Any tour of Big Bend National Park should include several drives. The most popular of these include Ross Naxwell Scenic Road, the Basin Road, and the Rio Grande Village Road. These roads are popular because they are scenic, paved, and easy to do even in a truck camper. Yet Big Bend has several other drives that are equally worthy of a truck camper owner’s attention. We already reviewed Old Ore Road, a rugged, 4×4 dirt road, in a recent article, but another drive that’s less challenging yet equally scenic is Old Maverick Road. Located on the west side of the park, this graded and improved dirt road not only offers an excellent orientation and introduction to the park, but also access to the Terlingua Abajo, one of the park’s best primitive roadside campsites. Exploring Big Bend’s Old Maverick Road and the Terlingua Abajo in a truck camper won’t necessarily challenge you, but it should be on the itinerary of every truck camper owner visiting Big Bend National Park.
Old Maverick Road is a 12.6-mile, improved dirt road located on the west side of Big Bend National Park. The road runs between the scenic Santa Elena Canyon in the south and the park’s west entrance. Several interesting attractions along the route can be found, including the ruins of Terlingua Abajo, Luna’s Jacal, and the ruins at Alamo Creek. The best views include the epic Santa Elena Canyon, a 1,000-foot high escarpment cut in two by the Rio Grande River, and Pena Mountain, both of which take on a breathtaking orange glow at dawn and dusk respectively. Although Old Maverick Road is open to all vehicles it still passes through several large washes, which can flood and wash out portions of the road after a heavy rain. Because of this, visitors should check with park rangers first to determine the road’s current condition before embarking on the drive.
Old Maverick Road is classified by the National Park Service as an “improved” road with a speed limit of 25 mph, but don’t let that fool you. This flat, relatively wide road is often rough with heavy washboarding. Because of this heavy rippling, drivers of truck campers need to take it slow. While some, like my wife, may may be put-off by the washboarding, this can be mitigated somewhat by simply airing down your tires. As such, we highly recommend that you do it. Unfortunately, traffic on this dirt road is much heavier and faster than on the park’s unimproved roads like Old Ore Road and Glenn Spring Road. This means that dust can be an issue, especially during long stretches between rains. Cell service is sporadic within Big Bend National Park with an occasional one to two bars of Verizon 3G or Extended 1X signal along the route, so I wouldn’t count it.
Old Maverick Road generally runs north-south and traverses rugged desert terrain along the western border of the park. In stark contrast with the Chisos Mountain Basin, there is very little vegetation along Old Maverick Road. Along the route we saw mostly Torrey yuccas, dog chollas, creosote, and ocotillos with an occasional mesquite and cottonwood thrown in. We started at the south end of Old Maverick Road and worked our way north. Here the Terlingua Creek flows below and to the west of the road, providing epic views for the traveler. At 2.7 miles you’ll come to the Terlingua Abajo turn-off, which leads to the best campsites and ruins on the drive. Two miles past this turn-off, you’ll enjoy an excellent view of Pena Mountain, then cross the Alamo Creek wash before the road swings north. Two rock ruins (a house and a shed) can be seen just off the road under the cliff. The worst washboarding can be found along this final stretch of the road, which includes a worthwhile stop at Luna’s Jacal, an excellent example of a primitive house-shelter built by Gilberto Luna who raised a large family here. Just beyond this structure you’ll find the trailhead to the excellent Chimney’s Trail and to the Rattlesnake Primitive Campsite, that latter of which lies some 4 miles from the north entrance. The end of the drive at the west entrance to the park is marked by epic views of Tule Mountain to the east with the Chisos Mountains in the background.
The Terlingua Abajo (“Lower Terlingua”) ruins and turn-off is one highlight along Old Maverick Road that should not be missed. This 1.7-mile-long dead end road, which passes though a few ancient volcanic formations, is generally rough and requires a 4×4 vehicle to traverse. Most of the settlement ruins lie on a small rise across the Terlingua Creek, which can be reached after a short hike. The creek, which empties into the Rio Grande River, usually runs only a few inches deep, but can become a raging torrent after a heavy rain. Due to the presence of the creek, this area was cleared for farming at the beginning of the 20th Century. In addition to the ruins here you can also find evidence of old irrigation ditches. Unfortunately, most of the cottonwood trees that existed here were cleared for farming. According to one foreman who worked this area in the early 1900s, Terlingua Creek was a “bold and running stream, studded with cottonwood and alive with beaver. At the mouth of Rough Run there was a fine grove of trees, under the shade of which I have seen at least one thousand head of cattle. Today (1933) there is probably not one tree standing on the Terlingua that was there in 1885.” From these ruins you can also see a nearby metal tower and tram upstream, which are part of a water gauging station currently maintained by the International Boundary and Water Commission. The road to the tower and tram is closed, but you can hike it.
Yes or No?
Old Maverick Road is one drive that I would classify as easy for truck camper rigs, so the answer is a big YES. Any truck camper can tackle this road including those being hauled by a large dually. Heck, even a Host Mammoth can tackle Old Maverick Road. If you’re looking for something more technical and challenging, Big Bend National Park offers several other “unimproved” roads that should peak your interest. These include Old Ore Road, Glen Springs Road, the River Road, and the very challenging Black Gap Road. You will need a low, profile, high-clearance 4×4 camper for these unimproved roads. Old Maverick Road is different. Yes it’s rough and heavily washboarded, but it’s plenty wide with little in the way of obstacles like rocks and deep ruts. The only exception is the 1.7-mile-long Terlinqua Abajo side road off of the main road—tackling this will require a high-clearance, 4×4 camper. At times, I’m sure a 2WD can make it, but we drove this after a heavy rain and the road was in bad shape with several patches badly eroded.
