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Big Bend Winterland

Escape the Ordinary and Experience Big Bend During the Holidays
Written by E. Dan Klepper. Photographs by E. Dan Klepper.

In Marathon, the Marathon Motel's adobe architecture and central firepit create a warm sense of community. (Photos by E. Dan Klepper)

The approach of a Texas winter brings with it mesquite smoke above Hill Country chimneys, migrating sandhill cranes over the Panhandle plains, and blue northers churning coastal bays. Our winter’s mild frost still reminds us that seasons do change in Texas; without an occasional freeze and its icicles, our memories of past summers might not seem so sweet. Fortunately, Texas also offers the ideal antidote for those prone to the winter blues—a vacation in the remote Big Bend Country, where warm afternoons and crisp nights are common from December to February.

In the small community of Marathon, considered the gateway to the Big Bend, the Marathon Motel & RV Park serves as a reliable introduction to Big Bend in the winter. The motel anchors the west end of the town, which was established as a ranching settlement and railroad shipping point in the late 19th Century. Built in the 1940s and updated and renovated a few years ago, the motel makes good on its tagline, “Sunsets, Stargazing, and Storm Chasing—We’ve Got the Sky for You.”

Marathon, along with the rest of the Big Bend region, guarantees some of the darkest skies in the continental United States, and the motel grounds—surrounded by a vast, grass-rich basin and low-desert mountains—offer unobstructed views for witnessing the galaxy’s antics. The motel’s adobe-walled courtyard, complete with landscaped gardens, features a community fire pit where guests gather each evening to share stories and watch the night skies.

After a night or two in Marathon, take a 45-minute drive south to Big Bend National Park for a day of hiking across the state’s largest expanse of rugged winterland. The national park, at more than 800,000 acres, encompasses mountain ranges and desert valleys where wildlife, including Peregrine falcons and the occasional cougar, make their home. Explore the Chihuahuan Desert lowlands via the Devil’s Den trail (a wild trek along the edge of a deep, narrow canyon) and the popular Grapevine Hills Trail, where volcanic boulders perform a balancing act. Or continue upward to the park’s Chisos Basin, where, at 5,400 feet in elevation, you’ll find a simple motel called the Chisos Mountains Lodge. Here, creature comforts meet black bears and backpackers.

The Basin, a topographic depression in the Chisos Mountains, is the starting point for some of the park’s preeminent hiking trails; adventurers can choose from multiple short day hikes and overnight routes, all threading through forests of pinyon pine and alligator juniper, up and over igneous rimrock, and across meadows of grama grass and agave. Two of the Basin’s most popular attractions are the South Rim Trail, an all-day trek with hawkeye vistas southward into Mexico; and the winding Window Trail, a 5.6-mile hike alongside the Basin’s Oak Creek.

If trail snacks and camp food aren’t enough to restore your reserves after a day of hiking, try a meal at the Chisos Mountains Lodge Restaurant, which opens for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and also prepares box lunches). Dinner features entrées like grilled rib-eye, roasted pork loin, and sautéed shrimp with shallots over pasta. The lodge also features a gift shop, as well as a small grocery store in case you need more sunblock or trail eats for the next day’s hike.

Boquillas Hot Springs soothes visitors with 105-degree water and spectacular views. Terlingua’s farmer’s market runs October through March. (Photos by E. Dan Klepper)Web Extra: Hot Springs Eternal

For an unusual wintertime adventure, catch an early dinner, grab your bathing suit, and drive east to the Panther Junction Visitor Center, then south along the Rio Grande Village Drive to the Hot Springs Road turnoff. Although the turnoff road is usually passable, avoid it when it’s wet and make sure your vehicle has high clearance. (A four-wheel-drive vehicle isn’t typically necessary, though.) Park in the designated lot, then follow the Hot Springs Trail past rock ruins. The ruins are the remains of a grocery store/post office and a row of motel-like rooms built by Big Bend settler J.O. Langford in the early 1900s. Langford established a trading post near the hot springs for wagon traffic crossing the river between Mexico and the United States, and he later ran a health resort to take advantage of the hot springs’ salubrious properties.

