Sunday, March 11, 2018

Big Bend National Park


A few years ago while looking through one of my Ansel Adams books, I was taken by one photograph in particular. I'm not sure what it was about the image that grabbed me but I made a mental note of where it was shot and hoped we would visit there one day.

The place was Big Bend National Park and when the photograph was taken in 1947, the Texas State Legislature had recently allocated $1.5 million to purchase land from private owners and give the 1250 square mile area its new designation.

So while we were hanging out at the Live Oak Ranch in Texas over the Christmas holidays, I got it into my mind that I wanted to go there. Linda agreed and we put it on our calendar.

We decided to stay at Maverick Ranch RV Resort in a little town called Lajitas and it seemed like the ideal place because it had full hookups and thought it was pretty close to the park. What we didn't really get a handle on was the actual distance from there to Big Bend. It was a 60-mile round trip just to get to where the famed Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive began.

Gorgeous scenery at our lunch stop on the way to Lajitas.

Of course, the distance ultimately didn't deter me and I spent nearly every day at the park shooting the sunrise. And here's the thing about sunrises, very few people are willing to get up early to see them. In fact, for 3 full days I had the entire park (well, as much as I could see of it) to myself.

In general, when we arrive at a big destination like this, Linda and I will go for a drive to get the lay of the land. I view this as a reconnaissance trip. I keep my eyes open for places I'll want to shoot in the upcoming days, paying close attention to where east and west fall for the best light.

It was pretty overcast by the time we got into the park. This had also been a travel day for us. The trip from Fort Stockton where we overnighted at the Walmart parking lot was a little longer than I expected. Still, we made the effort to do a little sight-seeing before the day was done.

Even though it was overcast, the views at the park were not too shabby!

The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is a sight to behold and really showcases the park's mighty landscape with its abundant geological structures. At the end of this 30-mile road is the Santa Elena Canyon. We decided to stop at the overlook as the sun peaked out from behind a thick curtain of clouds. When I walked over to the little shelter, I couldn't believe my eyes. It was the exact location of the Ansel Adams photograph! We hadn't planned it that way and I hadn't yet made the time to figure out where it was. What a thrill! The light was completely wrong. It was obvious to me that he had photographed the massive rocks in the early morning.

This would be the second time I got to stand where the great master once stood. The first time was back during our first year of fulltiming at Lone Pine in California. It took me a long time to figure out where that particular shot was taken but I just stumbled into this one at Big Bend. Needless to say, I made plans to come back the next morning to take the shot.

The view of Santa Elena Canyon on that first evening. The final photograph is at the top of the page.

While it's fun to try to emulate Ansel's photographs, the benefits for me are 2-pronged. First and foremost, I get to enjoy a particularly beautiful spot in the world but I also get a chance to really study why he made the photograph. What I've learned is that there was nothing left to chance when he pushed the shutter. The moments in his pictures were absolutely decisive. Shadows in the right place, clouds positioned just so and a strong composition that featured the scale of the thing. When I am standing there myself, humbly looking through my viewfinder, I find a piece of wisdom to add to my own experience as a photographer. And so it was on that first morning standing there as he did.

Every day I drove to the park in the dark as the first needles of light appeared over the Chisos Mountains. Hill crests and pointed rocks would ignite first and then the golden light would slowly drift down the mountain like slow moving honey. As the light appeared, so too did the sounds of birds and I just stood there and thought to myself, this is why it's worth it to stumble around in our rig, trying to get dressed in the dark and navigating down a pitch black road towards the park. It had been ages since I was in my photographic element and if there is such a thing as happiness, however fleeting, I felt it in the cool morning air.





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There are no words to describe the beautiful light and scenery in the area so photos will have to suffice.

Big Bend National Park is not the only attraction in the area. I had read about Terlingua Ghost Town just down the road from our park. I thought it would be kinda cheesy as these places sometimes are but, when we took the time to visit the old cemetery, one of the centerpieces of the "town", it proved to be quite moving. Many of the graves had little trinkets that had belonged to the deceased. It was kind of fascinating and sad to walk around and look at these little life stories.



Just some of the creative memorials at the Terlingua Cemetery.

