Now that the weather's cooling off, those of you looking for unique camping spots along the southern stretches of the country may want to consider Big Bend National Park. I was there in the spring of last year and the locale so impressed me that Big Bend made my Ten Most Breathtaking Boondocking Spots list. Here's a little more detail about this unique location.
There are actually three regular campgrounds in the park – Cottonwood and Rio Grande Village, both on the river, and the Chisos Basin campground up in the mountains, but they're crowded and full of people running their generators all day and half the night. If you have the boondocking capability, and want to experience solitude rarely found in the lower 48, my recommendation is to drive into the park and check at the Panther Junction Visitor's Center for dispersed camping. With a Senior Pass, park admission is free and a dispersed camping permit good for 14 days is $5, so this is as close to free camping as you can get.
Dispersed camping is semi-organized (this IS a national park, after all). You can't just wander off into the wilderness and set up camp wherever – there are designated locations for dispersed camping, and you sign up for them at the Panther Junction Visitor's Center. The good thing about this arrangement is that some of these like Croton Spring are clusters of a few sites, so you may have neighbors, and some of them, like Government Spring, are blissfully alone. Nobody can camp anywhere near you 🙂 We started with a couple of nights at Croton Spring, and then Government Spring opened up, so we finished our 14 day stay there.
Check out the park map and you'll see the little tents marking these dispersed camping sites. Government Spring is my ideal location – off the long dirt road leading up to the Grapevine Hills. We would see people pass our site a few times a day on their way in and out, and once saw a lost convoy of outfitters escorting some tourists somewhere, but other than that there's not a single visible indication of civilization from one distant horizon to the other. Big Bend has a well-deserved reputation as one of the least light-polluted night sky locations in the lower 48, with good reason. There's absolutely nothing within a hundred miles.
We weren't completely alone, however – the spring attracted javelinas, who would come by daily for a drink, and we had the occasional roadrunner and other birds. Days just merged into each other as we adjusted to the daily rhythm of the desert and tracked the sun, moon and stars across the gigantic western sky. You can go for walks in the desert (if you're careful) and explore the area. Big Bend has been in existence for about 75 years, but before that people actually tried to graze cattle down here. You'll see bottlecaps that look fairly new, until you pick them up and notice they have a cork liner in them – something that disappeared from production 50 years ago. The desert preserves everything.
If you go, pack in everything you'll need. There's no grocery store worthy of the name south of Fort Stockton. Gas is available in the park – for $5 a gallon or so – and there's a tiny store at Rio Grande Village, where we went for fresh water and a dumpsite, with peanut butter for $7 a small jar. We confined our purchases to milk, bread and eggs, and escaped for $20 or so. There's water at the visitor's center, too, but they discourage camper fill-ups.
Check the weather forecast and time your visit so it's not too hot, and avoid March – the poor land-locked college spring breakers head to Big Bend and make it uninhabitable for everyone else. Most of us are too old for that foolishness anymore. I'm so old I can't figure out what I saw in it in the first place. Park rules also prohibit generator use in dispersed camping, so solar panels and engine generators will come in very handy. If you want to run your generator, they have a group generator chorus going in the campgrounds 18 hours a day.
Want to get away from it all? Drive south from Fort Stockton and get lost out in the desert. It's good for whatever ails you.