American Locations 14 – Cottonwood 3

The trip is from Natchez Trace, Tennessee, to Dodge City, Kansas, by way of Tucson, Arizona.


Cottonwood Campground, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Another hike my wife and I took while at Cottonwood was to see a dry wash. That is what a waterfall that no longer runs is called. We parked at the trail head.

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We followed a trail through the desert.

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This trail is easy to follow because it is a dried-up creek bed that used to run from the waterfall that used to fall. Other trails I’ve hiked in the desert have been marked by piles of stones. As you can see, this trail was wide and open and easy to follow. No markers were required.
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When I first ventured out into the desert I was afraid of encountering rattlers or other snakes. But on a trail like this I could easily spot one. Yet I never saw a single snake on the entire trip from Tennessee to Kansas. But a ranger told me I could be sure that snakes had seen me.

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I saw several rock formations like the one above along the trail and thought them unusual. They were comprised of several different kinds of rocks almost like they had been brought in and piled there. When I showed the picture to a ranger, he said the formation was just a trick of erosion, that the other surrounding softer rocks had been washed away when the creek was still running, leaving these heaps of harder rocks behind.

0431_Big BendI like this rock we passed on the trail because it reminded me of the strip of bacon I saw in the Caverns of Sedona.

We reached the dried-up waterfall. This picture with a person in it gives perspective to how high the waterfall had been.

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From this angle I am standing at the bottom of it looking directly up.

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And here is my wife and I standing at the base of it.

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The next Location is Cottonwood 4, Big Bend National Park, Texas.




American Locations 13 – Cottonwood 2

The trip is from Natchez Trace, Tennessee, to Dodge City, Kansas, by way of Tucson, Arizona.

Cottonwood Campground, Big Bend National Park, Texas

The first outing my wife and I embarked upon once we were set up in Cottonwood was to hike up Elena Canyon. It is more impressive than the Boquillas Canyon on the eastern side of the park, and can be seen from quite a distance.

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That gash in the mountains toward the right of the photo is the canyon seen from miles away. Here it is getting closer.

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And closer yet.

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Almost there.

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At last we reached the parking lot.

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My wife and I took time to pose for a picture before we began the hike.

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The Rio Grande River goes through the deep canyon.

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Finally, we began our hike into Elena Canyon.

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Naturally, before you could go into the canyon you had to go up.

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The higher you go the better view you have of the Rio Grande River.

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You can tell how high we were climbing by how small the people who are just starting out on the trail appear to be.

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This is a steep narrow rocky trail, so rest areas at scenic views such as this one are provided.

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Eventually we reached the highest point on the trail and began descending into the canyon.

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You can walk into Elena Canyon much further than you can Boquillas Canyon.

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Once we were out of the sun and into the shadow of the canyon the temperature dropped drastically. To our relief, since it was a hot day.

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We walked deeper.

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And deeper.

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The trail kept going down until we reached the river’s edge.

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But we still hiked deeper into the canyon.

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Until we reached the end of the trail.

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Of course, what goes in must come out.

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It was a fun hike. I’d like to return some time when the river is high enough for rafting expeditions. It would be an adventure to float down the Rio Grande through these deep canyons.

The next Location is Cottonwood Campground 3 in Big Bend National Park, Texas.


American Locations 12 – Cottonwood

The trip is from Natchez Trace, Tennessee, to Dodge City, Kansas, by way of Tucson, Arizona.

Cottonwood Campground, Big Bend National Park, Texas


When my wife and I left Rio Grande Village Campground for Cottonwood Campground on the western side of Big Bend National Park we drove north on Park Rte. 12 to Panther Junction Visitor Center. Here we turned onto Gano Springs Road and headed west to Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. We turned south on this road that was intentionally laid out, as the name suggests, in order to showcase the most interesting landscape features of the park.

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These white rocks are striking. A ranger told me they are the remnants of lava from an ancient volcanic eruption.

