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Ever since our Big Bend finale dinner at the Gage Hotel, it’s been one shitstorm after another.

Some of these costly irritations and guffaws are because of our own stupidity, some are just because it’s the nature of living in a rolling home. And of course, it all comes crashing down at tax time, you gotta love the Universe’s sense of humor. Sure, it could be worse, at least we’re not stuffed and mounted to a wall, right?

Tonight, I just want to reflect on the amazing culinary experience we had at the upscale Gage Hotel in Marathon. We’ve been dreaming about it for two years. Last time we were in town, we had zero money to spend on a fancy pants night out, so we ate nachos in the bar and watched diners chow down on the patio. We felt like two puppydogs in the window, it was pathetic.

However this year when we knew we were returning, we set aside $150 in our dining out budget so we could eat there. The last time we spent so much on a dinner was about two years ago! Yeah, I’m that cheap. We eat out at a variety of inexpensive places throughout the month, but we never spend that much all at once.

As two vegetarians, there wasn’t much for us on the amazing carnivore menu, but the dinner salads and sides sure had a lot to offer so we ordered THREE: a Tex-Mex shrimp cocktail, a beet and goat cheese salad and a seared scallop salad. They were AWESOME.

Of course our lean choices left plenty of room for dessert; a warm chocolate molten cake and homemade flan.

The Gage is such an obscure little hotel, it’s the kind of first-class oasis you’d never expect to find in the middle of nowhere. Our experience there was a dinner for the history books and well worth the splurge.

I’m so glad we went, because there’s no way I would have been OK with this frivolity had I known about the events that were going to transpire as soon as we arrived in the Hill Country.  Now when I feel a panic attack coming on, I’ll do my best to breathe deeply and think back to that one delicious night at the Gage Hotel.

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In our recent semi-annual pilgrimage to Big Bend National Park, we had to find out if there’s a way to get away from camping crowds in the park.

What did we learn?

Don’t even try to take your rig out there.
Stay away! It’s dangerous!
You don’t want to try it!

Ha! Hah! That’s a joke. We want to keep these campsites all to ourselves!

But we like you, so we’ll tell you how to camp in the outback in Big Bend.

Back Country Camping for RVs at Big Bend National Park

We learned the scoop about RV-friendly sites in Big Bend’s back country from a kind visitor center employee who seemed oblivious to the usual approach that park rangers gave to us in years past: they discouraged us by saying things like “oh those are bad roads, you don’t want to take your RV there.”

Park rangers discourage RV back country camping in Big Bend for reasons like “protecting aesthetics” and preventing unsightly RVs from disturbing the natural landscape. However, it’s not illegal to take your RV to a select few choice spots, if it fits.

BUT before you head on over, remember that strict backcountry rules do apply: you can’t run generators in the backcountry. If you’re thinking that you can get away with it in remote spots like this, think again: every day the park sends rangers out in search of illegal generator use, off-leash dogs, etc. and if you get caught, you may be banned for life. So if you can’t live without your genny, don’t bother.

General Backcountry Information for RVs

First, be prepared to pay a $20 park entry fee that’s good for 14 days (tip: enter the park on a “free day” like we did, and your entry fee is waived!).

Next, head to a visitor center 24 hours before your intended arrival into the backcountry, since that’s the earliest you can reserve any back country site and you can only reserve at the park. If you arrive during peak season, you’ll be competing with numerous other people for spots, so wake up early and go to the Rio Grande Visitor Center which opens at 8 am, one hour earlier than the main Panther Junction Visitor Center.

Reserving a backcountry campsite costs just $10 for two weeks (which is the entire length of time anyone can stay in the park during one season). What a deal!

The park staff can explain backcountry rules and how to get into the backcountry camping system. It’s complicated; be prepare to move a few times if you go during peak seasons.

RV Campsite Descriptions

On a sunny morning we left the trailer at the Rio Grande Village campground and set off in our Dodge in search of a backcountry campsite with a decent entry road and good turnaround space.

The best RV-friendly back country sites for a rig our size (a 24′ long fifth wheel and a 40′ overall length with the truck) are:

  • Hannold Draw
  • K-Bar
  • Grapevine Hills Road Campsite 1
  • Nugent Mountain / Pine Canyon 1 or 2
  • Croton Spring

Most of these campsites are located on dirt roads that spur off the main park road, Highway 118. Some are closer to the highway than others. Hannold Draw is the only one located on Highway 385, which runs north/south from Persimmon Gap to the Panther Junction Visitor Center.

Download this detailed park map to find
RV-Friendly Campsites in the Big Bend Backcountry

With the exception of Nugent Mountain / Pine Canyon, as long as you have a high-clearance 4-wheel drive pickup and you’re not too concerned about a bouncy ride, access to the campsites is decent. However, any amount of rain can easily wash out access, so do a recon without the RV.

Hannold Draw

This campsite is the only one that can be reserved in advance by calling the park visitor center. It’s meant to hold horse trailers, so equestrians are given preference. Unless you’re bringing Trigger along, you won’t get in during peak times. Otherwise it apparently has great access and lots of space for RVs. We didn’t check it out since it was booked the entire two weeks of our visit.

K-Bar 2

K-Bar has two sites, one is a tiny pull-through site located on a small, bumpy dirt road close to the Panther Junction Visitor Center.

This is a little pull-through and OK for tents, vans or truck campers, while the second RV-friendly site is about 1/4 mile away at the end of the road. It’s a fabulous spot with great views of the park, and with a little maneuvering even a 30′ RV might fit inside. The problem with this one is that because it’s at the end of the road, you’ll see lots of campsite-scoping idiots like us, who are forced to turn around in your tiny camping area. I would only go here during off-peak times.

Grapevine Hills Road Campsite 1

Grapevine Hills is relatively close to the main park road but has the best access for larger RVs, even ones without four wheel drive. It has massive views, and is so big that Sean and Louise fit the Odyssey in there! As a result this location is frequently booked since every RVer who knows about camping in the Big Bend outback wants to get in. Try this one during the off-season.

Nugent Mountain / Pine Canyon 1 or 2

The road to Nugent Mountain starts out good enough and has the best southern views of Big Bend’s mountains, but rapidly deteriorates into severe gully dips and steep hill climbs. Bringing our towable rig here would’ve been a bad idea, but a 4WD van or truck bed camper can definitely do it. This road gets a little busy with off-roaders.

Croton Spring

Out of all campsites, this was our last choice because it’s a dual-site and we knew we’d be sharing this with someone else. While it’s not as large as Grapevine Hills Road, the sites aren’t as close in proximity as you would be if you were crammed into a developed park campground.

But, since it was the only campsite open just a week prior to spring break madness, we nabbed it for nine nights. The nicest part about Croton Springs is that there’s a fantastic, albeit overgrown, trail that takes you in a northern direction through some spectacular scenery.

The access road to Croton Spring is good enough for a RV with four wheel drive, however, the problem is that if it rains, you’re going to be stuck for a while. During our last night it rained, and we knew that if any more water fell, we might get stuck. Later, a park volunteer told us he’s seen that happen; the road is one of the worst in the park when rain happens and everything turns to a slick mud.

Paint Gap

We didn’t explore this campsite, but locals later told us this is RV-friendly for a small rig. If you go there, let us know what you find!

The Pros and Cons of RV Backcountry Camping in Big Bend

The Cons:

No generator use. When we decided to try Big Bend backcountry camping in our RV, we knew that the no-generator rule would be a big issue if the weather turned sour. After all, we earn our living online and our satellite dish sucks up a lot of juice. Without a generator to power us on cloudy days, we knew we’d be hosed.

Well, the weather did turn cloudy, and it did rain. And although we were very tempted to run our generator on cloudy days, or at night, we were Good Sams and just worked less. Doing so is a BIG deal for us: we are work-a-holics, and cutting back on work time was difficult.

However, there’s something about the ear-splitting silence of this country that compelled us to do our part to preserve a precious and rare resource: silence.

We left a few days early, as the weather forecast called for continuous clouds. Still, we’re glad we stuck it out here for five nights, far longer than we thought we’d last without a generator. We had one neighbor for a couple of nights and they were pretty quiet.

The Pros

The silence. Even if you’re not too far from the road, you still feel very isolated in the Big Bend backcountry.

The cost: At less than $1 a day for 14 days straight, camping doesn’t get any cheaper than this in Big Bend country.

The scenery: You’ll get a real sense of the landscape as old-timers saw it. These campsites are primitive and the park does an excellent job at preserving Big Bend’s natural beauty.

Overall, we had the best time ever in this leg of our Big Bend park journey. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the visitor center employee who took the time to familiarize us with the outback camping process.

If you decide to visit any of these locations in your RV, let us know how it goes and what you find.

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A few weeks ago Jim and I crossed the Rio Grande for a one-day Mexican holiday in Boquillas del Carmen.

After twelve long, lonely years of being closed off from tourists in Big Bend National Park, this rustic Mexican community is celebrating the return of adventurous park tourists willing to walk or boat across and explore this old world village.

Boquillas is a former mining town that quickly became a popular destination for U.S. and international park visitors when Big Bend National Park opened in the 1940s. Made famous in the song Gringo Honeymoon by Texas singer songwriter Robert Earl Keen, for many decades thousands of park tourists made passport-less jaunts by boat, foot and mule in order to eat, drink and party in a village untouched by time.

“Tied our donkeys to an ironwood tree
By the street where children played
We walked in the first place we could see
Servin’ cold beer in the shade
We were drinkin’ like the end was not in sight
And we drank all afternoon
We asked the world to wait so we could celebrate
A gringo honeymoon.”

Sadly, post 9/11 border security regulations quickly put a stop to Boquillas’ informal river crossings. The move nearly decimated the town’s population, but over a decade later in April 2013, remaining villagers, Big Bend locals and park authorities were elated when U.S. border officials re-opened the crossing – albeit with a $3.7 million checkpoint station and official passport rules regulating visitor requirements.

Today’s visitors will find that while much has changed on the other side, Boquillas continues to hold a special charm. Newcomers are still greeted on the river by Victor, the town’s unofficial director of tourism who belts out popular Mexican songs for tips and welcomes everyone with a giant smile.

Packs of burros stand ready for visitors too wilted to make the 20 minute trek to town on foot but pickup trucks also offer transportation.

Walking through Boquillas is like a visit to an early 20th century Mexican village. Unpaved streets lead to little more than the two restaurants and bar, a few dozen hand-built adobe houses, two plain churches and a school.

This off-grid community is pleasantly different from all other border crossings in that visitors aren’t assaulted with the usual traffic, grime and crowds found elsewhere in Mexican borderlands.

Since there are no grocery stores, liquor outlets or pharmacies, you won’t have the opportunity to do much shopping or get dental work done, but your American dollars can go to better use by purchasing handmade crafts made by locals of every age.

When you’re ready for a break, head to the famous Park Bar that greets thirsty travelers with icy cold beer.

You can satiate your appetite right across the street at the decades old Falcon Restaurante and souvenir shop that serves up $3 plates of mini tacos and burritos, or you can walk across the street to a new competing eatery.

Touring Boquillas only takes a couple hours and you can make the most of it with guided trips led by residents anxious to practice their English and show off their community. Guides greet you when you arrive on shore and work strictly for tips. Although your participation is optional, doing so adds a personal touch to your adventure, provides for your safety and positively impacts Boquillas’ economy.

Boquillas is accessed by traveling to the east side of Big Bend National Park, near the Rio Grande Village campground. The crossing station is Wednesday through Sunday between 9 am and 6 pm and official passports are required. You can cross over on foot or by paying $5 for a round-trip row boat ride, and transportation into town for non-walkers costs anywhere from $5 to $8. For more information visit the Big Bend National Park website.

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This morning on my daily run, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the irony of willingly heading toward the Rio Grande. After all, just two generations ago, my Mexican-born grandparents were desperately getting away from it.

Ayi yai yai! Here I am today, with my gringo husband who speaks better Spanish than I do, parking our traveling home in one of the last vestiges of real isolation and ear-splitting silence in America, the Big Bend.

We’ve been bouncing along the Rio Grand between Lajitas and Black Gap since mid-February, but it feels like we just arrived. No matter where you look, the timelessness of every panorama just drives home the fact that we’re all just insignificant specs of cosmic dust. Time moves slowly here, if at all.

To the casual eye it appears that Jim and I do a whole lotta nothing, but we’re working hard on some big projects including Jim’s upcoming speaking engagement at Blog Paws. But for once, we’re not all about work (at least until summer when we return to Vicker’s Ranch).

We took a day trip to Mexico at the re-opened Boquillas Crossing in Big Bend National Park (more on that soon):

Then one of our dearest, oldest friends from Humboldt County drove a couple hundred miles out of his way to stop by. It’s always a blast when our current life intersects with our so very different old one.

After boondocking for nearly a month straight, we lived a life of luxury and paid for a week of full hookups at Maverick Ranch RV Park. Normally a “golf resort” park isn’t the kind of place where you’ll find trailerin’ folk like us, but our friends the Whitfords are playing a regular gig to the Prevost-driving gringos.

We haven’t seen Eldon and Ann since our last trip to Stillwell, and we’re so glad we caught up with these two! If you’re in the area, do not miss their hillbilly hour music show.

After Lajitas, we popped into Alpine to re-stock our provisions, but that was just an excuse to see a mind blowing show by the Texas Americana music legend, Ray Wiley Hubbard.

A cross between a derelict and a genius, a prophet and a pervert, Ray and his bluesy licks (with just one drummer accompanying him the entire time) kept the crowd dancing, grinding and singing for more than two hours. Not bad for a 68-year old stone cold sober outlaw resurrected from the ravages of addiction.

When it comes to the best winter snowbird destinations it don’t get no better than this.

Next week we’ll be heading over to New Braunfels for a month-long stay at our old love/hate destination along the Comal River, Landa RV Park. Until then, we’ll soak up as much quiet time and isolation as we can before jumping headfirst into the crazy Hill Country scene.

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On the first leg of our snowbird waltz across West Texas Highway 90, we made a pit stop at the Prada Store in Valentine.

After last year’s controversy about the Prada Store artwork versus the Playboy Hot Rod billboard and the legality of roadside advertising / art, we wanted to see if this landmark was still standing.

The good news: it’s still there. The bad news: it’s showings signs of age and it may not be here next time we come through.

The Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT)’s order to remove the structure is still being considered. For now, we’re glad that government moves at a snail’s pace. Art still rules.

Later than night we made our usual pass through Marfa (a town that thinks a little too much of itself in my book) and directly on to the Marfa Lights Viewing Station, where we boondocked for the night, hoping to catch another glimpse of the glowing orbs.

When dusk fell and low clouds appeared, along with dozens of sky watchers, we had a feeling the lights wouldn’t show up, and they didn’t. One guy who’s been there seven times said he’s only seen them two times in seven, so we weren’t too surprised by their absence.

That’s OK though. The best part about this roaming lifestyle? There’s always next time.

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