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Travel: Big Bend, Texas

[ 5 September 2015 | Print This Post ]
5 September 2015

By Gemma Brosnan

THERE is a place far out in West Texas at the end of route 118 where tenacious cactus bloom under the sublime sun, coyotes outnumber cars and rivers carve temple-like canyons in ancient limestone.

Once a seemingly inhospitable area reached only by miles of dirt, early explorers found the region to be so wild, so remote that they called it El Despoblado – the uninhabited land – and, according to Indian legend, it is where the Great Spirit deposited all the leftover rocks after the earth was created.

These days, sleek solitary roads crisscross the mountains and high desert of this region for hundreds of miles, providing a liberating drive through shockingly unspoiled and otherworldly terrain.

Cradled in the warm, southwestern elbow of Texas, the 801,163 acres of Big Bend National Park hang suspended above the deserts of northern Mexico. From the craggy, forested Chisos Mountains rising up to almost 8,000 feet to the flat, stark plains of the Chihuahuan Desert, Big Bend is one of the nation’s most geographically diverse parks, with the kind of dramatic backdrop that inspired Hollywood’s first Western sets.

Named after the huge left-turn the Rio Grande makes as the river snakes its way through the desert, the Big Bend landscape has been shaped over millions of years by volcanism, erosion, and enormous seismic events. To enter the cavernous heart of Big Bend at night is to abandon Newtonian axioms of space and time. The few lights visible from ranches and trailers in the Davis Mountains seem dim and distant compared to the millions of stars overhead in an area larger than Rhode Island but home to fewer than 200 souls.

For a long time, trying to make a living here, other than as a bandit or a smuggler, was for many a losing struggle, and for many it still is. Tourism has been the main business of the Big Bend since the 1960’s when overgrazing doomed cattle ranching, but it is still the least visited national park in the U.S. Those that do make the journey come for different reasons; the chance to see a cougar or a golden eagle, to drive the route Comanche warriors once travelled on raids into Mexico or to marvel at the moonscape that skirts Boquillas in splendid isolation.


The gateway to Big Bend National Park may seem like an empty trail, but is not without cultural attractions. The town of Marfa, named after a minor character in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ has become the unlikely destination for contemporary art pilgrims from around the globe, curious to see the installations by Donald Judd and other artists at the Chinati Foundation. Judd first saw Marfa as a soldier during the Korean War and returned in the 70’s after many years in New York where lack of space to display work to his liking was a perpetual frustration. He installed 100 of his own aluminum pieces in two former artillery sheds that housed German prisoners of war during World War II. Arranged in rows as a series of minimalist variations on the box, the works shimmer in the desert light that floods the rooms through windows of his own design. His art and that of his friends Carl Andre, Claes Oldenburg, Roni Horn, John Chamberlain and others, can be found in various permanent locations around town.

The mysterious Marfa Lights observed near U.S. Route 67 on Mitchell Flat east of Marfa also keep the town an attraction for the curious. Reports often describe brightly glowing basketball-sized spheres floating above the ground or high in the air. Colours are usually described as white, yellow, orange or red, but green and blue are also reported. They often appear in pairs or groups, dividing and merging before disappearing and reappearing in seemingly regular patterns.

More imaginative onlookers ascribe them to paranormal phenomena from ghosts to UFOs while scientists from the University of Texas explain them away as automobile headlights travelling along Route 67 between Marfa and Presidio.

McDonald Observatory, just outside Ft. Davis offers late-night Star Parties, giving visitors a chance to decide for themselves.


Once the playground of Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean, who stayed here while filming ‘Giant’ in 1955, the Hotel Paisano has maintained its glamour with beautiful Mediterranean architecture, a fountain in the courtyard dining area, and dress and jewellery shops in downstairs hallways. Completing the scene, big-band music from the 1940s wafts through the lobby while an enormous bison head keeps watch over reception. The most popular booking is naturally the room in which Dean stayed while filming the movie which plays on a loop in the ‘Giant’ memorabilia room.

207 North Highland Street, Marfa, 866-729-3669 offers rooms from $120 per night.

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park together with neighbouring Big Bend Ranch State Park cover a million acres of spectacular vistas, shadowy canyons, and rugged desert mountains that visitors explore by road, river, and trail including the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert in the United States. The Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River forms its southern boundary, and it’s the only park in the United States that contains a complete mountain range – the Chisos.

At first glance, the desert may appear to be desolate and barren, but from the forests of the Chisos down to the floor of the desert, over 1,200 types of plants thrive in the park and support ecosystems full of pollinators, herbivores, and other wildlife.

