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 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.
The vast majority of visitors to Big Bend venture no farther than the high-country basin in the Chisos, which is understandable, since you don’t see 7,800-foot mountains in Texas every day. But you haven’t done Big Bend unless you’ve seen the river and the desert too—and driving past in your car doesn’t count. Even a short walk in the desert can be full of revelations. Take in at least four or five of the sights listed below and you’ll come away with a pretty good idea of what this vast chunk of real estate is all about.
The Chisos Mountains Basin
Three miles west of Panther Junction is the winding road that leads into the Chisos. As you climb more than two thousand feet up Green Gulch, the vegetation rapidly changes from desert to forest. Seven miles ahead lies the basin, an alpine valley sandwiched between the dramatic Window—a V-shaped gap in the almost-continuous ridge that rings the basin—on the west and the blocklike Casa Grande dominating the eastern horizon. Visiting the basin is an absolute must, not only for the scenery but also because this is where you’ll find the only lodging and restaurant in the park, as well as a gift shop, convenience store, ranger station, campground, amphitheater, and stables.
Built in two stages by a somewhat optimistic tourist operator named J.O. Langford between 1909 and 1927, the hot springs are easily reached from the turnoff near Rio Grande Village, only a two-mile drive down an improved dirt road. Pick up a self-guiding trail booklet for 25 cents in the Hot Springs parking lot, then start walking. It’s a quarter mile to the springs, past abandoned stone structures that once housed a post office and a motel, a small grove of palms (an excellent picnic