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.

March 2002By Comments

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 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 that penetrated through volcanic strata eons ago. When the less resistant rock eroded, the spires were left. The basin has the only lodging and restaurant facilities in the park—both at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, a no-frills motel. Next to the lodge is a well-stocked store, a good place to get groceries, film, flashlights, and first-aid sundries. The lodge is usually booked well in advance for the spring but is available in summer and after New Year’s.

For day two, head west on the main park road to Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, a thirty-mile paved road that winds down to Santa Elena Canyon. Unlike the east side of the park, where the formations are largely limestone, the west side of the park is wilder and strewn with surprises—reflective of volcanic activity that tossed around rocks and boulders millions of years ago. The road climbs and drops as it passes by strange formations like Mule Ears Peak and butte-topped Cerro Castellan. Highlights worth pulling over for include the ruins of the Sam Nail Ranch, once the home of an exceptionally wise steward who eked out a decent living off the land without ruining it; Tuff Canyon, where white globules of extruded lava compose one bizarre scenario; and Castolon, in the shadows of the Sierra Ponce in Mexico, where a former military barracks has been refashioned into a convenience store.

From here the road parallels the river upstream for eight miles to Santa Elena Canyon. Don’t miss the three-quarters-of-a-mile-long trail into the canyon; if you take only one hike in Big Bend, this is it. You will have to cross Terlingua Creek, which could be dry, sandy, muddy, or wet, so come prepared with old walking shoes. The stunning beauty of sheer 1,500-foot walls hovering above the Rio Grande is as dramatic and grandiose a vista as you’ll encounter at close range in the American West. Head out of Santa Elena on Old Maverick Road, a thirteen-mile improved dirt route through eroded badlands that is a shortcut to the park’s western entrance and Study Butte. Ordinary passenger cars should have no difficulty here. Hightail it to the Terlingua ghost town, seven miles west of Study Butte, and participate in one of the Big Bend’s great social events—sitting on the porch in front of the Terlingua Trading Company, shooting the breeze, and sipping a cool one while watching the setting sun bathe the Chisos Mountains in ever-changing shades of golden light.

If I want to see the backcountry, do I need an SUV with four-wheel drive?

Most of the 157 miles of unpaved roads inside the park can be driven in a high-clearance vehicle without four-wheel drive. Some back roads are suitable for a carefully driven passenger car. Four-wheel drive is likely to be necessary only after a major rain. Road conditions are posted at the park visitors centers; it pays to read them before heading off the pavement. If you have any doubt, ask a ranger. And make sure you’re carrying plenty of water and a fully inflated spare tire. Just remember, if anything goes wrong, you will be marooned in the desert, separated from the nearest heavily traveled road by miles of unfamiliar and dangerous terrain, and your cell phone is useless.

The three most popular back roads in the park are the Glenn Spring and Old Ore roads, on the east side of the park, and River Road, on the south side. River Road is the longest, most remote drive in the park, stretching east to west for 51 miles, from near Hot Springs to near Castolon. This all-day drive is filled with side routes and historic sites such as the works of the former Mariscal mercury mine. A little bit of everything passes for a roadbed—fine sand, rough gravel, packed dirt, hardened mud, pure bedrock—but despite several bumpy stretches, I never had to engage the four-wheel drive on my last trip. River Road is best enjoyed driving west to east to catch the play of sunlight on the banded limestone face of the Sierra Del Carmen in Mexico in the afternoon and soak your feet in the Hot Springs at the end of a long day’s journey.

Glenn Spring Road is much shorter (around ten miles) and easier than River Road. It leaves the pavement on the eastern side of the Chisos and heads west and south to the site of a candelilla wax factory and settlement that was raided by Mexican banditos in 1916, leaving four Americans dead. A scattering of lumber from an old corral is about all that’s left of Glenn Spring. The other attraction of Glenn Spring Road is the Pine Canyon spur, a six-mile route out of the desert into the more thickly vegetated lower slopes of the Chisos. Look back and see just how high you’ve climbed. Then you can hike the steep two-mile trail up the canyon, where you will find Arizona pine and bigtooth maple before ending at the bottom of a seasonal waterfall that is one of the more sublime places in the park.

