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 spot), and Indian pictographs etched in a small cliff above the river. At the end of the path adjacent to the river are what’s left of the lower walls of the bathhouse and a small shallow sitting area where 105-degree mineral water flows at a rate of 250,000 gallons a day before tumbling into the much colder Rio Grande. The water attracts not only visitors but also a handful of area residents who swear by its salubrious effects. If you want solitude, go early in the morning.
Santa Elena Canyon
The parking lot at the confluence of the Rio Grande and Terlingua Creek provides a close-up look directly into this dramatic gaping gash, with its sheer 1,500-foot limestone walls. The trail beginning at the parking lot, about 1.7 miles round trip, is among the best in the park. It crosses mostly dry Terlingua Creek, then climbs a series of improved stair-step switchbacks (with handrails) to a wide ledge high above the river. The trail drops to river level along a reed-choked sandy vega littered with giant boulders before petering out. If you take only one hike in the park, this is the one. Allow two hours.
The initial part of the hike from the parking lot—over a bare, rocky hill and down to the river, then through a cutbank path—is unremarkable. But once inside the canyon, the trail rewards hikers with magnificent views. When it comes to the play of light on rocks, especially in the afternoon, nothing in the park beats the Boquillas palisades. Extra bonus: the massive wind-blown dune inside the canyon that is perfect for sand surfing. Allow two hours.
A six-mile drive down an improved dirt road suitable for ordinary cars brings you to a dry canyon on the desert floor. After a one-mile hike through a valley of rock-strewn rubble, the trail ends with a short, steep scramble to a scene that appears to have been created by an infant Godzilla: a huge boulder precariously teetering atop two smaller slabs, one of the great photo opportunities in the park. Allow one and one half hours.
One of the unknown delights of Big Bend is this self-guided auto tour on a well-graded dirt road. It offers the most extensive introduction to the desert plant community seen through a windshield. Stop at the beginning of the road in the northeastern part of the park and get a guidebook for 50 cents. The seven-mile road ends at a loop in the middle of a bizarre thicket of giant dagger yuccas, some more than ten feet tall, which should be at peak bloom in late March. Although the loop area is identified as Dagger Flat, the actual flat is at least a quarter mile away, according to topographical maps. Allow about an hour, two hours if you plan to walk.
Just off the main paved road to Rio Grande Village is another underrated destination that is