Crouched beside the flame of my camp stove, alien-looking mountain crags in the distance, and a strange insect picking its way across the martian desert at my feet, I start to feel like the lone survivor of a doomed space mission, my ship abandoned somewhere over the ridge. Not quite another planet, but almost as good: I'm deep in West Texas, in Big Bend National Park, one of the most eccentric and stunning wild places in the country. Situated along a remote stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border (the nearest airport is almost 250 miles away), it's been called America's forgotten park: as big as Yosemite, with less than a tenth of its visitors. Even in April, the end of high season, you can feel like you have its 1,252 square miles to yourself.
To reach most of the park, you'll need a four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle: Much of the 150 miles of unpaved road is narrow, rocky, and fringed with razor-sharp lechuguilla and cactus, and can be washed out by flash floods. Big Bend is immense and wildly diverse, with cool mountain highlands, desert canyons, and lush river valleys. It's impossible to experience it all in one visit, but that's all right – you'll definitely want to come back.
Some people head straight into the mountains (the Chisos are the only range entirely contained within a national park). Rising out of the desert, they're a biological island, rich with wildflowers, pine forests, and hidden waterfalls, and home to the park's rebounding bear population. From Chisos Basin, you can set off on short hikes with hugely rewarding views (Lost Mine Trail, Window Trail), start the climb toward 7,825-foot Emory Peak, or head out for a few days of backpacking around the outer rim. If you're looking for a less rugged retreat, get on the waiting list for one of the adobe cottages here, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
Depending on river levels, you can also explore the park by raft or kayak, drifting down the Rio Grande through towering canyons, shooting the occasional Class IV rapids, and camping along the sandy bank, all with Mexico just a stone's throw away.
I'd made the eight-hour drive from Austin, much of it down empty, hypnotically straight roads, past dusty ranches and oil fields – a landscape that's lent its way-off-the-grid credibility to movies like 'No Country for Old Men' and 'There Will Be Blood'. My plan was to make my way across the park over five days, from the eastern desert basin, through the Chisos, and down to the Santa Elena Canyon in the west.
Big Bend is a perfect place to find solitude – night after night, I scan the 360-degree views to the horizon and never once see another human being – but there's something about the landscape that defies loneliness. The giant, ghostly wheel of the Milky Way is bright overhead, and comets blaze across the sky so often I stop counting. (Last year, Big Bend's night skies were measured as the darkest in the Lower 48, ranking it one of the 10 best places on Earth to see stars.) A pair of jackrabbits zigzag past at full speed; they're potentially dinner for a host of predators from snakes to bobcats to golden eagles. It takes a while to detect, but there's life everywhere: I come across tarantulas the size of dinner plates, snorting javelina (bristly wild-pig-like foragers known to raid campsites), burros, coyotes, and roadrunners; I catch sight of a mountain lion, just before it dissolves back into high, coppery grasses.
One morning, I make the short hike to Ernst Tinaja (a tinaja is a hollow in the rock where water collects). It's a popular hike, but I'm all alone in the canyon, following the smooth ledges of white limestone into a corridor of red shale, the pools of dark water hazy behind clouds of yellow butterflies that seem to hang in Disneyesque counterpoint to the harshness of the place.
One of the ironies of Big Bend's pleasant, persistent last-person-on-Earth aura is that people have actually been living here for more than 10,000 years, in wave after wave, from Comanche raiders to Spanish explorers to the U.S. Cavalry. By the 19th century, ranchers and miners had moved in, hoping to carve profit out of an unforgiving landscape. They left behind a wealth of ruins, from old candelilla wax camps to rusted vintage cars to the graves of murder victims, where people still leave coins and bullets in tribute. Mariscal Mine, a cluster of stone buildings in the park's southeastern corner, once produced almost a quarter of the nation's mercury. The mine's massive chimneys, with their dark, leering portals and exposed red-clay pipes, look like a desert fortress designed by Captain Nemo, Victorian futuristic.
For worldlier ruins, you can hike from Rio Grande Village, past petroglyphs and ammonite fossils, to the remains of J.O. Langford's bathhouse – stricken with malaria, he hoped to lure fellow sufferers to the healing hot springs of the Rio Grande. I find my first crowd here, a dozen hikers and kayakers soaking in the 105-degree water, dropping into the river now and then to cool off.
Though it forms the southern boundary of the park for 118 miles, the Rio Grande feels like the real heart of Big Bend; the park gets its name from the sharp dip the river takes into Mexico here. For more than a century, this border was essentially open. You could pay a boatman a couple of dollars to take you over to the Mexican side, and spend the day eating tacos, drinking cervezas, and checking out work by local artisans. That changed after September 11th, when Homeland Security sealed the border, a move that devastated Mexican river towns like Boquillas del Carmen. There are fears that if tourism dies there, and the last residents are forced to leave, the drug cartels will move in. A high-tech, "self service" crossing is supposed to open soon at Boquillas: Visitors will scan their passports at electronic kiosks monitored in El Paso, 340 miles away.
Until then, locals try to support themselves by selling souvenirs – displaying beaded scorpions and carved walking sticks on rocks along the hiking trails next to honor-system money jars. At Boquillas, I make my way down to the river across foot-thick tiles of dried mud, passing a donation jar for "Singing Victor," who stands on the Mexican bank, serenading tourists in Texas for tips. He and I talk for a few minutes, shouting across 30 feet of shallow water. In the context of Big Bend, a border feels absurd.
On the western side of the park is Santa Elena Canyon, where I find my second crowd: a man with an Old Testament beard scowling into the water, two women in tie-dye trying to photograph a jumping fish, and a group of landscape painters. Their teacher, Texan artist Bill Zaner (whom I mistake for Willie Nelson from a distance), has been coming to the park since 1958. When I ask about the border closing, he echoes what I hear from almost everyone, including former border patrol agents: "It's bullshit. I used to camp in the bed of my pickup under the stars and never, ever had a problem. Sure, sometimes I'd see people crossing the border, in essence, sneaking into the country, and I'd just say, 'Bienvenidos. Welcome.'"
After a while, I seem to be alone again, sitting at the river's edge about a half-mile into the canyon, where the trail drops off impassably into the river, and 1,500-foot limestone cliffs rise straight out of the water. Over an hour, the cliffs go from hay-gold to flame-orange to rust, and the river from cloudy mint to polished-mirror black, doubling the cliffs, producing the illusion that I'm perched on the edge of a 1,500-foot ravine, instead of at the base of one. It's easy to see how people get addicted to the place, and as tricky as it is to get here, I know it'll be much harder to leave: Big Bend's the kind of surreal universe that makes the real world seem unlikely.
See also: Things to Do Near Big Bend National Park