Last Updated on 03/27/21 by Rose Palmer
“I’m tired” whined my three-and-a-half year old son. He was dragging his feet and kicking up sand on the flat part of the Grapevine Hills trail to the Balanced Rock in Big Bend National Park. As I trekked along the same trail 28 years later, I could still clearly hear his voice across time and space. How had the years flown by so quickly?
I knew he wasn’t tired, just bored. Only moments earlier he had easily climbed down the rocky portion of the trail like a little mountain goat. Watching him go down the steep scramble, I had to keep reminding myself to keep my motherly, overprotective instincts in check, knowing that dad was there, guiding and helping when needed.
It is amazing how 28 years can go by in the blink of an eye. 28 years ago, in 1990, I visited Big Bend National Park with my husband and son for the first time. We had recently moved to Texas for our first jobs after graduate school, and this family camping trip was our first vacation as employed professionals. Big Bend was also our first National Park west of the Mississippi and we were extremely excited for our first experience of wide open spaces and broad vistas from horizon to horizon.
We had been doing camping trips with our son from the time he was five months old. Though he did not remember it, he had already been to Great Smoky Mountain National Park and to Shenandoah National Park on the east coast. While he was small enough, one of us carried him in a backpack carrier as we hiked, while the other one carried a backpack full of all the stuff you need for a baby.
He loved his high perch in the backpack carrier, looking down on everyone around him like a little pasha in a palanquin. He would kick us in the kidneys or pull my hair when he got excited and frequently fell contentedly asleep when he got tired. But now at the age of 3 1/2, he was too big and much too full of energy to carry for any length of time. We were counting on channeling all that energy into a variety of short hikes throughout the park.
As we set up camp at the Chisos Mountains campground I remember feeling awed by the mountains around me – they looked so different from what I had seen in the Appalachians on the east coast. These mountains were scraggier and more rugged, and the vegetation was much drier and rougher. The iconic Casa Grande peak towered above us and dwarfed our poor little tent. And the tarantulas and scorpions scurrying around our campsite were also a new experience and generated quite a different form of excitement.
The nearby short 0.3 mile Window View trail was a nice introductory hike to watch the sunset and also track a storm brewing over the peaks.
Over the next two days, we drove around and explored the park. We broke up the driving with short hikes of one to two miles. The first mile of the Lost Mine trail was doable for our son with a snack break at the viewpoint looking out over Casa Grande and Juniper Canyon. I remember that he enjoyed the Boquillas Canyon hike because it included a lot of rock throwing into the river and playing in the sand on the riverbank (and getting wet and muddy of course).
Hiking to Balanced Rock in Big Bend
The most memorable hike for all of us though was the Grapevine Hills Trail to the Balanced Rock view point. The first part of the trail was quite level and easy. The last quarter of a mile involved scrambling over rocks which my son loved but which gave me more than one moment of anxiety watching him.
At one point, my husband accidentally put his hand down onto a prickly pear cactus as he was bracing himself and helping our son up the rocky trail. That gave my son some anxiety and ended up being one of the things he remembered from the trip for quite a while. “Daddy got poked by a cactus” he would frequently tell people afterward. It’s always amazing what kids will remember.
Once we finally reached the balanced rock viewpoint, we celebrated with photos and a long rest. The reason my husband and I remember this hike with our son so well is because on the way back, he started getting very vocal about being tired.
“I’m tired” . “Not much longer” i said.
Two minutes later, “I’m tired”. “Only a little more” I coaxed.
50 yards further on. “I’m tired”. “We’re almost there” I lied.
And so it went for the longest three quarters of a mile we ever trekked.
Then our son saw the car in the parking area, and he started running full tilt down the last 100 yards of the trail, all signs of being “tired” completely gone. He knew that once we reached the car, the reward was snacks and juice (and finally some peace and quiet for mom and dad).
We finished our time at Big Bend with a rafting day trip on the Rio Grande. I remember that it was a really pleasant float, with only a few easy rapids that our son thought were a blast. We also bounced the raft every once in a while to add to his excitement. Our first “real” vacation had left us with many great family memories.
Fast forward 28 years later, and I visited Big Bend again, though this time on my own. No camping this time either-I prefer a comfortable mattress with pillows and an en suite bathroom these days. The gateway towns around the park have grown up a lot in the intervening years, but the park did not seem to have changed. The Chisos mountains rising up out of the Chihuahuan desert still impressed me, and the sunset from the Window’s View Trail was just as magnificent.
I drove and explored the full length of the park from Santa Elena Canyon on the west side to Boquillas Canyon on the east. I stopped at overlooks and explored exhibits that I no longer remembered from my first visit so many years ago. Mostly though, I reveled in the peace and quiet and the clear, sunny weather. At the beginning of September when I was there, the park had not yet started its busy season and I don’t think I passed more than four cars throughout the whole day.
I also revisited the Grapevine Hills Trail hike. The flat part was a pleasant stroll that allowed me to enjoy the passing scenery. Climbing those rocks though seemed a lot more difficult this time around-but fortunately the trail was well marked. Had I really let my 3 1/2 year old climb them so many years ago? I have clearly become more conservative over the years.
Once I reached the Balanced Rock, I took a break and compared the current view to the one in the old photo I had brought along. The view had not changed, and as I stood there, it felt like that photo had just been taken yesterday. 28 years is not necessarily a long time, and while the scenery was the same as in the photo, the subjects no longer were. My son is now a married man with a son of his own. As for me, when I did that hike, I was just starting a professional career from which I am now retired.
Our family visit to Big Bend 28 years ago was memorable because the trip was a first in so many ways, and the first of anything tends to stick in your memory like chewing gum to the soles of your shoes. I am thrilled that I had the chance to revisit Big Bend and see its splendid scenery once again.
I made a new set of memories that I have stored in a mental cubby right next to the original ones. Both sets now hold a special place in my heart. My memories of my first visit to Big Bend are colored by youthful energy and the excitement of new beginnings. In contrast, my most recent trip was seen through eyes that have experienced a lot more of the world, which makes seeing unspoiled scenery all that much more meaningful.
The saying goes that you can’t go back, and I agree. But you can certainly revisit favorite destinations and retry favorite experiences. You just have to remember to enjoy the experience in the current moment rather than try to recreate the past.
You can find more of my Big Bend National Park inspiration here.
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Please note that my visit to the Big Bend area was hosted by Visit Big Bend but all content is my own.