I had heard it would be beautiful. But somehow, the panorama of deep blue sky cut sharply by the craggy, towering Santa Elena Canyon and the snaking, foliage-fringed Rio Grande below exceeded every expectation.
After nearly three months of staying at home, taking a deep breath of fresh air in the middle of Big Bend National Park, one of the most stunning places in the country, never felt better.
But if you’re planning to head to West Texas this summer or fall, you can probably guess that things are changing by the day due to the coronavirus pandemic and a recent onset of COVID-19 cases in some West Texas counties. Even Big Bend National Park was shuttered for the second time since March this week after a resident tested positive for COVID-19.
Here’s a guide to the current situation in West Texas as of press time and some ideas for socially distanced activities to consider when the time is right for you to make your way out west. As always, this is an ever-changing situation — it’s a good idea to call ahead or check websites for the latest updates before making the trip.
BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
Big Bend National Park, located a little over six hours from Austin in West Texas, reopened in June for day-use access but was closed again July 2 due to a positive case of COVID-19 within the park residential community.
"We are working closely with our state and local partners during this closure," Big Bend National Park Superintendent Bob Krumenaker said in a statement. "Healthy NPS employees will continue to work behind the scenes, improving the condition of the park, with strict adherence to social distancing and safety protocols to assure their safety. We look forward to reopening the park, when the timing is right, as safely as possible."
Park staff said the closure is expected to last 14 days but could be extended if there are more positive cases.
Even when Big Bend reopens again, should visitors come?
"Honestly, it’s a hard question, because so much of what people are doing right now is very individualized," said Allison Christofis, fee manager of Big Bend National Park. "A lot of people think Big Bend is the place to be right now because it’s 800,000 acres of wilderness. The reality is the trails that are popular right now because of the heat are busy. You can do it as long as you are being safe about it."
Christofis estimated that the park saw as much as a 75% increase in visitation this June over June 2019, adding that the majority of visitors were first-timers.
She said in addition to taking precautions because of the coronavirus — such as social distancing, wearing masks when passing others on crowded trails and packing hand sanitizer and soap — people need to come prepared for the heat.
She recommended visitors wear sun-protective, long-sleeved clothing and wide-brimmed hats and plan to drink about a gallon of water per person each day. She also suggested they eat salty snacks to replace the electrolytes they sweat out.
She said she recommends that visitors hike the Chisos Basin trails, such as the Window View Trail, the Lost Mine Trail and the Window Trail, because they are at higher elevations and have somewhat lower temperatures. It’s a good rule of thumb, though, for visitors to enter the park around sunrise and to aim to be back in their cars by 10 a.m., she said.
During my visit in June, my family arrived at the park early one morning to hike the Santa Elena Canyon Trail, a 1.7 mile out-and-back trail that features stunning views of the incredible Santa Elena Canyon and the sprawling Rio Grande. All four of our kids, who range in age from 7 to 11, enjoyed the moderate hike, and we found it easy to socially distance from other hikers. Because of the heat, though, I was grateful we went early.
"In terms of visiting during the heat, manage your expectations. This is not the time to really push yourself," Christofis said. "As soon as you or someone in your party starts to fatigue, turn around, or turn around well before that if you can."
Our center of operations in early June was Lajitas Golf Resort and Spa, which is ideally located about 30 minutes from Big Bend National Park.
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Because it is so remote, we were surprised by the diverse amenities offered by the resort, including a world-class 18-hole golf course, sparkling pools, an RV park, activities for kids and families and scrumptious Tex-Mex-inspired fare on the outside patio of the on-site Candelilla Cafe.
The resort’s proximity to Big Bend meant we could visit the park each morning and then spend the afternoon swimming or enjoying on-site, socially distanced activities such as horseback riding and ziplining.
"While it’s hard to get here, the destination is worth the journey," said Sandy Price, sales manager and on-site events manager at Lajitas Golf Resort, adding that the resort is brimming with Old West history. "It‘s just so unusual. It’s an atmosphere you’re not going to find anywhere else."
Price said that because of an executive order in Brewster County last month, where Lajitas is located, masks must be worn at all times in public areas at the resort. The resort is also taking precautions in response to COVID-19 such as requiring social distancing and limiting pool, hotel and restaurant occupancy.
Located just about 20 minutes from Big Bend National Park, Terlingua is a tiny, quirky and beloved former mining community and ghost town famous in part for its annual chili cookoffs.
The heartbeat of the town is the Starlight Theatre Restaurant and Saloon, which is known for its hearty fare (tequila-marinated quail, anyone?), libations and live music. During our June visit, a sign in front of the restaurant reminded visitors that "6 feet is the length of two guitars. Please social distance."
As of press time, the restaurant was open at 50% capacity per Gov. Greg Abbott’s order; masks are also required under the Brewster County executive order.
Basecamp Terlingua, a boutique hotel that features individual lodging options such as towering tipis and giant "bubbles" — think literal clear giant bubbles with beds and unobstructed views of the West Texas stars — posted this advisory to its website:
"Things are a little different in the desert these days thanks to COVID-19. Please consider the following. 1) Maybe wait til later in the year to visit. 2) If you do visit, we get it — nothing like the open spaces and dark skies. We have initiated some deep cleaning protocols to protect us and you. … Our community is small, as is our regional medical facility. So help us be safe and not contribute to community spread. MASKS ARE NOW REQUIRED IN ALL BREWSTER COUNTY BUSINESSES. There’s a safe way for all of us to do this. #maskyourivsit."
Information: ghosttowntexas.com, basecampterlingua.com
El Cosmico, a popular "hotel and campground for wanderers and adventurers" that features lodging options such as yurts, trailers and safari tents, is open and has created a menu of "socially distant add-ons" for Marfa guests.
"During your trip, we encourage you to limit or ideally eliminate your interactions with the town. ... Add-ons, like local restaurant meals dropped off at El Cosmico and pre-ordered groceries, are all available here. Think about excursions that support social distancing — a scenic drive, a visit to Prada Marfa, and a hike in Big Bend. It has always been our great privilege to create a space for our guests, and keeping you safe is in the heart of what we do. We’ll need to look out for each other and this special west Texas community."
The Prada Marfa art installation is a West Texas must-see (Beyonce famously stopped by in 2012), where visitors can enjoy both the intricate details of the Prada store replica and also explore locks left on the back fence from around the world. Several Marfa murals are worth a visit, too, including one off of Highland Street near the courthouse that offers an optimistic message during these strange times: "You’ll be fine."
If you choose to do an art tour, you’ll also likely want to add Target Marathon to your list. Located about 15 miles west of Marathon on the way to Alpine off U.S. 90, this art installation that mimics a miniature Target store was another must-stop destination for our family.
Another option for social distancing in Marfa, where masks are now required under a local ordinance, is to view the mysterious Marfa Lights. Starting nightly around dusk, visitors gather on benches or camp chairs at the Marfa Lights Viewing Area, located about 10 miles east of town on U.S. 90 toward Alpine, and stare out at the horizon, where lights in hues of blue, white and red are known to sporadically appear over the course of the evening.
Some have said the lights are merely atmospheric reflections of cars and campfires at night, but our family was still entranced by them. It’s also a great place for stargazing.