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Why you should visit America's Big Bend National Park

Why you should visit America's Big Bend National Park
Adventure awaits visitors to Big Bend National Park, located in one of America’s wildest, most forbidding places, says Marcia DeSanctis.
On my first morning in Big Bend, I jumped in a little too quickly. Driving 78 miles south from Marathon, Texas, I aimed for the heart of the national park: the Chisos Basin, a geological depression encircled by a mountain range of the same name. A friend had recommended the six-mile Window Trail hike; I reached the trailhead at noon.
Disregarding the posted warnings not to hike after 10am because of the extreme heat, I ventured past volcanic outcrops into a dry canyon bed. Fifteen minutes in, I encountered what seemed to be a remarkable painted stick bisecting my path. It turned out to be a deadly Mojave rattlesnake that, thankfully, ignored me. 
By the time I reached the Window—a natural stone aperture at the lip of a 65-metre cliff, through which I could see the pastel expanse of the Chihuahuan Dese—it was 38 degrees Celsius, there was no other hiker in sight, and my backup water bottle was emptying fast.
I proceeded cautiously on the way back, ducking for shade wherever I could on the arduous uphill route. By the time I arrived at my air-conditioned car, I had learned my lesson. Big Bend was different. One needs humility, stamina, a little courage… and probably not to hike alone.

Entering Big Bend country

Santa Elena Canyon is one of Big Bend's top attractions
“Every other aspect of the Big Bend Country—landscape, configuration, rocks, and vegetation—is weird and strange and of a type unfamiliar to the inhabitants of civilised lands,” wrote the geologist Robert T Hill, who mapped the Rio Grande for the United States government in 1899. Of the river’s 1,885 miles, 118 delineate the southern edge of the park—the boundary with Mexico—including the elbow-like curve that gives Big Bend its name.
Hill’s words remain true today. “For the most part, people don’t realise how hot it is, how isolated and vast,” said Greg Henington, owner of Far Flung Outdoor Centre, who has been arranging trips in Big Bend since 1986. The park has no shuttle buses, and is on the edge of nowhere. The nearest airport is more than three-and-a-half hours’ drive away and the closest major city, El Paso, is 300 miles to the northwest. There is still something vaguely renegade about the place: a promise of adventure and seclusion. Historically, it is one of the least visited national parks in the United States.
“This is the last frontier in the Lower 48 states,” Henington said. 

A family history

The Gage Hotel in Marathon
Every summer of my childhood, my family flew from our home in Boston to my father’s native Tucson, Arizona, and, in a rented station wagon, drove north and west to parks like Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. We never made it to Big Bend, so in the autumn of 2020, I set out to finally see it.
My mother was not big on roughing it during our trips. She believed that nature is best enjoyed after waking up in a hotel room rather than a campground. It is a preference I inherited from her. Luckily for me, an immersive experience in the wilds of Big Bend does not exclude comfort.
The morning before my ill-advised solo hike, I awoke to the nostalgic sound of railroad cars trundling east past the Gage Hotel on the main street of Marathon, the northern gateway to Big Bend. I brewed a cup of coffee, then ambled through the town in predawn darkness. From the middle of a street, I watched the eastern horizon turn from starry black to flaming orange to powder blue.
"It’s like glimpsing a bygone era on the western frontier"
The Gage is what revived Marathon, a former cattle-trading hub that had seen better days. In 1978, Houston oilman JP Bryan bought the run-down 20-room hotel built in 1927, and began a by-the-blueprint restoration, updated with modern essentials like a pool, craft brewery, and coffee bar.
Today he owns an architectural masterpiece, a bona fide chunk of Texas history—it’s like glimpsing a bygone era on the western frontier—and a first-class hotel all in one. He also owns much of Marathon: 26 meticulously restored historic buildings, so far. Bryan hopes to inspire others to take on similar projects. “I want to demonstrate that historical restoration can bring economic prosperity to even the smallest community,” he said.

Travelling Route 385

Hiking through Big Bend's Chisos Basin can be treacherous in the extreme Texas heat
I woke up early that next morning and shot down US Route 385 into Big Bend. So powerful and unexpected was the view—an all-encompassing vastness of mountain, desert, and dazzling sky—that I had to stop several times to absorb it. 
Parts of Route 385 follow the course of the old Comanche Trail, named for the fierce nomadic horsemen who took this route from the central plains to conduct raids in Mexico. Archaeological findings record the presence of Indigenous people dating back 13,500 years. In 1848, this land became part of Texas. By the 1880s, the Mescalero Apache and other tribes had been forced onto reservations.
Later, the area’s population expanded with ranchers and mining operations that extracted mercury from cinnabar ore, until support swelled in Texas to deed this land to the National Park Service. In 1944, Big Bend was designated the country’s 38th national park, and today it covers more than 1,950 square miles.
I was overwhelmed by Big Bend’s scale, the geological diversity, and the seemingly endless stretches of wilderness. It has an entire mountain range, the Chisos, within its borders, and there are canyons, craggy trails, abandoned ranches, and hot springs. Anchoring it all is the Rio Grande.

