Discover the Magic of Big Bend

In this desert corner of Southwest Texas, beauty casts its spell in unexpected places.
Cassandra M. Vanhooser

God paints the sky over the Big Bend of Texas with a fiery brush tonight.

In these moments at day's end, the sun plunging below the horizon explodes in a dizzying rainbow of colors. Great streaks of salmon, flaming red, pale lavender, and hot liquid gold splash upon a canvas so vividly blue it's impossible to capture with words or film. I anchor my stance, lean into the raging wind, and turn my face toward the heavens to accept this awesome gift.

Miracles of nature are commonplace in the Big Bend, a vast swath of the Lone Star State that draws its name from the serpentine path of the Rio Grande. This fabled river starts as a clear mountain stream high in the Colorado Rockies and ambles southeast across New Mexico, entering Texas at its westernmost tip near El Paso.

Here the wide, muddy expanse forms the border between the United States and Mexico and dips into the Chihuahuan Desert before changing its mind and beginning a long, slow arc to the northeast. This great U-turn in the river forms the boundaries of the Big Bend, a region so immense it could hold the entire state of Maryland with room to spare.

Though the area is cradled by one of the most storied rivers in U.S. history, water is not immediately apparent here. Indeed, from a distance, the desert landscape appears lifeless, bereft of color and character. The American Indians believed the Great Spirit dumped his leftover rocks here after perfecting the rest of creation.

But as harsh and barren as this land can seem, it possesses a beauty so compelling it seeps into your dreams and takes hold of your soul. "This is the Texas of our imaginations," says longtime Lajitas resident Linda Walker, who first journeyed to the Big Bend as an infant and returned as an adult to purchase a riding stable. "This is what people are looking for when they come to Texas."

It's wide, lonesome country blessed with great unpeopled vistas. Clumps of prickly pear cactus, tall and spiny ocotillo, scrubby creosote bushes, and wickedly sharp lechuguilla populate the rolling plains. In the distance, jagged mountain peaks claw the azure sky.

In February, when spring comes to the desert, the long arid expanses erupt in a riot of colorful blooms. A million tiny wildflower seeds hide in the rocky soil, sometimes for years. But when graced with a simple drink of water, they unfurl their petals and transform the desert into a rocky Eden. No bloom is more brilliant than the Big Bend bluebonnets that perfume the air and stand knee-high as far as the eye can see.

While sprawling cattle ranches and scattered towns dot the landscape, much of the region has been reserved for public use. Some 800,000 acres form the Big Bend National Park, while approximately 300,000 acres are held within the confines of the Big Bend Ranch State Park. Every inch of this great majestic land harbors treasures waiting to be discovered.

It calls to folks like John and Gail Crane who took the train from their New York City home to Alpine, stopping on business along the way. From the overlook at Sotol Vista, where they pause for a picnic lunch, the couple looks out upon a bird's-eye view of Santa Elena Canyon as it pierces the heart of the Mesa de Anguila. "I feel like we're standing on top of the world," Gail breathes with admiration.

Like the Cranes, I feel lucky to have discovered the Big Bend. After driving, hiking, and riding horses here, I feel at one with this place. I have just one more adventure ahead. In the morning, we raft the Santa Elena Canyon. But for now, I lie on the banks of the Rio Grande listening to the whisper of the river and the serenade of a lone coyote somewhere in the distance. A blanket of stars covers me, and I'm kept company by the pale full moon hovering over the canyon rim. I drift to sleep, at peace in the Big Bend of Texas.

How to get there: Big Bend National Park is located about 330 miles southeast of El Paso and 235 miles southwest of Midland-Odessa. Major airlines service both cities, and Amtrak makes scheduled stops in Alpine.

Best time of year to visit: October-April

Horseback riding: Outfitter Linda Walker's stables, in both Lajitas and Study Butte, offer rides that can last as little as an hour or take up to five days. For information call Lajitas Stables at (915) 424-3238, 1-888-508-7667, or visit www.lajitasstables.com.

Hiking: Miles of trails lace the national park's 1,250-plus square miles of land. Books and trail maps are available at the Panther Junction Visitor Center. For a trail map to Big Bend Ranch State Park, stop at the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center on Farm Road 170 outside Terlingua, or call (915) 424-3327.

Jeep tours: Rent your own or, better yet, join a Jeep tour. Texas Jeep Expeditions conducts daily trips into the park and on private land. Prices range $30-$95. Rentals are $80 for a half-day, $115 for a full day. Call 1-800-839-7238, or visit their Web site.

Rafting the river: Santa Elena is the most famous, but there are five complete canyon systems in the Big Bend. You can rent rafts and canoes, or hire a guide at one of several local companies. We chose Texas River Expeditions, 1-800-839-7238 or www.texasriver.com . Others to consider are: Big Bend River Tours, 1-800-545-4240 or www.bigbendrivertours.com ; Desert Sports, 1-888-989-6900 or www.desertsportstx.com ; Far Flung Adventures, 1-800-359-4138 or www.farflung.com ; Rio Grande Adventures, 1-800-343-1640.

Don't miss: The River Road from Presidio to Lajitas (Farm Road 170) follows the twisting Rio Grande through the canyons of the Chinati Mountains. It's one of the most scenic drives in the country.

Where to stay: The only lodging at the Big Bend National Park is Chisos Mountain Lodge, (915) 477-2291; rates start at $68. Be sure to make reservations well in advance. Cibolo Creek Ranch, between Presidio and Marfa, (915) 229-3737; rates range $350-$600. The Gage Hotel, Marathon, 1-800-884-4243; rates range $65-$140. Lajitas Resort, Lajitas, (915) 424-3471; rates range $85-$275.

For more information: Big Bend National Park, P.O. Box 129, Big Bend National Park, TX 79834; (915) 477-2251, www.nps.gov/bibe or visit the Big Bend Tourism Council's Web site at www.visitbigbend.com. Park admission is $10 per vehicle.

This article is from the January 2002 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.