Finding The Rapture In Big Bend
It is one head-snapping beauty of a pickup truck. Like a bird of prey, it’s tough, fast, and aggressive. It is the Ford F-150 SVT Raptor, born in Detroit, spawned from the DNA of the Blue Oval’s special-vehicles team’s petri dish, and layered on top of the latest-generation F-150. After trying out this street-legal desert racer along a 62-mile-long loop developed by Ford in the Anza-Borrego desert, I decided to take it to a place I’d been longing to visit that’s deep in the heart of Texas: Big Bend National Park.
Taking its name from the vast curve of the Rio Grande River in the remote southwest of Texas, Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park comprise over a million acres of land for hiking, camping, river running, horse riding, mountain biking, jeep touring, and fun four-wheeling along nearly 25 percent of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Big Bend attracts about 350,000 visitors a yearfar fewer than Yellowstone, Yosemite, and other major national parksmaking it feel a bit like a well-kept secret. The roads and trails are largely free of traffic and crowds, with the exception of holidays. To see its terraindesert, mountains, and river beds that can run bone-dry depending on the seasonyou’d probably not guess that this land once lay under the salty seas that covered west Texas during prehistoric times. The Chihuahuan desert floor is bisected by the massive Rio Grande and flanked by the temperate, volcanic Chisos Mountains that rise abruptly out of the sedimentary plains. This is a land of extremes, from the desert floor to the 1,200-foot limestone cliffs that flank the Rio Grande, to the stands of aspen and oak in the Chisos high-country.
History on the Border
Big Bend has a history almost as wild as the West itself. Although early Spanish explorers called the land uninhabited, archaeological digs have shown that people lived on the land as long as 10,000 years ago, with the area’s first residents hunting and gathering, but not farming or settling permanently on the land.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Spaniards crossed the Rio Grande in search for gold, silver, and prosperous land. They would have crossed paths along the way with Native American groups, including the Apache, who took the land on which Big Bend sits from the Chisos Indians in the beginning of the 18th century.
The Comanche were one of the last groups to live on Big Bend; they used the land as a stopping-off point on their way to raid villages of Mexican settlers who began farming land on both banks of the Rio Grande. The raids continued through the mid-19th century, with the last active people living on the land as late as 1860s.
By the 1920s, the land had been settled for agriculture and mining. However, the Great Depression wiped out many of these operations, and in 1933 Texas established the Texas Canyons State Park from lands that were forfeited for nonpayment of taxes. In October 1933, the name was changed to Big Bend State Park, which included 160,000 acres of land. In June 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill to establish Big Bend State Park as Big Bend National Park. On June 12, 1944, President Roosevelt signed the Congressional Act finalizing Big Bend’s status as a national park.
Rapture and Raptors
While our adventure took in only a small swath of the park, we were able to enjoy many different aspects of what Big Bend has to offercamping, soaking in the Rio Grande’s hot springs, and four-wheeling on Black Gap, Glen Springs Road, and Old Ore Road. Our backcountry drives took us by old cemeteries, mining camps, and the remains of primitive home sites. We were also rewarded with stunning vistas, desert flowers in bloom, and the birds we came in search ofraptors.
The old song is right: The stars at night really are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas. But what the song doesn’t tell you is that the waters are deep, the desert is vast, the raptors wing the gentle breezes, and a 4x4 adventure here will make Big Bend one of your places of the heart.
What To Do
One of the country’s largest and most remote national parks, Big Bend draws scores of hikers and off-road enthusiasts every year. Trails are well-marked and maintained; the park staff will give you maps and suggest 4x4 tracks, while walkers can even hire a guide. Other attractions include guided canoe and whitewater rafting trips lasting from a few hours to a week.
Kayaking is also available on the Rio Grande through Big Bend, but inexperienced paddlers should note that high water season is not for the faint of heart or the green of paddle. Wind storms, rushing rapids, and the typical boiling hot days and freezing nights of the desert can challenge even the most seasoned kayakers on this stretch of the river.
The Big Bend National Park has one lodge and three campgrounds within its boundaries. The 72-room Chisos Mountains Lodge and Cabins includes a restaurant, convenience store, and a gift shop. The three campgrounds, suited for tent, trailer, or RV camping, provide a perfect jumping-off point for day hikes and longer backpacking adventures. FW