“If it were hotter out, we’d be soaking in that pool,” said veteran guide Mike Long, who, along with his wife, Crystal Allbright, was leading our thirty-mile bike ride down Old Ore Road. The dirt trail, once a route for miners to ferry silver and zinc out from the Dead Horse Mountains, is popular among two- and four-wheeled explorers alike, not least for its side trips; the pool in question, known as Carlota Tinaja, was a water hole we’d stopped to investigate. The hollowed bedrock was filled with rainwater and slimy algae.
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The famous window, that vertiginous notch in the Chisos Basin, is so spectacular and relatively simple to reach that the hike to it can feel a little like cheating. It’s worth noting that there is a short paved path from the park’s lodge to a view onto the Window, but that’s nothing compared with what you’ll find by tackling the five-miles-plus trail (out and back) to the pour-off itself.
You can keep your Grand Canyon, Arizona. We’ve got our own South Rim. Here, atop the cliffs of the Chisos Basin, along a bruising circuit that fitness freaks tackle in six to eight hours, you can peer up to one hundred miles into Mexico. Taking in the mountains that stretch into Chihuahua and Coahuila is a stupefying and, better yet, often private exploit—unlike at that other South Rim, which is bounded by blacktop and gets ten times the annual visitors.
Exploring the park’s rugged landscape can sometimes take more determination than your average second grader can muster. Not so when it comes to Grapevine Hills, where jagged outcroppings and a field of misshapen rocks evoke the worlds of Dr. Seuss. A six-mile drivable dirt road drops you at the trailhead, no sweat, and then it’s just a mile hike to Balanced Rock, an east-west window created by an Econoline-size boulder that’s poised atop two stone pillars.
For a lot of my neighbors in Houston, the very notion of climbing 1,100 feet over two and a half miles is reason enough to have one’s head examined. But what do they know? Lost Mine Trail’s terrain may be rugged, but you don’t have to be an expert to tackle it.
Thanks to Big Bend’s past—volcanic activity, persistent tectonic pressure, erosion—each of its canyons is as unique as a fingerprint. At the Lower Burro Mesa Pour-Off, a one-hundred-foot seasonal waterfall has washed away the tuff, or solidified volcanic ash, leaving behind a spectacular, easy-to-reach box canyon. The area was once home to wild donkeys, which explains the name; access is by a dusty half-mile march across the pebbly, low-lying Javelina Wash.
At 7,832 feet, Emory Peak is not the highest point in Texas, but it is the highest in Big Bend, which means it should grab every capable hiker’s attention. Yes, it’s a steep, five-mile climb not for the faint of heart, but the bird’s-eye perspective from this stark lookout, reached by an ascent that begins just off Pinnacles Trail, is so ridiculously sublime that you’ll quickly forgive the radio antennae and solar panels that cap the peak (yeah, they’re ugly, but ultimately beside the point).
“The desert will scour your soul,” wrote the cantankerous environmentalist Edward Abbey. But not everybody who comes out to Big Bend, an area Abbey knew well (his classic Desert Solitaire can be purchased at Panther Junction), is looking to get roughed up. Fortunately, there is the Hot Springs Historic District, where channeling the spirit of the wild is as easy as stripping down to your swimsuit.
Few sights rival the view upstream into the 1,500-foot gorge known as Santa Elena. Its limestone cliffs and rocky depths deterred explorers until 1899, when geologist Robert T. Hill, working on behalf of the U.S. Geological Survey, headed to Big Bend to take on the “longest and least known” stretch of the Rio Grande. He and a team of five made their way through the canyon by dragging boats over rock slides; it took three days to cover seven miles.
Given the hours it usually takes to drive to Big Bend in the first place, it may seem counterintuitive to encourage more time behind the wheel. But the thirty-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, named after the park’s first superintendent, offers such a spectacular sense of the terrain that you may forget you’re even in the car. Maxwell, who helped design the route, knew this.