Big Bend National Park: One of the Darkest Places on Earth

[This is part of my vanlife series. I've spent 7 months and 25kmiles on the road in 2 years, exploring and rock climbing around the US.]

We took an impromptu jaunt down to Big Bend National Park after realizing we could hit it at a new moon--we’d been lamenting how much we wanted to see a true southwest star show. It took all of 10 seconds to convince Dustin and Liz to join us, and I was psyched to get a lesson in night photography from Dustin. [Part 1 here]

Big Bend is located in the southwest arm of Texas on the border of Mexico. The park is comprised of 3 different areas: vast desert, the Chisos Mountains and Chisos Basin in the center of the park, and the Rio Grande River marking the Mexico border along the south. Make no mistake, the park is a giant desert and we were sweating during the day in the middle of December, but the landscape's beautiful in its own way and varies quite a bit between the areas. The free visitor's guide and map are the best I've seen from a national park for figuring out what drives and hikes to do. It's also recognized as one of the darkest places on earth by the International Dark Sky Association.

Big Bend National park map Big Bend National park map

We made it in off season and had most of the park to ourselves. For the most part, you get flat to rolling terrain with low-lying shrubs that shelter the frequent roadrunner birds darting about:
Big Bend National Park

Along the scenic 50+ mile drive around the park, there’s interesting geological formations from pyramid structures to boulders balanced on top of each other forming windows to winding canyons:
Big Bend National Park Big Bend National Park

The silhouettes of the Chisos Mountains change constantly as you drive around them:
Big Bend National Park chisos mountains Big Bend National Park chisos mountains

When we first got to the Sotol Vista lookout, I was a bit bummed seeing how overcast it was—I was hoping for a clear night to photograph, but the clouds stayed around just long enough to give a great sunset before completely clearing.

Big Bend National Park sotol vista sunset

It's staggering to think about the few families that settled here to ranch in the very rugged terrain.

You can drive all the way into the center of the Chisos Mountains, where the landscape changes dramatically compared to the desert below: in the basin you find oak, jumper, aspen, and fir trees, not to mention a 20+ degree temperature drop.

Big Bend National Park chisos mountains

At the very south end of the park is the Rio Grande River and Santa Elena Canyon. Hi Mexico! Yes, it’s illegal to swim across and touch the other side. I do wonder how many people have tried rappelling down the canyon to cross.
Big Bend National Park santa elena canyon Big Bend National Park santa elena canyon

Dustin, Liz, Jeremy, and I posted up after hiking the canyon, cooked dinner, and started shooting. We had a striking view of the Milky Way rising right above the canyon (photo credit Dustin Moore):

I captured a one-in-a-million shot “Whiskey Wishes”: Jeremy with a a bottle of Woodford, with guitar, during a new moon, under a shooting star.
Big Bend National Park

We found old ruins that framed the Milky Way perfectly. Liz unknowingly ran across them with her headlamp while I was exposing--how awesome is this!
Big Bend National Park milky way

Starting this road trip, I knew there’d be amazing experiences meeting people, exploring, and climbing. This one night was such an accumulation of everything that it’s humbling thinking about how much we miss in our normal busy lives.

We parted ways with Dustin and Liz the next day and took the west exit out of Big Bend toward El Paso. We did a double-take seeing this permanent art sculpture amidst a hundred miles of completely flat desert (photo wikipedia):
prada marfa

And we drove through the old ghost town of Terlingua, happy to be on our way out of the desert:
Terlingua ghost town Terlingua ghost town Terlingua ghost town

And so ends our Texas adventure!
texas y'all come back

[Read about our Texas adventure, Part 1 here]