Big Bend 2002

Whether you're a first-time visitor or a frequent one, here's the latest scoop on how to drive the back roads, run the Rio Grande, and discover secret hikes you won't find on the map, plus other ways to get the most out of your trip to Texas' greatest treasure.
The badlands near Study Butte at dusk.
Photograph by Laurence Parent

DEEP IN A FAR SOUTHWESTERN corner of Texas, where the wild things outnumber the people and the Rio Grande makes a grand detour around exquisitely rugged terrain, lies Big Bend National Park. Encompassing more than 800,000 acres—1,250 square miles—of desert and mountains, the spread is so remote, surreal, and sprawling that the eye loses perspective: Is that mountain in front of you two miles away or twenty? Established in 1944 by Congress, the park may appear to be a vast wasteland to a first-time visitor. But more life flourishes here than you can imagine: 75 species of mammals, including black bear, 67 species of amphibians and reptiles, more than 450 species of birds, and at least 1,200 identified species of plants, a list that is still being expanded. And just about every one of these living things can either stick, sting, or bite you.

Isolation is one of Big Bend’s greatest appeals. Leave your cell phone behind; it won’t work here unless you climb to the top of Emory Peak, elevation 7,825 feet—and the last 25 involve scrambling up an extremely steep slope. Walk into the desert a few hundred feet and you will find yourself wrapped in solitude and silence. Big Bend is still the Wild West, the place where you will discover just how big Texas can be.

Big Bend is our park. About two thirds of the 330,000 visitors each year are Texans. The number ought to be higher: Every Texan should go to Big Bend at least once as an essential step to achieving total Texanhood. The park is so big, however, that—whether you are a newcomer or a veteran—you will have a lot of questions about what to see and do. Fortunately, I know the answers.

How does Big Bend compare with the best national parks?

It ranks alongside Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon as one of this nation’s great wildernesses, with scenery that no other national park can match—a vast swath of Chihuahuan Desert; its own mountain range, the Chisos; forests of pine, oak, maple, and fir; a river that has carved out three sheer canyons more than a thousand feet deep; colorful badlands; an even more colorful history, featuring banditos, murders, military maneuvers, ranching, and mining; and an international border that you can cross without going through checkpoints.

I’ve never been to Big Bend. What can I see in a weekend?

A long weekend, I hope. You can get a feel for the place in two days. Just stick to the pavement and a couple of improved dirt roads. Plan to spend one day on the east side of the park and the other on the west side. Paved roads lead from the park headquarters at Panther Junction around the Chisos and down to the Rio Grande on both sides of the park. Of the two routes into the park, one from the north via Persimmon Gap and the other from the west via the settlement of Study (pronounced “Stoo-dee”) Butte, the northern route is shorter and better, with good roadside interpretive exhibits about the desert.

Begin your exploration of the park by taking the Dagger Flat Auto Trail, a seven-mile drive over a dirt road that is suitable for a sedan. Pick up a pamphlet for 50 cents from a metal stand on the side of the road and watch for the nineteen numbered signs that explain the plants of the Chihuahuan Desert—ubiquitous creosote bushes, ground-hugging lechuguilla, and as the elevation gradually increases, sharp-toothed sotol. As you approach the mountains, the road swings northward behind a ridgeline, and you enter a forest of giant dagger yuccas, many of which stand seven to eight feet tall.

The visitors center at Panther Junction is situated against the north face of the Chisos. Inside, a giant relief map of the park will give you a sense of the topography and the road network. Outside, a short walking path identifies a number of desert plants.

Continue down the east side of the park until you reach the spur to Dugout Wells, once the site of the schoolhouse for the ranching families who lived here. An easy high-desert hike, about half a

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