My kids and I just returned from a magical trip to the Chihuahuan Desert. The Big Bend, as it is known out there, is one of our favorite travel destinations. Marfa, Alpine and Fort Davis, the national park, the state park. Terlingua.
I try to go once a year to soak up the energy of the mesas and mountains and the sweeping basins between them, and about six years ago, I started bringing my kids.
On our first visit, we were in Marfa for the Trans-Pecos Music Festival, a family friendly yet raucous party in the desert where we heard Neko Case and Kacey Musgraves and my son Julian had a random chat with Justin Long in line for paletas. He loves to tell that story.
We snorkeled in the deep green waters of Balmorhea, a Barton Springs-type pool in the middle of nowhere, watched the most glorious desert sunset and made enough magical moments that we’re still talking about years later.
Before I tell you about some of the magical moments from this most recent trip, I want to say that it’s a real privilege, in my cis-hetero-whiteness, for my kids and me to be able to travel freely near the U.S.-Mexico border without worrying about checkpoints or the RV with the confederate flag license plate parked next to our AirBnB. Or to have the money to pay for gas, food and a place to sleep. (Camping is cheap, but conditions make it rough to sleep outside for many nights in a row.)
Travel should be accessible to everyone. There are ways to make any trip more affordable, but racism and intolerant immigration policies can’t be fixed with any quick tips.
As I sit near a man-made pond at the Marathon Motel (a new gem I can’t wait to revisit) with sore calves, chapped lips and tuckered-out kids who have missed four days of school, I think about how important it is to explore the world around us, including its most remote parts.
Taking the time and money to invest in experiences like this, even the ones we don’t love — you’ll have to ask the kids about the Chinati Foundation or the Window Trail hike or that shabby Airbnb in Fort Davis sometime — is an important part of my wealth generation strategy. Have I always had the money to take these trips? No. Do I take them anyway? Within reason.
These shared memories and experiences are priceless. My kids need these awe-inspiring views and that windswept hair. I need a night under the big open sky, even if it’s too hot to sleep much.
The impossibly beautiful and the unnecessarily difficult make a sweet alchemy.
On this trip, our medicine was in the full moon that we saw rise and fall over the horizon each night, casting moonlight so strong that we didn’t need flashlights.
We only camped for one night, and we stayed at campsite No. 13 in the Madera Canyon inside Big Bend Ranch State Park not far from Closed Canyon, which is at the top of my recommendations list below.
As soon as I saw “13” on the post, I thought of my favorite tarot teacher, Lindsay Mack, who opened my eyes to the number 13. It’s a 4 number (1 + 3 = 4), which is tied to the emperor and Aries, our current zodiac season. She describes emperor/Aries energy as being like the base of a mountain, the roots of a tree or the first bursting cry of a screaming newborn.
Emperor energy reminds us that we are here on earth to take up space, and I’m beginning to think that the pull of the farthest reaches — the thing that keeps me coming back here — is emperor energy, too. Unlike empress/Pisces energy, the more feminine Mother Nature/changing seasons energy, the slower masculine emperor/Aries vibe is about change at a much more nuanced pace.
One of the draws about visiting a place like this is that, in many ways, it looks and feels like it doesn’t change. The mule ears still look like mule ears. Balanced rock is still balancing. The stately Santa Elena Canyon walls seem immutable, but the Rio Grande that quietly flows at their base suggests otherwise. The hoodoos — rock spires named after the African spiritual practice — let wind and water shape their shadows.
Visitors who come to see the pink ocotillo blooms or hike to the hot springs (which are still closed due to COVID-19, sadly) leave their trail, too. Terlingua used to be a ghost town, but now it is in name only. Hundreds of rental properties — yurts, tiny houses, glamping tents — have popped up in the past decade, and there’s a great little market outside Big Bend National Park now, too.
These more noticeable changes make traveling to Big Bend slightly more comfortable (and crowded), but they can’t change how remote it feels.
You still need earplugs to sleep through the silence.
And that’s why I keep coming back.
