At most national parks in the US, if you roll in after dark then the admission fee is waived. Or rather, no one is there to sell you a pass, so you drive right in. Which of course would only make sense if you’re planning to stay the night, but it saved me many a-dollar on my low, low, low budget road trip around the country.
Spending the Night at Big Bend National Park
One particular night, I was driving from Carlsbad Caverns into Big Bend National Park, on the Texas/Mexico border. I had meant to arrive during daylight to actually explore the park, but I’m almost glad for the way things ended up.
First of all, I wildly underestimated the size of Big Bend (everything’s bigger in Texas!). I arrived past 10 pm, drove in for free, but then proceeded to spend over an hour searching for a campsite – only to find that they were all completely booked. Overall, a nice thing about my road trip up to that point had been that it was during the winter months, so campsites typically didn’t need to be reserved far in advance. This night was an exception.
Still needing a place to sleep, I decided to drive to a remote part of the park and sleep in my car, hopefully undetected. I set an alarm and woke up before sunrise, then drove away before a park ranger could spot my rouge car. Yet another cheap national park hack I was learning. Then I had to figure out where to drive.
The Hot Springs of the Rio Grande
I perused the park map. I wanted a special place to watch the sun come up, and boy did the Hot Springs catch my eye. The springs are part of the remains of the J.O. Langford’s bathhouse, which has crumbled since it’s hay day in the early 1900s. The steamy water is supplied by the Rio Grande itself (so cool!!).
So I made my way over to and down Hot Springs Road, then followed the nearby trailhead hopefully. I was using my phone as a flashlight when the sun began peeking through the reeds. It was so so silent, and everything was still except for the tall grasses swaying with the breeze. I hope everyone experiences mornings like this.
And I wasn’t even at the hot spring yet.
When I got there, everything felt perfect. Not a soul in sight, steam rising off the water, the sky slowly shifting between pink and orange. I slipped out of my clothes and into the steaming water.
I love those moments when you feel like there’s something you should be doing, but then you realize there actually isn’t, and all you should be doing is being. Being in that place, in that moment, trying to absorb it fully. And I can’t think of a better example of that feeling than in a hot spring by yourself at sunrise.
I soaked for a while, at least until the sky had turned to an even blue. And then as the rest of the day’s hikers began appearing, the true magic of the hot spring began slipping away. I took that as my queue to leave. It had been too perfect of an experience to have the place to myself. So I guess that’s a piece of advice I have for enjoying natural hot springs: try to go at odd hours, like in the dark in the winter.
I slowly took the trail back to my car, feeling like I had only just woken up and emerged from a dreamlike state. The good news was that the adventure was far from over. Like I said, Big Bend National Park is giant, so I had no shortage of places to explore.
Then again, in this world, do we ever?