Hundreds of bird species take refuge in a solitary mountain range surrounded by weather-beaten desert. Bunchgrasses, creosote bushes, cactuses, lechuguillas, yuccas and sotols, cover most of the terrain. So do the Chisos, up to 20 degrees cooler than the desert floor, harboring pine, juniper, and oak, as well as deer, mountain lions, Mexican black bear, javalina, and other wildlife.

The rocks of Big Bend are a complex lot. Two seas, one after another, flowed and subsided in the region hundreds of millions of years ago, leaving thick deposits of limestone and shale. The present mountains, except the Chisos, uplifted along with the Rockies, roughly 75 million years ago. Around the same time, a 40-mile-wide trough—most of the present-day park—sank along fault lines, leaving the cliffs of Santa Elena Canyon to the west and the Sierra del Carmen to the east rising 1,500 feet and more above the desert floor. In the centre, volcanic activity spewed layer upon layer of ash into the air and squeezed molten rock up through the ground to form the Chisos Mountains some 35 million years ago. Molten rock also cooled and hardened underground later to be exposed by erosion.

Beyond the desert the Big Bend, hard by the border with Mexico, is also home to a ribbon of water and life, the Rio Grande, a relentless, gravity-powered belt sander that has been running for millions of years. Apache, Spanish conquistadores, Comanche, U.S. soldiers, miners, ranchers and farmers, Mexican revolutionaries, international outlaws and bandits have passed through this terrain for at least 10,000 years, but knowledge of the Rio Grande among non-Indians dates back less than 150 years. Spanish people crossed the Rio Grande in the 16th and 17th centuries searching for gold, silver, and fertile land. Comanche Indians crossed the river in the 19th century, travelling to and from Mexico with their raiding parties.

Mexican settlers began farming on both banks of the river’s floodplain around 1900 and Anglo-Americans joined in around 1920, when boundary unrest ended. Cotton and food crops were grown around Castolon and what is now Rio Grande Village, even after the park was established. Today, you can drive along portions of the Comanche Trail, the same route Comanche warriors once travelled on raids into Mexico, or you can visit the La Harmonia Store at Castolon where locals have shopped for eighty years.

Big Bend National Park’s headquarters are at the Panther Junction Visitor Center at the north entrance on United States Route 385. Admission is $10 per vehicle for a seven-day permit.


Big Bend offers a variety of hiking opportunities, everything from short interpretive walks, to rugged, multi-day excursions. Hikers are allowed to travel off trail if they want to and day hikes require no permit inside the park.

Although many trails in the area are well marked and easily followed, hiring a guide can provide a more complete Big Bend experience. Not only do guides know the way to all the best places, they are also first aid trained and knowledgeable about the local geology, history, flora and fauna.

Big Bend Expeditions offers guided 4×4 tours of the rugged country near their property, taking guests to remote sites of archeological and geological interest.

River Trips

Five spectacular river canyons in Big Bend offer incredible opportunities to kayak, canoe or raft the Rio Grande. The river is not difficult for beginning and intermediate paddlers at normal river flows, and some sections are ideal for novices. Bring your own gear, rent equipment from local outfitters, or take a fully equipped guided trip from two hours to ten days.

Professionally guided trips have an excellent record for safety and guest comfort and offer a wide variety of options to suit the first timer as well as the experienced river traveller. Most outfitters provide equipment rental and transportation for folks who want to do it on their own. Before undertaking any trip without a guide, be aware that you may be responsible for the full cost of damaged or lost rented equipment and the cost of any required rescue service.

Far Flung Outdoor Center, FM 170 near junction of FM 170 and TX 118 offers a range of breathtaking trips with brilliant, personable guides. Tel + 1 800 839 7238 or local 371-2633.

Horse Riding

There is no better way to see Big Bend than from the back of a horse. Horse rides as short as one hour in length are available right outside Big Bend National Park in Study Butte. For the more adventurous trips from 3 hours to multi-day camping trips are available in Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Some operators may stable horses overnight for those who bring their own. Big Bend National Park has limited facilities for private horses inside the park.

Lajitas Stables offers small, intimate rides into the mountains along the edge of the Rio Grande River and larger group rides on request. Located TX 170, 3 miles west of Lajitas in Big Bend Ranch State Park. Tel +1 800 887 4331 or local 371-64.


Big Bend offers many opportunities for cycling. Scenic paved highways with low traffic are ideal for skinny tyre road bikes with plenty of gears and the extensive back road system in Big Bend National Park offers great mountain bike access.

Good options for novices are the Ross Maxwell route and the road from Panther Junction to Rio Grande Village, both of which are downhill and may require a shuttle back. The Old Ore Road is a good choice for more experienced bikers.

Desert Sports offers guided mountain bike trips, bike rentals, repair and a variety of accessories and last minute necessities for bicycle activities. Located on FM170, 5 miles west of the junction of TX 170 and TX 118 next to Terlingua Ghostown.


