2018 SAN ANTONIO TO FRIGID, RAINY, BIG BEND

Road Scholar 20562


Immerse yourself in the best of Texas as you visit remote state and national parks, explore Fort Davis Historic Site and stargaze at the McDonald Observatory. Explore Texas nature and culture from San Antonio’s Riverwalk to the mountains of Big Bend National Park. Cross the Chihuahuan Desert as a naturalist interprets all you see and scale the Chisos Mountains to explore Big Bend’s rugged landscapes. Visit Terlingua ghost town, Fort Davis National Historic Site and much more.

All my other trips here were on my own: a) 5 days, May 16-20, 1992 Big Bend: b) 4 days, April 1998, West Texas & BBNP; and c) 5 days, May 17-21, 2001, West Texas & BBNP; d) 2006 trip including West Texas and Big Bend. I’ve also been here before these, twice, I think, back in the ‘80s, but don’t have the dates. No trips were “commercial.”

On Your Feet: Hiking up to one mile over varied terrain. Standing up to one hour, climbing two flights of stairs; No porterage. Elevations up to 7,000 feet. For someone like me, only 3 “short hikes” and they are optional. For ME, just two of them. BE PREPARED FOR LONG COACH RIDES! In this part of Texas, it is a LONG way between places of interest.

Best of all, you'll ...
* Explore the darkest skies in the country in a star party with an expert at the McDonald Observatory.
* Travel back in time with a visit to Fort Davis National Historic Site.
* See a wide variety of plants and wildlife as you journey through deserts and mountains of Big Bend National Park.


Our excellent Group Leader: Linda Murray. Our Naturalist instructor is Patty Pasztor who gives many super nice talks throughout the trip, and also serves as the guide on some of the walks.

Wouldn’t you know it? After having to hibernate for 4 ½ months to avoid the awful Houston summer heat, a nice Fall Cool Front is coming into town – the day I leave. It will probably be back to summer heat by the time I get back home. “Indian Summer Fall!!”

DAY 1, Sunday, Oct 14 - Check-in, Registration, Orientation, Welcome Dinner
Activity note: Walk on uneven surfaces up to a mile each day, handle your own luggage. No elevators in Lajitas. No Wi-Fi in San Antonio. Bring your National Parks pass.

Long range forecast for San Antonio: Saturday: scattered showers, High 88; Low Sunday night 56 with 100% chance of rain as the front comes through. High Monday 63 with 80% rain.

(D) Only a short round-trip flight to San Antonio and return. I scheduled an early StuporShuttle pickup at 9:00AM to be safe from TSA delays when checking in at the airport. It was lucky that I chose an early pickup. The Shuttle was on time but it took 1:15 to get to the airport due to a wide set of distances between pickups. At least the TSA bit went well but it was getting close to boarding time so I “rushed” to the gate. There, even though our place was there, the crew wasn’t – still in flight down to Houston. Eventually they did show up but we were 35 minutes late to start boarding. They tried to rush it but still we were about 25 minutes late for push-back.

United UA 2017Houston – San Antonio11:55 – 12:540:59

The pilot made up some of that time but we were still about 20-25 minutes late getting to San Antonio. Then it was a 45-minute wait before even the first bags were put on the luggage carousel. Then as I was getting my bag off the carousel, the person next to me yanked his bag off, swinging it around and hitting me in the back knocking me down. My back really hurts then and continues. This is going to have a major impact on what I can and cannot do on the trip. Everything has really been slow to bad today.

High today, 88. After a long walk to the taxi stand, take a long 10-mile taxi ride (almost 30 minutes) to the hotel for check-in from 3:00pm. Registration & Disorientaton: 4:00pm in the Trinity Room, 4th floor. The Group Leader, Linda Murray, will review the up-to-date program schedule, and answer questions. There are 32 of us head of cattle on this cattle drive.

A Texas Master Naturalist (Patty Pasztor) will serve as our Study Leader along with Linda throughout the program, providing educational information on plants, animals, and birds of the areas we explore both on site and during travel and transfers. We will explore the rugged beauty of the Big Bend National Park area, learn about the diversity of geology as well as plant and animal life, and get an insider’s look at the McDonald Observatory and star gazing.

At 5:30pm, you are welcome to enjoy the “Kickback” reception on the 2nd floor of the hotel, with free hot food and cold drinks but don't eat too much here, dinner is coming up soon. It is almost a mile walk to a nearby restaurant on the River Walk where we have a decent but not great plated meal (4 options). Grade C+. I would have been better off staying with that "Kickback" reception.

We’ll begin our educational adventure with a presentation about the colorful Big Bend region by a humorist who is an expert on Texas and its culture. This didn’t happen.

If we like, we can walk across the plaza to San Fernando Cathedral, adjacent to the hotel, and see it during a light show put together by French artist Xavier De Richemont. This quarter-hour show tells the story of San Antonio from its beginnings to the present day. The cathedral was built from 1738-50 by settlers from the Canary Islands who had been granted land by Spain’s King Philip V. Mexican general Santa Anna raised the red flag of “no quarter” from the church tower during the siege of the Alamo. To me, the presentation was good but a bit over-rated. And we had to stand for about 30 minutes waiting for it to start and then through the presentation. My back hurts and the bad weather front is beginning to come into town.

One of the most interesting of the cathedral’s holdings is what purports to be the final resting place of Davy Crockett, William Travis, and Jim Bowie. Hotel: Drury Plaza Hotel San Antonio Riverwalk – NO INTERNET.

The Moon and Saturn, Oct. 14: It's another lunar-planetary pairing when the moon is very close to Saturn in the southwestern sky after dusk but impossible to see from downtown San Antonio.

DAY 2, Monday, Oct 15 - Travel to Big Bend Region, Scenic Stops, Alpine
Activity note: The drive to Alpine, TX is about 400 miles, approximately 8+ hours from San Antonio to Alpine including stops. Very cold this morning, quite windy, and definitely raining. NOT GOING TO BE GOOD DAY!

(BLD) Fortunately we spend no time exploring San Antonio; we just check out of the hotel, board our motor coach (our driver is Levi), and at 8AM, head out into miserable weather on our adventure into the least populated area of Texas.

We’ll make stops along the way as we cross scenic Hill Country and enter the dramatic Chihuahuan Desert. We’ll have expert commentary along the way and learn about the natural and cultural history of San Antonio and West Texas. During a brief stop at the Amistad National Recreation Area visitor center near Del Rio, we’ll learn what archeologists know about life in this area from more than 4,000 years ago. We’ll see what art on nearby rock shelter walls can teach us about early human and animal life in the area.

We make other stops in Uvalde (Dolph Briscoe’s Art Museum in a Bank//Bank in an Art Museum?), Seminole Canyon (nice displays – lousy weather, Marathon, and Fort Davis.

For the whole day it is cold, breezy (wind chill is awful), and rain – at least a constant drizzle ranging up to a full rain though no actual “storm.” We’ll stop at a scenic spot (cancelled – due to weather, eat on the bus) and have our pre-ordered box lunches (turkey on wheat – poor choice – grade D-).

Riding through the desert, we’ll see the remoteness of the area with commentary about geology and plant life. Heard about “The Law West of the Pecos?” That’s what Judge Roy Bean (1825-1903) called himself. Due to the weather, we’ll NOT see where the judge issued his often unusual rulings at the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center in Langtry. NOT DONEIn the cactus garden adjacent to the Jersey Lilly Saloon — that Bean named for English actress Lilly Langtry — we’ll start identifying desert plant species.

At 4PM in Marathon, it is 43F, very windy (wind chill down near 30) and light rain making it seem worse. We’ll continue towards our destination and check in to our hotel in Alpine (named one of the Top Ten small towns in Texas) and maybe enjoy a minimal deception (limited "happy hour") with the hotel manager before dinner.

At a local restaurant, we’ll have a fajita buffet. OOPS – that restaurant has hot water problems in the kitchen so this dinner is cancelled. We have to drive back to Fort Davis to have our makeshift dinner at a restaurant there (Grade B-). The seats there are so miserably uncomfortable that my back pain goes into overdrive and I’ll probably have to skip all tomorrow’s activities and just stay at the hotel. At least due to my astronomy activities back in the ‘90s, it won’t be all that much of a loss.

We are joined by a local resident of the Big Bend area who will discuss some of the issues facing this region. We’ll begin to understand why some people thrive in the isolated region and wouldn't want to live anywhere else. Hotel: Hampton Inn Alpine, (2 nights) At least the hotel seems nice.

DAY 3, Tuesday, Oct 16 – (NOT) Fort Davis Historic Site, Star Viewing at McDonald Observatory, Alpine
Activity note: The drive from Alpine to Fort Davis is about 45 miles, from Fort Davis to the Observatory about 10 miles. Walking uphill/downhill and standing at field trip sites. Evening star viewing in amphitheater involves climbing 5-10 steps to the viewing platform area and telescopes. Dress warmly for colder higher elevation and wind.

