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 the 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.
I’ve been coming to Big Bend National Park for more than thirty years and while I think I’ve seen a lot of it, something new to explore is always over the next horizon. Like most visitors, I used to spend much of my time in the Chisos Mountains, the southernmost range in the United States and the one temperate spot in the park in the summer. I later discovered the pleasures of floating the river through the stunning canyons. More recently, I’ve been drawn to the desert, which I once dismissed as an empty wasteland but now realize abounds with life. There’s a story behind every plant and animal that has managed to adapt to the land. Hundreds of miles of back roads are evidence of human occupation in the Big Bend before the park was established in 1944; artifacts from pre-Columbian campsites, wax factories, cotton farms, ranches, resorts, stores, villages, and mines can be found all over the place.
Appreciating Big Bend is all a matter of preparation. If you don’t know what to see and do, you are likely to miss the magic or waste precious hours looking for a restaurant or a place to sleep. Unfortunately, while a lot has been written over the years about Big Bend’s beauty, not much exists in the way of practical information. What I’ve tried to do here is size Big Bend down to a manageable scale, whether you’re a trekker, a kayaker, an RVer, a naturalist, a photographer, a desert rat, a thrill-seeker, or a plain old city slicker on a holiday.
For me, Big Bend begins 10 miles south of Marathon on U.S. 385, past the Border Patrol inspection station, at a rest area with a marker that identifies the Caballos (not to be confused with the Deadhorse Mountains inside the park), the low barren ridge to the west with faintly pinkish rock bands running through its gentle slope. This, the marker says, is where the Rockies meet the Appalachians, which explains why I always get the feeling of having fallen off the edge of the map right about here. Twenty-five miles farther south, the national park unfolds in all its glory at the Persimmon Gap entrance. Thirty miles straight ahead are the Chisos Mountains, the park’s centerpiece, which practically dance above the floor of the desert and dominate every panorama. The low bare slopes on the immediate left are the forbidding Santiagos. That big mountain off to the right is Rosillos Peak. Bypass the Persimmon Gap visitors’ center (usually closed because of Washington-mandated budget cuts), and continue 26 miles to Panther Junction, the park headquarters, where the park’s three main paved roads meet. About 10 miles from the junction, just past the Tornillo Creek bridge, you’ll notice some unvegetated hills on the right 2 miles from the road. These are the Grapevine Hills, which will bear closer inspection later.
At Panther Junction the road splits into a Y to skirt the Chisos, which divide the park into sedimentary formations to the east and volcanic formations to the west. The left fork heads down the east side of the park toward the river, dead-ending 20 miles away at the Rio Grande Village campgrounds in the shadows of the mighty Sierra Del Carmens, an almost flat-topped limestone wall in Mexico behind Boquillas Canyon that looms dramatically five thousand feet above the Rio Grande. The right-hand turn at Panther Junction leads to the western entrance of the park at Maverick, with turnoffs to the Chisos Basin, Grapevine Hills, and the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, a winding road with steep grades that leads to the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon, 42 miles from Panther Junction.
The visitors’ center at Panther Junction is a requisite stop. This is the place to pay the $5-a-car admission fee and stock up on pamphlets that provide information about the park’s flora, fauna, and roads. This is also one of the ranger stations where you may secure permits for river trips and backcountry camping (other ranger stations are at Rio Grande Village, Castolon, and the Chisos Basin). The Official National Park Handbook ($5.95) is essential, as are the three guides to hiking trails, paved and improved dirt roads, and backcountry dirt roads ($1.25 each). All explain what you’re seeing and why you’re seeing it. For example, I learned that the ground-hugging lechuguilla grows only in the Chihuahuan Desert and the sotol, with its single woody stalk swaying in the breeze, is an indicator plant that flourishes at middle elevations.
The visitors’ center also has a giant relief map of the park, several dioramas about its past, updates on weather, river, and road conditions, a post office, and a short nature walk that will introduce you to desert plants. A gas station and convenience store is a quarter mile west. (For general park information, write the Superintendent, Big Bend National Park, Texas 79834, or call 915-477-2251.)
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. The road between the Chisos Mountains Lodge and the campgrounds is particularly good for sighting the white-tailed deer and coarse-furred javelinas scooting into the brush, both of which show little fear of human beings.
