Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas is spectacular!

Big Bend National Park is relentlessly stunning high mountain desert alongside the Rio Grande — and a paradise for all who love the outdoors.

Linda

Big Bend is one of the most spectacular sights you will ever see. We’ve visited many national parks and this has become a favorite.

Picture hilly, arid land with a backdrop of long mountain chains that take your breath away. Some formations create rounded sculpture shapes, while others are more angular. Rock variations color the hillsides in shades of taupe, red and white. This is a geologist’s dream, and many travel here for that reason. I tell George that this is the polar opposite of Mount Vernon. It feels like you can see forever and it’s hard to take in all this vastness.

After our interminable winter, I am soaking in the heat here. It’s hot, sunny and dry — even in April, where the average daytime temperature this week was 90 degrees. But it cools down into the 50s at night with a lovely breeze.

The desert scrublands are covered with plants completely foreign to us. There’s a mixture of mesquite, acacia and a variety of cactuses. I love the giant yucca plants with their impressive white plumes rising out of their centers. Probably the strangest plant here is the ocotillo — stalks that look dead sport red blossoms on top and if it rains, the stalks are covered with little green leaves a couple days later.

Birding

Of all of the great national parks, why do we come to Big Bend? It’s a birder’s paradise. More than 450 species have been recorded here. Arriving in April, we are able to see some migrating species as well as year-round and summer residents. The Rio Grande is a lush corridor through this desert land and a bird migration highway. The park is comprised of grasslands, riparian oasis, river, mountains and desert shrub habitats. Hitting all those areas turns up a wide variety of birds.

There’s nothing quite like seeing the boldly patterned face of an acorn woodpecker looking at you and then, a few feet away, lands a ladder-backed woodpecker. Their calls are loud and clear as they dart back and forth.

Imagine walking down to the Rio Grande and lifting your binoculars to capture a pair of summer tanagers in the same view — the male, vibrant red and the female, bright yellow. No, I’m not in Mount Vernon anymore! As I lather up with good sunscreen, pack a picnic and lots of water, I am able to anticipate seeing incredible birds for hours on end — my idea of a perfect vacation.

George

On our first visit, we came here strictly to go birding. We did not anticipate the beauty of the mountains and desert. The park is huge, and we cover much of it. Spread throughout are tiny pockets of water that draw the birds.

It is not easy to get here from Maine. We drove to Portland, took a bus to Boston, flew to Houston, flew to El Paso, stayed overnight there, then drove to Terlingua the next day. The last part of the drive follows the Rio Grande for 50 miles, and we got out often, spotting birds.

One day, our friend Jim Kinney (a neighbor in Mount Vernon and a winter resident of Texas) joined us for a day in the Big Bend Ranch State Park nearby, and brought with him Cathy Hoyt, a butterfly, desert plant, bird and archeology expert. She led us to an amazing oasis in the middle of the desert. What a tour guide!

Linda is right — the scale of things out here is hard to imagine for us Mainers. My favorite place is in the Chisos Mountains where it’s cooler, the hikes are manageable, the birds are plentiful, the scenery is jaw-dropping incredible and they even have a nice restaurant. Paradise!

Lodging — George

Four years ago, we could only find small motels in Terlingua (the town on the edge of the national park), so we stayed at a nice resort in neighboring Lajitas. But it was a longer drive to Big Bend, so this time we looked for a place closer to the park.

We really lucked out. I found Villa Terlingua online, and owner Cynta de Narvaez quickly replied to my emailed inquiry. She has one large five-bedroom house and two smaller adjacent houses. Cynta is always on the premises and is a fascinating person, a former river guide, a community leader and lots more. She was tremendously helpful before we went and especially while we were there.

For a guy (me) whose new book is titled “A Life Lived Outside,” Villa Terlingua was somewhat ironic. Many people in Terlingua really do live life outside. Inside our neat little one-room house was a bed, kitchen, full-sized fridge, desk, table and more, with a full bath in a cute little building next to the house. But almost all of these things were also outside, including a bed, sink, fireplace, grill, shower, tables, chairs and a lovely couch and rocker.

Cynta spent 16 years building these homes out of a 90-year-old limestone ruin, and furnished them with antiques, books and collectables she picked up while traveling around the world.

I’m sitting on the porch, staring at the mountains of Big Bend to the east, writing this column and a Bewick’s wren just walked into our courtyard, pranced around and ate something. A few minutes ago, two dozen Lesser Goldfinches landed in a flowering bush to my right. A quail is calling not far away. This is birding heaven! And a rabbit just bounded by!

Lodging — Linda

I immediately fell in love with the house we rented this trip. It is in the Ghost Town section of Terligua but trust me, it’s not spooky. The little house is decorated with a variety of eclectic things, and the outside living spaces are enclosed by rock walls of ancient stones. The open-air feeling of sitting outside while a pleasant breeze blows through is a sure cure for stress. And then there’s the view … lots of open land with enormous rock formations as a backdrop.

It took me a few days to figure out the time of day. The sun doesn’t rise until after 7 a.m. We were sure to see the sunrise as well as the crescent moon and Venus, still visable in the morning!

Food

Lin loves to cook, so we ate all of our breakfasts and some of our dinners at the house. But the Starlight Theater, THE place to eat in Terlingua, is a 5-minute walk across the cactus-crowded hillside, and we fell in love with the place when we visited four years ago.

The Starlight was originally constructed in the 1930s as the Chisos Movie Theater. Mining drove the local economy then. Now, they depend on tourists. In the 1960s, without a roof, the place once again offered theater performances for the locals — hence the name, the Starlight Theater. In 1999, the place got a facelift and a roof and became a restaurant.

If you can remember what you had to eat in a place four years ago, it’s gotta be pretty darned good! And we did.We’d been looking forward to the Starlight’s unique and award-winning chili, so we each had that on our first visit, along with a large salad and locally brewed beers. The place was jammed, with a 1-hour wait for a table, but we were lucky enough to spot and grab two places at the bar. The Starlight also has live music every night, so it’s a very entertaining place.

On our second visit, I had something else I remembered — the chicken-fried antelope. It is soooo good. With a ton of mashed potato and some excellent veggies, this was a memorable meal.

The Starlight is next to a couple of stores where local folks gather on the porch every evening to enjoy the sunset. Someone is always strumming a guitar, while the adults enjoy cold beverages and the kids play with hula hoops. Everyone faces east (rather than west where the sun is actually setting) so they can watch the sunlight — often pink — go up and over the mountains. It is a spectacular sight.

Linda – Food

I also remembered that chili as extraordinary, and it still is. We actually ordered it twice this trip. Texas chili is very meaty and made without beans. I wish I knew the secret combination of seasonings. One night I also tried a dish of chicken, spinach and mushrooms in cream sauce. That was a superb meal as well.

We shopped in Marfa for food supplies for the week. Having a kitchen and fridge let us enjoy our home away from home, and the Telingua Market had other supplies to keep us well stocked. Cooking there gave me one more pleasure — watching George wash dishes outside. He claimed he loved it, so maybe we’ll try it at home!

Visit George’s website — georgesmithmaine.com — for book reviews, outdoor news and all Travelin’ Maine(rs) columns, found listed in the “Best of Maine” section.