Five convertibles made the drive from Kerrville to spend a few springtime days in Big Bend. With speed limits set at eighty miles per hour for most of the way, (and including two potty stops, a picnic stop and a stop for gas) six hours is all it takes to get to Persimmon Gap at the northern entrance to the Big Bend National Park.
The park is vast, and it takes over an hour to drive west from Persimmon Gap to Study Butte and Terlingua. The leisurely drive through Chihuahuan desert scenery is a great introduction to the Big Bend area. For some of our group the park is an old friend, while others were getting their first glimpse.
The base for our trip was Study Butte, and its sister-town Terlingua. Just ten miles from the Mexican border, these two towns boast a combined population of only 267. So it’s not surprising that there’s really not a whole lot to do in town. However, there are just enough good hotel rooms and good restaurants to satisfy even the most discerning traveler. The best lodging must be booked well in advance, especially outside the summer months.
Our topless adventure would take us through breathtaking scenery. In fact, every road within eighty miles of Study Butte is designated as a “scenic route”. These highways are best savored top-down with good friends.
In perfect weather, we drove northwest on Highway 170, which runs close to the Mexican border, through the Big Bend Ranch State Park. The distance to Presidio is only sixty-four miles, but Mapquest shows a travel time of almost two hours each way. The winding, mountainous road and the magnificent scenery demand a slow pace. The route follows the Rio Grande and there are many opportunities to enjoy the area up-close.
As you crest one hill, you can look down on the abandoned Contrabando movie set. It looks like a piece of old Mexico with its tiny church and adobe homes. Between 1993 and 2000, a half-dozen movies were filmed there, including Streets of Laredo. The next hilltop offers views of the Rio Grande for miles in each direction. This was where Kevin Costner buried “Dom” in the movie Fandango.
A photo-stop at the iconic teepees rest area is a must, especially when you have five convertibles to line up. There’s an unimpeded view of the Mexican border area, so it wasn’t surprising to find a border patrol agent parked in the very best photo spot. The agent, Trevor, quickly understood our predicament and not only did he move his vehicle out of the shot, he happily agreed to take a group photo.
In Presidio we explored St. Francis Plaza, and made a side-trip to Fort Leaton State Historic Site. We had selected The Enlightened Bean restaurant to be our lunch stop, and a group of Border Patrol customers confirmed that we had made an excellent choice.
A cold front had blown in during the night, and we awoke to cold weather, low clouds, and sprinkles of rain, very unusual weather in which to explore the National Park. Dirt roads were pretty much off limits for the low-slung roadsters so, with tops up, we set out to enjoy every mile of blacktop the park has to offer.
We began with the spectacular Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive all the way to the Santa Elena Canyon. Windbreakers were needed for the short hike to the canyon entrance, beneath the towering limestone cliffs. Here, the dividing line between the USA and Mexico is less than a stone’s throw (yes, we did try it).
Big Bend is the only national park with its very own mountain range, but today the Chisos Mountains were partially hidden by rolling cloudbanks. Even in late-morning, the road up into the Chisos Basin was shrouded in thick fog, and “ice warnings” were posted. But as we crested the summit bright sunshine greeted us, and we could look back onto the cloud tops. We enjoyed lunch at the park restaurant, with amazing views back towards Terlingua.
There’s so much to see and do in the park, but our plans would take us into Mexico, making this the first (and quite possibly the last) international trip for the Comanche Trace Topless Club. With passports in hand we headed for the border crossing at Boquillas. After being closed for a dozen years, the crossing has just reopened. The newly built US border post provides safe parking, and once inside the building, park staff provide instructions and advice for the international journey.
A two-minute walk brought us to the Rio Grande, and a rowboat made its way over from Mexico to pick us up. A five-dollar ticket is required for the round trip, and an official guide is recommended. We declined the optional pick-up truck or burro ride, and our walk to Boquillas took twenty minutes, with Jose as our guide. Jose spoke no English, but he led us to the village, directed us to the immigration office for our entry visas, and then walked us along Main Street pointing out the three bars and two restaurants. We later discovered that Boquillas also has a new school, a new medical building with two doctors on staff, and a population that has increased five-fold since the crossing was re-established. The village also boasts a new B&B/hotel to accommodate overnight visitors.
We had been warned that the border officially closes at 6:00pm, so we were “in-country” just long enough to visit the Park Bar, and the Boquillas Restaurant. Then it was time to get our Mexican exit permits and head back across the Rio Grande. Entry into the US requires a passport scan, followed by a garbled phone connection to a customs agent who wanted assurance that we hadn't made purchases during our foreign travels. A visit to Boquillas isn't exactly a bucket-list item, but nonetheless we had a great adventure.
The perfect weather was back. Our group split up, some played golf at Lajitas, some opted to hike into the Chisos Mountains, and some began the journey home. It turned out that late February was the perfect time for our trip. We had one cold day sandwiched between three, perfect top-down days.
While in Study Butte, we stayed at the Casitas at the Far Flung Outdoor Center, and each night we sat under the stars, around the firepit recounting the day’s adventures: the desert scenery, the wildlife, the old Terlingua ghost town, Study Butte’s amazing gas prices, and other mysteries of the universe. We also talked about likely destinations for the next Topless overnight road trip – the possibilities seem endless.