Travelers can still experience the wild frontier in Big Bend National Park, in the far southwest corner of Texas, where the landscape remains defiantly untamed. Covering a huge swatch of the great Chihuahuan Desert along the mighty Rio Grande, Big Bend features some of the highest peaks in the Lone Star State. The park scenery is majestic, and the well-equipped explorer will find a lifetime of adventure.
My first encounter with Big Bend came 20 years ago. I remember crossing the tawny country south of Interstate 10 unsure what to expect. Edging closer to the distant mountains, where my companions and I would unfurl our bedrolls and sleep under some of the darkest night skies found in the Lower 48, the panorama left us slack-jawed. We could easily grasp why the early Spanish explorers who arrived in this remote desert referred to it as “El Despoblado,” or the unpopulated land.
These days, finding that vaunted emptiness can take a little more work, says Big Bend public information officer and park ranger Tom VandenBerg. For the past few years, he reports, record numbers of travelers have been coming to see what all the fuss is about—and a relatively new reservation system means that visitors are advised to secure a campsite or other lodging ahead of reaching the park. “It used to be that you could take your chances,” says VandenBerg. “But now every night during our winter season, our campgrounds fill up. So it’s best to plan ahead.”
Even so, travelers who prize seclusion will find it: Big Bend offers more than 800,000 acres of wilderness spanning mountains, desert, and river that disperse the crowds. The park has more than 150 miles of trails and many more miles of federally designated Wild and Scenic River along the Rio Grande, plus no shortage of dirt roads to explore. Indeed, after two decades, I continue to find pockets of splendid isolation, whether climbing jagged peaks, slithering down steep slick-rock canyons, or camping in the backcountry along dusty jeep tracks beyond the paved byways.
It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, and the temperature can hit the triple digits in the summer, but for anybody seeking a taste of Texas’ most primitive charms, Big Bend National Park promises a wide world of natural wonders. Here are six of my favorite spots: