Between the southerly-northerly great bend of the great river, Rio Grande, is an untypical land. Big Bend country sweeps southward between the Pecos and Rio Grande Rivers in West Texas. It composes of four mountain ranges over 7,000 feet above sea-level and the state’s deepest canyonlands. Big Bend National Park is an exclusive and reclusive island in the Prehistoric sea that is the Chihuahian Desert and is two-hundred miles from the nearest city over 10,000. The Park and surrounding Country is a giant’s land of desert, mountains, and high forests. It is surrounded on three sides by Mexico and only four routes, all going south, can get you there. Yet, in spite of this epic isolation the soul feels sound and secure somehow. Despair and uncertainty are not in the nature of a place where nature has been so unspoiled. You don’t experience any sense or or scent of melancholy as you would in Death Valley,CA. A melody of joy and curiosity are the most common responses from people coming to see. West Texas mountains are the last best kept secret as a major vacation point. Few but the ghosts of the Chisos, dancing skeletons of the sodded ghost towns or the Marfa Ghost Lights frequent this mystery land. Though most of Big Bend Country is privately owned in an iron curtain of barbed wire, the region is home to the largest state park (Big Bend Ranch) and national park in Texas.
My youth in the flat part of Texas it was vacations in my youth to Big Bend Country that seeded and sowed my love for the outdoors, my state, and the mountains. My dad, who was also a proud Texan, loved showing us Texas our Texas and the trails over her ridges and peaks. It does wonders on adult curiosity and imagination having visited an unforgettable place like Big Bend early on. The swelling point of anticipation and greed to hike high soured as we crossed the Pecos to a more rugged and desolate environment. There are many different lands in the land of Texas. Crossing from the wooded and rolling Heart of Texas to the canyons and highlands of the Trans-Pecos was an amazing adventure every time. Today the Chisos Mountains, ghosts of the past, call my rugged heart back to the Basin, and my soul for adventure back to the Big Bend.
This review of the Big Bend is only half of what’s here. I have many photos of the park and the routes to. Yet, they’re all taken from below the Chisos Mountains’ summit-land of six to seven thousand eight-hundred feet above sea-level. For every palmed oasis there is an evergreen forest and for every rare Agave there’s an Aspen. This is a work about the canyon-lands and the Basin. Another work, another elevation, are for another day.
There are three gateways to Big Bend National Park…
ORANGE ROUTE-Panther Junction via US 385 from Marathon,
RED ROUTE-Study Butte via State 118 from Alpine,
BLUE ROUTE-Study Butte via US 67 to Farm to Market 170 from Marfa
GREEN ROUTE-Ranch Road 2810 to Pinto Canyon Rd to Farm to Market 170 to Study Butte from Marfa
GATEWAY MARATHON (Orange Route)
Rugged features Denuded Ouachita Rock Belt, east face of Mount Ord 6,812 ft, and Santiago Peak 6,539 feet above sea-level between Marathon and Big Bend National Park.
There are two rugged points on US Highway 385 and both are on the northern and southern extremes. Yet, the Chisos Mountains near the bottom of 385 are six-hundred feet higher than the Black Hills of South Dakota on the other end. (A revelation to Texas-mountain-deniers especially considering that most of 385 goes through Rocky Mountain states Colorado and New Mexico). The Colonel Henry Harman historical marker near the intersection of US 90 and 385 and the marker for the Denuded Quachita Rock Belt marker several miles south are worth the see and learn.
The greatest opinion I recommend to folks is to visit Big Bend National Park one way and take another route back. For example, to the first time visitors I suggest they see the red and blue (or) green routes leaving and coming back. However, for the guranteed second vaca the most eastern route should finally be revealed.
GATEWAY ALPINE (red route)
Six sweet mountains over six-thousand feet along State 118 south of Alpine. Mount Ord (west face), McIntyre Peak 6,366 ft, Cathedral Peak 6,867 ft, Elephant Mountain 6,228 ft, Cienega Mt 6,565 ft, and Santiago Peak 6,539 ft. above sea-level.
The red route State 118, south from Alpine is recommended as the best way south to Big Bend for first time people. First of all Alpine is largest of the three gateways and the most picturesque surrounded by twelve mountains over six-thousand feet. Secondly the trip to the Park from here is a green to desert beauty madness. I recommend West Texas Wings for dinner and heading south early after a Magoo’s Place breakfast.
Side trips on Red Route-County Named for Confederate Colonel Henry P. Brewster memorial on 6th Street side of Brewster County Courthouse and College named for Texas Confederate General Sul Ross memorial in front of the Dolph Briscoe JR building at Sul Ross State University,Calamity Creek/Woodward Ranch, Elephant Mountain Wildlife MGMT Area, and Aqua Fria.
GATEWAY MARFA no.1 (blue route)
Marfa is the highest gateway city to the Big Bend.
Though from Marfa the Davis Mountains 8,370 ft. above sea-level are a blue bulge in the distance they’re are the highest elevations near a Big Bend gateway.
In the southwest is old bold and lonely Chinatti Peak 7,739 ft. above sea-level also at an unimpressive distance- a far glimpse of the flat headed giant Santiago Peak as well.
US 67 runs from northeast Iowa to Presidio and like US 385 the highway’s highest mileage is in the Big Bend Country.
From the southernmost of US 67 in Presidio Farm to Market 170 begins, aka the River Road. Besides the Davis Mountains Loop the River Road is arguably the most scenic drives in Texas. The mountains and desert are bare but for lit in color like geological wildflowers. It is a a collision and chaos of shades of volcanism. Besides beauty the River Road is the most wild ride in Texas-a Rio Grande version of the Pacific Coast Highway or Blue Ridge Parkway. Two lanes climb and plunge high over the shores of Texas and Mexico. Cliffs and box canyons curve the River Road in and out of the land. As a part of Big Bend Ranch State there are dozens of pull outs for pictures and trails.
In Lajitas the River Road finally escapes the River and passes through the Chihuahian Desert’s version of the Painted Desert. The Rio Grande on the other hand tightens its bend to the south and Santa Elena Canyon. The Terlingua ghost town is an eroded city of Mexican and miner homes from a less tragic time. Magma dunes and ash clay graves in the cemetery are gray and rosy in this modern day Pompey. It is a beautifully strange area-populated by ghosts and human mystery.
Farm to Market 170 ends in Study Butte.
Side trips-Ghost towns Shafter (US 67) and Terlingua (Farm to Market 170). Captain Henry Skillman,C.S.A. historical marker in Presidio (US 67) and Big Bend Ranch State Park on Farm to Market 170 before Lajitas.
(First timers, best for the return trip). Arrive in Marfa in time to see sun set over Davis Mountains, visit the Marfa Mystery Lights pull-out center, and take supper at the Food Shark.
GATEWAY MARFA no. 2 (green route)
(Covers the same mileage between Presidio and Study Butte on Farm to Market 170). From Ranch Road 2810 in Marfa to Farm to Market 170 in the unincorporated border town Ruidosa the trip is special. It is the most lonesome and below the Chinatti Mountains is the most rugged route to the Big Bend. I have no photographs of the wild territory…
Side trips-Captain Henry Skillman, C.S.A. historical marker in Presidio (US 67), Terligua ghost town and Big Bend Ranch State Park on Farm to Market 170.
BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK (Chisos Basin Road)
My dad said it was the safest place in the world. Some things about the Basin in Big Bend National Park make many of us feel a love here like that. It is the center of the highest mountains over 7,000 ft. on the southern end of the main forty-eight States. It is a wide heart in the middle of the Chisos Mountains. Summits in the Ghosts like Casa Grande 7,300 ft, Vernon Bailey 6,600 ft. and Lost Mine Peak 7,535 ft. above sea-level are the revealing places for views crossing hundreds of miles of international wilderness. Emory Peak 7,800 ft, the highest sports forests of Fur, Ponarosa Pine, Juniper, and groves of the southernmost Aspen in the U.S.
Ascending the Chisos from Panther Junction and the desent over Panther Pass is the only way into the Basin . Of my experience at more than 100 national parks across the U.S. the ride into the wild heart of the Chisos Mountains is a particular joy never called old. The Goliath view opens and then slants between “The Window” (A breach on the west face of the Basin which slants to the Basin bottom in the shape of a V).
The Basin is the most frequented part of the park. A restaurant, museum, gift store and amphitheater group here. I am not sure if the motel up there has changed since many years ago when my family changed our minds about staying there. More ghetto barracks than motel, we’d, meaning I, expect nicer lodging to go with such a nice place. Nevertheless the campground in the basin is one of the most starry and sunny places to camp in the U.S. and better not missed.
Every site has a unique view of the massive earth that bears up a massive sky. Lastly, The Basin is the spear point of trails going up the major peaks, to the north and south rims, The Window and summits of the major peaks.
(Other best places to stay and sleep are the Chinatti Hot Springs off the Green Route on Hot Springs Road. Also, the Paisano Hotel in Marfa, Holland Hotel in Alpine, Gage Hotel in Marathon, or my childhood favorite by the Christmas Mountains Terlingua Ranch east of Study Butte).
