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6 must-see spots in Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park. | Photo by Ceasar58/stock.adobe.com Big Bend National Park. | Photo by Ceasar58/stock.adobe.com

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:

1. Santa Elena Canyon

Dramatic 1,500-foot cliffs at Santa Elena Canyon. | Photo by Kanokwalee Pusitanun/stock.adobe.com

Dramatic 1,500-foot cliffs at Santa Elena Canyon. | Photo by Kanokwalee Pusitanun/stock.adobe.com

In the southwestern corner of the park, Terlingua Creek merges with the Rio Grande at the start of a breathtaking 1.7-mile hike that explores the dramatic 1,500-foot cliffs of Santa Elena Canyon. The creek wash can be shallow and a bit muddy when it’s not bone dry, but it’s an easy crossing. A carved stone staircase passes by fossil-ridden limestone boulders on the ascent, and swallows and the occasional vulture soar overhead as the path descends back to the river. At the far end of the trail, which ends without ceremony where the canyon walls meet the river, the young and young at heart can enjoy making echoes.

2. The Window

The Window overlook. | Photo by Zakzeinert /stock.adobe.com

The Window overlook. | Photo by Zakzeinert /stock.adobe.com

The Chisos Mountains form a pine-fringed crown that rises above the desert floor in the heart of Big Bend National Park. A bounty of trailheads lead up into the rugged forest, but people wanting a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding area can more easily enjoy the west-facing vistas from an overlook called the Window. At sundown, photo hounds often stage at the back porch of the Chisos Mountains Lodge. For a breathtaking vantage, walk the shorter Window View Trail, a paved loop that provides some of the best views of the Basin and the Window in the distance. To reach the Window, take the Window Trail, 4 to 5 miles round-trip by foot. Plan for a four-hour journey. 

3. Grapevine Hills

The Balanced Rock at Grapevine Hills. | Photo by Billy McDonald/stock.adobe.com

The Balanced Rock at Grapevine Hills. | Photo by Billy McDonald/stock.adobe.com

There is no shortage of otherworldly scenery in Big Bend, but this modest, 2.2-mile desert hike leads through a truly entrancing boulder field. It takes a 6-mile drive along graded gravel to get to the trailhead. The distinct rounded shapes are the result of erosion, bringing to mind vintage visions of Road Runner cartoons—“Meep-meep!” Capping the hike is the picturesque Balanced Rock, reached via a quarter-mile scramble.

4. Luna’s Jacal

Luna's Jacal, the preserved original settler's house. | Photo by Witold Skrypczak/alamy.com

Luna's Jacal, the preserved original settler's house. | Photo by Witold Skrypczak/alamy.com

Industrious Mexican pioneer Gilberto Luna and his family lived near the banks of Alamo Creek in a low-slung dugout shelter that is well worth exploring. The shelter is located toward the southern end of Old Maverick Road, considered an “improved” gravel road, near the park’s western edge, and signage explains how Luna managed to scrape by in the desert alongside the Comanche. He died in 1947 at the age of 108 or 109.  

5. Lost Mine Trail

Casa Grande Peak on the Lost Mine Trail. | Photo by Billy McDonald/stock.adobe.com

Casa Grande Peak on the Lost Mine Trail. | Photo by Billy McDonald/stock.adobe.com

Peak baggers may prefer Emory Peak, at 7,825 feet the highest spot in the park; however, this rugged 4.8-mile hike promises the easiest way to reach the upper Chisos Mountains. The switchbacks are strenuous, but awesome views of the enormous Casa Grande rock and the scenic Juniper Canyon overlook reward the effort.

6. South Rim

Rio Grande dividing border between the U.S. and Mexico. | Photo by Alex Grichenko/stock.adobe.com

Rio Grande dividing border between the U.S. and Mexico. | Photo by Alex Grichenko/stock.adobe.com

Nothing in the state of Texas compares to the view from the South Rim of the Chisos Basin, looking over hundreds of square miles of desert and the squiggly path the Rio Grande cuts along the U.S.–Mexico border as it shifts its flow from south to east. That’s the “big bend” that gives Big Bend its name. Make the trip into the mountains to experience this and discover the distinctive aspects of this so-called sky island—an ecological unit distinct from the surrounding natural area by virtue of its flora and fauna. The best approach, if one has time and experience, is an overnight backpack excursion to the South Rim, achieved as part of a steep 12-mile out-and-back hike or a tough 14.5-mile circuit.

Have more time?

Ranger Station at Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry. | Photo by Stephen Saks Photography/alamy.com

Ranger Station at Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry. | Photo by Stephen Saks Photography/alamy.com

On the park’s eastern edge at Boquillas Canyon, the Rio Grande cuts between hills of volcanic ash and giant reeds on its way out of the park and downstream. Nearby there is a Port of Entry (international border crossing) maintained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the National Park Service where passport holders can hire a rowboat and either hike or take a burro to the town of Boquillas on the Mexico side. Shop for souvenirs and enjoy a plate of house-made enchiladas. U.S. currency is accepted.

Hire an outfitter or rent a canoe and take a float trip through Santa Elena Canyon, the most popular river trip in the park. The trip can be done as a long day or as an overnight experience—depending on water levels, it can take up to three days to cover the entire 20 miles. Boaters will enjoy a deeper appreciation of the Rio Grande and the sublime scenery of the canyon. For more information, contact Desert Sports (432-371-2727; desertsportstx.com) or Far Flung Outdoor Center (432-371-2633; bigbendfarflung.com).

If you go

The park is approximately 288 miles from El Paso and nearly 500 miles from San Antonio. There are two entrances: the main entrance and visitors center at Persimmon Gap, reached via US Highway 385, and the western gate at Study Butte near the town of Terlingua, reached via TX 118/FM 170. The nearest airport is Midland/Odessa, 235 miles from the park headquarters.

Entrance fees are $30 per vehicle for a weeklong pass. Two-thirds of the developed campsites in the Chisos Basin and Rio Grande Village, which also accommodates RVs, can be reserved up to six months in advance; these “front country” camps cost $16 per night. Backcountry camping, including drive-in, dirt-road sites, costs $10 per night. nps.gov/bibe.

Where to stay

There is lodging and a dining room in Big Bend at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, run by the concessionaire Forever Resorts (432-477-2291; chisosmountainslodge.com). Other hotel and rental options can be found in the gateway community of Terlingua, and a little farther afield in Marfa and Marathon. The luxury resort Basecamp Terlingua (basecampterlingua.com) has gained national attention with its unique bubble structure and tipis. Longtime local favorite the Starlight Theatre Restaurant and Saloon in Terlingua serves steak, burgers, and salads, and offers live music most weekends.

Dan Oko is an award-winning freelance writer and editor based in Houston, Texas, who specializes in outdoor recreation, environmental affairs, and active travel.

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