Named for a deep sweep in the Rio Grande River that divides the United States and Mexico, the Big Bend country of West Texas is a land of striking beauty—of vast desert expanses, craggy mountains forested with pine and aspen, topped with some of the bluest skies and clearest nights of any place in North America.
Far from any major city, the Big Bend is truly one of the world’s last frontiers, a relatively untouched corner of the American West, and an ideal place to rediscover the simple pleasures of silence, solitude, and open space. The crown jewel of the Big Bend region is Big Bend National Park, which preserves more than 1,100 square miles of rugged desert, the three massive canyons of the Rio Grande, and the entire Chisos Mountain range.
The park invites exploration from many angles: Raft or canoe down the Rio Grande, hike more than 200 miles of wilderness trails, ride a horse into the sunset, take a Jeep tour on the park’s extensive back-road system, or simply drive the paved and improved roads to many easily accessible scenic viewpoints and interpretive turn-outs. While Big Bend National Park is among the largest national parks in the continental United States, it is also among the least visited, and finding a private corner in this wild, remote country is easy, even during popular seasons.
Climbing into the heart of the Chisos Mountains, the road up Green Gulch dead-ends at the Chisos Basin, at about 5,000 feet above sea level. Surrounded by peaks towering over 7,500 feet in elevation, the Basin has a campground with 62 sites, as well as a ranger station, interpretive exhibits, and a convenience store. The Chisos Mountains Lodge offers comfortable overnight accommodations, and their dining room wins the prize for the best restaurant view in Texas as the sun sets over the desert through a jagged opening in the mountains known as The Window. The Basin’s high elevation and shaded paths create a spring-like oasis, even in the dead of summer.
The Big Bend’s Chihuahuan Desert boasts the greatest number of cacti of any North American desert, as well as plentiful vegetation of all varieties: Big Bend National Park records over 1,200 plant species. The desert explodes into bloom every March and April, and many species only need a good rain to put on a show. The low desert also reveals the tremendous geological diversity of Big Bend, be it the gnarled pinnacles of the Chimneys Trail marked with Native American rock art, or the surreal landscape and balanced rocks of the Grapevine Hills. Big Bend has great hiking opportunities for every season and for every skill level.
Flowing through Big Bend National Park and the adjacent U.S. Wild and Scenic River, the Rio Grande traverses 5 major canyons in 275 miles of navigable wilderness waterway. Although each canyon is unique in its own spectacular fashion, every canyon is typified by soaring vertical cliffs, which dwarf visitors fortunate enough to experience these sublime regions. Once within the towering walls, a river party finds the natural sounds and sights mysteriously enhanced, almost like inside a vast cathedral. As one author noted about Santa Elena Canyon, “if light were sound, Santa Elena would be a symphony.”
Service providers near the park rent boats and equipment to experienced river runners to explore the canyons on their own, or visitors may book a full service guided trip, where the outfitter provides all equipment, guides, meals, and local ground transportation in one simple package. These excursions are available from a few hours to several days in length. Be prepared to have more fun that you ever thought possible. In addition to the expertise that guides bring to safe navigation, local guides are knowledgeable in the flora, fauna, geology, and history of the region. Special services include gourmet meals and live music, introducing an unexpected element of luxury to an activity most first think of as an entirely Spartan undertaking.
Some visitors explore the Big Bend the way that the early pioneers did—on horseback. Big Bend Stables, a local outfitter, offers a range of horseback adventures, from one-hour rides around the mountain to five-day outings into Mexico. Their premier trip, however, is the annual longhorn round-up at Big Bend Ranch State Park, where a limited number of participants help drive the steers during the day and enjoy outfitted amenities and camp cooking. Big Bend Stables welcomes riders of all levels of experience, even those who have never been on horseback before.