Hot Springs. This improbable resort on the Rio Grande is my favorite attraction in the park. 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. One full-moon night, I was joined by forty gregarious Australians taking an evening soak.
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 the reed-choked sandy vega littered with giant boulders before petering out. This is a fine place to try to skip rocks into another country and watch cliff swallows flutter overhead. If you take only one hike in the park, this is the one. Allow two hours.
Boquillas Canyon. 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 that make one dizzy from neck craning. 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 windblown dune inside the canyon that is perfect for sand surfing. Allow two hours.
Grapevine Hills. 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. Roadrunners often share the trail. Allow one and one half hours.
Dagger Flat. 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 yucca, 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.
Dugout Wells. 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.
The Window. 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. Either way, seeing Big Bend from its figurative rooftop is worth the effort. Plan to pass through Boot Springs for a respite by a placid brook. This quiet refuge is a feeding station for Colmia 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 (477-2291). 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 72 rooms ($65 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 ($69 for two). Demand is so heavy that booking cottages a year in advance is a must. Hope you get number 103, which has the choice back-porch view of the Window. Though the lodge is already booked for most of spring break and Easter weekend this year, you can call to check on last-minute cancellations and no-shows.
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 (371-2218; 800-848-2363), two plain but clean motels with a gift shop, a pool, and a combination gas station, convenience store, and cafe. The TVs are hooked up to a satellite and, true to Big Bend’s nonconformist bent, carry channels from New York City and Raleigh, North Carolina. A standard double is $63 a night. Less than a mile west is Easter Egg Valley (371-2430), a.k.a. the Chisos Mining Company Motel, whose pleasantly decorated rooms are housed in a string of connected prefab buildings. A double is $48 a night. The motel at the Terlingua Ranch (371-2416), about 30 miles north and east of the Study Butte intersection, has a restaurant, a pool, and modern rooms that start at $33 for a double. The secluded Longhorn Ranch Motel (371-2541), 12 miles north of the Study Butte intersection, has 24 homey, tastefully appointed units laid out like a cavalry outpost. It has TVs, a swimming pool, and a restaurant but no in-room phones. A double is $50.
The erstwhile resort town of Lajitas has the widest array of lodging choices west of the park—81 motel rooms, a bunkhouse, cabins, and condos, most furnished with antiques and equipped with a telephone and satellite TV, along with access to a pool (central reservations 424-3471). Doubles are $65 a night; a two-bedroom condo that sleeps up to six runs from $148 a night to $740 a week. Lajitas is dubbed “the Palm Springs of Texas” by its boosters and “Wally World” by its detractors, the latter 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 63 sites; Cottonwood, 35 miles from Panther Junction, near the historic Castolon store in the western part of the park, with 35 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 smaller trailer park with hookups ($12.50 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 (75 cents for 5 minutes).
Permits for the fifty designated primitive backcountry campsites in the Chisos Mountains are presently obtained at Panther Junction until the remodeling of the ranger station in the basin is finished. Primitive campsites elsewhere are divided into zones, to which hikers are assigned when they obtain their backcountry permits at Panther Junction. During spring break, primitive sites close to roads—Croton Springs, Grapevine Hills, and Nugent Mountain—fill up quickest, followed by sites along popular backpacking trails such as the Chimneys, Mule Ears, and Dodson Ranch routes, even though they are long walks from the nearest road. 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 Persimmon 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 yards from any trail, and must possess a backcountry permit.
Individual sites at campgrounds in the park are $5 a night and are filled on a first-come, first-served basis. Primitive and backcountry sites are free. Group campsites (ten-person minimum) can be reserved up to ninety days in advance (477-2251). Horseback riders may also reserve space for their steeds at the Government Springs coral, west of Panther Junction. During spring break, persistent types can hang around a particular campground in the morning to wait for a possible vacancy or go to Panther Junction when it opens at eight for updates on all campgrounds and primitive campsites.
