BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK, Texas — At first the landscape seems barren, with parched shrubs, an absence of color and only the occasional roadrunner for company.
Then you start to notice the subtle gradations in hue, the surprising geological formations, the song of the desert wind. By the time you set foot on your first hiking trail, the beauty of Big Bend National Park begins to be revealed. Yes, it is remote, one of the least visited of America’s national parks, but that very isolation is part of its appeal, and its biological integrity.
Located 290 miles south of El Paso, the park is named for a U-shaped bend in the Rio Grande River that marks both its southern reach and the shared border with Mexico. Big Bend, a landscape so memorably evoked in the recent award-winning film “Boyhood,” rests inside the immense, forbidding Chihuahuan Desert, dotted with prickly pear cactus, mesquite, sotol and agaves.
But above 4,000 feet desert plants yield to yuccas, grasses and pinyon/juniper forest. Higher still, ponderosa pine and big-tooth maple hold sway. The Chisos Mountains, apex of the park, are a nursery for more than 1,000 plant species, 450 species of birds, 78 of mammals and 66 of reptiles and amphibians.
It also is mountain lion and black bear country, with rattlesnakes, scorpions and tarantulas to further enliven things in the warmer months. The Chisos Basin, deep in the heart of the park, erupts with wildflowers in summer, and is the staging ground for some of the handsomest hikes in the West.
Big Bend marks the northernmost and southernmost range of many plants and animals.
The same holds for characteristically eastern and western species that meet here, making it among the most unusual of park lands, with various natural barriers also creating a wealth of microclimes.
Though it all seems limitless, at 801,000 acres (1,250 square miles), Big Bend is only the nation’s 15th largest national park. Its geologic grandeur may not possess the otherworldly drama of Utah’s great triumvirate of parks — Zion, Canyonlands and Bryce Canyon — but it is impressive all the same. Decidedly so.
The entirety of Big Bend, and a great deal more, was once submerged under a vast inland sea, and preserved fossils and shells are often seen. Water erosion carved much of the present terrain, having worn away the upper layers to reveal igneous rock that lay far underground for millions of years.
Big Bend features three majestic limestone canyons, the most striking being Santa Elena Canyon. With three more outside the park to the west, one of the best scenic drives in America culminates near the hamlet of Presidio.
There are more than 100 miles of paved roads, 150 miles of dirt roads, roughly 200 miles of hiking trails, and endless opportunities for camping, backpacking, mountain biking, horseback riding, bird watching, wildlife observation or driving. Elevations range from 1,800 feet along the river to 7,832 feet on Emory Peak, highest of the Chisos Mountains. The Rio Grande borders the park for 118 miles, which means plenty of options for raft, canoe or kayak adventures as well.
Historic buildings and ancient artifacts are found throughout the park.
Principal desert hikes include the Chimneys Trail, Mule Ears Spring Trail and Tuff Canyon, while the Lost Mine Trail and Window Trail are mountain jewels. Though brief, the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail gradually ascends a limestone hill to offer sunset panoramas of the Rio Grande, and the Chisos and Sierra del Carmen Mountains. Nearby is the very popular Boquillas Canyon Trail.
Of them all, the Lost Mine Trail is the showpiece, winding through pine forest with dazzling views of Casa Grande Peak, Juniper Canyon, Pine Canyon and Mexico’s distant Sierra del Carmens.
Plan to spend at least a half day motoring down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (Highway 118) on the west side of the park, along whose length are numerous river trails (Cattail Falls, the Burro Mesa Pour-off, etc.) en route to the terminus at Santa Elena Canyon. Here, amble along the short (two-mile) yet magnificent Santa Elena Canyon Trail with its 1,500-foot walls soaring overhead.
Another of Big Bend’s virtues is the clarity of its skies, far removed from light pollution. This stirring nightscape, among the best in the Western hemisphere, won Big Bend National Park designation as one of 10 International Dark Sky Parks.
The mountains are pleasant in summer, grand in the fall, with a rainy season in the desert extending from July through September.
Departing the park doesn’t mean leaving the region’s glories behind. The Rio Grande’s scenic drive continues on Highway 170 west through Terlingua and Big Bend Ranch State Park on along the rollercoaster that is El Camino Real del Rio (“The River Drive”). The Fort Leaton State Historic Site also opens to views of the Rio Grande Valley.
At Presidio, pick up Highway 67 on your way back to El Paso, but stop in Marfa. A small town miles from anywhere, as is much of everything in West Texas, it is widely known for its offbeat installation art and for a world-class collection of minimalist works that reflect the surrounding landscape.
The Chinati Foundation (www.chinati.org) and its galleries were founded by artist Donald Judd, who arrived in 1971 and proceeded to put the town on the international art map. Its guided tours are lengthy and a bit pricey, but worthwhile.
Marfa also boasts some excellent, unpretentious restaurants, among them Maiya’s and Future Shark.
After this ramble, you’ll never regard West Texas in quite the same light again.