Length: About 450 miles.
When to go: Best from late February through May, October through December.
Nearby airports: Midland (225 miles); El Paso (325 miles); San Antonio (400 miles).
Lodging: Gage Hotel, Marathon; Chisos Mountains Lodge, Big Bend National Park (three-month advance reservations required).
Supplies: Available at Chisos Basin.
Words to the wise: When hiking, wear cool, rugged clothing for protection from prickly plants and take along at least one gallon of water per person per day.
Vehicles: On dirt roads, high-clearance vehicles are necessary to avoid large rocks.
Fuel: Panther Junction, Rio Grande Village.
Nearby attraction: Museum of the Big Bend, Sul Ross State University, Alpine.
Visitor centers: Persimmon Gap, Panther Junction, Rio Grande Village, Chisos Basin.
Further information: Big Bend National Park, P.O. Box 129, TX 79834; tel. 432-477-2251, www.nps.gov/bibe.
Brewster County Tourism Council, P.O. Box 335, Terlingua, TX 79852; tel. 877-244-2363, www.visitbigbend.com.
Named for the great curve in the Rio Grande where it rounds the southern elbow of Texas, Big Bend Country lies at the heart of an untamed sector of the American Southwest. A land little changed since the days of Spanish conquistadors and Apache warriors, this remote region on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert is home to sprawling ranches, eerie ghost towns, and one of our largest and least-visited national parks.
1. Balmorhea State Park
Big Bend Country is a land of surprises, and the first one comes not long after the drive begins at the intersection of I-10 and Rte. 17, about 190 miles east of El Paso. As you head south through the desert on Rte. 17, you’ll soon reach Balmorhea State Park, which features a welcome oasis — a two-acre concrete swimming pool that was formed by containing the waters of San Solomon Springs. But the pool’s size isn’t the only thing that makes it unusual. Its bottom features sand, rocks, and native aquatic plants, and its waters teem with freshwater fish that are native to the area. Ten different kinds inhabit these waters, including green sunfish, silvery Mexican tetras, and two endangered species, the Pecos mosquito fish and the Comanche Springs pupfish. Thanks to the pool’s crystaline water, swimmers, snorkelers, and divers can observe these creatures at any depth.
2. Fort Davis National Historic Site
Water is a very precious resource in western Texas, so it’s not surprising at all that, when the U.S. Army wanted to build a fort to protect westward-bound pioneers from Indian raids, it chose this site on the bank of Limpia Creek. What does come as a surprise to most visitors is the majesty of its setting. Bordering a parade ground that is about 900 feet long, the fort’s restored buildings are silhouetted against the red-rock walls of Hospital Canyon, the remains of an ancient lava flow.
Most of the original wooden structures, dating back to 1854, were burned to the ground by Apache raiders when the fort was abandoned during the Civil War. When it was reactivated in 1867, the new outpost was built with thick walls of stone and adobe that insulated against both the summer’s heat and the winter’s cold. The fort was closed in 1891, but its buildings proved so durable that they survive to this day. Thirteen of the former officers’ quarters — each adorned simply with a prim white-columned porch — stand beside the parade ground in perfect symmetry. They are a poignant reminder of the soldiers who once marched in formation there during their parade drills.