National Park Road Trip 2011: Big Bend And Chisos Mountains Lodge

The Chisos Mountains Lodge in Big Bend National Park is surrounded by ruggedness, and offers some great views out your window. Photos by David and Kay Scott.

Editor's note: Our road warriors, David and Kay Scott, spent two nights at Big Bend National Park to work on updating their lodging guidebook, The Complete Guide To National Park Lodging, and enjoyed some interesting surprises.

We arrived in Big Bend National Park in the early afternoon Wednesday for a two-night stay at Chisos Mountains Lodge. Spring is a busy time at the lodge and we had been trying for several months to bag a reservation. We lucked out when a room became available about a week before leaving home.

Big Bend is an expansive, wild park full of adventure and surprises. Thursday, while standing in the lobby of the registration building, a cougar walked across the building’s patio. We have spent decades visiting America’s national parks and this was our first sighting of a cougar (commonly called a mountain lion), an elusive, graceful, and beautiful animal.

Big Bend is also where we saw our first Javelina, a pig-like animal that loves to eat prickly-pear cactus, spines and all. Think of the fiber.

Like much of the Southwest, the Big Bend area of Texas is suffering a severe drought. Areas that have been green on previous trips are now brown and lifeless. We were told there has been no significant moisture in the park since September. The drought has stunted the wildflowers and affected bird sightings, two major attractions that draw visitors to this isolated park. We have been told that lack of moisture has caused birds typically seen only at higher altitudes to frequent lower elevations.

The Rio Grande River serves as Big Bend’s border with Mexico. The park included several border crossing points that were closed in 2002 by U.S. Customs. The nearest legal crossing points are now at Del Rio to the east and Presidio to the west. However, park officials are proposing to reopen the Boquillas border crossing in the near future.

Big Bend has four main activity areas: Panther Junction, where park headquarters, the main visitor center, and a gas station are located; Rio Grande Village with an RV park, visitor center, and store; Castolon with a visitor center, store, and historic district; and the Basin, the location of Chisos Mountains Lodge, a store, visitor center, and post office.

Chisos Mountains Lodge is the park’s only lodging facility. Located at 5,400 feet in the beautiful Basin area surrounded by mountains, the lodge offers 72 guest rooms in a series of motel units, lodge units, and cottages. Room rates range from $113 to $159, with most at the lower end of this range.

The lodge has been operated as a concession by Forever Resorts since the company took over the previous concessionaire, National Park Concessions. Our understanding is that Forever owns most of the structures other than the cottages that were constructed in the 1930s by the CCC.

Big Bend is considered one of America’s best birding destinations and is the only place in the United States where the rare Colima warbler can be observed.

The lodge is currently at full capacity as we near the end of prime birding season. This morning we sat on our back patio drinking coffee while watching a multitude of hummingbirds, red tanagers, and bright yellow warblers enjoy the blooms on a Desert Willow tree. We’re guessing a majority of current guests are avid birders. Big Bend, because of its location and variations in altitude within the park, attracts hundreds of varieties of birds.

The park has retrofitted the Basin and Panther Junction with LED lighting obtained under a grant supported by Musco Lighting. According to a Park Service maintenance supervisor, visitors driving into the park at night from the west could once easily see lights from the Basin area where the lodge is located. Substitution of the LED lights has dramatically reduced this light pollution while at the same time cut annual energy costs for lighting at the Basin from $3,300 to $164.

As an aside, Wednesday night at dinner we were sitting near a couple who are full-time RVers. They left their fifth-wheel north of the park in the town of Alpine while staying at the lodge. The fellow was a retired science teacher who had discovered during their meal that his dinner knife was magnetized and would attract his spoon and fork. He could drag both across the dinner table by pulling only on the knife. You never know what strange phenomena you might encounter during a national park visit.

Later in the evening they were off to view the space station that was scheduled to pass across the northern sky.

Next we are off to Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado, where we will be spending a couple of nights at Far View Lodge. We will go by way of Santa Fe, New Mexico, one of our favorite towns It would appear that more delicious Southwestern food is in our future.

Comments

My wife and I spent several nights at the Chisos Mountain Lodge in March 2010, and thoroughly enjoyed our stay. The room was comfortable and the setting superb. We ate several meals in the dining room and found both the service and the quality of the food to be very good. All in all, a very positive experience.

No cougars on the patio during our stay, but as noted in this story, the new lighting makes the view of the night sky, even in the immediate area of the lodge, a spectacular sight.

For those who don't wish to stay in lodges, I recommend the campground in the Chisos Basin. Kathy and I stayed there a couple nights and thoroghly enjoyed its rustic atmosphere. The night sky is fabulous and there is easy access to nearby hiking trails. We saw a family of javelinas while in the campground.

Rick

As Rick mentions, the campground just down the hill from Chisos Mountain Lodge is a great place to spend a night or two. We have camped here on several occasions, generally on the night before our stay at the lodge.