We went to Big Bend National Park during the shutdown, and here’s what we found

by thenewstates

I have to admit, driving almost 100 miles one-way without knowing what you’ll find can make you a little nervous. With camping in the park and all the campgrounds closed (or so we were told, more on that later), the best we could do was find an RV park in Marathon, TX and take the chance with the long drive. I’m pleased to report that the majority of Big Bend National Park is open for hiking and exploring with some exceptions (including, spoiler alert, one significant area closed to the public).

So, what was open??

Here’s the great news. Almost all trails are open at Big Bend. Note I say almost.

The drive to Rio Grande Village was open (more on that later), so we decided to check out the Hot Springs which is accessed by a dirt road turnoff from the paved park road. This is key, because the Rangers are not staffing the visitor’s center or updating the website of current conditions during the shutdown, you are on your own to determine if the roads are passable. Let’s just say it may have rained the prior evening and morning, so the dirt road (now very deep mud) was VERY four wheel drive recommended. We actually returned the following day to the springs (because one day of springs is never enough) and it was easy as pie for probably even a small car to maneuver. What a difference a day makes!

It’s important to remember that while the grounds of many national parks are open, services are currently suspended during the shutdown. In our case, we determined that it was not practical to try and wait it out and also we weren’t sure when our next visit to South Texas would be, so made the decision to visit the park. With that said, we did make sure to bring our own food, water, pack everything out that we brought in. Remember those trash cans aren’t going to empty themselves, and you don’t want to burden an already stressed park system. Special shoutout to those who are volunteering and help keep the parks clean during the shutdown!

We also had a great time driving the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (too long of a name, so from now on RMSD) and hiking some of the many short trails off the RMSD. This is truly a beautiful drive, and really shows off the variety of landscape inside the park. Our goal was to reach the Santa Elena Canyon (which can be most easily accessed past Cottonwood on RMSD. So imagine our surprise when we arrived at the Castalon Historic District (just before Cottonwood campground) and the friendly concessionaire at the general store (Also open!) told us that too many people did too many bad things, so the road was now closed at Cottonwood. This, my friends, is why we can’t have nice things.

Finally, the drive up into the Chisos basin (and the Chisos Mountain Lodge) are both open. The lodge is operated by a 3rd party (see the reoccuring theme?) and will happily take reservations HERE or by calling (877) 386-4383 or (432) 477 2291. This is also a must visit, and resembles nothing else you will see while at Big Bend. Several significant trailheads are located near the Lodge, including the Window Trail, and are spectacular hikes with great scenery. The area around the lodge was buzzing with activity, since this is really only one of TWO areas where you can legally stay inside the park. So about that other area…

What other area??

It turns out, not ALL the campgrounds are closed (see the section “What’s Closed?” below). Thanks to a 3rd party contract, the full-hookup RV campground in Rio Grande Village is open and happily taking reservations for $35/night. What do you get for your money? We’ll show you!

Definitely not the most scenic of campgrounds, but if you are looking for somewhere to park your Motorhome, Fifth Wheel or Travel Trailer, here’s your shot. Unfortunately for us, the campground only showed one open spot for one night (later in the week). We did meet another group who got lucky and scored a same day space, so it’s worth a shot. For reservations, call 1-877-386-4383 or 432-477-2293.

What’s Closed?

We were pleasantly surprised at how much of the park was open and accessible. With that said, there are some areas which are closed (and all services provided by the National Parks directly are also unavailable during the shutdown):

  • All visitors centers and Ranger stations are not open to the public
  • Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is closed south of Cottonwood Campground.
  • Santa Elena Canyon is not accessible via the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive or trails.
  • The river crossing to Boquillas in Mexico is not operating during the shutdown
  • Cottonwood, Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village* and all developed campgrounds are closed.
  • Back-country camping is not permitted during the shutdown

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