The Big Bend Travel Park (371-2250), on Terlingua Creek, has the only shaded campground outside the park. Other private campgrounds include BJ’s RV Park (371-2259); the Big Bend Motor Inn’s RV Park (371-2218), which also rents bare bones eight- by ten-foot wooden sheds euphemistically called cabins; and the 77-space RV campground in Lajitas (424-3471), with full hookups, cable TV, and tent sites. There’s always room for campers at the Stillwell Store (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 range from $3.50 to $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 milkshakes are a specialty. Chicken fajitas ($8.60), pork chops ($7.80), baked perch ($6.80), ribeye steak ($11.50), and a bottomless cup of coffee (60 cents) 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 (371-2250), a wildly imaginative rock and cement cavelike edifice built into the side of Terlingua 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 ($4.50—$9.50), a sixteen-ounce T-bone ($13.75), and an eight-ounce filet ($9.50), all accompanied by the familiar sides of slaw and beans. Order at the counter upon arriving. The kitchen closes at ten.
The new Starlight Theatre Restaurant and Bar (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 more real green stuff on the side. Most entrées—a sixteen-ounce T-bone ($15.95), lemon chicken breast ($7.50), beef picadillo ($7), and daily specials such as Shrimp Mexicana ($8.75)—come with a lettuce salad, parsley potatoes, beans, and tortillas. Live music is booked occasionally, beginning around eight. Food service ends at nine; the bar closes at midnight. My two young boys were charmed by Angie Dean’s gracious welcome and her unsolicited recitation of Roy Rogerses, Shirley Temples, and other kiddie drinks mixed by the bartender.
Also recommended: The Desert Deli Diner (a self-proclaimed “3-D Dining Experience”), a stone’s throw from the Starlight, serving light breakfasts and lunches and evening blue plate specials for under $7; the Desert Opry, across from La Kiva, which specializes in vegetarian fare; the Badlands restaurant and bar in Lajitas; two cafes, Garcia’s and Dos Amigos, that serve hearty Mexican meals for under $5 in Paso Lajitas across the Rio Grande, accessible by rowboat ferry; Boatman’s Bar and Grill in Study Butte for hamburgers ($3) and live music at night; 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), fresh baked muffins ($1.50), bagels with cream cheese ($1.25), or smoked salmon ($4.95), as well as picnic lunches (crab salad, even!) to go.
Scenic Drives (Paved): 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. Of course, Big Bend from behind the dashboard of a car is a little like looking at the Grand Canyon from an airplane—you may have seen it, but you miss the whole point of being there. To really get a feel for the land, get off the pavement and, better still, out of your car.
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.
Scenic Drives (Unpaved): 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 short-cut 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. I found two other roads passable for a Ford Tempo—the Glenn Springs road as far as Pine Canyon, and the northern road to the Harte Ranch—although both roads are officially recommended for high-clearance vehicles only. All improved dirt roads should be attempted only in dry weather at speeds under 35 miles per hour.
Some 150 miles of unimproved backcountry 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, Terlingua, and Marathon.
Easy Walks: I’ve already covered 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.
Short Hikes: 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 Chimneys 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 the grasslands about a mile before entering the narrow, lushly vegetated canyon. Pines, oaks, maples, and junipers pad the path with layers of leaves from autumns past. 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.
Serious Treks: These are all-day or overnight ventures for properly equipped backpackers who are in good shape. Check with a ranger before attempting.
Devil’s Den, just south of Dog Canyon, is an almost three-mile walk across open desert from a pullover on the road five miles south Persimmon Gap and leads to a deep, narrow slit in the side of a desiccated slope. Despite the heat and the absence of vegetation, Hell never looked so interesting. Allow four to five 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.
Other Transportation: 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 Lajitas (424-3366, 800-523-8170) has rentals, guide services, tours, and repairs. The Chisos Remuda in the basin (477-2374) schedules daily horseback tours to the Window, a pleasant two-and-one-half-hour round trip ($20) and an all-day ride to the South Rim ($40). The horses are gentle, and the cowboy guides are informative. Riders must be at least six years old and weigh no more than 210 pounds. Turquoise Trailrides in Study Butte (371-2212) and the Lajitas Stables (424-3238) also book trail rides outside the park lasting from one hour to several days.