BOQUILLAS CANYON (Park Route 12 )
The little hike along and above the Rio Grande to get to Boquillas Canyon from the end of Park Route 12 is worth it to see and easy going. Boquillas Canyon is the deepest canyon in Texas and the old Confederate South, cut by the River’s strange direction north. Here the border is almost non-existent. Mexican nationals sell art and crafts and a small ferry and fun donkey ride brings visitors to the little cafe town of Boquillas, Mexico.
Gold and blue-gray lava clay canyon northwest of Boquillas Canyon is unique but like the deep color layered geology of Tuff Canyon on the Santa Elena side of the Park. A violent earth and peaceful nature are connected here by a thing of beauty.
(Hot Springs Road)
Halfway between Panther Junction and Boquillias Canyon is a cozy green place well known to people that know Big Bend. The hot springs is one of my favorite stop and hikes below the mountains. Ironically I don’t like the hot spring itself. It is little more than a warm baby pool inhabited by snotty hams who horde the small space with possessive glares. There is better there than this to spend time at. Along Park Route 12 there are a few cooler Oasis’s including Dugout Wells and Grapevine Hills.
Pictographs illustrate the ancient people’s bond with the Big Bend.
SANTA ELENA CANYON (Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive)
Chisos Mountains from Santa Elena Canyon and Rio Grande River
Almost a mirror side of the northerly flowing Boquillas Canyon but darker and a few feet lower, the southerly going Santa Elena Canyon cuts a formidable border line in between the Alleys Mexico and United States.
Some people who like Big Bend adore one canyon over the other-the southward flowing Santa Elena or northward going Boquillas Canyon. A true Texan never tells…but I will say that I would be happy to name a daughter Santa Elena. The big bend of the Rio Grande is the most inspiring feature found anywhere on the border. The thin canyon den is dim most of the time and quite but for the trickle of international waters. Seriously-if you believe in an enchanted spirit go see Santa Elena Canyon.
Chisos Mountains from Tuff Canyon, Rox Maxwell Scenic Drive
Cerro Castolon rises phoenix like from a garden of rosy and violet volcanic ash. Each desert sunrise and sunset its summit is lit in layers of fiery orange and red. It is the high point of a dike extending southeast from Blue Creek. At its base is a canyon land of iron rich volcano rock strewn over large smooth mounds of volcano clay. You owe the magnificence of a borderline sacred wonder the delight of seeing it at least two hours after sunrise and one before sunset. Pepper reds and cream whites layer this canyon place.
The half mile of Ron Maxwell Scenic Drive is where barren meets beautiful and there isn’t an ode religious enough to describe it.
STUDY BUTTE (Red route)
Chisos Mountains from lava beds and Beehive Mountain on State 118 northern town-line of Study Butte
Willow Peak and Wild Horse Mountain on State 118 north of Study Butte.
We go back to the boss route of the Big Bend, State 118. I would have made lil Study Butte population 233, down from 267 in 2000 a gateway route except that it is a part of destination Big Bend. From here you are only a few miles north of the Big Bend National Park sign, an entrance into a multi-verse of desert, mountain, and canyon glories. From Study Butte you see a broadside of the Chisos Mountains. Chisos is Spanish for ghosts and this how they appear-calling you south of Study Butte into its unrivaled natural domain.
Like on Park Road 12, the Ron Maxwell Scenic Drive, Terlingua, and later at Aqua Fria, lava sediment drifts, pillars, dunes, gorges, and colors can’t be missed on the east side of Study Butte near the intersection of the red, blue and green routes. Beehive Mountain, Willow Peak, and Wild Horse Mountain prostrate along State 118 north of the town. They’re like three sisters born and frozen in volcano fury. And like many of the volcanic temples and valleys of the Big Bend they glow fire like from stolen sunlight at the end of the day.
AQUA FRIA (Aqua Fria Road)
Aqua Fria Rd. is around twenty-miles north of Study Butte. Aqua Fria Spring is one of the five side-trips on our Red Route. Different from the green sides of Calamity Creek on Calamity Creek Road seventy miles north, Aqua Fria pours, pools, and ponders through a volcano desert scape. Ashen clay and sandy sediment in the water heals and re-youths the swimmer. The water is deeper in July, August, and early September.
From the high lava clay drifts over the Aqua Spring Valley you can see the volcano rings before Study Butte, the ghost box square Chisos Mountains, the Christmas Mountains, and the savage cone of Cortizone Peak. The Big Bend…
Terlingua Ghost Town Cemetery and lava rolls
*MAKE BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK IS AN AT LEAST FIVE DAY DEAL TO ENJOY IT RIGHT