Here are 7 ideas for magical things to do in Big Bend with the kids:
To help you plan your own Big Bend adventure, here are seven magical things to do from Marathon to Ruidosa, especially if you have kids, plus a couple of bonus moments for the hard-working parents who also drag their kids into situations that turn out to be life-changing experiences. (I see you.)
In this list, you’ll notice that the McDonald Observatory and the Prada “store” are missing — eh, they are both OK — and I haven’t seen the Marfa lights, so I’m not sure if that’s worth checking out or not. The hot springs in Big Bend National Park and Balmorhea pool are must-sees, but they are closed right now, so I didn’t put them on the list.
- Closed Canyon. Closed Canyon is a 1.5-mile round trip hike in Big Bend Ranch State Park to a stunning high-walled canyon with a gap in the middle that you can walk through. If you go a couple of hours before sunset, you can catch the most amazing beams of sunlight pouring in from the top. It’s easier to get to than Santa Elena Canyon, which is its own incredible experience inside the national park, but I think I like the lesser-known Closed Canyon in the state park just as much.
- Seeing the ocotillo bloom. I’d never heard of ocotillo until I went to Big Bend one spring, when all of these tall spiky cactus-like plants had these incredible pink flowers on top. I’d never seen anything like it, and I’ve been trying to catch a widespread bloom ever since. The entire desert blooms after a big rain, or so I hear, so plan accordingly.
- Chinati Hot Springs. Chinati Hot Springsis one of the most remote spots in this already remote region. It’s a small hot springs tucked into the rolling desert that’s nearly 2 hours from Presidio and Marfa. Although you can stop by for the day, it’s more of a place where you rent a cabin or camp and chill out for a couple of nights. There’s not a ton to do on the property, but soaking in the hot springs and enjoying the cozy cabins might carve out the space to have some really special conversations with your little ones.
- 4. Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center. Chihuahuan Desert Nature Centeroutside Fort Davis is an awesome spot to check out a variety of cactus, rocks and wildlife. If you’re not going to drive down to one of the Big Bend parks, it’s a great hike closer to the tri-town area of Fort Davis/Marfa/Alpine, which is much less rugged than the region farther south. While you’re in Fort Davis, stop by the old school library downtown for a quiet moment or an author talk.
- Museum of the Big Bend. Don’t miss the Museum of the Big Bendin Alpine. I wish I’d checked out this museum on my first visit to the area to better understand its history and culture. While you’re on the campus of Sul Ross State University, look up instructions on how to find The Desk. There’s a whole story behind the tradition of “the notebook,” previous editions of which are now housed at a local library. The kids thought it was a hoot to sign the guestbook at an actual desk on one of the best overlooks in the town.
- Indian Lodge. Although Fort Davis is rarely my end destination, the CCC-built Indian Lodge there is a special place that everyone needs to check out at least once. My kids and I enjoyed a short hike around the white adobe hotel tucked into the Davis Mountains.
- Canoeing on the Rio Grande. This was a bucket list item my kids and I checked off a couple of years ago. We hired an outfitter in Terlingua, stayed at an eco house on Terlingua Ranch, which is about 45 minutes away, and did a half-day float. By the end of the trip, the kids were paddling me while I sat in the middle seat and soaked up the views. This is precisely the reason I had children in the first place, so I was pleased, to say the least. (If you get to pick where you canoe, start in the state park — maybe Madera Canyon or Arenosa — and end up at Santa Elena. We put it and floated to Boquillas, and it was fine, but it wasn’t as spectacular as what we saw on this recent visit.)
Bonus magical moments: A margarita on the patio inside the historic Paisano Hotel is a must in Marfa, but that’s not really kid-friendly. (I haven’t found much in Marfa that’s great for kids, to be honest, besides that music festival that takes place in September and what I call the Big Questions mural.) I also think that sipping on a Lone Star in front of the general store in Terlingua is a top 10 Texas experience. Again, not for kids, but maybe yours, like mine, don’t mind taking naps in the car while mom sits on the porch, soaks up the view and plays music with Jeff, a clawhammer banjo player who lives in the area.
Read more of Addie Broyles’ work at https://thefeministkitchen.substack.com.