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Visitors head to Big Bend despite shutdown

January 4, 2019

BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK — Gates remain open at Big Bend National Park as the government shutdown drags on, but campgrounds, visitor centers and restrooms are closed, and no rangers are on duty to issue back country permits or provide information.

With no staffers to empty trash, clean facilities, lead educational programs or check people in and out, officials closed the park’s three campgrounds — Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village and Cottonwood. Most visitors appeared to be sticking to the no-camping dictate, but some backpackers were spotted this week pitching tents at remote sites in the Chisos Mountain Basin and in the desert at the sprawling West Texas park.

A few heavily trafficked areas at the park, including the Santa Elena Canyon trailhead and trail, Old Maverick Road and the Boquillas border crossing, were also closed.

All other trails, however, including the park’s iconic South Rim trail and Lost Mines Trail, remain open, and a steady stream of guests checked in and out of the Chisos Mountain Lodge and bought supplies at the basin’s park store, which are operated by Forever Resorts, a private concessionaire. The park’s two service stations are open, too.

“At this time our operations have not been affected,” Louis Carpenter, operations manager for the lodge, said Friday. “We’re open for business. This is our high season and our occupancy rate has not been affected.”

It wasn’t clear if park law enforcement officials were ticketing those who camped in the backcountry. They were patrolling park roads, where the posted speed limit is 45 mph. According to the park’s website, emergency services remain available, but response times may be delayed.

With park restrooms closed, a few clumps of discarded toilet paper had popped up behind boulders and cacti along popular trails. Visitors should plan to pack out all trash if they visit.

Some campers diverted to nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park, which is operating as usual, for their wilderness experiences.

“We have seen more visitation,” Big Bend Ranch State Park ranger Brandi Heasley said Friday. “(People who had planned to camp at Big Bend National Park) have been disappointed, but when they get here they find out this is another cool spot they didn’t realize existed. We like to say it’s the last true wilderness spot in Texas.”

With more than 311,000 acres of remote and rugged country and miles of trails, the state park offers camping at designated sites and in the backcountry, and also operates a no-frills bunkhouse, where visitors can stay in segregated men’s and women’s quarters for $35 a night.

Unlike some trails in the national park, where tourists flock on crisp winter days, most trails at the state park were nearly deserted this week. Among them were a cross-country scramble to an overlook at Fresno Canyon, and a short walk to the twisty series of water-filled pools at Cinco Tinajas.

Big Bend National Park covers more than 800,000 acres. More than 442,600 people visited the park in 2017, according to the National Park Service.

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