Big Bend National Park
The best sights, where to stay, what to eat, how to find a guide, and everything else you could possibly want to know about the most beautiful place in Texas.
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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 a quickie introduction to the desert on foot. Hardwood trees, a windmill, and abundant wildlife that show up to drink from a spring around sunrise and sunset suggest an oasis. The adjacent Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail, a half-mile walk with interpretive signs identifying and describing representative desert plant life, underscores the harsh reality surrounding the spring. Allow 45 minutes.
A twenty-foot opening between solid rock polished slick by water erosion, the Window is where all the rain and snowmelt in the Chisos Basin drains out. Although the rock is too steep and slick for anyone to risk peeking over the edge, you can see the desert below through a narrow rock formation appropriately called the Gunsight. But you don’t need to get up close to the Window to appreciate it as a natural stage for sunsets in the basin. One of the best perspectives is from the bench at the end of Window View Trail, three tenths of a mile from the convenience store. The Window Trail, a two- to two-and-one-half-mile hike (depending upon where you start) to the actual Window opening, follows a tree-shaded drainage and a running creek to the pouroff. Allow two and one half to three and one half hours for the hike and remember that the walk back is uphill.
The Lost Mine Trail
Though a steeper grade than the Window Trail, this is the least strenuous hike in the high Chisos. The trail follows a series of shaded switchbacks to several breathtaking views of the basin below and Casa Grande above. Its popularity is evidenced by the recently expanded parking area, where guide booklets are available for 25 cents. Deer, kangaroo rats, mountain bluebirds, giant ravens, and even peregrine falcons circling in the sky are easily spotted from the trail; sightings of black bear, which have recently returned to the park, have been reported here. In March, this is also a prime location for observing migrating hummingbirds. The short trail to the Juniper Canyon overlook is about two hours round trip; the whole trip takes about four hours.
The South Rim
The view from the top of the Chisos is the grandest in the park and perhaps in all of Texas; unfortunately, it is also one of the hardest to reach, requiring either an all-day horseback ride or an arduous twelve- to fifteen-mile hike, depending on which route you take. The reward at the precipice is a series of incredible vistas that are some of the most expansive on the North American continent, extending more than 200 miles on a clear day. From here, the eye can effortlessly follow the river on its entire 107-mile, three-canyon bend through the park. The Laguna Meadow Trail is the more gradual route up, although it is one and one half miles longer than the treacherously steep Pinnacles Trail, which is best negotiated on the way down. Plan to pass through Boot Springs for a respite by a placid brook. This quiet refuge is a feeding station for Colima warblers, which are rarely seen in the U.S.
WHERE TO STAY INDOORS
A big issue on almost every Big Bend trip is whether to stay inside or outside the park. The sole choice inside the park is the Chisos Mountains Lodge at the basin (432-477-2292). Its central location is certainly more convenient to most park activities, but if you feel the need for a telephone, a choice of restaurants, and such valuable amusements for kids as in-room TV and an on-site swimming pool, stay outside the park. The lodge has 66 rooms ($107-$143 for a double) that are somewhere between a Motel 6 and a Holiday Inn but in a much prettier location. A cluster of six rustic cottages is tucked in the pines several hundred yards from the motel units ($136 for two). Demand is so heavy that booking cottages a year in advance is a must.
There are motels to the west of the park in Study Butte (24 miles from Panther Junction) and Lajitas (41 miles) and to the north in Marathon (69 miles). In Study Butte (pronounced “Stewdy Byoot”), a haphazard settlement two miles from the western park entrance, at the intersection of Texas Highway 118 and Farm-to-Market Road 170, are the Big Bend Motor Inn and the companion Mission Lodge across the highway (432-371-2218; 877-386-4383), two plain but clean motels with Wi-Fi, basic cable TV, a gift shop, a pool, and a combination gas station, convenience store, and cafe. The area also features a 9-hole golf course with carts. A standard double is $89-$105 a night. Less than a mile west is Easter Egg Valley (432-371-2254), a.k.a. the Chisos Mining Company Motel, whose pleasantly decorated rooms are housed in a string of connected prefab buildings. A double is $76 a night. The motel at the Terlingua Ranch (432-371-2416), about 30 miles north and east of the Study Butte intersection, has a restaurant, a pool, and modern rooms that start at $66 for a double.