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Then there is the formation named ‘Mule Ears’. But I like my own name better. ‘Batman’. Doesn’t it look like Batman peeking over the mountains to see what the bad guys are doing?

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Here are some more interesting formations along Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.

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Born and raised in the Midwest, views such as these amaze me. The desert floor, the cacti and other scrub, the varying contours and colors of the rocks, the crystal blue quality of the sky on a sunny day. God put a lot of detailed work into this one little remote corner of the world.

There are gravel roads like this all through the park.

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They are recommended for four-wheel drive vehicles only and can get pretty rough, so we didn’t venture very far on any of them. But a lot of people do. You can get a backcountry permit and camp out in the desert for weeks at a time. I talked to some people who do this, become a desert hermit for a short time. They take small compact solar arrays with them that unfold and look quite impressive. With all the sunshine, the desert is the perfect place for solar panels. These hermits have all the electricity they need out in the middle of nowhere. I met one man who had a small solar array set up on top of his RV and connected to some military-grade batteries. He said he could charge those batteries up and run anything off them he liked – his microwave or air conditioning, anything. I would like to try this sometime, just drive off into the desert away from everybody and camp.

One reason for doing this is the skies. The night skies are pretty amazing even in the campgrounds. Big Bend NP observes dark sky protocols and keep the light at night down to a minimum. But out in the middle of the desert there would be absolutely no light pollution whatsoever. I can’t imagine how glorious the stars would look there. Even in the campground I would lay flat on my back at night and stare up at the sky. Very restorative. I would advise anyone to get as far away as possible from light sources on some clear night and just gaze upward.

The Max Rosswell Scenic Drive ends at the Cottonwood Campground. The campground got its name from the cottonwood trees that shade it.

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This rock formation dominates the campground.

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Like Rio Grande Village, Cottonwood is on the Rio Grande River. The cottonwood trees are there because of the river. It created a ribbon of green on both sides as it twisted through the desert.

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There must be a ranch on the Mexican side of the river across from the campground. I saw cattle grazing and horses roaming free.

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The campground store is at the site of an old ranch. The park has left some old equipment once used there for people to see.

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Like all national park campgrounds, there are no hook-ups. And the RV size is restricted, but I forget what the size limit is. That’s because our unit is so small we fit in just about everywhere.

There is a section of the campground set aside for groups. While we were there a group of college students were present. They were very quiet and respectful. They were there to enjoy and study nature, not to party. College students get a lot of bad press because of the drunken antics that take place during spring break and at fraternities. I’m sure most college students are serious and decorous. This particular group was a pleasure to be around.


The next Location is Cottonwood Campground 2 in Big Bend National Park, Texas.


American Locations 11 – Chisos Basin

The trip is from Natchez Trace, Tennessee, to Dodge City, Kansas, by way of Tucson, Arizona.

Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park, Texas


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There are three campgrounds at Big Bend. We were staying in the one on the east side of the park and we were intending to stay on the one on the west side. The one in the middle of the park was full and we couldn’t get into it. So we drove to see it. There are so many interesting rock formations along the way it was an interesting drive.

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Which soon became much more interesting. This campground was different from the other two. Rio Grande Village and Cottonwood, the one on the west side, are on the Rio Grande River, while this one is up in the mountains. You can get an idea how high up it is from this picture, with the desert floor far below the mountain the road is on. These mountains don’t emerge from foothills, they rise up from the flat desert floor. So the ascent is steep. Which made it a fun drive, climbing quickly kickback after kickback, one hairpin turn after another, as we got higher and higher, and of course there are no guardrails, run a tire off the road and you are hanging off the side of the mountain. I had a lot of fun drives during our trip. This was only the first of many.

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The campground and the lodge – this was the only campground of the three to have a lodge – sat down in a bowl ringed by mountaintops.

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Those tiny structures in the center of the picture above is Chisos Basin Campground. In the photo below the little building on the left is the lodge. It isn’t fancy, but it has a restaurant. I and my wife ate lunch there.

