Outdoors media often portrays visitors to Big Bend National Park as fit adventurers scampering up near-vertical trails and reaching that long-hoped-for summit.
But then there’s the rest of us, who’d still like to enjoy the wide-open spaces but are slowed by the realities of age and physical limitations. We can experience much of what the park has to offer, just in less strenuous ways.
I have traveled the Trans-Pecos region many times and continue to be physically active, but my wife’s hip and knee replacements led us to search for adventures suitable for those with more limited mobility. We found that Big Bend isn’t just for the nondisabled; it offers a variety of options for folks of any activity level. We just had to know where to look.
On a recent trip in September, our choice of accommodation was a five-night stay at a pet-friendly stone cottage at the Chisos Mountains Lodge, in the Chisos Basin. Even though the cottage wasn’t ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) certified, and my wife would need to manage several steps down to the shaded porch, a railing and my arm were available. And, our 13-year-old rescued greyhound, Julie, easily settled into this cool mountain getaway, such a contrast to the scorching desert below.
Jeremy Buzzell, Branch Chief, Accessibility Support Programs at the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., suggests visitors consult the NPS website when planning a visit to Big Bend or any national park. For Big Bend, navigate to the “Plan Your Visit” tab at nps.gov/bibe, which includes a segment on accessibility.
Sandy Heath, the ADA manager at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, says she believes in the therapeutic value of recreation in nature. “[When people are planning an excursion], I ask, ‘What’s your ability? What can you do, and what do you enjoy doing, rather than focusing on what you can’t do?’” Heath says.
Before heading out with my wife, I traveled to Panther Junction Visitor Center, where a large topographical map surrounded by informative displays introduces the Chihuahuan desert environment. A park ranger pointed me to books and maps of the area and suggested I take a stroll along Panther Path, just outside the center. The paved 100-yard walkway provides a glimpse of the area’s many desert plants. Also, ranger presentations are scheduled throughout the week at accessible locations nearby.
That evening, my wife and our curious greyhound joined me on an owl prowl in the picnic area of Rio Grande Village on the eastern edge of Big Bend. The picnic grounds are located on a flat expanse just a short distance from the Rio Grande. I perched on a table surrounded by a grove of cottonwoods and kept my eyes peeled. A great horned owl who-whoed its low baritone voice nearby. I marveled at the erratic yet efficient flight of bats above, circling for their nightly meal of mosquitoes.
The next day, my wife opted to paint, with her supplies brought from home, a portrait of the Basin’s profile back at the cottage. I decided to experience the hidden environment of the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail. The campground entrance was closed for the summer, so I parked at the nearby amphitheater and walked to campsite 18, at the entrance to the trail. From there, it’s only a short distance on level ground to a 100-yard, wheelchair-accessible boardwalk that guides visitors through rustling stands of river cane on either side. During the heat of this day, colorful dragonflies darted back and forth. Sitting on a bench, I closed my eyes and was calmed by the whoosh of wind through the plant life surrounding me, accompanied by bird calls welcoming me to this secluded spot.
The road back to the cottage took me by Dugout Wells, a meeting place and onetime school in the early 1900s. The creaky but still water-producing windmill and large cottonwoods continue to stand guard. Newer additions include picnic tables and a half-mile Chihuahuan desert trail. While the unpaved trail is not wheelchair accessible, the relatively level gravel path provides a view of the flora that thrives here. It’s best to experience it in the morning or evening, rather than in the heat of the day. All visitors can relax at the tables to listen to the sounds of wildlife drawn to this little oasis.
The park’s Fossil Discovery Exhibit is a must-see. It was completed only four years ago, just a few miles up the road from Panther Junction. The fully accessible, shaded exhibit and picnic area display fossils from prehistoric times, many unearthed in the Big Bend area. I learned of the different creatures that thrived during the times when Big Bend was a shallow sea, then a coastal plain, a forested region, and its current arid environment. The display also includes a “Gallery of Giants,” featuring a skull of a 39-foot crocodile and—suspended overhead—a skeleton of the largest flying creature that ever lived, the Quetzalcoatlus, Aztec for “feathered serpent god.”
My trip back in time created quite an appetite, so I returned to the cottage to devour my prey—the juicy pork chop with chimichurri sauce delivered by the Chisos Mountains Lodge restaurant. For restaurant meals, the lodge is the only option in the park. Fortunately, tasty lunches and dinners are available during the week for either pickup or delivery. Beyond pork chops, entrées include rib-eyes, salmon, burgers, salads, and other fare satisfying most diets.
With sunset approaching, I strolled down the nearby paved quarter-mile Window View Trail. The trail offers an introduction to the Chisos Mountains formation and serves as the trailhead for a variety of more strenuous mountain hikes. Visitors come here for a closer view of the Window rock formation and can relax on benches along the route. A Carmen Mountain white-tailed deer watched me cautiously from a distance. A curious roadrunner joined me on the path, before darting into a stand of prickly pear cactus. This mountain refuge is full of life, all within a few hundred feet of the lodge complex.
“There’s a magic to Big Bend,” remarks Tom VandenBerg, Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services for the park. “It’s multiple parks—river, desert, and mountain areas—in one. And then when you add the mystery and romance of the far west borderlands, it really adds up to something special.” When planning a visit, VandenBerg says people need to know what to expect. “It’s a big place, it’s a wild place, and you have to be prepared.”
Almost anywhere in the park is a great place to view the stars, one of the biggest draws to this area. At 4 a.m., looking up from my cottage, I gasped at the dazzling starry display, including Orion’s three-star belt paralleling Casa Grande Peak. The National Park Service has determined that the darkest skies of any national park in the lower 48 states are right here.
For an overnight stay in the Basin, the Chisos Mountains Lodge consists of several buildings, including the individual stone cottages, totaling over 70 rooms, four of them ADA-certified. Some buildings have entrance ramps with only a step or two to enter each room. RV and tent sites are available by reservation in the Basin and in other designated areas of the park, such as Cottonwood and Rio Grande Village.
For one last park road trip before we departed, we cruised Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Its 31 miles showcase a variety of geologic formations and scenery. Visitors can park at several of the roadside exhibits along the route to learn more, and walkways and ramps provide ways for anyone to appreciate the varied topography. Don’t miss Sotol Vista, which provides an expansive view of Santa Elena Canyon (west), and the Chisos Mountains (east).
Big Bend National Park isn’t just for a physically fit few, but for everyone to enjoy, no matter what age or ability. With a little planning, you can experience a large part of what Big Bend has to offer. Enjoy exploring this national treasure, preserved for all of us.
For room availability and reservations at Chisos Mountains Lodge, call the front desk at 432-477-2291.