The erstwhile resort town of Lajitas has the widest array of lodging choices west of the park at The Ultimate Hideout Lajitas—92 rooms, a bunkhouse, cabins, and condos, most furnished with antiques and equipped with a telephone and cable TV, along with access to a pool (central reservations 432-424-5000). Doubles are $159 a night; a two bedroom condo that sleeps up to six runs up to $702 a night. Lajitas is dubbed “the Palm Springs of Texas” by its boosters and “Walley World” by its detractors, the later in honor of Houston developer Walter Mischer, who dreamed up this ersatz Dodge City twenty years ago. Complementing the lodging are convention facilities, a bar and restaurant, a nine-hole golf course, an airstrip, stables, tennis courts, mountain bike rentals, and the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center desert museum and gardens. The covered faux Western town boardwalk is Lajitas’ commercial center, with a drugstore and soda fountain, a liquor store, the offices of Big Bend River Tours, an art gallery, a gift shop, and the Badlands Hotel, the check-in desk for all Lajitas lodging.
WHERE TO STAY OUTDOORS
Big Bend has three campgrounds in the park—the Chisos Basin, with 60 sites; Cottonwood, 35 miles from Panther Junction, near the historic Castolon store in the western part of the park, with 31 sites shaded by a huge grove of cottonwood trees; and Rio Grande Village, 20 miles from Panther Junction, on the east side of the park, with 100 sites and an overflow campground, as well as a small trailer park with hookups ($27 a night), a store (one of the two places in the park that sell beer), a gas station, a self-service laundry, and the park’s only public showers ($1.50 for five minutes).
Permits for the fifty designated primitive backcountry campsites in the Chisos Mountains can be obtained at park visitor centers up to 24 hours in advance of the trip. Primitive campsites elsewhere are divided into zones, to which hikers are assigned when they obtain their backcountry permits. During busy periods, the only openings may be the primitive campsites near Mariscal Canyon and Talley, down by the Rio Grande in the park’s southern extreme, reached only by four-wheel-drive vehicles on the extremely rough River Road, or sites around Dagger Flat and Persimmons Gap in the north. Backcountry campers must be at least a half mile from any road, a quarter mile from any spring or historic site, and one hundred years from any trail, and must possess a backcountry permit.
Individual sites at campgrounds in the park are $14 a night and are filled on a first-come, first-served basis. Primitive and backcountry sites require a $10 permit which can be acquired at one of the park's visitor centers in person. Group camps Bend Motor Inn’s RV Park (432-371-2218), which also rents bare bones eight-by ten-foot wooden sheds euphemistically called cabins; and the 101-space RV campground in Lajitas (432-424-3471), with full hookups, Wi-Fi, cable TV, and tent sites. There’s always room for campers at the Stillwell Store (432-376-2244), the sole camping option north of the park, six miles east of U.S. 385 on FM 2627. Next to the Hallie Stillwell Museum Hall of Fame, a worthwhile stop even if you aren’t camping, it has RV hookups and 25,000 acres for primitive camping. In general, private campsites are $5 per person, and RV hookups are $18.50 a night and $110 a week.
The Big Bend Travel Park (432-371-2250), on Terlingua Creek, has the only shaded campground outside the park. Other privo $10 a person, and RV hookups go as high as $15.
WHERE TO EAT
The restaurant in the Chisos Basin Lodge is adequate for a national park dining facility. The service is better than average, and the soda fountain is the equivalent of a spring in the desert—cherry milk shakes are a specialty. Chicken fajitas, pork chops, baked perch, ribeye steak, and a bottomless cup of coffee highlight the limited menu. No alcohol is served. Service begins at seven in the morning with the last evening seating at a quarter to eight.