Old Ore Road, a historic route once used to haul quicksilver from the river to Marathon, stretches for 26 miles on the eastern side of the park between the Dagger Flat road and Rio Grande Village. The northern part of the loose-gravel track is flatter and straighter, the southern half considerably rougher with more climbs, drops, twists, and turns. If you’re going to attempt to drive the entire road, budget at least four hours, including stops. Or you can enter from the south and drive five miles to the campsite number one spur road leading to Ernst Tinaja, one of the most photographed sites in Big Bend. A tilted, scalloped swirl of rocks carved out of a canyon by periodic flooding, with a water hole at the bottom, the tinaja is a half-mile walk from the parking area along a dry wash.

Can I get on the Rio Grande?

There’s no better way to appreciate Big Bend than to traverse its three great canyons. Unfortunately, the Rio Grande is suffering from a 25-year decline because of demand for its water upstream in Texas, so it’s adios to those fancy guided raft trips with gourmet chefs and string quartets. Accomplished paddlers can still do the canyons in canoes or kayaks. The current is so close to nonexistent that outfitters are recommending that paddlers start at the east end of Santa Elena Canyon and go upstream three miles to Fern Canyon before turning back, a trip that can still take a good half a day or longer, with some dragging required in shallow spots. But by hooking up with Jack Kinslow—like me, an advanced paddler, who I met in Terlingua—I was able to do the entire nineteen-mile run through Santa Elena Canyon over the course of a long day. Despite encountering a few stretches where we had to drag our canoe, the most stunning, jaw-dropping scenery I’ve ever laid eyes on in Texas made it worthwhile. Next time, I’ll paddle the first ten miles from the put-in at Lajitas to the canyon entrance, then camp overnight before finishing the rest of the trip. You haven’t seen Big Bend until you’ve paddled Santa Elena.

It’s a shorter ten-mile paddle through Mariscal, the least visited of the park’s three canyons. But the logistics are considerably trickier, since the put-in at the Talley campground and the take-out at the Solis campground are two hours or more from the nearest pavement via River Road. I managed to run Mariscal in a single day by hiring a shuttle and a guide, but the wiser (though more expensive) approach is to camp out at Talley overnight. The guide tipped me onto the Hippie Hermit Cave at the end of Tight Squeeze rapid, a point of interest marked by a peace sign etched into a boulder on the Mexican side. We hiked up the canyon slope, rummaged around, and found a rock shelter that had once been occupied by “Yogan from Broken Knife, Texas.” Boquillas Canyon has enough water to float, its flow recharged by the hot springs around the Mexican village of Boquillas. But even strong paddlers will have a tough time doing the winding 33-mile course in two full days.

How do I get to Mexico, and what can I do there?

Two villages are across from main areas of the park—Boquillas del Carmen, on the east side, and Santa Elena, on the west side. To go to Boquillas del Carmen, look for the turnoff after the tunnel on the paved road to Boquillas Canyon, park your car, walk a hundred yards down a path to the river, and pay the man in the battered little aluminum rowboat $2 a person for a round-trip ferry ride to another country. It’s about a mile walk into the village of 125 inhabitants, though for a few dollars more, you can ride a burro or hitch a ride in the back of a pickup into town. The only cafe is Falcón’s, where a buck buys either three bean burritos or three cheese taquitos, which you can wash down with cold soda or beer. A curio shop is next door, a cantina a little farther down the dusty path, and the Buzzard’s Roost bed-and-breakfast, celebrated in Robert Earl Keen’s “Gringo Honeymoon,” at the end of the road. Boquillas has no electricity or phone service, but it does have the quaintness of a spaghetti western movie set. A hot springs is on the Mexico side less than a mile upstream from the crossing. Boquillas is the only restaurant option on the east side of the park. Otherwise, order box lunches at the Chisos Mountains Lodge restaurant the previous night or see what’s available at the convenience store at Rio Grande Village.

