Named after the huge U-turn in the Rio Grande, Big Bend National Park is in a remote section of southwest Texas. With only two, mostly desolate roads to access the park, it’s not a place you stop by on your way to somewhere else. Whether staging out of the towns of Marathon or Alpine, it is an approximately 80-mile stretch, devoid of gas stations and cell phone service, from either place to a park entrance. I opted to approach the park via US-385 so that I could ride the scenic 25-mile stretch of the park on Main Park Road, from the Alpine Entrance Station to the Visitors Center at Panther Junction.
At just over 800,000 acres, Big Bend is too big to be seen in just one day (which is all I had), so I had to be strategic about my sightseeing. With both the Chisos Mountains and the Rio Grande as desired, up-close destinations, I opted to focus on the west side of the park. After taking in the exhibits at the Panther Junction Visitor Center, I topped off my tank at the park gas station and headed west toward Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. It was still fairly early, so I heeded a Park Ranger’s advice to visit the desert areas first in order to take advantage of the cooler morning temperatures, then head up to the mountain altitude during the heat of the afternoon.
From Santa Elena Canyon, I retraced my route back towards Panther Junction, but detoured onto Chisos Basin Road for the 6.3-mile ride from the desert floor to the Chisos Mountain Visitors Center and lodge, topping out at 5,770 feet. Like many National Parks roads, this one was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), between 1934-1942. An info placard along the way stated that work done in the park by the CCC was undertaken by “200 men, most in their teens, and 80% of them Hispanic. For these young men, life in the Big Bend CCC was defined by isolation, desert heat, strict rules, and backbreaking work.” A stark reminder that my ability to access this beauty came with a price.
While up at Chisos Mountain Visitors Center, I was surprised to see signs advising visitors to store food and toiletries in an approved bear-proof container while visiting the area. As the last ice age ended, colder, moister climates moved northward, leaving lower elevations dry and hot, while creating isolated mountains, like the Chisos. This process left many plants and animals, eg, white-tailed deer, black bear, and mountain lions, stranded and isolated in the Chisos Mountains- an island surrounded by the Chihuanhuan Desert. (NPS brochure) I enjoyed a nice lunch at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, then visited with a few folks on the patio who were staying at the Lodge. Unfortunately, the lodge was booked up by the time I decided to visit Big Bend, so I bid adios to my new friends and made the long trek back to my hotel in Alpine, TX.
Enticed by this small taste of the park, I would definitely like to come back when I have lodging in the park and more time to explore its numerous hiking trails in-depth. Next stop: San Antonio!
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