Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
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. In 1968, sixteen years after leaving his post and moving to Austin, he wrote that no visit to his old stomping grounds could be complete without a drive west of the Chisos Mountains.
The open desert of the Sierra Quemada and its striking formations—Mule Ears Peaks, Goat Mountain, Burro Mesa—are indeed stunning, as I saw for myself one afternoon in early spring. The sinuous road took me over hogbacks and around hoodoos, the shifting shadows and post-rain blooms adding surreal splashes of color. Big Bend bluebonnets nodded in the breeze. Coyotes ventured out, in search of that evening’s meal. Dusk and dawn are the best times to spot native denizens, and as daylight faded, I was treated to a safari of golden eagles, scaled quail, jackrabbits, roadrunners, javelinas, and even a fat black bullsnake on the sun-warmed blacktop.
The abandoned structures of a couple of homesteads (Sam Nail Ranch, Homer Wilson Ranch) as well as a few roadside exhibits gave me an excuse to stretch my legs. I made a mental note of the many trails—such as the lowlands path to Mule Ears Springs—that I would have to investigate another day, steering instead toward the Castolon Historic District, a former cavalry outpost where I’d be able to buy a cold drink. On my way back, I pulled over for one final stop, at Sotol Vista Overlook, a high bluff with a 360-degree view. To the southeast, the land is dominated by spiny-bladed sotol plants, whose bulbs are sometimes roasted for food; sotol also gets distilled into the eponymous alcohol, a relative of tequila. I might not have been drinking, but the orange-and-purple sunset left me intoxicated all the same.