West of Castolon, a sign on the road to Santa Elena Canyon marks the turnoff to the Mexican village of Santa Elena. Once again, park your car and look for a man in a battered boat. He will row you across for $2 a person round-trip. The community of 250 on the opposite bank lacks the quaintness of Boquillas but compensates with amenities such as electricity, a paved sidewalk on one side of the main dirt road, a small museum inside the local primary school, and a concrete plaza of which Soviet architects would have been proud. You have your choice of three cafes, each with a more extensive menu than was offered in Boquillas, with entrées priced around $5 a plate. The green-chile enchiladas at El Cañon were as good as it gets on either side of the river. The fare at Maria Elena’s, down the street, has more fire because she uses jalapeños instead of the milder chiles verdes. Horses on the Mexican side can be rented at the river crossing for $5 to $30 an hour, depending on what the market will bear. Like Boquillas, Santa Elena lacks telephones, medical facilities, and a border checkpoint.

I’ve driven all over the park on my previous trips, and I’ve done all the short walks. What are the best hikes for someone who doesn’t jog or work out at the gym every day?

If you’re unsure of your capability, start in the Chisos Basin. It’s cooler because of the higher elevation and the trails are relatively flat. Two good trails are the 1.6-mile Basin Loop, which climbs around 350 feet—enough for a splendid view through the Window to the desert far below—before returning to the basin, or the 5.2-mile Window Trail. This is a great sunset hike, and you can shave off more than a mile of the distance and around half of the eight-hundred-foot drop in elevation by starting at the campground rather than by the lodge.

For a more substantial test, try the popular Lost Mine Trail, which begins at mile mark 5 on the basin road at 5,679 feet. Chances are you won’t find the legendary silver mine that gives the trail its name, but if you do the two-mile round-trip up to the first saddle, you will discover the most accessible high-country vista in Big Bend. If you’re up for more, continue for 1.4 more miles along a ridgeline passing by Texas madrone, gnarly oaks, and piñon pines en route to a promontory at 6,850 feet. From trail’s end you can see Pine Canyon, Juniper Canyon, and the East Rim of the Chisos. (Warning: The eastern side of the upper Chisos complex, including Casa Grande, the upper part of the Lost Mine Trail, and the Southeast Rim, is now closed and will not reopen to hikers until mid-July, after the nesting season for the rare peregrine falcons who reside here in summer months.)

The desert offers two easy walking hikes. One is a mile round-trip through flat, brushy terrain from a parking area to the Burro Mesa Pouroff. This is a good introduction to how empty and isolated the desert is. Another is the Grapevine Hills trail, reachable by the unpaved Grapevine Hills Road. The 2.2-mile walk through a valley full of granite boulders follows a sandy wash, then climbs slightly to a pass. The payoff, about a hundred yards ahead, is a balanced-rock formation that seems to defy the laws of physics.

Hiking is the ideal way to see Big Bend, but it is also the best way to understand how dangerous Big Bend can be. People die here. Always carry plenty of water and wear hats and clothing that offer protection from the sun, especially when hiking on the desert. Hiking in the high country carries its own set of risks. Signs warning about black bears and mountain lions, both of which occupy the high country, should be taken seriously. Three years ago a woman and her three young girls were stalked by a mounain lion for about fifteen minutes near the waterfall in Pine Canyon. Talk to a ranger before attempting a hike that you think may test your capabilities or your knowledge of how to deal with life-threatening situations.

I’ve been to Big Bend many times, and I’ve already done everything you have suggested. Isn’t there something more?

The South Rim of the Chisos, at the lip of a 2,500-foot drop to the desert floor, has the best view in Texas: a panorama of the entire Big Bend where the eye can easily follow the Rio Grande emerging from Santa Elena Canyon, going through Mariscal Canyon, and on to Boquillas Canyon, where it disappears. This strenuous day hike is at least thirteen miles by way of Laguna Meadow, longer if you choose to return by way of other high Chisos trails, such as Boot Canyon and Pinnacles.

You say you’ve done that too? Okay, try the Mariscal Canyon Rim hike. It’s 6.6 miles round-trip from the road to the Talley campsites, with a steep last mile or so before you reach the overlooks for the canyon. This hike is closed during peregrine falcon nesting season and inadvisable for the rest of the summer because there is no shade. Watch out for crumbling rock near the rim.

