you can spin a great narrative and your photographs are spectacular. Thanks for the credit but you made the best of it. I do love the Big Bend area. So much more for you to see, hope you come back. Linda

    • Anna Syson says:

      Thank you Linda, it’s a spectacular and very special place isn’t it? I can well see how you can keep going back. We are already talking about when we might return in future. So thankful for your help, it really made it for us.

  • […] we started doing the camping circuit, and people kept asking us if we were going there. Much like Big Bend, we figured there must be something in it, so we decided this would be our last National Park […]

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