Terlingua is also home to a couple of great restaurants. We had dinner at the Starlight Theatre located right in the ghost town. This restaurant was originally constructed in the 1930s as the Chisos Movie Theater and provided entertainment for local residents during the heyday of Quicksilver mining. It has a funky decor, kind of a combination burlesque/cabaret/saloon bar/performance space with lots of interesting artwork. Certainly a feast for the senses and the food wasn't half bad either.

Epic pano shot by Linda of the Starlight Theatre sign.

Outside the Starlight Theatre. You figure out what’s going on here :)

Adding to the atmosphere of the place, there are vintage cars all over Terlingua Ghost town.

During our stay at Maverick Ranch RV Resort, we met a wonderful fulltiming couple, Pat and Judy Iverson. They are followers of our blog and it was fun for us to meet up. We had dinner in Terlingua at the La Kiva Restaurant and bar. This is another funky eatery in a cave-like setting with dinosaur-themed decor. Are you seeing this in your mind?? The food was to die for. Seriously. For me, it was about the best burger I've had in recent memory.

Hanging out with Pat and Judy.

This part of Far West Texas has the darkest skies we’ve ever seen. The stars are amazing!!

But our stay wasn't all rainbows and unicorns. When we first arrived, we noticed that Toadie was covered, and I mean covered, in oil. What did that mean and what adventure ensued? Find out in the next blog post.

In the meantime, Big Bend National Park has jumped right onto my top ten list of all-time favorite places. What started as a photograph in a book led me to a wonderful experience and a renewed appreciation for our great National Parks.

Next up: Big Trouble in Big Bend, sort of.


  1. Excellent photos, Steven! Santa Elena Canyon is so massive, it's a challenge to get it into the viewfinder. I love the shot of Scoopy with the Mikly Way in the background. 😊

    1. It really is huge, it's hard to convey the scale in a photograph. One morning, I went on the trail inside the canyon. It was a little unnerving being there by myself. There are lots of Bear Aware signs and, with all of the grass gently swishing around me, I was watching closely for anything dark and furry :) I was very happy with that shot of Scoopy and the stars.

  2. I have to admit that Big Bend has never been on my radar. I know people who’ve gone but I’ve never been swayed to add it to our must-see places until this post! Amazing - as always! Thanks for sharing!

    1. If I hadn't known of that photograph by Ansel Adams, we might never have visited the place. I hope you get to go some day.

  3. Awesome photos Steven! We have yet to visit there but it's been on our bucket list.

    1. Thank you! Well, I'll give the park a ringing endorsement!

  4. Simply gorgeous photos. I love the Ansel Adams shot and all the others, too. So glad you are willing to get up and a wickedly early hour to capture these images. Thanks also for the kind words after spending time with us. We had fun, too. Safe travels!

    1. Judy, it was really nice to meet you and Pat. I'm glad we got to have such a great meal too. Maybe we'll see you again down the road.

  5. Loved the photos. Thanks for posting them and the link to we have to add a new place to our next visit.

    1. When you go, keep your eyes to the sky at night. It's the most stars we have ever seen!

  6. Great photos! We enjoyed our trip down there, it was a little chilly when we were there but well worth it.

    1. Thank you! Yeah, it's one of those places where the pendulum of weather swings wide. We were beginning to feel the early onset of hot weather when we were there. I can't imagine hiking there in the summer.

  7. What a lovely post and thanks for sharing the details of what goes behind your beautiful pictures.

    1. Thank you so much Tracy. Looking forward to seeing you again soon.

  8. Replies
    1. Thank you. It was even more epic in real life :)

  9. Great great awesome photos
    But as you know even the best photos are not as good as being there in person 😎

    1. Thank you and you are right. The scale of the park is as much the experience as the views themselves.

  10. Steven, your photos are stunning (great pano of the Starlight Theatre by Linda, too). After our visit in late December, Big Bend National Park went onto our "favorites" list, as well.
    I enjoyed reading your musings about your photography process and what inspires you. How cool that you found the exact spot where Ansel Adams created the photograph that drew you to Big Bend NP in the first place!

    1. Thanks Laurel. I know you've recently been around the same areas as we have. Some day we'll actually run into each other :)

  11. We're hoping so!! Maybe this spring/early summer?

  12. You have a great eye. Keep on shooting.

  13. Thanks for the preview, we will be there on Monday! Great photos, as always!