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That’s where I saw the map. There was a large trail map posted on the wall detailing all the hiking trails through the mountains. On the map locations and dates were indicated where and when black bears and mountain lions had been reported encountered by hikers. There were several dozen of each, and that was just during the last few months. I’ve seen brown bears in the Smokey Mountains. But I have never seen a black bear or a mountain lion in the wild. Gazing at the map, it seemed they were plentiful in the mountains in central Big Bend. So I had no desire to go hiking up there, and my wife had less desire than me.

Still, after lunch we took a short hike.

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Which ended at a vista onto a rock formation called The Window.

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We could look out through a gap in the mountains that ringed the campground and see the desert floor. You get a better perspective of how high we were from a close-up of the same view.

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After that we began the drive back down the mountains to return to the desert floor.

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The Next Location is Cottonwood Campground in Big Bend National Park, Texas.


American Locations 10 – Rio Grande Village 3

The trip is from Natchez Trace, Tennessee, to Dodge City, Kansas, by way of Tucson, Arizona.

Rio Grande Village Campground, Big Bend National Park, Texas


Another trek my wife and I took while camping at Rio Grande Village was visiting the ruins of a hot spring resort. The old gravel road was too washed out to drive on, so we walked about a mile to get there.

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In the early 1900’s this resort was established at a hot spring along the Rio Grande River. It went out of business after World War One, but the spring and some of the buildings are still there.

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And some of the landscaping survives.

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It was still a long way from the ruins of the old resort to where the hot springs were. That’s the spring where the people are on the American side of the Rio Grande, and a horse on the Mexican side.

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So it was another long walk.

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But once there you could slip into some refreshing water. As you can see in the picture, the horse on the Mexican side has been joined by some friends.

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So I joined in.

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The idea was to go from the warm water of the hot spring into the cool water of the river.

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It was a pleasant afternoon for the Americans in the hot spring and in the Rio Grande, and for the horses drinking out of the river on the Mexican side.

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Of course, once you hike in you have to hike back out.

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It was a hot day in the nineties, and about a mile and a half hike each way in and out, so by the time we got back to the campground we were ready for a siesta.

The Next Location is Chisos Basin Campground in Big Bend National Park, Texas.


American Locations 9 – Rio Grande Village 2

The trip is from Natchez Trace, Tennessee, to Dodge City, Kansas, by way of Tucson, Arizona.

 Rio Grande Village Campground, Big Bend National Park, Texas


This was our campsite at Rio Grande Village Campground.

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Notice the metal locker. They all had latches so the bears couldn’t get in them. I never saw any bears. But I did see several road runners. They look surprisingly like the cartoon version that Wiley Coyote is always chasing. And they are fast. I never had an opportunity to photograph one, they were gone by the time I got my camera out. I didn’t get any photos of a little pig-like animal running loose in the campground, either. Javalinas (pronounced ‘havalinas’), the rangers insisted, weren’t pigs, but they sure looked like them. Here is a photo I took of a statue.


The first trip we embarked on was to Boquillas Canyon. It is the deepest easily-accessible canyon on the Rio Grande River in the eastern side of the park. It is named after a small nearby Mexican community. There is a border crossing in the park to this small isolated town just across the river. It was closed for some reason while we were there. But when it is open you can check in with the agent at a kiosk near the river, then be ferried by canoe across to Mexico. It is a short hike up a hillside to the small village. There are shops and restaurants and bars in a rustic setting. After being ferried back across the river you are required to check back in with the border agent.

The water level was so low when we were there that none of the outfitters were offering rafting trips. So the only way we could see Boquillas Canyon was to drive as close as we could.

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And then park.

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Notice at the left of the above photo on the Mexican side a parked van and a person standing by river. Here is a close-up.

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Now you can see several men. What they were doing was hawking their wares set up on our side of the river.