(B) Thanks to that awful bad back I’m skipping today’s misadventures. The group is going to Fort Davis National Historic Site. As the U.S. Park Service describes it, Fort Davis is one of the best surviving examples of an Indian Wars frontier military post in the Southwest. Then ride to a guest ranch (Prude Ranch where the Texas Star Party is held each year) within the grounds of a local cattle ranch that is more than 100 years old and have a buffet lunch They then head for the hills and the McDonald Observatory for an expert-led exploration and see several of the large, state-of-the-art telescopes before returning to Fort Davis.

At a local restaurant they will have a plated dinner. Then (doubtful if the temps are in the 30s) ride back to the McDonald Observatory for one of their famous star parties before returning to Alpine.

But for me, thanks to that very painful back, I’m skipping all this (way too much just standing and limited sitting) so I’ll stay at the hotel in Alpine. Meals? A bit more from the hotel’s “Breakfast buffet” for “lunch”, and then load up from their “Happy Hour” for "dinner."

Group activity update: Although they did get the afternoon Observatory schedule done, scratch McDonald Observatory Star Party activities: heavy layer of ice on the trees on the top of the hill, and ice on the road up so no way could the big “cattle wagon” be risked on a drive up the hill.

DAY 4, Wednesday, Oct 17 – Museum of Big Bend; Mexican Border; Scenic Drive; Terlingua
Activity note: The driving distance is about 140 miles, approximately 4-5 hours including stops. Walking and standing in museum.

(BLD) Low this morning, 37, Rain, windy. It does get up to about 45 later in the day though the rain persists until noon then just turns into a heavy mist. No sun. After checking out, we'll take a very nice field trip to the Museum of the Big Bend on the campus of Sul Ross State University. A professor will lead our exploration as we learn about the life, history, and culture of the Big Bend area and Northern Mexico. We’ll see how the area was shaped by the confluence of cultures brought by Native Americans, Europeans, and U.S. citizens.

Next, we’ll head south and make a short visit to quirky Marfa, home of many artists who moved to the area seeking inspiration and tranquility. Originally established as a water stop on the railroad, the town’s motto is “Tough to Get Here. Tougher to Explain.” I wasn’t impressed.

In the border town of Presidio, we were promised a nice Mexican buffet. Instead we get to order from the menu. Looking at the miserable excuse for a buffet that the diner was offering, it was so horrible that we were MUCH better off ordering from the menu. (Very poor, but at least edibly decent - MUCH better than in the Chisos Basin a couple of days later). However, the diner was definitely not prepared (even had any idea how) to take orders and serve 35 people. Some of us (including me – served next to last) didn’t even get served until about 30 minutes after we had been scheduled to leave on the next part of our misadventure. Absolutely awful (non-)service. We will all be reporting it on our trip evaluation at the end of the trip.

The temp did get up to 44-45. We finally get back on the road in that 40s temperature, solid overcast, drizzle, etc. and could see virtually nothing out of the misted/fogged windows. The overcast makes it dark also. Later learn a bit of something about the colorful history of the town of Presidio and its sister city, Ojinaga, Mexico.

The drive from Presidio to the Big Bend National Park area is one of the most scenic in Texas, an opportunity to sit back and appreciate the remoteness of this rugged landscape – but we saw virtually nothing of it due to the dark overcast and occasional rain.

On arrival in Lajitas, check in to the fourth-world excuse for something supposedly being a resort. When I went into my prison cell, the first thing I saw was a double-height bed. Yes, there was a step stool but when I tried it, it tipped over very quickly – way too dangerous to use. I then tried to climb up onto that over height bed but quickly gave up on that when my back started “screaming.” So I went over to the office (once I finally walked far enough and was able to find it), and asked for a room with a lower bed, or, as awful as it would have been, I would have had to sleep on the floor. Fortunately, they had a “handicrapped” room available.

They moved my luggage (after that fall and the climbing attempt I couldn’t have picked it up) I looked around at my new prison cell. Almost no lighting, the room door scrapes so hard on the floor that it (door) is hard to open or close, no desk or table on which to write or use my computer, and even if I had had a table, there was nowhere to plug in the computer. So much for updating my trip notes and uploading them to the web (even if that “horsetel” had had wi-fi.)

Back many years ago, I can remember being in a couple of awful hotel rooms in Europe, but nothing like that in the US in the last 10-12 years – until now. Definitely the worst room I’m been stuck with in that 10-12-year period. Not only is the room awful, but it is a 14-minute walk (I timed it) from my room to the restaurant – walking through wind, rain, water puddles on the irregular “paved” walks, through mud, and also having to cross a busy highway, sometimes in the dark. Awful! Grade: F.

Dinner is on our own tonight to have what we like at the nearby deli and general store but the temperatures should be down to about 40. It will be a long (about a half-mile) walk. The choices there from pre-made sandwiches is non-existent and made-on-site ones are incredibly expensive. So I settled for a can of Vienna sausage and a small pack of crackers. “Great Dinner!” Hotel: Lajitas Resort (2 miserable nights)

There are no elevators but everything is on the first floor. It is just that it is a long walk from where the cattle wagon (coach) is parked, through drizzle, mud and puddles to finally get to our rooms. NOT A GOOD DAY.

The Moon and Mars, Oct. 17: Mars gets on the moon's dance card this night. Look to the southeast right after sunset. At 8:30 p.m. local time, the pair will be at their highest point in the south. NOT A CHANCE IN THIS WEATHER.

DAY 5, Thursday, Oct 18 - Big Bend National Park; Santa Elena Canyon, Terlingua
Activity note: Walking up to 1 mile; uneven pathway, some uphill.

Low this morning, 48, high 53, overcast, light drizzle as we start out. (BLD) We'll begin our exploration of Big Bend National Park with a scenic trip down the Ross Maxwell Drive. We’ll be joined by a local expert who will tell us about plant, animals, and life in this area 100 miles from the nearest grocery store. We’ll don’t marvel at views from the Sotol Vista overlook but there aren’t any since we can’t see anything like the entire western side of the park.

We’ll then head to Santa Elena Canyon with its dramatically beautiful cliffs rising high above Big Bend River. It is only a short, easy walk down to the water edge and some nice views, one of my favorite viewing sites in the park – but the dark overcast definitely cut down on the enjoyment.

We were told that in Big Bend National Park we’ll make our own lunches with a variety of sandwich meats, cheeses, vegetables, and fruit. False – some company provided pre-made sandwiches, potato salad, etc. which would have been nice, but not when both were overloaded with mayo, I had to buy something in the general store on the site in order to have something to eat outdoors (temp about 55-60, finally no rain but very overcast) at picnic tables.

We'll continue our field trip exploring the remote beauty of Big Bend National Park. Returning to the miserable excuse for a resort over an hour late, the very limited remainder of the afternoon is free before we ride to the ghost town of Terlingua and the Starlight Theater. This former mining town was based on the production of cinnabar, an ore that is a source of mercury, before being gradually abandoned. Today, with barely any light pollution, the evening skies display brilliant stars. Oops, not with the total overcast. In fact, I haven’t seen a single star while on the trip. Because of that, and knowing what “entertainment” we were going to have to suffer through, I skipped the trip/meal. I still have some munchies available.

At the Starlight Theater in Terlingua, we were supposed to have a definitely-not-exactly-delicious chicken dinner. But after the lunch fiasco, that wasn’t a “draw” either – opposite.

DAY 6, Friday, Oct 19 - ESCAPE from LAhoribilaJITAS, Driving & Hiking Big Bend National Park, Visitors Center, Alpine
Activity note: Participants will be given the opportunity to go on a short hike near the Chisos Mountain Lodge. Elevation near the lodge is approximately 5,000 feet. Walking approximately 1 mile on a paved, ADA accessible trail; hiking approximately 1 mile on a natural trail with 50-60 steps along the trail up to an overlook; rocky and uneven in places.

(BLD) (Low about 52, the only day rain is not forecast.) TODAY WE GET TO ESCAPE FROM LAhoribilaJITAS, that fourth-world excuse for something supposedly being a resort. Too bad that it is about two days too late. The only good thing about this place is the decent breakfasts (best of the trip.)

Late if the afternoon we even get to see a few small patches of blue.) We’ll return to Big Bend National Park for a full-day field trip up. We’ll ride up to the Chisos Basin area, where we will see changes in vegetation and wildlife as the elevation increases. We’ll then ride to Chisos Mountain Lodge. Those who wish may join our resident naturalist for a short hike in the basin of the Chisos Mountains heading out to see from the “Window.”

At the restaurant in the Chisos Mountain Lodge, we’ll have a pre-selected plated lunch (beef enchiladas) which turns out not only awful but definitely the worst meal of the trip. It is so very bad that it totally ruins my ability to eat a nice dinner. The lodge has a fascinating history with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), one of the so-called “alphabet soup” agencies created during the first administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As the National Park Service describes it, the CCC carved out roads in the early 1930s using only “picks, shovels, rakes, and a dump truck they loaded by hand. They scraped, dug, and blasted 10,000 truckloads of earth and rock and constructed 17 stone culverts, still in use today along the Basin road.”

