“Trust the horse. She doesn’t want to go over the cliff any more than you do.”
As I heard my guide, Linda Walker, the owner of Big Bend Stables in Lajitas, TX, say these words, she was motioning me to urge my horse, a rather savvy mare who reveled in my lack of experience, to come closer to the edge of a yawning chasm in the west Texas desert. And while I had no doubt of Linda’s abilities, or her understanding of the equine mind, I had just about reached the limit of the surprises I was prepared to face during my visit to Big Bend National Park, which had just that morning included a to-the-death fight between a roadrunner and a tarantula mere steps outside my motel room door.
The fact that my horse occasionally lost purchase and started to slide off the trail was not the least bit alarming to the guides, who were able to skitter up and down the winding rocky switchbacks on their horses like they did it every day—which I guess they did. They encouraged me to enjoy the monumental views of Old Mexico and the Bofecillos mountain range, and when I did finally get the nerve to look up, it literally took my breath away—almost as much as the sound of cascading rocks under each misplaced hoof.
Big Bend National Park is unique—not only in the wildlife that it contains and its magnificent views, but in the experiences that if offers to those who love adventure. The 900,000-acre park, which is located at the base of the southwestern side of the state, is separated from Mexico by the Rio Grande River. It’s a place of grandiose vistas and wide open skies where water, mountains and desert converge to create a landscape that’s striking in its beauty.
A person can feel cowed by Big Bend’s vastness, or feel welcomed by all of the opportunities it presents to travel beyond his or her comfort zone. From the moment I arrived, I was eager to explore—to climb high peaks and raft down rivers; to stare up at the night sky in a place known to be one of the best places in the nation for star gazing. The good news is that there’s no shortage of the ways that you can enjoy the great outdoors in Big Bend; the only problem is that because it’s so massive, you might not have enough time to do everything that you want.
For those who love wildlife, southwest Texas is pretty much heaven—Big Bend alone is home to more than 3,600 species of animals (including insects) and 450 species of birds, and you don’t have to look far to find them. Taking a walk on the quarter-mile path outside of my room at the Chisos Mountains Lodge, which is the only accommodation located within the boundaries of the park, I was accompanied by a very curious roadrunner that wove in and out of my legs but wouldn’t stay still long enough for me to take a focused picture. About 10 feet off the trail, a pair of mule deer locked horns in a play battle, witnessed by about six other deer and me…who probably wondered why I was wrestling with the camera as I tried to get proof that this was actually happening within spitting distance of the lodge.
I’m happy to say that I did not see any mountain lions, despite there being a number of signs warning of their presence, and I also—again, quite happily—did not come upon the bear that hikers told me was a little ahead of me on the Lost Mine Trail.
Big Bend is a hugely popular place for hikers, and it’s no surprise considering that there are more than 200 miles of trails within the park for every level of ability. I enjoyed a fairly leisurely hike up to the 6,850-foot peak of the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains—the cooler morning weather was perfect and the path, while a little steep in places, was extremely walkable. The only delay in the journey was the need to pull out the camera every 20 feet—the views were magnificent as I headed from the basin to the top of the mountain, where I was rewarded with the sight of the moon, still visible in the daylight, perched beside Casa Grande, a square-shaped mountain that soars above the lodge and campgrounds.
Despite getting only about 13 inches of rain a year, Big Bend’s landscape is alive with color, provided by the 1,200 species of plants that grow in the area. Driving through the desert on the way to Santa Elena Canyon, it was startling to see bursts of yellow and red in addition to all kinds of cacti—the park is home to approximately 60 species including yucca and prickly pear.
The canyon itself is a marvel—while you can see it for quite a while before you actually reach it, nothing prepares you for the sheer immensity of the 1,500 foot limestone walls that form a natural barrier between the U.S. and Mexico. Composed of the calcified bodies of sea creatures, the bottom of the wall is estimated to be 140 million years old; the top of the wall is much younger, at only 70 million years old. There is a short path that you can climb to venture inside the canyon; the day we went, we had to wade across Terlingua Creek to get to the trailhead, but it was well worth the wet shoes.
Speaking of getting wet, there are numerous ways to explore the Rio Grande, from rafting down the river with a guide to taking a rowboat over to Boquillas, Mexico at the Boquillas Port of Entry. For $5 roundtrip, this is the coolest border crossing ever—on the Mexican side, you can take a burro ride into town to enjoy something to drink or eat in the town of 250 people; a car ride is also available for the less adventurous. This border crossing was closed after 9/11, and just reopened in 2013—you do need to check in on both sides of the border, so make sure to take your passport. I can tell you that my burro ride into town was about as successful as my horse ride through the desert; it seems obvious that getting an animal to listen to me is not one of my talents.
One of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had—and that is taking into account riding the aforementioned burro and traveling in a rowboat across the river—was visiting Langford Hot Springs, where I soaked in 105 degree water in what was once a bathhouse, but is now an open-air, somewhat slimy concrete brick-enclosed “tub” right beside the Rio Grande. While most of the area is now in ruins, it was originally a spa built in the 1900s by J. O. Langford, who was sent west by his doctor to recover from tuberculosis—now it’s just a great way to relax as you stare up into the huge expanse of white-clouded blue Texas sky.
Speaking of surreal, you have to love a national park that includes a town where the mayor is a goat; a title that Clay Henry and his descendants have held for many, many years. According to our guide Mike Davidson, who had a story for every stop along the way, Clay Henry was the name of a beer-drinking goat in Lajitas, Texas, who was infamous for drinking alcohol on Sunday in defiance of the state’s blue laws. “The goat didn’t understand,” said Davidson, adding that Henry won a hotly contested mayoral race against a three-legged dog and a wooden Indian in a bought election. You can visit a descendant of Clay Henry today, who is housed in a pen with a number of female goats who perhaps make up his advisory cabinet. I didn’t ask.
Lajitas is also a popular place for golfers, as the Lajitas Golf Resort has a course designed by Ryder Cup Captain and Hall of Fame inductee Lanny Wadkins. My interest was piqued by another activity offered at the resort, though—the chance to handle real guns while learning to shoot. While this is not something that I would have done back home, Big Bend National Park lends itself to trying new things—and it turns out that I’m actually channeling an inner Annie Oakley. I can say with confidence that I handle a rifle pretty well—as long as I’m not on horseback while I’m trying to shoot.
My visit to Big Bend ended—too soon—with an evening in Terlingua, a ghost town where I was honored to have the opportunity to sit among the families in the local cemetery as they celebrated the Day of the Dead. Somehow this far from civilization I still felt right at home, gazing up at the thousands of stars that littered the night sky and wishing—yawning chasm and all—that I could stay a little longer.