The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive was designed by geologist, Ross Maxwell to show off Big Bend’s rich geological history when he became the park’s first superintendent. This curvy 30 mile road skirts the western slopes of the Chisos, climbing up to one the park’s most outstanding views at Sotol Vista, then winding down to parallel the Rio Grande at Castolon Historic District before ending at spectacular Santa Elena Canyon.


The Chisos Mountains Lodge is the only accommodation located inside the park with spectacular views in the heart of the Chisos Basin.

At an elevation of 5,400 feet, you can select from a freestanding stone cottage or a motel-style room, both within a pace or two of spectacular views and trails. There is also a gift shop, gas station, general store, visitor centre, and the park’s only restaurant.

Big Bend National Park, 1 Panther Dr, Big Bend National Park, TX 79834

Set between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park, in the rural town of Lajitas, Lajitas Golf Resort and Spa is a 27,000 acre premiere resort for those seeking direct access to natural attractions with added comfort.

Each room features a rustic Western theme with décor designed to transport visitors back in time. The 18 hole championship golf course is rated one of the top five in Texas, but if golf is not your thing, book a massage at the Agave Spa, learn to shoot like a cowboy or grab a beer in the Thirsty Goat Saloon, named in honour of Clay Henry, the town’s beer drinking goat and mayor.

100 Main St, Lajitas, TX 79852. Tel +1 432 424 5000

Meet The Locals

In the Terlingua Ghost Town, hippies and hard-core desert dwellers have turned the clay brick-built former mining shanties into mini homes. Most residents don’t have electricity or running water, but this egalitarian utopia of iconoclasts and exiles have plenty of stories. Buy a beer and hang out on the porch to catch sunset and local music or arrive in time to celebrate the heavenly union of meat and spices in the granddaddy of chili cook-offs, the Terlingua International Chili Championship.

Starlight Theatre Restaurant & Saloon, 631 Ivey Road, Terlingua, TX 79852. Tel +1 432 371 3400

When to Go

As with most deserts, the weather is mainly hot and dry with low humidity and cooler nights. The mountains routinely are 5 to 20 degrees cooler than the rest of the park, while the sweltering stretches of Rio Grande are 5 to 10 degrees warmer.

Many shun the park in the summer, because temperatures skyrocket (up to 120°F), and the Rio Grande lowers. July through October is the rainy season, where sudden downpours — and consequently flash floods — are possible, though rain usually doesn’t last long and the water drains away quickly. Thunderstorms make for an epic spectacle and may lead to rare sights, such as Pine Canyon Falls. In winter, temperatures rarely dip below 30°F but during those few times the mercury takes a dive, visitors might be rewarded with rare snowfall.

Getting There

By Car

Big Bend National Park is one of the most remote parks in the United States. Services between towns range from limited to non-existent and distances are vast, so stock up on gas, water and other essentials beforehand and re-stock whenever possible. Although the roads here can be extremely lonely, don’t get lulled into thinking it’s safe to speed — the area is regularly patrolled by cops and all major roads into the park now have Border Patrol checkpoints. If there is a flashing light posted outside, you’ll have to stop and you may get asked a few questions or inspected. The roads are also scenic and sometimes quite curvy, so it pays to take it slow.

There are two entrances to the park and three main routes to reach them:

US-385 south from Marathon: This is the fastest route when approaching from points east. This route leads to the north entrance of the park at Persimmon Gap after about 40 miles, then another 30 miles south to park headquarters.

TX-118 south from Alpine: This is the quickest route from the west. There is a bit more development along this stretch compared to the Marathon route but they are equally scenic. The small communities of Study Butte-Terlingua lie near the end of the route. Shortly afterward, the west entrance to the park is reached at Maverick Junction — about 75 miles to this point, then another 25 miles east to park headquarters.

Ranch Road 170 east from Presidio: This is the quickest route to Big Bend if coming from Mexico or Presidio and arguably the most scenic, following the Rio Grande River hemmed in by foreboding mountains. In sections it’s akin to a rollercoaster ride and can get very steep; it’s not for the faint of heart or those driving RVs or other long vehicles. Towards the end you’ll pass Lajitas and then join up with Tex. 118 near Study Butte-Terlingua, for a distance of about 65 miles to that junction, then another 30 miles or so to park headquarters.

By Air

El Paso has the closest major airport to Big Bend National Park (300 miles) and Marfa, Tex. (200 miles). Although El Paso is served by America West, American, Delta, Continental, Frontier and Southwest, there are few direct flights, and most travellers from the East Coast will have to change planes in Atlanta. San Antonio, Dallas or Houston are easier to fly into, but each is a much longer drive.

Whichever way you choose, it’s worth a trip to the end of the road.


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