Big Bend National Park, Tex.: How to get there, where to stay, what to do
With more than 800,000 acres of serrated mountains and parched desert, the park can be inhospitable to all but rattlesnakes, burros, javelinas and other hardscrabble species. Among the daintier mammals, only about 350,000 people visit Big Bend annually, mainly during the high seasons of spring and fall. (In the hot center of summer, the numbers drop to as low as 15,000 a month, a pinch of salt compared to, say, Yellowstone’s 900,000 visitors last July.)
“Everything here is governed by water and heat — the lack of one and the intensity of the other,” said John Hargis, senior shuttle driver with Far Flung Outdoor Center, an outfitter that leads float trips down the Rio Grande.
Although most adventurers hike the park’s trails, roughly 15,000 folks a year navigate the area by river, a fine way to travel if you aren’t endowed with the legs of a bighorn sheep and the moisture-retaining properties of cactus.
Lacking both traits, I took the easy-ish route down, joining a caravan of canoes over the New Year’s holiday. I was a girl with a paddle, virtually unstoppable — until I slammed into Mexico.
Big Bend is in nowhereland, an empty area at the bottom of West Texas, with no tall buildings to crimp the expansive sky or urban lights to dull the Lite-Brite starscape. The nearest commercial airport is 245miles away in Midland. The road to Terlingua, the largest town closest to the park entrance, resembles a sun-bleached painting of unbroken desert and futile existence. For the drive, you could fully rely on muscle memory with intermittent bouts of consciousness to avoid darting deer and vermin.
Most commercial services, including the three tour operators that organize river excursions, loosely congregate in Terlingua, a quirky town of about 400 folks in Brewster County, the largest county in Texas. In addition to its variety of filling stations (for cars, stomachs and zzzzs), the former mining town features a cast of colorful characters who seemingly landed here by chuck wagon, magic bus or UFO.
Far Flung Outdoor Center has been sending guided boats down the Rio Grande since 1976, the year owner Greg Henington started “commuting” between Houston, where he worked in banking, and Terlingua, where he moonlighted on weekends. (In 1993, he became a full-time Terlinguan, though he still shuffles many business cards: fire chief, paramedic, president of the tourism board.)