(temp about 65) Outdoors at the lodge, meet with a Park Ranger who will provide a really great overview of Big Bend National Park and answers questions about this large and diverse natural area. It is an excellent presentation. The park covers more than 800,000 acres, comprising spectacular geology, an amazing range of flora and fauna — with more types of birds, bats, and cacti than any other national park in the U.S. — and extensive natural resources.

Next, visit the Boquillas Canyon area of the park but there is no time for our scheduled hike along a nature trail. A little further and we make a quick stop at a Boquillas overlook and find that some Mexican metals artists have come across the river and laid out some very nice twisted-wire artwork. They are really great. I splurged for a couple. We then have a rest stop at the Panther Junction Visitor Center that has exhibits.

There is also a brand new very interesting Fossils of BBNP exhibit which we stop at on our way north. Our day in the park ends as we head through the Persimmon Gap section and exit through the north entrance as our naturalist continues our education about plants, wildlife, and area topography.

In Alpine, we’ll have a quite decent plated meal but after that awful lunch, I can’t manage to eat more than about 1/3 of it. This is our final evening in the wide open spaces. Hotel: Hampton Inn Alpine

DAY 7, Saturday, Oct 20 - Return to San Antonio; Farewell Dinner
Activity note: Primarily a very long travel day. Online source: 378 miles, 5:30 hours (plus “frequent pit stops” and lunch) driving time. Return to San Antonio via a very boring stretch of Interstate 10, with occasional rest stops along the way.

(BLD) (Low about 49) The usual hot mini-(micro?)-breakfast at your hotel is included. Bid farewell to the sprawling Big Bend region as you head out by bus. Stop in a scenic Hill Country town along the way. Stop for a well-deserved rest to stretch your legs and eat a hot lunch along the way. (temp about 65) Enjoy some great Texas barbecue and all the trimmings! DEFINITELY the very best meals of the trip (the only really good one?)

Complete your return to San Antonio. Linda shows a movie to watch (John Wayne Western) as you travel and will share some thoughts to wrap up your westward journey. Beginning at 5:30 p.m. enjoy the kickback reception on the 2nd floor of the hotel, featuring free hot food and cold drinks. That assumes that we get back to San Antonio in time for it (doubtful).

We have a fairly decent catered dinner in at the hotel after the long trip. Linda will lead a final discussion and present a slide show of photos collected during the week to wrap up your experience as you enjoy a catered meal. Hotel: Drury Plaza Hotel San Antonio Riverwalk.

DAY 8, Sunday, Oct 21 - Program Concludes
(B) (Low about 59) Free Time: Optional morning independent activities include a River Walk stroll along our hotel; or visit the Alamo or Historic Market District, located within walking distance from our hotel.

Hotel check out is 11:00 a.m. I’ve chosen a later flight (mistake) so that I would have time to do some of the exploring. The weather is poor enough to wipe out that option (fairly "cold" with occasional light drizzle) so just sit around the hotel lobby until about 12:30 and then take a taxi to the airport to hit the feeding troughs then fly home.

United UA 1930San Antonio – Houston4:16 – 5:25 1:09

Home about 7:45 after another miserable StuporShuttle ride.

I did not take any photos of my own.
These PHOTOS COURTESY OF Road Scholar's PATTY PASZTOR.
Since these are not my own photos, they should be considered as Copyright to Patty.
So please do not copy, just view and enjoy.
36 Photos here


HOTELS:
Drury Plaza Hotel San Antonio Riverwalk, nights 1 and 7, 210-220-2993
Enjoy spectacular views along the famous River Walk. Also a breath-taking view of sunset over the San Fernando Cathedral from hotel's 14th floor Cathedral Terrace. Free Hot Breakfast, Free 5:30 Kickback®, Free Soda & Popcorn, No Wi-Fi

Hampton Inn Alpine, nights 2-3, 6, 432-837-7344
Located near Big Bend National Park, named for the vast curve in the Rio Grande River, the Hampton Inn® Alpine offers convenient access to some of the most unique landscape in West Texas. Free Wi-Fi

Lajitas Resort, nights 4-5, 432-424-5000
Lajitas Resort and Spa is a 27,000 acre private estate community set against the beauty and majesty of the Big Bend National Park and Big Bend State Park. Free Wi-Fi