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The Daytripper goes to Big Bend National Park

Chet Garner scopes out magnificent desert views and delicious beef enchiladas
Written by Chet Garner. Photographs by Hogaboom Road, Inc..

Big Bend National Park

There is a place out west where the phrase “Everything’s Bigger in Texas” comes into its full meaning.

Contact Big Bend National Park Headquarters at 432-477-2251; nps.gov/bibe.

Chet Garner is the host of The Daytripper® travel show on PBS. To view the Big Bend episode visit thedaytripper.com

It’s a near-mythical destination where distances stretch and time slows down, a place that can be as dry as a scorching desert or as wet as a raging river. Those who seek great adventures need look no farther than Big Bend National Park.

8 a.m. After driving about 40 miles south from Marathon, I reached the north entrance of Big Bend National Park and pulled over to take an obligatory photo at the entrance sign. Although I had technically arrived, I still had 30 miles to go before I reached park headquarters. I rolled down the windows and reset my internal clock to match the unhurried pace of the desert.

9 a.m. At Panther Junction Visitor Center I strategized my plan of attack. What makes Big Bend so special beyond its unfathomable size (a whopping 801,163 acres) is the confluence of three diverse environmental features: desert, mountains, and river. I wanted to experience them all and spent the next hour studying maps and learning about the park’s history.

10 a.m. With a head full of facts and feet antsy to hike, I set out for the Grapevine Hills Trail on the desert floor. I was amazed at the diversity of birds along the way; reflecting the fact that Big Bend has more bird species that any other national park. After a mile of hiking past Dr. Seuss-esque rock pinnacles, I arrived at the famous Balanced Rock. It was a mind-bending exercise to imagine how a giant boulder found itself in such a precarious position. I figured if it hasn’t fallen in millennia, it probably wouldn’t fall today. With ranger approval, I scrambled atop for a photo.

12:30 p.m. Next, I headed for the Chisos Mountains. The prominent sign noting the presence of bears and mountain lions only added to the sense of adventure. It felt like I was driving vertically until the car crested a hill and I could see the entire Chisos Basin. It’s in this mountainous bowl where visitors sleep and eat at the famous Chisos Mountain Lodge. Since it was lunchtime, I stopped at the lodge’s restaurant and devoured an excellent plate of beef enchiladas.

1:30 p.m. After lunch, I walked over to the short, paved Window View Trail, which put me in the ideal spot to look out through the picture-perfect V-shaped gap in the mountains that looks out over the desert floor. I was surprised at how different (and cooler in temperature) this mountain hike felt from my desert hike, making it hard to believe that I was still in the same park.

3 p.m. With one major region left to experience, I traveled toward the Rio Grande, which cradles the edge of the park for an incredible 118 miles. I cruised the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive past remnants of old ranches. I eventually arrived at the historic Castolon ghost town, which was once a small farming community along the banks of the river. I explored the adobe Alvino House and Harmonia Store, which the U.S. Army built as barracks during the Mexican Revolution. I didn’t expect such amazing human artifacts to be alongside the famous natural history of Big Bend.

5 p.m. The road turned right and began to track the river all the way to the stunning Santa Elena Canyon. A short hike put me on the banks of the Rio Grande, staring at the canyon walls rising 1,500 feet above the river bed. I skipped a few rocks across to Mexico and thought about how amazing it is to share such a wonderful region with our southern neighbors. Part of the magic of Big Bend is its ability to make anybody feel small compared to its seemingly endless expanses. While I had traveled plenty of miles, I had seen barely a fraction of the park. It’s this allure of awaiting explorations that brings me back for more. So whether you follow my footsteps or forge your own path, I hope to see you on the road.

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