Continue along the trail to the remains of Langford’s stone bathhouse, a small, square, hand-constructed foundation filled with water located just above the Rio Grande. A spring with temperatures hovering around 105 degrees Fahrenheit emerges near the center of the pool, where a soft, silt bottom provides a comfortable seat for stretching out and relaxing against the rock ledges. The pool is shallow, but with a little effort you can lie back and submerge up to your neck, or simply sit along the ledges and soak your feet. The location, known as Boquillas Hot Springs, offers dreamy views of the almost-9,000-foot limestone escarpment of Mexico’s Sierra del Carmen range. Catch it at sundown and watch the orange light of dusk set the white cliffs aflame.

A well-deserved good night’s sleep no doubt follows, so return to the Basin (drive carefully as desert snakes, coyotes, and owls also travel after dark) and nestle into a sleeping bag at the Basin campground or, if you prefer creature comforts, enjoy a cottage or motel room at the Chisos Mountains Lodge. The lodge’s Roosevelt Stone Cottages, built of native materials in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, represent an authentic slice of early 20th-Century Big Bend history. These five cottages take advantage of the inspiring Chisos Basin panorama, including the view through the “Window,” an opening in the Basin’s walls that frames the desert landscape below. Morning or evening, the unparalleled vista through the Window is reason enough to make a trip to the Big Bend an annual tradition.

Winter in the Big Bend also signals the advent of a weekly farmer’s market in Terlingua—the desert “ghost town” community a few miles west of the national park—where fresh, locally grown produce, handmade crafts, a campfire, and live music create a festive “green” scene for residents and visitors. The market is sponsored by the Terlingua Community Garden, a loose coalition of Terlinguans dedicated to providing local organic food to the community. The market occurs between 10 and 2 every Saturday from October 19 to March 30 beneath the Community Garden’s generous shade shelter, which you’ll find between the historic Terlingua cemetery and the parking lot of the Starlight Theatre Restaurant & Saloon.

A Terlingua ghost town mainstay for decades, the Starlight is currently in the hands of chef Diego Palacios, whose robust menu serves plenty of creative meat dishes, including wild game such as antelope and wild boar, as well as vegetarian options like garden burgers. Carnivores should try Chef Palacios’ pork medallions in chipotle reduction sauce ($17.95) or throw the diet out the window and dig in to the Diego Burger ($19.95)—a pound of beef, four strips of bacon, cheese, and two fried eggs with grilled onions and pickled jalapeños, with fries. You’ll need to work that one off, so stick around and burn some calories by toe-tapping to live performances by regional musicians or migrate out the door to the porch, where impromptu jam sessions often coalesce around sundown.

The warm glow of a winter sunset in the Big Bend always seems to chase the chills away, so be sure and see one from the region’s ideal sundown location—the Big Hill in Big Bend Ranch State Park. To get there from Terlingua, drive west along FM 170 (the “River Road”) into the park, then stop at the Barton Warnock Visitor Center to pick up a permit. (If you arrive after hours, you can drop the park entrance fee into the Iron Ranger at the parking lot.) Then continue west, through the resort community of Lajitas, past an abandoned film set known as the Contrabando Movie Set, and onward to the steep incline just past a roadside picnic area called “The Teepees.” Continue up the incline, then pull into the small parking area next to the row of boulders and the interpretive sign just over the top of the hill. Don’t forget the parking brake!

From here, an expansive view of the Rio Grande valley advances before you, the rugged cliffs of Mexico on one side and the tumbling Bofecillos Mountains on the other. Below, the river slips gently through the landscape, a sliver of mercury in the winter’s dusk. Suddenly, the sun tips the horizon and the afternoon light settles, tinting the bluffs and basins like drifting chaffs of wheat. Nearby, in the moist shadow of a yucca, green sprouts portend an early blooming desert marigold, proving that spring in the Big Bend is just around the corner.

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