The Study Butte—Terlingua Big Bendoplex has more options, including Gloria’s, the closest liquor store to the park. The old reliable is La Kiva (432-371-2250), a wildly imaginative rock and cement cavelike edifice built into the side of Terlinqua Creek, with a subterranean entrance and a spacious patio, three miles east of the ghost town of Terlingua and one and one half miles west of Study Butte. The fare consists of decent barbecue plates, a sixteen-ounce T-bone, and an eight-ounce filet, all accompanied by the familiar sides of slaw and beans. Order at the counter upon arriving. The kitchen closes at midnight.
The new Starlight Theatre Restaurant and Bar (432-371-2326) in Terlingua has stolen much of La Kiva’s thunder. An old movie theater remodeled into an airy adobe-walled eatery with a mesquite-topped bar as centerpiece, the Starlight boasts a menu with more choices and real green stuff on the side. Most entrees—a sixteen-ounce T-bone, lemon chicken breast, beef picadillo, and daily specials such as Shrimp Mexicana—come with a lettuce salad, parsley potatoes, beans, and tortillas. Live music is booked occasionally, beginning around eight. Food service ends at ten; the bar closes at midnight.
Also recommended: The Badlands Saloon in Lajitas and the Roadrunner Deli, next to the Study Butte store, a bright, cheery eatery done in blond pine, with a selection of gourmet coffees, including a supercharged cup of Texpresso ($1.30), breakfast burritos (3.50-5.95), as well as picnic lunches (crab salad, even!) to go.
One of the unique features of Big Bend is the extensive network of roads. It is extremely rare for a national park to allow so much access to interior sections. There are more than 110 miles of pavement to explore, and another 150 miles of dirt roads.
The eastern road to Rio Grande Village has few turnoffs as it heads through low desert that drops off gradually to the river. The main west side road, known as the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, is far more interesting, passing by some remarkably weird landmarks—the prominent Mule Ears Peak (turn off the road at the sign for the overlook), Cerro Castellan (a multihued peak that was an Indian reference point), and the smooth-surfaced, free-form Tuff Canyon (a short descent below ground level). Other short side trips lead to the old Sam Nail ranch, the Sotol Vista overlook, Blue Creek Ranch, and the Burro Mesa pouroff. The store at Castolon, originally built as an army post above the Rio Grande floodplain, sells postcards, snacks, ice cream bars, cool drinks, and little else. “People come here expecting a 7-Eleven,” explained the man behind the counter. “They don’t realize that our milk comes from Albuquerque and our food is trucked in from Abilene.” The speed limit is 45 miles per hour, and at least one ranger is said to enjoy writing tickets.
Drive River Road
While doing the Big Bend, budget time for a scenic drive on the 67 mile River Road (FM 170), which parallels the Rio Grande between Study Butte and Presidio, west of the National Park. The narrow twisting asphalt thoroughfare has been described as perhaps the prettiest drive in North America by National Geographic, and in this case, the reality really does match the hype. Going west, the first 17 miles passes through the greater Terlinguaplex, specifically the settlements of Study Butte, Terlingua, and Lajitas, the most populated stretch on the desert. The knocked-out views begin shortly thereafter, as the road risings and drops dramatically through Colorado Canyon, where the scenic pullovers literally take your breath away. The last stretch between the dusty town of Redford and Presidio, the gateway to the Mexican state of Chihuahua and Copper Canyon includes rich farmland that has been continuously cultivated since before the arrival of the Conquistadors. Texas Parks & Wildlife pubishes an excellent mile by mile road guide that you can pick up at the Barton Warnock Center near Lajitas, or the adobe-walled Fort Leaton state park near Presidio.
Passenger cars should be able to negotiate the dirt roads that lead to Hot Springs, Dugout Wells, and Grapevine Hills. The thirteen-mile Old Maverick Road, a shortcut to Santa Elena from the west, should also present no problem. The road passes the former jacal (a low-ceilinged dugout house) of a legendary Big Bend character named Gilberto Luna, who subsisted on crops cultivated in a dry wash, fathered more than fifty children, and lived to be 108. All improved dirt roads should be attempted only in dry weather at speeds under 35 miles per hour.
