Volunteering in Big Bend National Park

It is here where travelers meet

According to the Apache legend after creating the universe the Great Spirit tossed a large pile of left over boulders and debris on the Big Bend.

Big Bend National Park

This sounded most inviting for us when we were looking for a volunteer opportunity and we were so happy that we did get an assignment as campground hosts from May through July of 2019.

But let’s go back to the boulders the Great Spirit tossed. Big Bend National Park is a wonderland for geologists and a story in stone. From 500 million year old rocks near the Persimmon Gap to modern day windblown sand dunes at Boquillas.

If you have time, stop at the Museum of Big Bend at the Sul Ross State University in Alpine to get more information about this heaven for geologists.

Alpine is the last large community on your way to the park. If you plan to camp for a few days, it is time to go to Porters to stock up on food and drinks. By the way, Alpine has a small but active art community with a number of galleries along Holland Avenue, featuring local painters, designers and jewelers.

But let’s hit the road since it will take you more than two hours to get to the Visitor Center at Panther Junction (which is also the Park Headquarters).

Camping in Big Bend

You have a choice of three campgrounds and depending on the time of the year you can either reserve some of the sites through recreation.gov or it is “first come, first serve”. We highly recommend the Chisos Basin Campground, which is at an elevation of 5,200 ft. You will be surrounded by a breathtaking panorama with the Casa Grande to the east, Emory Peak to the south and the V-neck of the Window, the lowest point of the basin, to the west.

Big Bend National Park
Casa Grande
Big Bend National Park
V-neck of the Window

The campground has 60 sites, but most are better suited for tenting than bringing a camper or small motorhome up. The route to the camp will test your driving skills and if you are lucky you will see bears crossing the road. Some prefer to stay at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, which offers also a restaurant with a wonderful view.

Hiking in Big Bend

Most campers drive the long way from Austin, Houston or Dallas, since they are dedicated hikers and Big Bend offers the best hiking trails in Texas and beyond.

We were often asked what trail to hike if visitors have limited time. The Window Trail can be done even by day visitors; but do not underestimate this hike. It is 1.7 miles going down to the window, but that means 1.7 miles back up along a trail that is sometimes fully exposed to the sunlight. Have the right hiking shoes, use a lot of sunscreen and take enough water with you. Another great choice is the Lost Mine Trail. The 2.4 mile hike (one way) offers outstanding views of the Chisos mountains and the Sierra del Carmen.

The Window Trail
Lost Mine Trail

How would you like to soar and see the Sierra del Carmen like a Peregrin Falcon? Taking a full day hike to the South and the East Rim will give you this experience of a lifetime. The Laguna Meadows trail will bring you to a higher elevation to connect to the South Rim  and the East Rim Trail.

South Rim
East Rim Trail

The images cannot capture the views, which are out of this world. Check if the East Rim is open, since it will be closed during the nesting season of the Peregrin Falcons. Hiking through the Boot Canyon will bring you to the Pinnacle Trail and from there you descend towards the Chisos Mountain Visitors Center. After about 13 miles and 8 hours on the trails you will come back exhausted, satisfied, still overwhelmed and ready for a long nap.

Boot Canyon

Other Must-Sees in Big Bend

Terlingua should be on your list while at Big Bend. It is a ghost town with a population of 58 (living) humans as per the 2010 census. It was once a mining town and in the mid 1880’s, it attracted more than 2,000 people. They were digging for Cinnabar, which contains the metal Mercury. The only remnants of the mining days are a ghost town on the grounds of the Chisos Mining Company. Nearby is an old cemetery you should not miss.

Chisos Mining Company
The nearby cemetery

Ready for dinner? Go to the Starlight Theater. Try to be there on Monday for half price burgers. There is always live music and a good mix of locals (did not see any ghosts) and visitors.

If you have enough time, check on some trails outside of the Chisos Mountains. You will have a mix of dessert, mountain and river areas with totally different flora and fauna. Pick the right time of the year for any of the dessert hikes, since they can be dangerous during summertime.

