It took an arid two-hour drive from the Guadalupe Mountains National Park headquarters, but as we finally pulled into Dog Canyon one April morning, its exquisitely alien splendor left us speechless: the whispering pines, the quartz-specked rocks in a dry creek bed, the broad-tailed hummingbirds, the fields of bear grass dotted with sotol and yucca.
Texas may have wild, wide-open spaces, but that doesn’t mean the public has access to them. Ninety-two percent of the state’s land is, in fact, privately owned, which means that some of our most scenic spots are hidden from view. This can present a challenge to the explorer—unless you happen to have a pilot’s license. After all, no one owns the sky.
I scratched off the consummate trip on every outdoors-loving Texan’s bucket list—a catered float down Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio Grande—a few years ago, so this spring I returned to Big Bend National Park to tackle the longest and deepest of its canyons, Boquillas. The eighteen-mile chasm runs more than twice the length of Santa Elena, while its waters take you beyond the park’s eastern limit, cutting through the Dead Horse Mountains as they pick up volume.
If you’re a solitude seeker, then the Black Gap WMA is paradise: it has no potable water, no bathrooms, no cell reception, and no other services. Located just east of Big Bend National Park, this sprawling 103,000-acre preserve, which includes a federally protected stretch of the Rio Grande, has served as a game research facility since it was founded, in 1948. But outside hunting season, the area has become a hidden playground for birders, mountain bikers, and fishermen.
A bearded man was busy trapping small birds in a cage. They were brown-headed cowbirds, brood parasites that leave their chicks to be raised in others’ nests. The man was Corbin Neill, the manager of Independence Creek Preserve, a 20,000-acre area about halfway between San Antonio and El Paso that’s owned by the Nature Conservancy.
The Devils River has a reputation as the loneliest, prettiest, most dangerous, and best damn fishingest waterway in all of Texas. I’ll leave it to others to debate these superlatives, but here’s what I do know: coming upon this Caribbean-blue stream amid a rocky landscape that has barely changed since the era of the Comanche is a life-altering experience.
We need wilderness preserved—as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds—because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed,” wrote Wallace Stegner in 1960. In his now famous “Wilderness Letter,” the Pulitzer Prize–winning author was addressing the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, a newly formed body whose mandate from Congress was to identify and help protect public recreational areas. It was a time of growth in America, and nature was in retreat: a proliferating highway system was ferrying automobiles all over the land, forests were being felled, wild rivers were being dammed. Stegner, whose love of land had been shaped by a childhood in the West, implored the commission to preserve the country’s wild spaces as a collective spiritual resource.
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