Some 150 miles of unimproved back-country roads promise even more adventure, but with a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle. Check conditions at a ranger station. Otherwise, it can be a long walk back to civilization. The most popular are the 50-mile River Road, which parallels the Rio Grande, though river views are not as common as one might think; the Glenn Springs road to the site of a Mexican bandido raid in 1916; and the 2-mile Old Ore Road shadowing the Dead Horse Mountains, in the eastern part of the park. Conditions on these roads are unpredictable because the routes go through dry washes that change with every heavy rainfall. If you’re taking the River Road, avoid the side roads leading to the Rio Grande. FYI: The Panther Junction gas station has a tow truck and a mechanic who does minor repairs. Major automotive work is done in Study Butte, Terlinqua, and Marathon.
(See Dugout Wells and the Window Loop Trail in the Best Sights.) The Rio Grande Village Nature Trail, a three-quarter-mile loop that tracks through thick, junglelike vegetation up to an overlook, is one of the better birding locales in the park in the spring and fall. Other short walks, both on the west side of the park, lead into Tuff Canyon and to the Burro Mesa pouroff.
These are moderate hikes that require some exertion but can be enjoyed by anyone in decent physical shape. In addition to Santa Elena Canyon, Boquillas Canyon, and Grapevine Hills from the Best Sights list, try the Pine Canyon and Chimney trails. The Pine Canyon trailhead is reached via the unimproved Glenn Springs road. The 4-mile round-trip hike begins in the sotol foothills on the eastern flank of the Chisos and climbs through grasslands about a mile before entering the narrow, lushly vegetated canyon. The trail, which rises abruptly at times inside the canyon, terminates at the base of a two-hundred-foot pouroff that turns into a spectacular waterfall following summer rains. This is a wonderfully cool and uncrowded location for a picnic. Allow two and one half to three hours round trip. The Chimneys Trail, a slightly longer, 4.8-mile round trip from the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, is notable for weird rock formations and the most interesting Indian pictographs in the park. Allow three to four hours.
Mesa De Anguila, reached from Lajitas, contains several ill-defined trails with absolutely no shade; it is recommended only during winter. So why bother? For knockout panoramas of Santa Elena Canyon from the top looking down. Allow two to three days.
The Mariscal Mountain Trails can be equally confusing and intimidating in hot weather but offer similarly rewarding perspectives of the least explored and the most remote canyon in the park. At the northern extreme of the mountain, eighteen miles from the eastern end of the River Road, is the Mariscal Mine, an abandoned quicksilver operation spread over two dozen structures, as well as the ruins of several houses. Watch your step here. The area is pocked with mineshafts, and construction materials may be contaminated with mercury.
Telephone Canyon, Strawhorse, and Marufo Vega Trails in the eastern extreme of the park are the roughest, toughest, most primitive, and most hard-to-follow hiking routes in the park. They wind through canyons, washes, and scrub brush in the moonscape tableau of the Deadhorse Mountains. For experts only.
The South Rim, Juniper Canyon, Dodson Trail, and Blue Creek Ranch Grand Tour is a three-day minimum, thirty-mile march dropping out of the Chisos onto the desert. The route follows poorly marked trails traversing rugged terrain with rapid variations in elevation and no water or shade.
River Route: Every year, a few hardy long-distance trekkers walk along the river from Brushy Canyon at the park’s eastern extreme all the way to Santa Elena Canyon on the west. This requires several ascents and descents of up to two thousand feet. Allow ten days.
Mountain bicycles, all-terrain vehicles, and motorbikes must be street legal and are required to stay on roads and not venture onto trails. As is the case with four-wheel-drive vehicles, the most popular routes are River Road and the Old Ore Road. Desert Sports in Terlingua (432-371-2727, 888-989-6900) has rentals, guide services, tours, and repairs. Lajitas Stables (432-371-2212) books trail rides outside the park lasting from one hour to 5 days.
