No wilderness experience in Texas is quite like Big Bend National Park, more than 800,000 acres of mountains, desert, and river so stark and dreamy that it’s difficult to distinguish where reality ends and apparition begins. Jagged peaks sheltering pine forests more typical of New Mexico or Colorado, canyons that are steeper, sheerer, and narrower than any found in the Grand Canyon, the vast expanse of Chihuahuan Desert, and the Rio Grande in its robust, untamed glory suggest that Big Bend was transplanted here from somewhere else—a feeling reinforced by posted warnings about bear crossings and encounters with mountain lions (“Pick Up Small Children”). Not for nothing is it called the last frontier.
Yet Big Bend is one of the ten least visited national parks in the country, with fewer than 300,000 visitors last year. Its isolated location far from population centers, its enormous size and widely scattered attractions, and the general public’s disdain for plants that stick, bugs that sting, and all sorts of wild varmints running loose have kept the people away. That is all the more reason to make the effort. The prospect of all that land with so few people promises a solitude that is a rare commodity almost everywhere else.
I’ve been coming to Big Bend National Park for more than thirty years and while I think I’ve seen a lot of it, something new to explore is always over the next horizon. Like most visitors, I used to spend much of my time in the Chisos Mountains, the southernmost range in the United States and the one temperate spot in the park in the summer. I later discovered the pleasures of floating the river through the stunning canyons. More recently, I’ve been drawn to the desert, which I once dismissed as an empty wasteland but now realize abounds with life. There’s a story behind every plant and animal that has managed to adapt to the land. Hundreds of miles of back roads are evidence of human occupation in the Big Bend before the park was established in 1944; artifacts from pre-Columbian campsites, wax factories, cotton farms, ranches, resorts, stores, villages, and mines can be found all over the place.
Appreciating Big Bend is all a matter of preparation. If you don’t know what to see and do, you are likely to miss the magic or waste precious hours looking for a restaurant or a place to sleep. Unfortunately, while a lot has been written over the years about Big Bend’s beauty, not much exists in the way of practical information. What I’ve tried to do here is size Big Bend down to a manageable scale, whether you’re a trekker, a kayaker, an RVer, a naturalist, a photographer, a desert rat, a thrill-seeker, or a plain old city slicker on a holiday.
For me, Big Bend begins 10 miles south of Marathon on U.S. 385, past the Border Patrol inspection station, at a rest area with a marker that identifies the Caballos (not to be confused with the Deadhorse Mountains inside the park), the low barren ridge to the west with faintly pinkish rock bands running through its gentle slope. This, the marker says, is where the Rockies meet the Appalachians, which explains why I always get the feeling of having fallen off the edge of the map right about here. Twenty-five miles farther south, the national park unfolds in all its glory at the Persimmon Gap entrance. Thirty miles straight ahead are the Chisos Mountains, the park’s centerpiece, which practically dance above the floor of the desert and dominate every panorama. The low bare slopes on the immediate left are the forbidding Santiagos. That big mountain off to the right is Rosillos Peak. Bypass the Persimmon Gap visitors’ center (usually closed because of Washington-mandated budget cuts), and continue 26 miles to Panther Junction, the park headquarters, where the park’s three main paved roads meet. About 10 miles from the junction, just past the Tornillo Creek bridge, you’ll notice some unvegetated hills on the right 2 miles from the road. These are the Grapevine Hills, which will bear closer inspection later.
At Panther Junction the road splits into a Y to skirt the Chisos, which divide the park into sedimentary formations to the east and volcanic formations to the west. The left fork heads down the east side of the park toward the river, dead-ending 20 miles away at the Rio Grande Village campgrounds in the shadows of the mighty Sierra Del Carmens, an almost flat-topped limestone wall in Mexico behind Boquillas Canyon that looms dramatically five thousand feet above the Rio Grande. The right-hand turn at Panther Junction leads to the western entrance of the park at Maverick, with turnoffs to the Chisos Basin, Grapevine Hills, and the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, a winding road with steep grades that leads to the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon, 42 miles from Panther Junction.
The visitors’ center at Panther Junction is a requisite stop. This is the place to pay the $5-a-car admission fee and stock up on pamphlets that provide information about the park’s flora, fauna, and roads. This is also one of the ranger stations where you may secure permits for river trips and backcountry camping (other ranger stations are at Rio Grande Village, Castolon, and the Chisos Basin). The Official National Park Handbook ($5.95) is essential, as are the three guides to hiking trails, paved and improved dirt roads, and backcountry dirt roads ($1.25 each). All explain what you’re seeing and why you’re seeing it. For example, I learned that the ground-hugging lechuguilla grows only in the Chihuahuan Desert and the sotol, with its single woody stalk swaying in the breeze, is an indicator plant that flourishes at middle elevations.
The visitors’ center also has a giant relief map of the park, several dioramas about its past, updates on weather, river, and road conditions, a post office, and a short nature walk that