There’s even more to see in Big Bend

Two of the highlights of BBNP are the Santa Elena and the Bouquillas Canyon. Take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (named after the first Park Superintendent) and head west. The road has earned its dedication as a scenic drive. Some stops along the road invite for short hikes, such the one to the Burro Mesa Pouroff, which looks like a large open shower built by mother nature. To reach the short Santa Elena Canyon Trail, you must cross Terlingua Creek (you will get your feet wet).. The breathtaking views will reward you for getting your shoes dirty and wet.

Big Bend National Park

Combine a visit to the Bouquillas Canyon on the southwest side of the park with a trip to Boquillas del Carmen. The ferry ride takes 30 seconds, and you have a choice between riding a donkey, a horse or a truck to get to the village. We decided to take the truck. The guides are very friendly and trustful. They will bring you to one of the many street stores where the locals sell handmade items, which will let you remember Boquillas when you are back home.

Big Bend National Park
Bouquillas Canyon
Ferry station
A local store

What we learned while volunteering in Big Bend

During our time as campground hosts we were privileged to meet many wonderful people. We were able to assist a couple to find the right place for their wedding.

In the evening we always checked on our guests to find out about their experience of the day and to learn more about hikes we had not done yet. This created friendships and lead to conversations beyond hiking and the vistas of the day. We enjoyed those evening talks very much and are staying in touch with many of our Big Bend friends.

This includes Katelyn and Heather. The evening prior to their departure we had them over for a camp dinner. We talked about youth, where we want to go to, where we are in our lives and that being happy does not always mean that you have to be rich or climbing the career ladder. What a nice and meaningful chat. The next morning they stopped by to thank us and to say good bye. They surprised us with a hand drawing of Emory Peak, the highest point in the Chisos Mountain. The poem under the drawing summarizes our Big Bend experience: “The sun reaches out to the mountain lined horizon and colors everything in orange, red and pink. It is here where travelers meet”.

Big Bend National Park

Have you been to Big Bend National Park? What was your experience like? If you’re looking to explore more national parks near you, check out our blog Exploring National Parks with FMCA.

About the Author – Helmut Albrecht

Mark Twain once said “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t than by the ones you did do. So, throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

In November of 2018 we threw off the bowlines, moved full time into our Motorhome (called Loon named after a boat my in laws sailed for many years) and started our journey. I am on this voyage together with the love of my life Peggy and our handsome dog Merlot. After 15 years in the German Air Force I spent most of my career in sales of technical goods. We relocated in 2001 from Germany to the United States of America and I am a proud American citizen since January of 2010.

From childhood on (I had my first camera when I was 6 years old) , photography was my passion. It is my intention to capture the big picture as much as the details. To tell a story with my camera and to see things differently. Our travels allow me to create storybooks about places and people, which I share at www.inthewakeofloon.com and as a guest blogger for FMCA.

I hope at the end of our journey I can say what Benjamin Disraeli once said “Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.”

6 Comments on Volunteering in Big Bend National Park

  1. Helmut, this is fantastic. I’m very happy you’ve been chosen to be a part of this national blog. You are a great writer. Keep them coming so many of us can live through your travels.

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience volunteering at Big Bend NP. I’ve submitted my application to volunteer next year (January-April 2021)as a camp host but haven’t heard anything. I think they are closed ? I travel in a 43ft Allegro Bus do you know is any of the volunteer sites can accommodate a MH that big?

    • Jan, thanks for your comment. Have you applied for a specific campground? Chisos basin, which is where we hosted, and which is the largest and most desirable campground, would not accommodate a 43ft motorhome for two reasons: the volunteer site would not be large enough and it might be a problem to get you up there. We had to have the street closed for us and a ranger escorted us up with one of the law enforcement vehicles (we have a 36ft Itasca Solei). Rio Grande Village would be no problem to accommodate your rig. I would recommend to get in direct touch with the volunteer coordinator posted on the volunteer.gov website to introduce yourself and to get all your questions answered. Good luck and safe travels. You will love Big Bend!

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