The annual travel rite known as "Spring Break" isn't limited to students headed for the beach—it's also peak season for Big Bend National Park. Is that park is too crowded to enjoy a visit in March? Here are some observations from the Traveler, along with tips to help make a future spring trip to Big Bend a lot more fun.
At least one travel guide advises its readers to avoid the park—especially the prime, mile-high area known as the Chisos Basin—during March, because the area was deemed to be too crowded. Is that good advice? Based on my just-completed five-day visit to Big Bend, the answer is…it depends.
Like many others who visit the park in March, our plans were dictated by my wife's teaching schedule and the weather. Unless you're a confirmed desert-lover, many parts of Big Bend are simply too hot for enjoyable activity during the summer months, and the annual school break in the spring coincides with a better chance for moderate temperatures in the park. Most of our fellow visitors last week seemed to have similar limitations.
So…was the park too busy to allow an enjoyable visit? Here's what we found, along with some suggestions for anyone planning a similar trip in 2011 or beyond.
"Crowded" is clearly a very relative term, but compared to places like Yosemite Valley or the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in peak season, we found Big Bend in March to be a pleasure. The key for a successful spring trip to this outstanding park is found in one word: "early."
The combination of limited overnight accommodations in the park and long travel times for those driving in from surrounding areas means early-risers can avoid the crowds—and get a parking spot at key locations. The biggest limiting factor for a spring visit to Big Bend seemed to be parking at favorite trailheads and similar locations, but we had no problems, thanks largely to our daily schedule that included an early start.
There are other bonuses for beginning your day in the park sooner rather than later: Big Bend is typical of all arid locations—the landscape is at its best during the morning and evening, when lower sun angles and shadows add extra interest to the scene. You're also more likely to see wildlife at those hours, and you'll miss the afternoon heat, which was pushing well into the 80s at lower elevations on some afternoons during our trip.
Yep, I know you're on vacation, and may not want to set your alarm clock, but "early" is also a relative term. After the change to Daylight Savings Time on March 14, it was still pitch dark in the Basin when the dining room in the Lodge opened at 7 a.m. and we had the place almost to ourselves. No problem with crowding for a sunrise breakfast, and that put us on the road to lower elevations ahead of any rush. We enjoyed watching some wildlife en route, including a family of javelina, and had the main park road virtually to ourselves at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning in mid-March.
A popular short hike at Big Bend is the trail into the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon, and arriving there before 9 a.m. was a good call on a Spring Break weekend. The "crowd" at the trailhead included a small group preparing five canoes for a guided day trip up the canyon and a young couple with a baby, getting ready for a hike.
We had the trail, the Rio Grande and this section of the 1,500-foot-deep canyon virtually to ourselves for almost two hours, but began meeting other hikers heading in as we exited the canyon. The parking lot was nearly filled when we drove out around noon, and the launch site along the river was noticeably busier. Score bonus points for an early morning hike.
A similar situation prevailed on Sunday morning for a hike on the Grapevine Hills trail. Getting to the trailhead requires an eight-mile ride over an unpaved road that can be a bit rough in spots, and the parking area holds only about a dozen vehicles. This is a popular choice for short backcountry hikes; it follows a scenic valley with interesting geology that reminds some people of the terrain in parts of Joshua Tree National Park.
Although we encountered several other small groups on the trail, again we had the area to ourselves most of the trip. As at Santa Elena Canyon, by the time we headed back toward the pavement at noon, the parking area was filled to capacity—and the weather was getting a bit toasty.
So…based on our admittedly limited experience, one way to avoid crowding in this park is to get an early start. The same advice applies to finding a place to stay during the busy season.
The number of overnight accommodations in Big Bend—both lodge rooms and campsites—is small compared to many parks of similar size, and alternative locations outside the park are a bit scarce as well.
That means you need to make reservations early in the game, especially if you hope to stay at the Chisos Mountains Lodge. Some dates are already fully booked for March 2011, so it's not too soon to make plans for next year. If the nights you need are already spoken for, don't give up—check the concessioner's website (or call their toll-free number, 877-386-4383) at intervals during coming months. Cancellations do occur, sometimes late in the game. It took several tries, but we snagged four nights at the lodge for our recent stay, and two of those nights didn’t become available until six weeks before our trip.
Similar advice applies to front-country campsites. There are only 195 developed sites in the three NPS campgrounds in the park, plus another 25 sites in the concessioner-operated RV campground at Rio Grande Village, and most of them were full during our visit. A reservation for a campsite during spring break would be a good idea. Here's the current word on reservations for camping from the park:
Forty-three sites at Rio Grande Village campground and twenty-six sites at the Chisos Basin campground are reservable from November 15th to April 15th each year. All remaining campsites in these two campgrounds and the entire Cottonwood campground remain on the first-come, first-serve basis.
Group campsites at Rio Grande Village, the Chisos Basin, and Cottonwood Campgrounds are reservable year round and reservations may be made 360 days in advance. Reservations for Rio Grande Village and the Chisos Basin campgrounds family-type sites may be made 180 days in advance.
You can make reservations for developed campsites on line, or you can call 1-877-444-6777. Don't contact the park; the staff at Big Bend cannot make reservations for these sites. Campsite reservations are not taken from April through November, because the campgrounds rarely fill during those months.
Backcountry campers need a permit, but not a reservation far in advance of your trip.
Big Bend offers a variety of primitive camping and backpacking options. A backcountry use permit is required and can be obtained in person at park visitor centers up to 24 hours in advance of the trip. The permit may be issued for up to 14 consecutive nights in the backcountry.
You'll find details on backcountry camping, including a backcountry planning worksheet, on the park's website.
So, were the dire warnings about spring break crowds at the park unwarranted? Not entirely.
Early Sunday afternoon brought our only near-miss with a problem. Upon our return to the Basin from the Grapevine Hills hike, the parking area and a nearby overflow lot were both nearly filled, as was parking for the popular Lost Mine Trail. We snagged one of the final four parking spots in the area, and shortly thereafter, the park staff began intercepting arrivals at the foot of the road into the Basin and directing them to other locations in the area until the congestion eased a couple of hours later.
I suspect some of those visitors who were diverted to alternate destinations in the park were disappointed, but the park's approach seemed preferable to endless circling through filled lots and probable gridlock. We also overheard a conversation between visitors who were unable to visit another popular spot, the hot springs near Rio Grande Village, because that parking area was full in the late afternoon.
One final tip: the dining room at the lodge is the Basin is the only restaurant in the park, and it was busy late in the evening a couple of nights during our stay. Although the wait for a table was no longer than in a popular big-city eatery on a weekend night, the "early" advice seemed to help here as well. We chose to eat before 6 p.m., a bit ahead of our usual schedule, and never waited for a table.
A slightly early dinner had one other bonus—it got us out of the dining room in plenty of time for a relaxing stroll on the Window View Trail. The easy round-trip walk to one of the park's best sunset vistas covers less than a half mile from the lodge, and it's a nice way to wind up your day…in plenty of time to turn in, get a good night's sleep, and allow an early start to beat the crowds the next day.