River Floats: 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 three large outfitters west of the park: Far Flung Adventures in Terlingua (371-2489, 800-359-4138), Big Bend River Tours in Lajitas (424-3219, 800-545-4240), and Outback Expeditions in Study Butte (371-2490, 800-343-1640). All offer guided trips that average $90 per person per day; half-day trips are offered by Big Bend River Tours ($48) and Outback Expeditions ($40). Far Flung Adventures 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.
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 surprisingly, 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, Rio Grande Outfitters rents rafts (371-2424) and Desert Sports (424-3366) leases canoes for trips to all canyons except Santa Elena.
Going to Mexico: There is nothing like a trip to a foreign country to add some spice to a vacation. At Big Bend you can pay someone a dollar or two to give you a ride in a rowboat to the villages of Boquillas and Santa Elena across from the park and to Paso Lajitas across from Lajitas. This is literally free trade, since no barriers exist between the two sides other than the river. Although Santa Elena and Paso Lajitas have electricity, I prefer Boquillas, near Rio Grande Village. The parking lot on the Texas side is watched by a solicitous Mexican attendant (he appreciates dollar tips or extra food or drinks). From there, walk down a shady path to the river, then take the rowboat shuttle ($2 a person) across. On the other side, donkeys may be hired for $3 for the mile ride into the village, a small cluster of adobe buildings above the floodplain. There’s not a whole lot to see and do, other than have a snack at Don José Falcon’s cafe and souvenir shop (three-bean-and-cheese tacos or burritos are $1) or enjoy a game of pool at the cantina down the street. Every other child in town, it seems, hawks fluorite, quartz, agate, and other gemstones as well as macramé wristbands. The Santa Elena crossing is down a dirt road that the park service blocks at five-thirty each evening, about a mile east of the Cottonwood campground turnoff. It too has a rowboat shuttle but no donkey rides, since it is only a short stroll from the riverbank to town. There are three restaurants with simple fare. Maria Elena’s is the most frequently recommended.
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 Association, P.O. Box 68, Big Bend National Park, Texas 79834, or call 477-2236 for a schedule and prices. Jim Hines’s Big Bend Birding Expedition (371-2356) conducts half-day, full-day, and overnight tours by van and boat in and around the park, starting at $70 (two-person minimum).
Otherwise, if you want an informed companion to accompany you, hire someone outside the park. Big Bend River Tours in Lajitas and Outback Expeditions in Study Butte run half-day and full-day four-wheel-drive backcountry tours, starting at $50 (four-person minimum).
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 (371-2202). 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—lechuguilla claws curve down, hechtia claws curve up; extolled the culinary delights of strawberry cactus and the flower petals of giant dagger yucca; and recommended the medicinal value of leatherstem (or sangre de drago, “dragon’s blood,” as it is known in Mexico), whose red sap soothes a toothache. He identified shrikes, rock wrens, Say’s phoebes, scaled quail, ladder-backed woodpeckers, and curve-billed thrashers flitting among the creosote bushes, and two red-tailed hawks playing in the breeze. At one stop he pointed out evidence of a cataclysmic event from 65 to 70 million years ago that had petrified a forest of giant ash tree stumps; later, he showed me a rockslide on a mountain range that occurred in 1987 (“Everything here wants to be in the Gulf of Mexico. Soon or later, gravity always wins,” he said.)
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.
Staying in Touch: The only cable TV set in the park for public viewing is in the lobby of the Chisos Mountain Lodge. The souvenir shop sells magazines and copies of the San Angelo Standard-Times and the Odessa American. Pay phones are only a dime for a local call, but most calls are long distance, including those from the basin to Study Butte. Connections are such that conversations often fade in and out. You realize how far removed Big Bend is from civilization by the dearth of radio. By day, you can sometimes tune in KVLF 1240-AM in Alpine, a syndicated big band format with state and local news at 12:30 p.m., and the country-formatted KCKN 1020-AM in Roswell, New Mexico. If a cold front is blowing into Roswell, it can be expected to hit the park about twelve hours later. At night, news-talk stations WOAI 1200-AM from San Antonio and KRLD 1080-AM from Dallas are relatively easy to tune in. The liveliest source of local news is a newsletter called the Terlingua Moon, which is posted on bulletin boards at most stores and outside the Terlingua Post Office. But why bother about the outside world? People come to Big Bend to get away. There will be plenty of time for cable TV back home.