There's no getting around it. Big Bend is out there, way out there: seven hours west of Austin, Texas, and three hours from Odessa, the nearest airport. That's also much of its appeal. "The hardscrabble desert isn't for everybody," says lifelong Texan Joe Nick Patoski. "It's too remote. Too rough. Too rugged. But those of us who love the Big Bend are OK with that." About 800,000 acres of the Chihuahuan Desert lie inside the park, which borders the Rio Grande as it threads through a series of 1,000-foot canyons. It's also one of the least-visited parks in the lower 48. "There's a lot of space between destinations," says park ranger David Elkowitz, who recommends going in the spring, before the summer heat arrives. "A couple of nights is a must, but three or four is best — going slow is the joy of being here."
Canoe the Big River
The park's wildest adventure is paddling the Rio Grande through Santa Elena Canyon, a two-day trip through a 1,500-foot-deep gorge that's as stunning as any stretch of the Grand Canyon — and more remote. The low water flows mean that you can navigate the easy Class II and III rapids in a canoe rather than in an oversize raft. From the put-in, the river winds through 11 miles of open desert before the limestone walls rise up and the whitewater (read: fun) begins. Big Bend River Tours offers fully outfitted floats through the canyon from $340.
(Balanced Rock in the Grapevine Hills. Photograph by Danita Delimont / Getty Images)
Scramble the Grapevine Hills
Grapevine Hills is a water-sculpted cirque of towers and boulders just east of the park's west entrance, and "the whole area is great for rock hopping and bouldering," says Elkowitz. The 2.2-mile hike from the trailhead goes up a wash and ends at a window formed by a car-size rock leaning against a granite thumb. Elkowitz also recommends an off-trail circumnavigation of the hills. The four- to five-mile loop passes by Neville Springs, a year-round watering hole once frequented by Buffalo Soldiers, and the most dramatic rock formations on the cirque's north and east sides. "It looks much rougher than it is," says Elkowitz. "Just follow the outer edge of the ridge."
Ghost Town Lodging
There is a hotel in the park, but the best base camp is just minutes from the park entrance, in Terlingua, an old mining town that's home to La Posada Milagro, a stone-and-stucco guesthouse (rooms from $185; laposadamilagro.net). "This is where the free spirit goes not to be bothered," says Patoski. "The big event of the day is gathering before the Starlight Theatre to drink and watch the sunset light up the Chisos Mountains."
Can't-Miss Detour: The South's Darkest Skies
Big Bend Ranch State Park, just west of Terlingua, has a nine-mile hike across a desert caldera that will leave you feeling like you're on the moon. But to get a real sense of the otherworldly, stop at the McDonald Observatory, three hours away. It's one of the few in the world large enough to see distant galaxies that's also regularly open to the public. Time a trip for a monthly viewing night (from $65 with dinner; mcdonaldobservatory.org) or a weekly Star Party, with dozens of smaller scopes set up.
Drive the Backcountry
"The best way to see a huge swath of Big Bend in a morning is on the Old Ore Road," says Elkowitz. The four-hour backcountry tour connects the main park road to Rio Grande Village, cutting through the best of the park's open desert along the way. It's smoother driving going from north to the south, and carving out an hour for a half-mile hike to Ernst Tinaja campsite is mandatory. There, a 12-foot-deep pool is notched into folded limestone, and it's one of the most sublime stopping points. For $159 a day you can rent a Jeep Wrangler from the Far Flung Outdoor Center in Terlingua.
David Elkowitz has been a park ranger in Big Bend for the last three decades.