Meeting the river

Guide Randy De La Fuente leads kayakers along the Rio Grande through the Santa Elena Canyon
After spending the night in one of Far Flung’s spotless casitas (cabins), I set off for my first encounter with the river. The Rio Grande’s water level was low that year; kayaks were launching from the adjacent Big Bend Ranch State Park. There, I met up with Randy De La Fuente, who was to be my guide during the visit. 
I almost instantly got a soaking on the first of several sets of rapids that we encountered on our six-mile trip along the waterline between the US and Mexico. We floated through the opposing cliff faces of Penasco Canyon and then, to our right on the Mexican side, passed grazing herds of jet-black cattle. Dense walls of river cane flanked both banks. 
"The tragedies that can befall those who attempt to navigate this unforgiving desert are woefully common"
“We always say that the border is a grey area here, and not much more than a water barrier,” Henington had told me.
Many Mexican citizens work in the Big Bend region, crossing back and forth with relative ease. Because the terrain is hostile on both sides, fewer people tend to seek asylum in Big Bend than elsewhere in Texas. Nevertheless, migrants are regularly discovered by border patrol agents, and the tragedies that can befall those who attempt to navigate this unforgiving desert are woefully common.

Visiting with visionaries

The author in Terlingua
I checked in to Willow House, a stunning desert retreat with views of the Chisos Mountains, just off the main thoroughfare in Terlingua. In 1903, the economy here was flourishing thanks to the cinnabar mining industry, but a few decades later, with demand for mercury sagging, it faltered. In the ensuing century, the abandoned town attracted drifters, dreamers, and visionaries.
One of those visionaries is Lauren Werner. Five years ago, she visited Big Bend and was immediately stirred by the area’s “heavy, heavy energy.” Though she worked in commercial real estate in skyscraper-studded Dallas, Werner began to imagine a career building idyllic spaces that captured the beauty of Texas. She bought 116 hectares, and in September 2019, opened the Willow House. Each of its 12 warm, earthy casitas blend into the landscape. “If someone asked me to describe freedom, it would be how I feel here,” she told me. 
"If someone asked me to describe freedom, it would be how I feel here"
For the next three days, I would set off from Willow House at dawn to delve into some of Big Bend’s most picturesque corners. De La Fuente accompanied me, administering folklore and botany lessons—and the occasional gentle admonishment, mostly about hydration. Never again would I set off on a hike without plenty of water.
Our first stop was near the Chisos Basin, about a 45-minute drive from Terlingua, at the Lost Mine Trail, a five-mile hike known for its panoramas. As we ascended, landmarks came abruptly into view. 
“There’s my sweetheart,” De La Fuente exclaimed, gesturing toward Casa Grande, a statuesque volcanic ridge. He pointed out a lechuguilla, a spiny desert succulent with sap that has been used as a natural antibiotic, and showed me the scaly bark of the alligator junipers. 
Around another bend was Juniper Canyon and a lone, craggy rock formation that reminded me of a ruined Scottish castle.

Big Bend’s marquee attraction

Later that week, I sat on the porch of my casita in a kind of silence and darkness I’d never experienced before. Trail by strenuous trail, vista by staggering vista—even in brutally harsh heat—I felt as if Big Bend was inciting me to something verging on euphoria.
The next morning, De La Fuente and I drove into the park as day broke. I got the sensation of being in a massive bowl surrounded by the ridgeline. 
We turned on a dirt road to hike Grapevine Hills, a desert wash studded with boulders that sparkled with quartz. We saw very few other people. I stopped to admire tiny ripe persimmons and the dried stalks of the sotol plant, a relative of agave. 
Motoring south on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, the 30-mile road that cuts through the western side of the park, we passed a series of mighty geological formations known as Mule Ears and Burro Mesa as we headed toward Santa Elena Canyon.
This is Big Bend’s marquee attraction, made famous by an Ansel Adams photograph that shows the fearsome symmetry of the limestone gorge. From a distance, its walls blazed fiery red in the afternoon sun. 
“A hundred million years ago,” explained De La Fuente, “this was all under the sea.” I lost my footing several times on the loose trail that skirted the water, winding past walls full of fossilised marine mollusks. After our hike, we made lunch. As
I crunched a sandwich of peanut butter and tortilla chips, I realised I would scarcely be more content if I were eating magret de canard at Septime in Paris.

Exploring Terlingua Ghost Town

Later, I drove to the former mining neighbourhood still known as Terlingua Ghost Town. The place is the work of Bill Ivey, who bought the entire town in 1987 and restored it to cinematic perfection. 
I wandered the weathered cemetery and the cluster of original structures; in the Terlingua Trading Co, I perused the terrific book section. “I’ve often said that Terlingua is the true spirit of the Big Bend,” Ivey told me over antelope steak and margaritas at the Starlight Theatre Restaurant & Saloon, which he also owns. Ivey grew up in nearby Lajitas, where his father owned the trading post on the banks of the Rio Grande. 
The next morning I drove to one of Ivey’s favourite spots in Terlingua for sunrise, the Indian Head Trail, which is remarkable for the millennia-old petroglyphs carved into volcanic boulders. Though excavations continue in the region, only an estimated ten per cent of the park has been surveyed for archaeological sites. At Indian Head, the pictographs of animal, human, and nature symbols are a reminder of the hands that created them, the ancient people who looked east and saw precisely what I did that morning.
Above me were the fleck of a waning moon, Mars, Saturn, and the Milky Way. Then the night was swept away in a swift flash, giving way as it always does to the soft colours of the desert: patient, enduring, eternal. 
From Travel + Leisure (May 25, 2021), Copyright © 2021 by Marcia DeSanctis
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