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 mile round-trip, winds through desert scrub to an oasis. As you resume your drive, the elevation drops on the way to the Rio Grande, and the desert loses its lushness. The ruins of Hot Springs Resort, built by a dreamer named J. O. Langford in 1910, are at the end of a two-mile dirt road, and a quarter-mile hike leads to the springs themselves. Sit on the foundation of the bathhouse and enjoy the healing waters. Pictographs painted in red on the low-hanging rock along the path are testament to previous Indian occupation of the springs.
Past Rio Grande Village, a popular campground with a store where you can get snacks, prefab sandwiches, and drinks, the road ends at a parking area for Boquillas Canyon of the Rio Grande. Here you can hike into the canyon along a trail about three quarters of a mile long that climbs and descends a hill. Now it's time to retrace your route to Panther Junction and head west to the Chisos Basin. The turnoff, three miles west of the park headquarters, heads up Green Gulch through open Chihuahuan Desert to an elevation of 5,679 feet before dropping a couple of hundred feet into the basin. This sheltered area is the most scenic spot in the park that is reachable by road, an elevated grassland plain ringed by the peaks of the Chisos on all sides, rising 2,000 feet above the basin. To the west opens a giant V-shaped gash in the mountains called the Window, a drainage for storm runoff from the basin.
Take the Window View Trail, which is level, paved, and short (one third of a mile) to appreciate the grandeur surrounding you. The most noticeable features are flat-topped Casa Grande, elevation 7,325 feet, and the rock spires of Pulliam Ridge. These are remnants of magma