Solo, But Not Alone, in Big Bend National Park
I am really good at being on my own.
It’s not something I ever intended to excel at and, as the youngest of three children, I certainly wasn’t destined for it from the beginning. But the fact remains that I love living alone, have no problem requesting a table for one at restaurants, and can easily spend hours in silence with nothing but a book.
Even with those credentials, however, it’s never been my goal to travel alone. Just... the reality. With friends and family far away, paired off, or otherwise unavailable, I’m typically faced with two travel options: Go alone or don’t go at all.
So I suck it up and go alone.
With no one else’s schedule or limitations to take into consideration, this time I decided to really go big or go home.
I went to Big Bend.
Big Bend National Park is massive and includes a ton of different terrain.
Depending on your geographic location or social media feed, you might have no clue where Big Bend National Park is. (If you’re my 94-year-old grandmother, you might mistakenly assume it’s in South Bend, Indiana, and be noticeably unimpressed with the plan.) Big Bend is perched in the southwest corner of Texas, right along the Mexican border, and encompasses both the Chihuahuan Desert and Chisos Mountains, among other stunning natural features.
Clocking in at 235 miles from the nearest airport (the not-so-bustling hub of Midland/Odessa, TX), Big Bend is a hike just to get to. And once you’re inside the park, you’ll drive at least 60 miles traversing its footprint from one end to the other. It’s a major undertaking, which is probably a big reason why Big Bend only saw 581,000 visitors in 2021 compared to the Great Smoky Mountain’s 14.1 million visitors.
To me, it sounded perfect.
One of the many stretches of empty road in the park.
I arrived Thursday morning and made my first stop at the Panther Junction Visitor Center, eager to confirm with an actual expert that my plan for the next four days wasn’t wildly idiotic or dangerously irresponsible. After gathering some intel, I made the decision to hit the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive first and let that route take me to Santa Elena Canyon in the southwestern corner of the park, where I’d attempt my first hike of the trip.
The drive is one of the top-recommended to-dos, mostly because it provides a taste of the wide range of scenery that Big Bend has to offer, from broad skies and scraggly desert flora to towering mountain peaks swirling with clouds. While the distance looks unassuming on a map, it’s a route that easily takes up the entire afternoon, especially when you stop periodically to explore or capture the views (which I did, obviously).
Luckily, the rolling landscape and winding pavement is an ideal accompaniment for blasting and singing along to your music of choice (I think my “I Could Be a Cowboy” playlist was especially appropriate).
The view from the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon.
I reached Santa Elena Canyon and followed the path that led to the river crossing the park ranger had mentioned. She estimated that the water might be knee-high, and I should just be prepared to get my shoes muddy. A little mud never hurt anyone, right?
I changed into my Chacos and approached the water’s edge, where my feet were immediately sucked into the shoreline with its clay-like consistency. I pushed through, wading deeper into the water as I struggled to keep my balance and roll my pant legs higher out of reach. Calf height; knee height; up my thighs and past the point of my clothes staying dry... the water rose.
By the time I was waist deep, I had to admit defeat and prioritize keeping my pack — and camera equipment — safe. I mucked back out, changed into my shoes, and made the landlocked, roundabout detour to eventually merge with the official trail.
I climbed up stairs cut into the rock, pausing at a lookout stop to take in the looping Rio Grande below, the dramatic shadows cast by the canyon walls, and the unbelievably brilliant blue sky.
While listening to one of my many downloaded podcasts, I heard this quote attributed to author and environmentalist Terry Tempest: “National parks are breathing spaces in a society increasingly holding its breath.”
The further I went into the canyon, the more I felt like I could breathe again, my anxieties and frustration and disappointments from the past year melting away. In their place was awe and gratitude — two feelings that don’t come naturally to me — that this all existed, and that I was experiencing it.
Looking into the canyon.
I pulled into the Chisos Basin Campground just before 5 p.m. that evening, squeaking under the wire with just enough time to set up camp before it got dark. I peered at the two side-by-side campsites, trying to remember which one I had reserved for this night and which one I’d been forced to reserve for the following two nights.
My neighbor poked his head out of the large conversion van parked in the spot I was currently inspecting, and we got to chatting about site-hopping in times of high demand. Dave and his wife, Theresa, had already been in the park for more than a week, and were meandering their way back east to their home in Missouri. Looking to be in their 60s or 70s, they were both retired and had been taking extended trips in their van since the start of the pandemic. I filed them both away as reference for What I Want to Be When I Grow Up.
Since they were staying in the van and leaving the following day, they kindly offered up their campsite for me to pitch my tent so I wouldn’t have to move all my gear after just one night. I took them up on the offer and got to work setting up my Aurora 2P, inflating my Roamer XL Wide, shaking out my Disco Women’s 15, and assembling my Stargaze. By the time the sun sank behind the mountains, my site was ready — though I did have to cook my dinner by headlamp light.
No matter. I’d take the shortened daylight as long as it meant I could spend more time looking up at the insane blanket of stars overhead. As a designated International Dark Sky Reserve, Big Bend’s night sky was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.
It was a sight I never stopped admiring the entire trip.
The stars were beautiful.
Day two started bright and early because I was still operating on Eastern Standard Time. I took advantage of the fact by tackling the Window Trail first thing after breakfast. A popular route that leads to a “window” that frames the sky at sunset, the trail conveniently started just steps from my campsite, and I had it all to myself for most of the way.
I crunched through the gravelly entrance of the small slot canyon, hopped from boulder to boulder, and found myself in a V-shaped crevice (ah, so that’s what forms the window) just before a drop-off who-knows-how-many-feet high.
