6. Basin Drive
Shaped like a gigantic bowl, the Chisos Basin offers such amenities as a lodge, a campground, and a restaurant. But it’s the green surrounding peaks of the Chisos Mountains that make this spot a highlight of the drive. Among the pinnacles towering over the basin is Casa Grande, a monumental stone castle that is truly breathtaking in scale. Like its fellow spires, Casa Grande was formed when molten rock forced its way up through limestone bedrock; much of the limestone was later eroded away, leaving these dramatic summits standing free.
Trails here range from Window View, an easy stroll affording vistas through a break in the basin wall, to strenuous hikes into the highlands. White-tailed deer, mountain lions, and many black bears range through these mountains, but the park’s most famous critter is the tiny gray-and-yellow Colima warbler. Naturalists from all over the world trek to Boot Canyon to see this bird, which nests nowhere else in the United States.
7. Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
Back on Rte. 118, the drive heads west toward Santa Elena Junction, where a turnoff leads south onto the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive — a 31-mile tour (requiring at least half a day) of some of the park’s most striking scenery. Burro Mesa lies to the west, while the mighty Chisos Mountains loom in the east. After a few miles, a view opens up back down and into the basin, with Casa Grande beautifully framed by the so-called Window, a V-shaped cleft in the peaks that is particularly photogenic at sunset.
A few miles beyond Sotol Vista (the last stop for those with trailers and recreational vehicles, both of which are too large to negotiate the sharp curves and steep grades that lie ahead), a spur road leads to a view of Mule Ears Peaks, a pair of pointed hills. As you near the next landmark, 1,000-foot-tall Cerro Castellan, stop at Tuff Canyon, carved millions of years ago by Blue Creek. After visiting Castolon, an old army post that once protected residents from Mexican bandits, follow the paved road to Santa Elena Canyon, about eight miles farther to the west.
8. Santa Elena Canyon
Of all the sublime scenery at Big Bend, the sight that awaits you here may well be the most awesome. Over untold millennia, the gritty, silt-laden Rio Grande has worn its way through the limestone Mesa de Anguila, carving a narrow chasm with sides of astonishing height. As you make your way along the trail into Santa Elena Canyon, the walls of the abyss rise hundreds of feet above you like skyscrapers on a city street, until the sky seems like just a thin ribbon high overhead.
White-water float and canoe trips through Santa Elena and the park’s other canyons, Mariscal and Boquillas, can be arranged through outfitters in nearby towns. Check current water conditions by calling park service staff before departing for the river. Some trips take a few hours; others, several days. But all provide memories that will endure for a lifetime.