Big Bend National Park - The Wild West
(Originally printed in Camping Life in 1998.)

Looking across 15 miles of badlands that stand between me and Mexico, I know just what it means to feel a thousand miles from nowhere. This is where the native Americans said the Great Spirit dumped all the rocks that were left over after he created the earth, where even the Rio Grande did a double-take and headed back north a few million years ago - only to find itself spooked into turning around yet again and making a beeline for the Gulf of Mexico. From here, Big Bend seems like the least likely national park imaginable.

Big Bend is a national park, though, conceived during the Great Depression (1935) and born during World War II (1944), covering more than 801,000 acres of west Texas. Outside of Death Valley, there aren't many less-hospitable places in the U.S., yet the big Bend has an almost mystical allure. It's where the boundary between Texas and Mexico is virtually invisible, where the past is the present, where the desert and the mountains envelop each other. It's a place where you have to be equally on the lookout for scorpions and mountain lions, tarantulas and black bears.

A couple of weeks before our wedding, Carey and I came to Big Bend for a much-needed brainflossing. A solid week of days filled with hiking and rockhunting, and long nights of sleeping under an endless canopy of stars would be, we knew, just what the doctor ordered. And the timing would be perfect. Since the vast majority of Big Bend is desert, summer days can be blisteringly hot and winter nights can be frigid, late spring and fall are the best times to visit, and while fall is good, I prefer the spring because of the blooming flora that gives the desert a surprising burst of color.

There's no easy way to get yourself a thousand miles from nowhere. The closest airports to Big Bend are in El Paso, some 325 miles away, or Midland, a 230-mile drive. From our Austin base, it's more than 400 miles, at least a 10-hour drive. And while driving is pretty much the only way to get to Big Bend, it's not an easy drive from anywhere. There are only three paved roads leading to the park - U.S. 385 from Marathon (70 miles from park headquarters), State Route 118 from Alpine (108 miles), or Ranch Road 170 from Presidio to S.R. 118 in Study Butte (just outside the park entrance). And there's no public transportation in or out of Big Bend. Nobody's ever wound up in Big Bend by accident.

We came via the scenic route, driving from Austin through the Texas Hill Country, spending the night in Alpine before entering the park. A word to the wise: get to the park early. Campsites are first-come, first-served, and the good ones fill up quickly. There are three developed campgrounds, Rio Grande Village (100 sites), Chisos Basin (63 sites), and Cottonwood (31 sites), with water and restrooms but no hook-ups; the fee is currently $7.00/night, with campsite occupancy limited to eight people and two vehicles or one RV plus one vehicle. There is an independently owned RV concession at Rio Grande Village that offers full hook-ups. And if you're looking for the maximum comfort, there's the Chisos Mountain Lodge, just outside the Chisos Basin campground, a very nice hotel that tends to be booked solid months in advance.

We came to Big Bend with the intention of going the primitive route, figuring that the primitive sites would be less crowded and offer better rock and fossil hunting. We didn't figure that our burnt-orange Ford F350 pick-up would drive the park's wasps into a swarming frenzy at every primitive site we tried. In the interest of staying alive until the wedding, we moved my highly-allergic-to-wasps self to the relative safety of the Chisos Basin campground.

The Chisos Basin is one of the marvels of Big Bend. The Chisos Mountain range sits completely within the park's boundaries, surrounding the Basin like a jagged crown, dominated by Casa Grande to the east and The Window to the west. Unlike the desert lowlands, the Basin is nearly a forest as a result of the rains that have no escape except via The Window, a spectacular V-shaped notch separating Vernon Bailey and Amon Carter peaks. The Basin is home not only to all sorts of plants, but to mountain lions and black bears, javelina and whitetail deer, and at least one overly friendly skunk who made his nightly rounds through each and every Basin campsite looking for scraps of food. We didn't see any lions or bears, but the javelina would come snuffling to almost arm's-length as they chowed on the succulent cactus of the Basin.