Once I’d sufficiently admired the view, I turned to head back and quickly crossed paths with a foreign couple in matching yellow windbreakers that I’d passed a while back. The wife asked if I could take their picture, and I led them a bit further to the real show-stopping backdrop. After getting all the good angles, I handed her phone back and she offered to do the same for me. (This is basically tourist etiquette and you bet I took her up on it.)
Photographic proof acquired, I felt more victorious hoofing it back up to camp.
Didn't get lost or eaten by bears. Mission accomplished!
That afternoon, I attempted another short hike, the Chisos Basin Loop, and came to a fork where yet another married couple had paused, staring intently at their map. We chatted briefly about which direction was the right way for the loop; the wife was adamant it was one way, while the husband and I were inclined to disagree. I could feel the beginning of an argument brewing, so cheerfully wished them luck and went on with my guess, glad to avoid the continued bickering.
Just around the bend, I heard another set of voices — it was the couple from that morning! This time, their matching windbreakers were red. (Apparently, there was a third set ordered, but it hadn’t arrived in time. I had so many questions.) We traded photos again, and I continued back toward the start of the loop just in time for a quick dinner before the evening’s astronomy talk.
Another magical thing about national parks is that they make topics like geology and astronomy — two courses I suffered through in college — seem suddenly fascinating. Pictures in a textbook? Snooze. Real-life? I’m all ears and waving my hand with questions. Where was this motivation when I was forking over thousands of dollars in tuition?
I arrived early, setting up my Stargaze chair in what I hoped was a primo spot. To pass the time until the program officially started, I peppered the park ranger with questions and requested recommendations to fuel future park visits elsewhere in the country. Once it was sufficiently dark, he launched into the official talk and I leaned waaay back in my chair, getting a perfectly comfortable view of all the constellations overhead.
Being on the Rio Grande was a great way to explore a corner of the park.
Day three. I found a river trip I could join last-minute (ah, the benefits of being a party of one) and explored the Rio Grande Village section of the park by water. Outfitted in a single kayak, I went at my own pace, spotting turtles and grazing domesticated horses along the shore. I could easily maneuver through the minor rapids while, on the flip side, the two-person canoes and kayaks of the group repeatedly crashed into rocks and took river bends backwards. (Smug? Me? Never.)
Grazing horses on the Mexican side of the shore.
It was a great way to pass the afternoon and included a lunch break at the Historic Hot Springs. Even with temperatures in the 70s, the small pool was hoppin’, but visitors cycled through quickly enough that we got to enjoy the heated water along with a refreshing plunge in the Rio Grande.
When the trip wrapped up, I had just enough time to hike down into Boquillas Canyon at the eastern end of the park. The warm breeze felt amazing, and I was able to enjoy the echoing birdsong and rush of water uninterrupted.
Once back at the trailhead, I drove back across the park to my campsite for the evening, feeling the best kind of exhausted. I crashed early, curled up in my sleeping bag, still looking through the tent mesh at the stars.
A beautiful sunrise on the last morning.
The last morning, I was up before the sun again, and quickly broke down camp once I’d finished breakfast. I wanted to get to the Lost Mine trailhead before all the parking spots were taken so I could fit in one last hike before leaving the park.
I made it just in time (only three spots left!) and started the ascent. The trail is 4.8 miles round-trip and rises 1,100 feet at the turnaround point; by the time I reached the peak, I was in the clouds. As was the trend with my other hikes in the park, I encountered a handful of people along the way, but never hit any traffic jams and had the top all to myself. It was a perfect way to wrap up my time at Big Bend.
View from the Lost Mine Trail.
Don’t get me wrong — like all things in life, solo travel has its pros and cons. For every last-minute decision I could make, there was a cost I had to foot entirely myself. For every avoided argument, there were the mistakes that were 100% mine. But it still ultimately comes down to one thing: go, or don’t go. And nine times out of ten, I’d rather go.
Ultimately, the only part of solo travel that hits me with a pang of regret is the fact that I can’t share my experience with anyone else.
Except... I guess I just did.
My Gear List:
Aurora 2P Backpacking Tent & Footprint: I like to balance roominess with the reality of setting up a tent by myself, so 2-person tents are my shelters of choice. When I saw how rocky my campsite was, I was glad I had the Aurora footprint with me to help protect the tent’s floor, and the huge door let me enjoy my view to the fullest.
Roamer XL Wide Sleeping Pad: Have I mentioned how rocky my campsite was? I forgot all about it once I was on my sleeping pad. And, as someone who tosses and turns most of the night, I was a big fan of the extra width and never fell off.
Disco Women’s 15 Down Sleeping Bag: The Blanket Fold™ is truly the unsung hero when it comes to comfort details on NEMO sleeping bags. I found myself tucking it under my chin each night and fell asleep feeling cozy and warm.
Fillo Luxury Camping Pillow: I originally forgot this in the car and made myself get out of my warm sleeping bag to get it — that’s how crucial this accessory is.
Helio Pressure Shower: When my campsite ended up being much more than a hop, skip, and a jump (over many rocks and boulders) from the bathroom and sinks, I was glad to have this with me. I used it to rinse dishes, clean the muck from my sandals, and even wet down my hair one morning. (The desert heat is no joke.)
Stargaze Reclining Camp Chair: Literally the perfect chair for enjoying the Big Bend sky. Enough said.
The NEMO GO FAR (Get Outside For Adventure & Research) Program gears employees up and sends them out to spend time in interesting places in NEMO gear. We believe great design starts with real adventures, and are committed to making sure all NEMO employees get to experience it.
Lisa Lombardi is NEMO’s Senior Copy Manager. When she’s not writing, she’s probably road tripping around the country, trying to visit as many national parks as possible. Applications for travel partners are always welcome.