If you’ve never been to Big Bend National Park, you’re really missing out. This underappreciated, 800,000-acre park located in west Texas offers not only stunning beauty with hundreds of miles of hiking trails, but also 200 miles of improved and unimproved dirt roads. During our week-long stay we tried to cram as much as we could into our itinerary, but we still didn’t get a chance to do everything. Months would be needed to see and do everything that Big Bend National Park offers. One road that we were able to tackle in our small allotment of time was Old Ore Road. This rugged, 4×4 road is one of the park’s most popular and scenic drives for off-road enthusiasts and for good reason. Better yet, we found this Jeep road both challenging and rewarding and very doable in a truck camper, but only if you take it slow.
Old Ore Road is 26 miles long and runs generally north and south. Used in the early 1900s to transport ore from Mexican mines to the railroad station at nearby Marathon, the dirt road connects the Dagger Flat Auto Trail in the north with the paved road to Rio Grande Village in the south. There are a number of interesting sites along the route, which include the Ernst Tinaja, the Roys Peak ruins, McKinney Hills, and Black Peaks. The 4×4 road is rocky and sandy with a speed limit of 25 mph and is advised for high clearance vehicles only. Old Ore Road is very scenic with closeups of the mountains to the east and faraway views the Chiso Mountains to the west. The road in places is very rugged for a 4×4 truck camper. The drive includes sharp rocks, mud, and deep sand with numerous washes requiring steep departure and approach angles in your rig. Truck campers on Old Ore Road need to take it slow. Even though a Jeep can drive the entire length in a couple of hours, it took us six hours, which equates to a little more than 4 mph. Two hiking trails can be found along Old Ore Road, Telephone Canyon and Ernst Tinaja, with the latter being the shortest and most scenic.
Due to the remoteness of Old Ore Road and infrequent travel, be prepared for all kinds of emergencies before embarking on the trip. Have plenty of food and water on-hand as well as a good spare tire, jack, and an air compressor to air up a flat. Carry a map of the park and know where you are on the road at all times (keep track of how far you have traveled in case you have to walk back). If your rig becomes disabled, it’s almost always best to stay with your vehicle until help arrives. Hopefully a park ranger or another visitor will see you, or whoever you informed of your itinerary, will report you overdue. As always, check with park headquarters beforehand the get the latest condition of the road. Flooding and washouts from heavy rains can occur making the surface of the road very rough and sometimes impassible. 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.
Old Ore Road is located in the east side of Big Bend National Park and traverses rugged desert terrain that is typical of west Texas. In stark contrast with the Chisos Mountain Basin in the park, there is very little vegetation along Old Ore Road. Along the way we saw mostly yuccas, prickly pear cactus, creosote bush, and ocotillos with an occasional mesquite and cottonwood tree thrown in. You might see a Roadrunner or two and perhaps a Coyote as well. We started at the south end of Old Ore Road and worked our way north with an overnight stay at Camp de Leon. The first third of Old Ore Road was generally the easiest with the road wide and relatively smooth. A large wash with a hairpin turn (about 7.5 miles) and rise is when the trail really started to get rough. Indeed, the middle third of the road between the aforementioned wash and Roys Peak campsites is what we would classify as roughest part of the drive with the Alto Relex escarpment, countless washes, rocky rises, and encroaching vegetation marking the way. The final third of the drive is rough as well, but not as bad as the middle part, and is marked by the scenic and fossiliferous Black Peaks area west of the road, which consists of mudstone sediments, silts, and black sands, and the Dead Horse Mountains to the east.
Yes or No?
So can you drive Old Ore Road in a truck camper? Obviously you can since we did it, though we wouldn’t recommend doing it in a large truck camper with multiple slide-outs and a dually. This rough and rocky road is best tackled in either a pop-up or a low-profile hard-side like ours (a Unimog truck camper rig attempted this drive in 2017 and ended up on its side after taking a turn too fast). Only drivers with off-road experience should attempt this drive in a truck camper, especially a hard-side (if you’re a novice and visiting Big Bend, try the much easier Old Maverick Road instead). Some sections of Old Ore Road have large rocks, which must be navigated, and some washes are very steep. Most ruts can be avoided by straddling them with your rig, but not all. One steep turn with a long, deep rut on the inside required very slow going as our truck camper rig was a good 60 degrees off camber (yes, we should have gotten a photo, but at the time we were too engrossed in getting through it). In retrospect, I wish we would’ve done two things: removed our lift jacks and aired down our tires. This would’ve made the drive better and less harsh. Note: if you drive this road in a truck camper, you will get pin striping, so if keeping your rig pristine is your modis operandi, don’t do this drive.
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 Ore Road has 11 primitive roadside campsites: Candelilla, Camp de Leon, La Noria #1 and #2, Ernst Tinaja, Willow Tank, Ernst Basin, Telephone Canyon #1 and #2, Roy’s Peak, and McKinney Spring. Permits to camp at these sites are obtained at the Panther Junction Visitor Center. Getting to these campsites can take a long time, so plan accordingly. We stayed at Camp de Leon, which is located 3.6 miles from the road’s south entrance. The campsite is large, offers lots of privacy, but will require several leveling blocks for a comfortable camping experience. It took us 45 minutes to get there due to the slow going on the road. McKinney Spring, the first campsite on the north side, takes even longer to reach. It took the driver of a Ram 1500 with a Four Wheel Camper Fleet nearly two hours to traverse the 7.3 miles to reach the site. The roughly 13 miles to the Telephone Canyon campsites will take around three hours in a truck camper.
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: 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 ($36 a night), while the other campgrounds offer undeveloped campsites with pit toilets and fresh water spigots ($14 a night). It’s been our experience that the sites at Chisos Basin and Rio Grande Village go first and are often full, but you can usually find a spot at Cottonwood even during the peak season of winter. Payment at the developed campgrounds is made through the self-pay station located at each campground. The peak periods are Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and spring break.
Overall, Big Bend’s Old Ore Road was a thrilling, two-day excursion in the Truck Camper Adventure Rig. Sure, some may find Old Ore Road less challenging due to its relatively short, 26-mile length, yet I think most people tackling this drive will find it both exhilarating and challenging due to the epic views and technical terrain. Though the drive is relatively short, its definitely worth doing in a truck camper either as a full day trip or as an overnighter with a stay at the Telephone Canyon campsite, which is the midway point of the entire drive. Is Old Ore Road the most scenic road within Big Bend National Park? Probably not, though it probably ranks in the top two or three. I’ve seen videos of the River Road along the Rio Grande River and that looks more scenic, but at 51 miles it’s a lot longer. We have plans to tackle the River Road and Glenn Spring Road next winter. How difficult was Big Bend’s Old Ore 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 7. The name of the game is taking it slow. As long as you do that, and you have somebody to spot for you in the rough spots, you’ll be okay.