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It was on the honor system. Prices were marked, and you were expected to leave money for whatever you took. They either snuck across to set up their little market and then snuck back across to collect their money, or they had someone on the American side working with them to do this. Either way, it is illegal. Warnings are posted not to engage in this commerce. Whatever you bought could be confiscated and you could face a substantial fine. It was also posted that it was illegal to cross the river, and that if I did I could be arrested upon my return. Being a law-abiding citizen, I didn’t buy anything and I kept my feet dry. But I did stop to admire their crafts. Besides shouting their sales pitch across the river, which they did politely in excellent English, one of them also entertained by singing in a very good voice.

We parked at an overlook of the Rio Grande River.

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And began hiking.

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As we ascended we were presented with good views of the Rio Grande River.

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We soon were in sight of Boquitas Canyon.

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When we reached the Rio Grande.

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No one was hawking his wares from the Mexican side. But we did see a man in a blue boat just off the Mexican side.

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He could have been the man who ferried tourists across the river when the crossing was open. Or he could have been a Mexican border agent. Or an American border agent for that matter, keeping an eye on American tourists to ensure they didn’t cross into Mexico illegally. Or he could have just been fishing.

We hiked into the canyon as far as the trail allowed.

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Then we hiked back out.

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Intrigued by the laws concerning the border I had seen posted, I had questions for one of the park rangers when I got back to the campground. I asked who owned the river. I’m from Ohio, and although the river is named Ohio it is owned by Kentucky. All that Ohio owns of the river is about three feet off the north bank. He said the Rio Grande was owned by both countries. So I asked where exactly the border was in the river. He said that was kind of fuzzy. So I asked if I was allowed in the river. He said I would be good as long as I didn’t step out of the river onto the Mexican side. Then I asked what if I was rafting or canoeing down the river and overturned and had to swim to the Mexican side to save myself. He said a person had to do what he had to do in order to keep from drowning, but if I did emerge on the Mexican side I would have to be processed through immigration before I could re-enter the country, and I really didn’t want to go through that hassle unless I absolutely had to. So it is best to just stay on our side of the river.


The Next Location is Rio Grande Village Campground 3 in Big Bend National Park, Texas.


American Locations 8 – Rio Grande Village

The trip is from Natchez Trace, Tennessee, to Dodge City, Kansas, by way of Tucson, Arizona.

Rio Grande Village Campground, Big Bend National Park, Texas


Continuing south on Park Road 12 brought us to Rio Grande Village Campground on the eastern side of Big Bend National Park.

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The campground is on the Rio Grande River.

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That is the river in the upper left. The water at the bottom of the photo is merely part of a marsh on the American side, so that is not a pedestrian walkway crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico. It is part of a hiking trail through the marsh that leads to the top of a hill that presents a sweeping vista of the surrounding countryside. The land to the left of the river, and the mountains in the background, is Mexico.

People from the campground climb to this hilltop.

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They hike through the marsh.

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And climb up the hill.

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To see sunsets over Mexico.

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And also to see the sunset reflected off the mountains to the east.

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Besides sunsets, the vista also gives a good view into Mexico. It is surprising how narrow and shallow the Rio Grande is.

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Despite the name, there is no actual village here. But there is a camp store where you can purchase, among other things, a 5-minute shower for $2. There are no utilities in campground. Next to the store is a paved parking lot with utilities that can accommodate large RV’s.

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I preferred the real campground. Our 23 foot motor home is small enough to go just about anywhere, and we have a gasoline generator for electric and a 30 gallon fresh water tank that could be refilled at the campground. So we are small and self-contained. Besides these two sections of Rio Grande Village, there is also a group campground. While we were there a large group of teenagers from a private school were encamped there. It must have been a posh school, because we were passing by there once at dinner time. Catering vans arrived to set up a feast that smelled delicious. No cooking beans over a campfire for them. And we had to plan our showers around their schedule. They would come in after a hike in the desert and dominate the showers.

We used Rio Grande Village Campground as our base of operations for exploring the eastern side of Big Bend. But no matter where we went during the day, at sunset it was another trek up the hill to see another beautiful sunset.

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