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Big Bend

One of the country’s most “off-the-beaten-track” scenic treasures is Big Bend National Park in Texas. Unlike many park service units, Big Bend is not a place that one can just “stop by” along the way to another destination. It’s just not “on the way” to anywhere else, but isolated in rugged West Texas along 118 miles of the northern banks of the Rio Grande, where it makes a “big bend” roughly 325 miles southeast of El Paso.

Across the river is the even more remote and forbidding desert wilderness along the northern borders of the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila. Covering more than 800,000 acres, Big Bend is the eighth largest national park in the “lower 48” states, and fifteenth in size when including the massive parklands in Alaska.

As the National Park Service puts it, “Here, you can explore one of the last remaining wild corners of the United States, and experience unmatched sights, sounds, and solitude.” This is a park for hikers, for birders, for river runners, for photographers, for lovers of all things natural. Many easy and moderate trails are available, as are more challenging desert treks and mountain climbs.

Over 450 bird species have been spotted here, as well as countless varieties of cacti, wildflowers and other annual plants that have become particularly acclimated to harsh desert climes. Animals native to the region include the kangaroo rat, jackrabbits, roadrunners and coyotes. As elevations rise towards the Chisos Mountain in the center of the park, plant life includes pinyon pines, small oaks and junipers, while Douglas fir, quaking aspen, bigtooth maple and Arizona cypress make their homes in the mountains themselves, the highest of which is Emory Peak, at 7,832 feet.

Spectacular sights include the great Santa Elena and Boquillos Canyons, the rugged Chisos Mountains and “The Window,” through which the incredible desert expanse below can be viewed near the Chisos Basin Visitor Center. Also at Chisos Basin is the Chisos Mountain Lodge, offering spectacularly-located accommodations and dining to both individual and group travelers. One could do far worse than just to relax and enjoy the peace, quiet and views from the lodge for a couple of days. I spent a full week in my motor home at Rio Grande Village Campground on the east side of the park, which had to be the quietest place I’ve ever spent a New Year’s Eve, but one which offered the opportunity for unobstructed (virtually no ambient light) night sky views, which put an exclamation point on the incredible splendor of the universe. Beautiful weather throughout my stay and fascinating ranger-led programs completed an exceptional experience.

Mexican Blue Jay

Sotol Vista

Santa Elena Canyon