The Window Trail, a relatively easy, 5.2-mile hike, can be picked up from the Chisos Basin Campground, taking you to The Window, maybe the most spectacular sight in the park. The trail descends all the way to The Window, making for a more difficult return than some people are expecting. It's worth it. The notch between the peaks, formed by erosion in the contact zone between intrusive and extrusive volcanic rock, opens onto an incredible vista, with even the ghost town of Terlingua (home of the legendary chili cookoff) visible miles in the distance. The last quarter-mile or so of the trail is over often-slippery rock and rock stairs, with Oak Creek sometimes streaming toward the 220-foot Window Pour-Off, where the braver souls, like Carey, can stand and look down at the desert floor 20 stories below. Another word to the wise: Be Careful. The footing can be slick if it's rained lately, and even a light rain can send enough water through Oak Creek to carry you over.

There's a whole network of hiking trails around the Basin, the High Chisos Complex, which range from the wheelchair-accessible Window View to the 14.5-mile South Rim, making it possible for you to spend all your time in the park within the Chisos. This isn't a bad call, since the Chisos are filled with animals and plants found nowhere else in the U.S. (like the Colima Warbler and the southernmost tree stand in the country, a grove of quaking aspens on the southwest slopes of Emory Peak), but parts of the trails are peregrine falcon nesting areas and are closed during nesting season, not to mention that you'll only be seeing about a tenth of the park.

Since we wanted to see as much of the park and its geology as possible, we chose to drive. A lot. Big Bend has miles and miles of paved and unpaved roads that are accessible and open to anyone with a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle. It's not as grak as hiking, but driving can get you places you'd otherwise have to pass up. With our indispensable guides - the Road Guide to Backcountry Dirt Roads (Big Bend Natural History Association), the Road Guide to Paved and Improved Dirt Roads (Big Bend Natural History Association), A Road Guide to the Geology of Big Bend National Park (by Kerri Nelson, Big Bend Natural History Association), and Roadside Geology of Texas (by Darwin Spearing, Missoula Press) - we were able to see almost the entire park during our stay, and to know exactly what we were looking at.

We looked at a lot, too. The sheer cliffs of Santa Elena Canyon, which frames the Rio Grande, formed during the Cretaceous and early Cenozoic eras, are filled with fossils dating back millions of years. (Note: It's against the law to remove fossils or rocks from the national park, so don't do it.) The one-sided Boquillas Canyon, where the limestone face of the Sierra del Carmen range, on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, towers over the river and the Rio Grande Village Campground. And the almost liquid-looking rock formations and drainage pools of Ernst Tinaja, where Carey rescued a young bird that dipped into a drain pool for a quick drink and was unable to fly out. (We pulled a branch off a nearby tree and Carey used it to scoop the exhausted bird out of the water to safety.)

After a couple of days, we began to recognize rock formations without having to check the field guides. We were able to tell a ring dike from an intrusive formation, and I'd learned to spot the difference between alluvium (stream-carved deposits of sediments) and talus (rock fragments found at the base of a steep slope or cliff). We tried to pass ourselves off as experts, nonchalantly explaining the difference between the Javelina and Aguja formations to each other (the Javelina has more color, the Aguja may contain dinosaur bones and petrified wood) as we pointed out one or the other on an outcropping. Carey knew more, but I was better at affecting an air of scholarly boredom.

As a result, the vast majority of our time in the park was spent poring over rocks and fossils, and I'd recommend that to anybody, but that's not the only way to experience Big Bend. If we'd had more time, and we will next trip, we'd have hooked up with Far Flung Adventures in Terlingua (800.359.4138, 915.371.2489), and done a little whitewater rafting through the canyons of the Rio Grande. Both raft and canoe trips are available, and if you're lucky you just might wind up with semi-legendary Texas musician Butch Hancock as your guide.

Regardless of how the days are spent, nights in Big Bend are always the same - awesome. Even if you don't have much interest in astronomy you can't help but stare up at the night sky and be amazed. A full moon in Big Bend is bright enough to hike by - but I'd recommend against it, since it'll also bring out the lions, bears, snakes, etc. - and even a moonless night is so bright with stars that you can almost read by starlight. Imagine a billion Christmas lights on a black velvet background and you'll begin to have an idea of what it's like to look up into a Big Bend night sky.

Just like we knew it would, our week seemed to end almost as soon as it began. Days of driving and hiking, rock and fossil hunting, and nights of looking at the stars were exactly what we needed. Our minds were as clear as the west Texas sky, and everything was suddenly falling into place. Sometimes there's nothing like spending a week a thousand miles from nowhere to help you find out just exactly where you are.


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