Before I try tackling Big Bend, how do I prepare?
Get in shape and study up. I can't help you on the physical fitness aspect, but for study aids, I'd start by surfing the Internet. Normally, I'd suggest accessing the official Big Bend National Park Web site ( nps.gov/bibe), but the Department of Interior has shut down all national park sites in response to a judge's ruling in a case involving theft of funds from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. (Don't ask me how that affects national parks, I'm just the messenger.)
The next best thing is the Big Bend Natural History Association's Web site ( bigbendbookstore.org), or you can contact the association via snail mail, phone, or e-mail (P.O. Box 196, Big Bend National Park, TX 79834, 915-477-2236; firstname.lastname@example.org). This organization stocks all the books for the park's visitors' centers (the best selection is at Panther Junction) and publishes the official park handbook ($8.95) and the official park guides, which are written by national park staffers. The books range in topics from hiking the Chisos and driving the paved roads to driving the back roads and floating the river. Order these in advance and get busy reading. The Web site also posts the schedule for upcoming park seminars—which are sponsored by the Big Bend Natural History Association—covering subjects such as geology, black bear, desert survival, paleontology, birding, bat watching, and tracking. Most seminars run one or two days and cost around $50 each. The official guidebooks are also for sale in bookstores in the Trans-Pecos including Front Street Books in Marathon and Alpine, the Terlingua Trading Company in the old ghost town, and the Barton Warnock Environmental Center near Lajitas.
For deeper reads, I recommend the following books:
I'll Gather My Geese by Hallie Stillwell
Lizards on the Mantel, Burros at the Door: Big Bend Memoir by Etta Keck With June C. Price
For All Seasons: A Big Bend Journal by Roland H. Wauer
Big Bend: A Homesteader's Story by J. O. Langford With Fred Gipson
Adventures in the Big Bend by Jim Glendinning
Hiking Big Bend National Park by Laurence Parent
Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History by Paul Horgan
I've also found the following Web sites informative:
How do I get there?
Your best bet is to drive. The closest airports with commercial service are El Paso and Midland, but it's another four hours by car from either airport to the park.
From the east, the easiest access points are via Interstate 10 and Fort Stockton to either Alpine and Texas Highway 118 if you're headed to Terlingua or the western part of the park, or Marathon and U.S. 385 if you're going to park headquarters at Panther Junction, the Chisos Basin, or Rio Grande Village down on the river.
For a more scenic route, take U.S. 90 from Del Rio. You'll cross the stunning Pecos River Canyon, pass Judge Roy Bean's Saloon near Langtry, and follow the same string of springs that established the path for explorers, wagon trains, stagecoaches, and railroads all the way to Marathon, the gateway to the national park.
From the west, exit I-10 at Van Horn and take U.S. 90 to Marfa, where you'll turn south on U.S. 67 to Presidio. Then head east on Texas Highway 170, the River Road, which is a longer, picturesque route—one of the most majestic drives on the continent—to the park; or from U.S. 90, head south at Alpine on Texas Highway 118, or from U.S. 90, head south at Marathon on U.S. 385.
What else should I know about driving in the park?
Gas and oil are available inside the park at Panther Junction and Rio Grande Village and outside the park in Study Butte and Marathon. (You can get diesel at these spots as well, except at Rio Grande Village). Gas runs about 5 cents higher per gallon inside the park. For repairs or towing, call either Terlingua Auto Service (915-371-2223) in Terlingua or Sixto's Shell Service in Marathon (915-386-4551). The 45 mph speed limit on paved roads inside the park is strictly enforced, though a 5 mph overage is usually tolerated.
What should I bring?
Plenty of water. Hydrating is the single most important activity for any visitor. A gallon a day per person is the recommended minimum. Drinking water is free at camp grounds and the four visitors' centers in the park.
A flashlight and pocket knife. You never know when either will come in handy.
A spare tire, especially if you plan to drive off the pavement.
Any necessities or medications. Terlingua Medics (915-371-2222) provides emergency care west of the park, and the Big Bend Family Health Center (915-371-2661) can also handle your medical problems. Alpine, the closest commercial center, is 83 miles from the park's west entrance. The nearest Wal-Mart is in Fort Stockton, 145 miles away.
Ten dollars, which is the entry fee charged per vehicle (good for one week). If the gate at Persimmon Gap is closed or the Study Butte entrance is closed, pay the fee at Panther Junction.
What should I leave at home?
Your guns. Hunting is banned, and all firearms must be unloaded, broken down, and kept out of site. Fishing in the river is legal as long as you pick up a free permit from one of the visitors' centers, but I'd be wary of eating anything caught, which usually means catfish.
Don't bring pets. Leashed dogs are allowed inside the park, but they are banned from trails, which defeats the purpose of bringing them. Terlingua Kennels (915-371-2348) west of the park boards pets.
What should I wear?
Big Bend is in the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest desert in North America. Big Bend is the only national park to have its own mountain range—the Chisos—entirely within its boundaries. Basically the weather varies. Days in March are warm to hot with highs running from the sixties