We had set off from the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge around dusk. As we headed toward Texas, Chris reconnected with a childhood friend of his that had made his way to Amarillo a while back. Seeing as this was only a small detour, we changed route and hit the pavement hard, and after a pleasant break spent catching up with an old friend (coincidentally also named Chris), we pushed on into the dark for about 4 more hours. If you plan on travelling through the southern Oklahoma-Northwest Texas area, keep in mind that there are frequently high winds in the area and driving through these when tired is not recommended. Seeing as this area is also at altitude (approx. 3,600 feet), it also makes for chilly nights, especially in the winter months. We passed through Lubbock, TX in the dark and napped just south of the city in the truck, and man it was cold! We were not familiar with the area and didn’t realize until the next day that we were still 3,200 feet above sea level, and boy does it make a difference! A quick tip for anyone planning to be on the road for a few days, truck stops such as Loves and Flying J typically have showers available for about $10 per shower, a quick and easy way to get cleaned up and stay on the road. As we hit the road for Big Bend, we came into some of the rolling hills that are home to the West Texas oil fields. While the oil derricks do break up the scenery, we did see one of the most beautiful sunrises of our lives, the big openness of Texas really changes your perspective of size and enhances the natural beauty of things we take for granted every day. As we made our way past Midland, TX, society became quite sparse. We came into some sand dunes and after passing through Odessa, Fort Stockton will be your last chance to fuel up before getting to Big Bend on this route. If you take this drive, you will quickly become surrounded by some of the most beautiful mountain scenery we had seen yet. We travelled along a straight piece of two-lane blacktop for miles as we both pointed out pieces of landscape to each other, trying to take everything in. We got out of the car at one point, and were shocked at the silence. The roads start to twist and turn over the rolling foothills as you get close to Big Bend. As we continued on, mountains began to spring up out of the ground in the distance–we knew we were getting close. You come around a corner on Highway 385 to the entrance sign, but the drive isn’t over just yet. You will need to purchase a week long entry pass into the park for $25, and then there’s about a 30-40 minute drive to Panther Junction, the first visitor center and fuel station. At this point, you will quickly lose cell service altogether, do not fear though, the visitor’s centers all have free Wi-Fi.
From the beginning of this trip, we had discussed backcountry camping in Big Bend. For anyone interested in backcountry camping in any national park, you should note that every national park has different rules–do your research, and do it well in advance of your visit (click here for information on backcountry camping in Big Bend, and we’ll talk more about it in our next blog post). For example, you can only reserve Big Bend backcountry campsites within 24 hours of your stay, and you must do this in person (on the other hand, you can reserve backcountry sites in the Grand Canyon a few months in advance–this is our next trip, so we’re currently looking into this!). We learned the hard way that these reservations fill up fast. We hurried to Panther Junction to reserve a site, only to be told that the last site had been booked a few moments ago. We were disappointed, but made the best of it and booked a site right on the Rio Grande for our second night and decided to try our luck with a nearby “campground” in the Black Gap Wildlife Management Refuge for the evening (more on that disaster-turned-blessing below). Lessons learned? Arrive to the park early, and always have a backup plan, especially during peak seasons. We decided to spend some time driving around in the camp and seeing what Gerald the Taco could do. We took Old Ore Road, and realized quickly that the backroads would take us more time than planned to traverse. We also realized after two hours on the trail that we would definitely need to deflate the tires some as the trails are littered with sharp, protruding rocks and generally rough surfaces. Deflating to about 10-15psi below normal should be safe for most, keep in mind that you need to get back to one of the fuel stations or bring your own air tank before going too fast or too far on pavement with deflated tires as this could damage the tires. After an enjoyable afternoon driving around the trails (Part of Old Ore and the Dagger Flat Trail that are the first trails you can access in the park) and planning out our next day, we headed out of the park towards Black Gap.
We like to keep this blog positive and fun, but we have to admit that we were disappointed by Black Gap. You must first navigate the Texas DNR website to locate a general use permit, and purchase one for each camper (this is made especially difficult by the lack of cell signal in the area). These permits are 20 per night per person. Once you arrive at Black Gap, the reservation “system” is a binder in a small office manned by no one, where you take a terribly photocopied map and pick a site not already occupied by another camper or hunter. We didn’t realize it, but “wildlife management refuge” basically means “state sponsored hunting ground that also happens to have campsites.” However, we never made it to our campsite, or the other two we tried to find after failing to locate the one we recorded in the binder. The map was inaccurate in terms of both distance and the location of major landmarks. We drove about 7 miles into the camp over rough terrain (sometimes requiring the use of 4 wheel drive) before bailing and driving another few miles to find somewhere to turn around. Several side roads peeled off of our trail, many of them with “Do Not Enter” signs blocking the way. The sun was setting quickly, and by the time we found our way out of the park, it had been pitch black for some time. We were both incredibly frustrated and a little concerned, as we had wanted to set up camp hours ago. All in all, Black Gap took 40 dollars of our money and 3 hours of our time and all we got in return were giant moths in the truck. However, while the campsite disappointed us, we were uplifted by our interactions with local Texans in the Refuge, who tried their best to direct us to our campsite and help us navigate the winding cliff trails. After leaving Black Gap, we drove 40 minutes back towards the park in search of an RV camp we had passed before. It was our last chance for a place to sleep for the evening. Again, we were blessed by Texas hospitality. We located the Stillwell RV Park, but the office was closed, and we had no idea where to go. We drove into the park and flagged down a family in a Winnebago. They told us exactly where to go and that we could register with the RV park in the morning, and even offered to let us camp next to them if we couldn’t find an open campsite. We found an open site and set up our camp in the dark–we had no idea where we were, but we were content that we had found a place to sleep. Chris devised a killer set up for us, and as we ate fajitas and recapped the day, we counted it a win. Nothing could have prepared us for what we woke up to. We were literally in a bowl–a bowl of mountains. Surrounding us on all sides were beautiful mountain peaks and a breathtaking pink sunrise. We made our way down to the office, and we discovered that Stillwell RV Park was packed with amenities — free Wi-Fi for guests, laundry services, showers, a gas station, and a well-stocked convenience store. We were happy to spend another 20 dollars for the refuge we found, and for the views we woke up to. We plan on returning to Stillwell on our 2018 trip. The sites are perfectly laid out, about 60-80 feet apart, the native brush offering some privacy, yet close enough to know that you’re not alone in the middle of nowhere. Each site is a circle with one way entry, the site being 40-50 feet in diameter and each with a nice, permanent fire pit located in the center. We could easily fit 2-3 trucks and tents in these sites with room to spare.