Primitive Camping and Campgrounds
As is the case with nearly all U.S. national parks, boondocking for free is not allowed within Big Bend National Park. You can, however, camp at dozens of what the park calls “primitive roadside campsites” for $10 a night. Old Maverick Road has five primitive roadside campsites: Ocotillo Grove, Terlingua Abajo #1, #2, and #3, and Rattlesnake Mountain. Permits to camp at these sites are obtained at the Panther Junction Visitor Center. Getting to these campsites is relatively easy though driving the 1.7-miles to the Terlingua Abajo sites often requires a 4×4 vehicle for the last half-mile. We stayed at the excellent Terlingua Abajo #3 campsite, which is located 4.7 miles from the road’s south entrance. The camping area consists of a large oval loop where the three campsites are located. Overall, the Terlingua Abajo is a very nice location with lots of space and privacy. From here you can explore the nearby ruins and take a hike to the tower and tram, which offers an excellent view of the valley. Getting to the Terlingua Abajo camping area was relatively easy, but took us a good 20 minutes to get there due to the condition of the road. The other two primitive roadside campsites—Rattlesnake Mountain and Ocotillo Grove—are much easier to get to. You can plan a full day of activities at the park and still reach them relatively quick before nightfall.
Unfortunately, getting a primitive roadside campsite within Big Bend National Park is often a hit or miss affair. The primitive roadside campsites go quickly, so if you have a desire to camp at one you’ll need to get to the visitor center early. Fortunately, Big Bend National Park will soon allow reservation of these sites online. This is a good thing as it will allow visitors to plan their trips months in advance. If you happen to strike out on a primitive roadside campsite, the park does offer four developed campgrounds for a reasonable price: Chisos Basin (the park’s most popular), Cottonwood, Rio Grande Village, and Rio Grande Village RV. Only Rio Grande Village RV offers full hook-ups at $36 a night, while the other campgrounds offer undeveloped campsites with pit toilets and fresh water spigots at $14 a night. It’s been our experience that the sites at Chisos Basin and Rio Grande Village go first and are often full during busy periods, but you can usually find a spot at the nearby Cottonwood Campground even during the peak season of winter (this is where we stayed the first night in the park and had no trouble getting a spot). Payment at the developed campgrounds is made through the self-pay station located at each campground. The peak tourist season includes Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years (when we visited), and Spring break.
Exploring Big Bend’s Old Maverick Road and the Terligua Abajo was an enjoyable excursion in the Truck Camper Adventure Rig. Even though an SUV can whip through this drive in 30 minutes, it took us 2.5 hours, including several stops, which equates to a little more than 6 mph. Which direction of travel is best? After driving the road, we think that exploring it north to south is better, primarily because of the epic views of the Santa Elena escarpment, which towers above the road the closer you get to it, and the road’s incline, which gradually drops as you approach the Rio Grande River. Is Old Maverick Road the most scenic road within Big Bend National Park? Probably not, though it probably ranks in the top three. Overall, we really enjoyed exploring Old Maverick Road, though in retrospect, I wish we would’ve done one thing before exploring it—aired down our tires. Something along the lines of 35 psi front, and 50 psi rear would’ve made the drive much better, less harsh, and more enjoyable. How difficult was Big Bend’s Old Maverick Road? On a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being the easiest and 10 the hardest, I’d have to give the drive a 1. The drive is easy, but if you want to avoid a visit to the dentist, you’ll need to take it slow.
Thank you, Mike, for reminding me of my last visit to Big Bend National Park in January 2013, which included a south-to-north drive up the Old Maverick Road and the Terlingua Abajo spur. Some of my photos are from the same spots as yours. The attention-grabbing expedition vehicle then camped at one of the Terlingua Abajo primitive campsites where you stayed was a right-hand drive, earlier-generation Toyota Land Cruiser single-cab pickup from South Africa equipped with a custom bed topper with two spares for its oversize off-road tires on top. Two days earlier I had spotted that rig for the first time at the national park’s hot springs, which you mention visiting in another post. On that trip I also drove the River Road East as far as the Mariscal Mine, which I explored on foot, as well as the Glenn Springs Road during the last hour of daylight that day. The Old Ore Road is still on my to-do list for a future visit, as is the River Road West.
While you were visiting the national park recently at New Year’s, I was one county upriver at the less-visited but also beautiful Big Bend Ranch State Park. Most any truck camper can access the scenic River Road (Farm-to-Market Road 170) portion of the park, located between Lajitas and Presidio. The more remote, rugged, and totally unpaved interior portion of the park, however, is only suitable for short and narrow rigs, such as the Toyota Tacoma from Ontario, Canada, equipped with a Four Wheel Camper (Fleet or Swift), or the late-model Mitsubishi mid-size truck from the neighboring state of Chihuahua, Mexico (not sold in the U.S. nowadays), both of which I spotted on one of the rough, brush-lined vehicular trails inside El Solitario, the park’s signature geological feature.