Southwest Texas Road Trip: Big Bend and Beyond

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.

Chisos Mountains and the Rio Grande
Within Big Bend the desert exists side by side with two dramatically different environments — those of the Chisos Mountains and the Rio Grande.

Route Details

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,

Brewster County Tourism Council, P.O. Box 335, Terlingua, TX 79852; tel. 877-244-2363,

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. 3. Alpine
Alpine sits among lofty mountains, several of which top 6,000 feet. Rising from the rocky land along Rtes. 118 and 90 are two of the range’s most prominent pinnacles — Paisano Peak and Mt. Ord — both remnants of ancient volcanic activity. At Marathon the drive turns south on Rte. 385 and winds past the Santiago Mountains into the vast northern Chihuahuan Desert, an expanse of harsh terrain that extends southward from Texas into Mexico.

4. Big Bend National Park
All but two percent of Big Bend National Park is covered by desert and desert grassland. But what makes this place so extraordinary is the contrast between this vast, sere territory (Big Bend is about the size of Rhode Island) and the tiny remainder of the park. Within Big Bend the desert exists side by side with two dramatically different environments –those of the Chisos Mountains, which lie at the heart of the park, and the Rio Grande, which rolls along its southern boundary. The result is a world of astonishing variety with sandy slopes and grassy fields, deep canyons and towering peaks, tiny springs and one of the longest rivers in North America.

No less varied than the park’s terrain is its wildlife. About 1,200 species of plants (including more than 60 kinds of cactus) thrive within its 800,000 acres, as well as 75-odd species of mammals, 66 species of reptiles, and more than 400 kinds of birds — a greater number than are found at any other national park.

As you enter the park at Persimmon Gap (44 miles south of Marathon), it is not uncommon to see mule deer and jackrabbits. To the south looms Big Bend’s magnificent centerpiece, the Chisos Mountains, crowned by 7,835-foot Emory Peak. The Chisos Range is forested with Douglas firs, ponderosa pines, and even quaking aspens, isolated here far from their primary ranges. If you arrive in early spring, it’s a good idea to take the side road to Dagger Flat. Depending on the timing of recent rainfalls, hundreds of giant dagger yuccas may be in bloom there, each one adorned with clusters of white flowers.

5. Rio Grande Village
At Panther Junction, drive southeast on Hot Springs Road until you reach Dugout Wells, once a ranch and schoolhouse and now a pleasant picnic spot. As the road rambles on toward Rio Grande Village, two of the park’s most prominent peaks come into view. Look for aptly named Elephant Tusk off in the distance to the south and, closer to the road, Chilicotal Mountain.

At Rio Grande Village (an excellent spot for bird-watching), a short nature trail loops across the lush floodplain before climbing to a ridge that overlooks the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico and, of course, the endlessly flowing ribbon of the Rio Grande. Here and elsewhere throughout the park, enjoy the dazzling array of vegetation to be found in this living desert — bluebonnets, fragrant creosote bushes, prickly pear cacti, and the striking sword-shaped leaves of lechuguillas, to name just a few. Returning to Panther Junction, head west on Rte. 118 until you arrive at the turnoff for Basin Drive.

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. 9. Terlingua
To exit the park near Maverick, either backtrack along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to Santa Elena Junction and then head west, or follow the Old Maverick Road (a well-graded dirt road that’s more direct but sometimes closed after heavy rains). Once outside the park, follow Rte. 170 west until you reach Terlingua. Formerly a thriving mining center, Terlingua is a popular tourist destination. The town’s two biggest claims to fame are its World Championship Chili Cookoff, a boisterous celebration held in early November, and the Cookie Chilloff, a spoof of the event, held in early February.

10. Big Bend Ranch State Park
The fast-growing town of Lajitas is the gateway to the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center, which showcases the flora and fauna of the Chihuahuan Desert. The facility also serves as a visitor center for the Big Bend Ranch State Park, a 270,000-acre desert garden, which is traversed by the drive. With scenery that rivals that of Big Bend National Park, the park contains — among other types of animals — the smallest and largest bats in America.

11. El Camino del Rio
The ruggedness of the terrain traversed by El Camino del Rio (“The River Road”) is underscored by one of the route’s early nicknames, Muerte del Burro, meaning “Donkey’s Death.” At times dropping to within yards of the Rio Grande, then winding into the cliffs above, this highway — once a Spanish trail, later a smuggler’s route — is unquestionably one of the state’s finest scenic drives. Passing beside steep, heavily eroded bluffs and fancifully shaped rock formations, you begin to understand why ancient Native Amer ican legend holds that Big Bend Country is the place where the Great Spirit dumped all the rocks that were left over after he created the world.

12. Fort Leaton State Historic Site
Built in the late 1840s, this adobe-and-wood structure was the private fortress of Ben Leaton, a trader who ran his empire with such ruthlessness that he earned a host of less-than-flattering nicknames, including scalp-hunter, desperado, and un mal hombre — “a bad man.” Overlooking the Rio Grande valley, the restored fort recalls frontier days with exhibits, historic artifacts, and tours.

13. Shafter
At Presidio, the drive veers north on Rte. 67 toward Shafter. Just before you reach town, look west for the uncanny likeness of Abraham Lincoln’s profile on a nearby mountain. Watch out as well for deerlike pronghorns, which sport tan fur and a distinctive white patch on the rump.

Shafter was once dubbed “the richest acre in Texas” because of the millions of dollars’ worth of silver that were extracted from local mines. Today, little remains of the town except crumbling ruins, but veins of the precious metal still run through the surrounding hills.

14. Marfa
Movie buffs may recall that the 1955 classic Giant was filmed on a ranch 15 miles outside Marfa. But West Texans know the town as the home of the mysterious “Marfa ghost lights,” strange glowing spots that have baffled watchers and investigators since the 1880s. Explanations have ranged from UFOs to atmospheric disturbances to reflections of automobile headlights, but you can judge for yourself: an official Marfa light-viewing station is located about nine miles east of town on Rte. 90.

[sale-item img=”” title=”Most Scenic Drives in America” price=”25.00″ link=””]

Popular Videos

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest