The Chisos Mountains practically erupt from the West Texas desert. The southernmost range in the United States, they rise from the heart of Big Bend National Park to form a natural amphitheater for some of the most breathtaking views in Texas.
On the first day of 2014, the sun was climbing beyond the Chisos’ eastern rim when I crawled from my tent in the shadows of the mountain basin. The sun’s golden rays struck the panorama of west-facing cliffs, and the fingerlike formations of volcanic rock gleamed red as the light swept across the ridge and banished the shadows.
It was the kind of view that stops you in your tracks. It distracts from the shivering cold, the need for coffee, and the fact that nature’s call is what drove you from your cozy tent in the first place. As the sun continued to climb through the cloudless blue sky, I marveled first at the awesome and immense beauty surrounding me, then at my own smallness in the face of it, and finally at my personal negligence: How was I just now seeing this place?
Well, for one thing, Big Bend is in the middle of nowhere. It is situated on the American side of a “big bend” in the Rio Grande, a stone’s throw from Mexico but a full day’s drive from the eastern half of Texas, where most of the state’s residents live. A small minority of Texans has made the pilgrimage to Big Bend, which remains one of the largest, most remote, and least-visited national parks in the United States.
Forget the crowds jostling each other for a glimpse of Old Faithful, Yosemite Falls or the Grand Canyon. Big Bend offers vastness and solitude at even peak times, which are mostly the spring break months of March and April, and October, when the scorching summer is giving way to the more temperate fall season. Although the park boasts more than 800,000 acres of Chihuahuan Desert, mountain woodlands and river habitat, only 275,000 people visited in all of 2013. To put those numbers in perspective, if every visitor had shown up on the same exact day last year, each person would have had three acres to him or herself.
Travelers who are willing to brave the distance and desert are rewarded with an experience that can be found nowhere else in Texas. They can amble down shady trails through narrow canyons, including spectacular Santa Elena, where the Rio Grande chisels a narrow, 1,500-feet-deep gorge through layers of bedrock. They can trek to the highest peaks, take driving tours through weird desert badlands within view of majestic mountains, relax in natural hot springs along the Rio Grande, or cross the river and ride a horse into the rustic Mexican village of Boquillas.
And while Big Bend has a reputation for extremes, appealing to hardy backpackers and others searching for solitude in a severe environment, the park also accommodates the less adventurous among us, with 123 miles of paved roads and a recently renovated lodge that features comfortable rooms, hot showers and serene views. Getting to the park isn’t the haul it used to be, either. In 2012, the Texas Department of Transportation increased speed limits for many West Texas highways to 80 mph.
After a day of driving, consider a rest in Marathon, about an hour north of the park. The dust-blown town of 430 people owes its continued existence to the travelers heading into Big Bend, and its centerpiece is the Gage Hotel, a historic lodge outfitted in elegant Southwestern style. During my recent visit, the Gage was a little beyond our price range, so my girlfriend and I went down the street and dropped $10 on a lovely campsite behind the Marathon Motel. After setting up camp we headed back to the Gage and warmed up by the fire at the cozy White Buffalo Bar, and we split a buffalo burger under the watchful eyes of an enormous white bison whose wooly head was mounted to the brick wall.
Shirley’s Burnt Biscuit served up comfort food for breakfast. The only gas station in town was plumb out of fuel, but we had enough in the tank to get us into the park—the vehicle entrance fee is $20—and to the fuel pumps at Panther Junction near Big Bend’s northern end.
We were surrounded by desert hills rolling in all directions, studded with spiky sotol, creosote bushes and 65 varieties of cactus, including beautiful purple pads that grew in clumps along the roadway. Then the road turned, and we began a winding ascent into the Chisos Mountains. The desert gave way to the magnificent red canyons and forest of piñon pines, oaks and other trees that thrive at the higher elevation. I had been expecting endless badlands, so the lushness of the mountain woodlands came as a pleasant surprise. Because the elevation there varies so extremely, from about 1,800 feet along the Rio Grande to 7,832 feet at Emory Peak, the mountains trap the passing clouds and receive enough rainfall to support a diverse range of trees, flowers, and critters such as black bear and deer. It is also about the only place in Texas to see the Mexican jay, a pretty blue bird that is native to mountain ranges of Mexico.
We easily found a $14 campsite in the first-come, first-serve Chisos Basin campground, and although we were apprehensive about sleeping in a tent with low temperatures dropping into the mid-20s, we burrowed into two blankets and four sleeping bags and were just fine. Daytime temperatures climbed into the upper 60s, perfect for a long stroll along the Window Trail, where water from the basin funnels through a narrow gap in the mountains and spills over a cliff to the desert far, far below.
Later, as evening approached on a peaceful New Year’s Eve, the patio of the Chisos Mountains Lodge offered the best view of the sun descending through the Window, and revelers celebrated with drinks and dinner inside the lodge restaurant. The volcanic canyons gleamed red in the setting sun, and soon all was dark, the night filled with stars.