A little-known trek to Mesa de Anguila, in the westernmost corner of the park near Lajitas, will reward you with a view into the start of Santa Elena Canyon. This vaguely marked fourteen-mile round-trip hike passes through rough open country with a network of trails and is not for inexperienced hikers. Check in at the front desk of the Lajitas resort for a free shuttle through the golf course to the trailhead—and make sure you’re packing plenty of water.

Any hike in the Dead Horse Mountains will put you to the test. All are far from roads and without water. Park literature warns that you need a good working knowledge of a map and a compass and that trails “disappear, reappear, cross other trails, and wind along washes and through mazes of thick, thorny growth.” The Strawhouse Trail leaves the Boquillas Canyon road and follows a drainage basin for fourteen miles before joining the trail to Telephone Canyon, named for a telephone line built by Army engineers during the Mexican Revolution because of the threat of raids by Pancho Villa.

I haven’t attempted to explore the Dead Horse Mountains, nor have I tried Mesa de Anguila, but I am inspired by the route designed by Craig Pedersen, the executive administrator of the Texas Water Development Board, who has walked across the entire park. The 95-mile stroll from Adams Ranch, just east of the park, through Telephone Canyon and the Dead Horse Mountains, all the way to Lajitas, took five and a half days and required carrying a seventy-pound backpack and fourteen topographic maps. Food and water supplies had to be stashed in advance in three locations. Still, Pedersen calls it “the best walk of my life.”

Another ambition of mine is to float all three canyons inside the park in a single trip—which can be done in about a week—though the flat stretches between the canyons offer no respite from the sun or the heat during warmer months. Every winter, a handful of advanced river runners attempt the two-hundred-plus miles from Colorado Canyon, west of the park, to the take-out on the Lower Canyons run well east of the park near Dryden. It’s one of the longest, least- encumbered-by-civilization river trips in the entire United States.

I’m also looking forward to attempting the big three-day, two-night Three-In-One adventure that Desert Sports concocted for some clients, beginning by hiking from the basin up to the South Rim to camp out the first night, then down to the desert via Juniper Canyon on the second day, where a “sag wagon” awaits with mountain bikes. We will ride down Glenn Spring, Black Gap, and River roads to camp by the river at Talley before paddling canoes through Mariscal Canyon.

Black Gap Road itself is an adventure that few attempt. It connects Glenn Spring to River Road over an ill-defined, rocky eight-and-a-half-mile track that is the only official back road in the park that is not maintained. Another lightly traveled back road is the forty-mile drive at the north end of the park near Persimmon Gap that winds west along the base of the Rosillos Mountains into Terlingua Ranch and, eventually, Texas Highway 118 north of Study Butte.

I’ve heard that there are secret places that park personnel don’t want you to know about. Is it true?

It’s true. They’re off the map because they’re so fragile that too many visitors would ruin them. Ask around. Locals and parkies (park employees) know many prime spots not mentioned in the guidebooks (did someone say Cattail Falls?) but generally don’t spill to outsiders. A parkie told me about Indian Head Springs, a little-hyped destination reached by taking the dirt road behind the Big Bend Motor Inn in Study Butte for a couple of miles to a parking area that is outside the park boundary. A trail leads past the boundary fence to a field of boulders strewn about the base of a mountain that have more Indian pictographs than any other site in the park. One veteran allowed that one of his favorite hikes is from the basin to the Window, then down a winding, precarious one-thousand-foot vertical descent to Oak Creek Springs and back up again. An easier way to get to see the springs is to take the unmarked dirt road opposite the turnoff to Sam Nail Ranch on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, then hike a level mile to the springs. Step gingerly, though. This is an extremely sensitive ecosystem.

You could also study topo maps and set your own course. Wherever there are springs, something interesting will be nearby. Big Bend is all about discovery. It took me more trips than I could count before I finally “got” Elephant Tusk, understood why the Rosillos are called the Rosillos, and located the landmark known informally as the Tired Backpacker. I’ve been coming to Big Bend ever since I was a kid, and every single trip I learn something new. There are not too many places left in this world where you can do that.

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