Solitude, scenery make Texas' Big Bend National Park a wonder

Solitude, scenery make Texas' Big Bend National Park a wonder

Covering 800,000 acres, Big Bend National Park in Texas is a big, "crown jewel" of the national park system. However, it receives only about 350,000 visitors a year. Yellowstone and Yosemite get 10 times as many apiece, and the Great Smoky Mountains 25 times more than Big Bend.

One reason for the low visitation is that you really have to want to go to Big Bend. It's four to five hours from Odessa-Midland and five to six hours from El Paso, the nearest commercial airports. It's also uncomfortably hot in the summer, so the park gets most of its visitors around spring break.

I was fortunate to visit Big Bend in January. Daily highs average 61 degrees in January, though I happened to hit an unusually cold spell with daily highs just below freezing. The weather may have been crisp, but the skies were gloriously sunny each day after the morning fog burned off.

Going out of season meant that I had much of the park to myself. The solitude was most impressive at famous Santa Elena Canyon on the U.S.-Mexico border. I took the short trail into the lower reaches of the canyon, to the spot where photographers take their money shot of the canyon.

For about an hour, I had the location completely to myself. Without wildlife or human sounds, this was the quietest place I have ever been, quieter than the bowels of a cave. After closing my eyes for a few minutes, I was startled by a sound behind me – two blades of grass rubbing against each other in a gentle breeze.

To get to Santa Elena, I took the Maxwell Scenic Drive from Panther Junction in the middle of the park. The National Park Service built this drive to show off the geology of the park, and there are about a dozen turnouts with interpretive signs.

Volcanism, flash floods and erosion have all shaped the land here. Highlights of the drive include Tuff Canyon, Burro Mesa Pouroff, and formations such as Cerro Castellan and Mule Ears. Much of the drive circles the west side of the Chisos Mountains.

The Chisos Mountains make up the heart of the park. They're shaped a bit like an upturned hand, with the park's only lodging in the palm. The Chisos Mountain Lodge has a half-dozen different buildings of various styles, all of which are showing their age. Though it's pricey for what you get ($122 a night), you can't beat the location in the basin.

Hiking up Emory Peak from the lodge was the highlight of the trip. I started at first light, and watched the shadows descend Ward Mountain as I ascended the Pinnacles Trail.

After about 3.5 miles, the trail reaches Emory's main ridge, with views into Boot Canyon on one side and Chisos Basin on the other. Reaching the top requires about 100-150 feet of scrambling, using your hands to go up the rock.

Because Emory is the highest mountain in the park, its summit has great 360-degree views. I could see the Sierra del Carmen to the east, the Chisos Basin below me and the Chihuahuan Desert, and just make out Santa Elena Canyon in the distance.

Other attractions of the park include the Rio Grande, Mariscal and Boquillas canyons, and historic buildings, mostly those built by Anglo ranchers in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Along the Mexican border there is also an interesting "silent trade." Mexicans slip across the border, lay out a display of walking sticks and bead scorpions, and set up a price list and cash box. The U.S. government will confiscate these craft items as "smuggled goods," but apparently enough tourists buy them to make it worth the Mexicans' while to bring them across the river.

Finally, Big Bend has the most spectacular night sky I have ever seen in the United States. Because it's so far from any towns or cities, there is no light pollution. Because it's in the desert, there are few clouds.

It's a beautiful place to enjoy the harsh beauty of the desert by day and the glories of the universe by night.

Robert Pahre is a political scientist who lives in Champaign. He's an enthusiastic backpacker and is trying to be a better photographer.

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