RACE MOUNTAIN BIKES IN THE CHIHUAHUAN DESERT CHALLENGE
Forget fighting the crowds at Moab until summer. Join the almost one thousand mountain bicyclists from all over the country who will be converging on the town of Lajitas February 11-13 (2010) for the Mas o Menos CamelBak Chihuahuan Desert Challenge. The biggest midwinter off-road bike meet in the nation and Texas only mountain bike festival has something for every skill level during the four-day weekend, including time trials, kids races, and fun rides. It all climaxes with a 32-mile loop race with nearly $20,000 worth of cash and prizes for the Pro/Expert categories that is part of the Texas Mountain Bike Championship cross-country spring series. The event is organized by Bicycle Sport Shop in Austin and Mike Long of Desert Sports in Terlingua. For registration and more information, call Mike at (432) 371-2727.
A raft trip through one of the canyons is an experience wholly separate from the mountains and the desert. Most trips are run by the two large outfitters west of the park: Far Flung Outdoor Center in Terlingua (800-839-7238) and Big Bend River Tours in Lajitas (432-371-3033, 800-545-4240). All offer guided trips that average $100-$130 per person per day; half-day trips are offered by Big Bend River Tours ($72), Far Flung Outdoor Center ($66), and Texas River Expeditions of Houston ($66). Far Flung Outdoors Center and Big Bend River Tours are especially creative at putting together special trips that emphasize food, photography, survival training, and music, such as Far Flung's floats with troubadours Steve Fromholz, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock. Texas River Expeditions of Houston (1-800-839-7238) also provides a variety of one to three day tours for $130 a day, many of which have themes and experts.
Santa Elena, the most popular canyon passage, can be done in a full day or overnight. The Rockslide is the most difficult rapid on this stretch of the river. The narrow, vertical-walled Mariscal, at the southern extreme of the river's big bend, can be done in a day via Outback Expeditions but requires several hours of driving on unimproved dirt roads; it is best attempted as an overnighter. Boquillas, the most visually spectacular canyon, as well as the easiest to float and to get to, takes a minimum of two days by canoe and three days by raft. Not suprisingly, it is also the most congested canyon during spring break. The remote Lower Canyons trip, downstream from the park, takes a week minimum. All river runners not traveling with an outfitter must have a permit (no reservation is necessary), obtained at Panther Junction, Rio Grande Village, the Stillwell Store, or the Barton Warnock center. If you want to go on your own, Desert Sports (432-371-2727) rents rafts and canoes for trips to all canyons except Santa Elena.
FINDING A GUIDE
There is no better way to find out the meaning of a pile of rocks than to hire a good guide. The biggest bargain of all are the free interpretive activities staged by rangers throughout the park, from thirty-minute presentations on flora and fauna to the irregularly scheduled fifty-mile, five-hour Drive Through Time motor caravan. Weekly activity schedules are posted around the park and at the Panther Junction visitors’ center. The Big Bend Natural History Association hosts half-day, full-day, and multiday group seminars in and out of the park, led by experts like photographer Jim Bones and botanist Barton Warnock. Write Big Bend Natural History Assocation, P.O. Box 196, Big Bend National Park, Texas 79834, or call 432-477-2236 for a schedule and prices. Jim Hines’s Big Bend Birding Expeditions (432-371-2356) conducts full-day and overnight tours by van and boat in and around the park, starting at $110 per person.
Otherwise, if you want an informed companion to accompany you, hire someone outside the park. Big Bend River Tours in Lajitas runs a half-day and full-day four-wheel-drive backcountry tours, starting at $75.
I found Bill Bourbon, a geologist, birder, and former ranger who leads group seminars for the Big Bend Natural History Association and occasionally takes individuals and small groups on excursions by appointment only for $150 a day. His vast knowledge and interpretive skills turned what might have been an uneventful six-hour backcountry drive along the Old Ore Road into a fascinating field trip. Among other things, Bourbon explained why some prickly pear cacti are purple (a defensive measure to save chlorophyll during dry periods); pointed out the difference between a lechuguilla and a hechtia, or false agave.
With Bourbon’s help, I learned to identify fresh mountain lion droppings and recognize invader plants like tamarisk (also known as salt cedar), which chokes out other vegetation around springs. He pointed out that Russian thistle, commonly known as tumbleweed, and the ubiquitous creosote bush did not become dominant desert plants until the grasslands were overgrazed by ranchers in the years before the park was established. Before the day was done, I knew my igneous intrusions from my continental terrestrial deposits.
Update, November 15, 1999 - Bill Bourbon no longer conducts tours in Big Bend
When to go
Spring break is perfect, but this is no secret. Giant-sized Big Bend bluebonnets start popping up in mid-February, and other plants soon burst into full color. The park is most crowded throughout March and around Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. During these periods, advisories are posted at park entrances if lodging and campsites in the park are full. Still, on a peak-capacity day, there are rarely more than eight thousand visitors in the park—slightly less than one person per one hundred acres.
Even in March, the temperature can dip below freezing or break 100 degrees. However, daytime highs typically remain in the seventies and eighties. The heat is usually at its infernolike worst from May to July. The monsoon season of almost daily afternoon rains begins in July and peaks in September, typically the wettest month, greening the desert and dropping temperatures to a more tolerable level. In winter, the climate is typical of the desert—mild days and cold nights—but can be brutal when a norther blows through.
What To Bring
Pack sturdy walking shoes or hiking boots, a wide-brimmed hat, long pants for desert hikes, sunscreen, lip balm, hand lotion, insect repellent, containers for water, a day pack, maybe a swimsuit for a dip at Hot Springs, and layers of clothing to adjust to sudden changes in the weather. Since the closest hospital is 102 miles away in Alpine, a first-aid kit is a good idea. A pair of binoculars and a guide to the stars will come in handy too; unless you go to McDonald Observatory, you’ll never see so many stars at night. Carry water in your car; it’s a long way to the next store if you’re thirsty. Specialty foods and fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to come by, so picky eaters should BYO.
How To Get There
By car, Panther Junction is 232 miles from Midland and 329 miles from El Paso, the nearest commercial airports. Other distances: 603 miles from Houston, 559 from Dallas, 744 from Texarkana. Amtrak’s Sunset Limited flight between New Orleans and Los Angeles stops in Alpine, as do Greyhound buses. Alpine Auto Rental (432-837-3463) in Alpine has a limited number of cars for rent, priced from $35 to $65 a day plus 10 cents a mile. If you have the time to drive an extra one hundred miles (or if you’re starting out from El Paso), use the western entrance to the park via Marfa, Presidio, and the Camino del Rio (the River Road, which is Farm-to-Market Road 170). The scenery is exceptional, especially at the roadside pulloff high above Colorado Canyon, fifteen miles west of Lajitas. Gasoline is readily available outside the park in Marathon, Alpine, and Study Butte, the park’s western gateway, and inside the park at Panther Junction and Rio Grande Village. Prices are higher than those in urban Texas. Stations in the park close at seven in the evening.
When To Arrive
Daytime. Big Bend’s remoteness from civilization means that many visitors reach the park after dark. They miss the transition from plains to desert and the unforgettable approach to the Chisos. If your schedule calls for you to reach the park at night, consider staying outside the park and driving in the next day. Alpine has more lodging options (I suggest the Sunday House), but Marathon via U.S. 385 is closer to the park headquarters at Panther Junction and has the Gage Hotel (432-386-4205). This historic jewel designed by noted West Texas architect Henry Trost looks and feels like a real Old West hotel, which is exactly what it is. Branding irons, saddles, chaps, and other cowmen’s accoutrements decorate the rooms and hallways. The ambience is enhanced by a steady clientele of area ranchers who drop in at the restaurant for dishes like fiery cabrito enchiladas ($10.95). The omission of telephones and televisions in guest rooms is intentional. Last fall the Gage opened an adobe wing of rooms furnished with antiques from northern Mexico, as well as a heated pool in the courtyard. A standard double in the wing called Los Portales is $220 with a fireplace or $200 without. In the original hotel, rooms with a private bath are $124-142 and rooms with shared baths are $97.