The Rio Grande, flowing through 1500ft-high canyons, makes a ninety-degree bend south of Marathon to form the southern border of BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK – thanks to its isolation, one of the least visited of the US national parks.
The Apache, who forced the Chisos out 300 years ago, believed that this hauntingly beautiful wilderness was used by the Great Spirit to dump all the rocks left over from the creation of the world; the Spanish, meanwhile, called it terra desconocida, “strange, unknown land”. A breathtaking 800,000-acre expanse of forested mountains and ocotillo-dotted desert, Big Bend has been home to ranchers, miners and smugglers, a last frontier for the true-grit pioneers of the American West. Today, there is camping in designated areas, but much of the park remains barely charted territory. Ruins of primitive Mexican and white settlements are testament to Big Bend’s power to defeat earlier visitors. The park’s topography results in dramatic juxtapositions of desert and mountain, plant and animal life: mountain lions, black bears, roadrunners and javelinas (a bristly, grey hog-like creature with a snout and tusks) all roam free. Despite the dryness, tangles of pretty wildflowers and blossoming cacti erupt into colour each March and April. In the heightened security measures since September 11th, it has become illegal to cross the Rio Grande into Mexico.
The most interesting route into Big Bend is from the west. You can’t follow the river all the way from El Paso, but Hwy-170 – the River Road, reached on Hwy-67 south from Marfa – runs through spectacular desert scenery east from Ojinaga, Mexico, which was practically wiped off the map due to floods in 2008. Before reaching the park boundary just beyond Study Butte, you pass through Big Bend Ranch State Park and the community of Terlingua.
Once in the park, unless you’re prepared to do some strenuous hiking, there are few opportunities to see the river itself; the main road is obliged to run across the desert, north of the outcrop of the Chisos Mountains. West of park headquarters at Panther Junction a spur road leads south for about six miles, up into the Chisos Basin, which is ringed by dramatic peaks – the one gap in the rocky wall here is called the Window, looking out over the Chihuahuan Desert. A twelve-mile loop hike to the South Rim is one of the most popular in the park, and the views deep into the interior of Mexico are humbling. Driving twenty miles southeast of Panther Junction brings you to the riverside Rio Grande Village – unless you choose to detour just before, to bathe in the natural hot springs that feed into the river.
At three separate stages within the park’s boundaries the river runs through gigantic canyons. The westernmost, Santa Elena, is the most common rafting trip; outfitters are available at Terlingua.
For the serious hiker, the thirteen-mile loop hike to the river on the Marufo Vega trail is one of the most stunning in the entire National Park Service. It offers views of the Sierra del Carmen mountain range in Mexico and a descent into a rarely visited slick-rock canyon. Feral burros (wild donkeys) sometimes wail here at sunset, and subsistence Mexican farmers set up camps to harvest candelilla across the border. A more accessible trail leads to the Upper Burro Mesa pour-off; it’s about five mostly flat miles.