Wild, Wild West Texas

Big Bend National Park

Oct 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

When the Great Spirit finished creating the Earth, he dumped his leftover rocks in Big Bend, or so goes local legend. Scientists, however, attribute the area's geologic disarray to a series of violent earthquakes and eruptions 35 million years ago that shattered layers of limestone and spewed volcanic ash and lava over 10,000 square miles. Subsequent millennia of erosion sculpted the rock into a mountain range. Then the Ice Age came and went, turning the forested slopes and rocky spires into an alpine island in a desert sea, home to stranded animal and plant species found nowhere else, like the three-foot-tall Chisos oak.
For extensive exploration of the Chisos Mountains, pitch your tent in the aptly named Chisos Basin, a 5,400-foot high bowl rimmed by red-rock pinnacles, including the park's highest, 7,825-foot Emory Peak. There's a store for provisions, a campsite with running water, and the Basin trailhead, a departure point for the South Rim, Big Bend's most impressive view. Take the Laguna Meadow Trail's 6.5-mile curl around the southwestern slopes of Emory Peak, where you'll spy Mexican blue jays flitting about the aspens and roving bands of javelinas rooting beneath the scrub oaks, till you reach the South Rim at 7,375 feet. Plant yourself on a jagged outcropping and behold 270 degrees of Chihuahua Desert, rumpled and shimmering, 2,500 feet below. From here, you can see the Rio Grande carving its famous arc through three prominent river canyons—the Santa Elena to the west, the Mariscal to the south, and the Boquillas to the east.

To get an up-close look at the river, which forms the park's southern boundary, connect with one of a handful of area outfitters that run single- and multiday rafting trips. In rainy years, like this one, the Rio Grande churns with Class III­-IV whitewater, but guides here still like to fret about a recent, rapid-taming six-year drought. The more industrious outfitters have devised creative ways to deal with desert dry spells. Some offer "backward" paddling trips, wherein they reach Santa Elena and Fern Canyons by paddling canoes upstream in low water. It's also not unusual to catch a late-night stargazing party drifting by, or a floating concert put on occasionally by rafting companies, featuring such homegrown Texas crooners as Jerry Jeff Walker or Jimmy Dale Gilmore. "At first I thought, 'Shit, who'd want to hear me sing during their rafting trip?'" says Steve Fromholtz, an Austin musician who penned four of the songs on Lyle Lovett's most recent studio album. "But people get into it. And hell, I got so interested in boating I got my river pilot's license."
At supper time, you'll want to try a whole other style of boating. Head south on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive from Chisos Basin to the river, park your car near the Santa Elena crossing, and pay the guy in the rowboat $2 to shuttle you to the Mexican bank. Here you'll find Frontera Restaurante in the hamlet of Santa Elena. The cinder-block walls aren't much to look at, but you're here for something that transcends architecture—enchiladas and ice-cold Carta Blancas.