Riding on a Desert Isle: Big Bend, Texas

You're in the land of open range, and any blind corner can lead you to bovine gridlock

"Half the pleasure of a visit to Big Bend National Park, as in certain other affairs, lies in the advance upon the object of our desire. Coming toward the park from the village of Lajitas deep in west Texas, we see this rampart of volcanic cliffs rising a mile above the surrounding desert. Like a castled fortification of Wagnerian gods, the Chisos Mountains stand alone in the morning haze, isolated and formidable, unconnected with other mountains, remote from any major range. Crowned with a forest of juniper, piñon pine, oak, madrone and other trees, the Chisos rise like an island of greenery and life in the midst of the barren, sun-blasted, apparently lifeless, stone-bleak ocean of the Chihuahuan Desert. An emerald isle in a red sea." Edward Abbey, One Life at a Time, Please

Big Bend, Texas plains
The great open plains of Texas are best seen on the seat of your motorcycle.Photo Courtesy of Evans Brasfield

From the moment I read the above quote, I knew someday I would visit Big Bend National Park. Like many who have lived in the saturated East, I relish the deserts of the West and explore them as frequently as possible. In my late 20s I first experienced these great open spaces as they should be experienced, from the seat of a motorcycle. During those solitary days on the road and nights spent in campgrounds or off rutted dirt roads in the Bureau of Land Management's wilderness, something shifted inside me. Yes, I do miss the lush greenery of my native Virginia, but the deserts of the West, with their souls laid bare for all who pause to see, welcomed me in ways I never expected.

My approach to Big Bend was from the north. I chose my route as if I were coming from El Paso, so the trip really began on Interstate 10 in Van Horn, Texas. After a stop to fill myself and my bike with vital fluids, I followed US 90 south. The highway roughly paralleled the railroad through the flat expanse of the Wild Horse Draw. Just before the town of Quebec, I took a left turn on Ranch Road 505. There was a sign denoting the Texas Scenic Mountain Trail. Again the road progressed mostly in a straight line, but this time toward the low-lying mountains US 90 shadows for the 45 miles from Van Horn.

Big Bend, Texas
The different landscapes set the perfect scene for your ride.Photos by Evans Brasfield

Riding in this flat ranch land with little traffic gives one the chance to observe what at first glance seems to be nothing. The grasses and low scrub give way to chaparral once the altitude rises a bit in the hills. Broaden your sensors, and you begin to see small birds and rodents. Gaze at the pop-up thunderstorms you may see tracking across the wide horizon. Or if the sky is mostly clear, do you notice that the taller mountains all seem to support their own clusters of little white fluffy clouds? Do they make their own weather? But if you see a sign stating “Loose Livestock,” cease your pondering and focus. You’re in the land of open range, and any blind corner can lead you to bovine gridlock.

Tour of Big Bend, Texas
From mountains and cliff sides to valleys and open ranges, you can get a taste of the turns or straightaways on your ride.Photography by Evans Brasfield

I bore right onto State Road 166—another scenic highway. The road alternates between seductive turns and expansive straights. After 23 miles, I turned left on SR 17 toward Fort Davis. A couple of miles later I turned right on SR 118. A mere 20 miles after that, the siren song of restaurants and soft beds called my name in the cozy town of Alpine. I rationalized that I wanted to see Big Bend in the morning light Ed Abbey had written about.

Following an enormous breakfast at Tiny’s in Alpine, I moseyed the remaining 80 miles toward Big Bend. Over those last few miles, each turn in the road brought me closer to my objective. Ten years after a paragraph in a book had sparked my imagination, I arrived.

Big Bend Texas
Although the land was claimed as uninhabited the land has been home to people for thousands of years.Photography by Evans Brasfield

Big Bend National Park gets its name from the U-turn the Rio Grande makes in West Texas. To find the park, simply look at the bump in the Texas/Mexico border between El Paso and Laredo. There you will find Big Bend Country in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert. Established in 1944, Big Bend National Park covers 1252 square miles, the bulk of which is a 40-mile-wide sunken trough with the Chisos Mountains jutting up higher than all the mountains surrounding the depression. Despite its size, only three paved roads give access to the park.

Although called the “uninhabited land” by early Spanish explorers, the Bend has been home to people for more than 10,000 years. Though mostly nomadic tribes, some of them may sound familiar. The Apaches and Comanches both have the reputation for being as rugged as the country they inhabited. Now, though, the era of Anglo mining and ranching has given way to the tourist trade.

Touring Big Bend Texas
Stop by and take all the various desert life in at Big Bend.Photography by Evans Brasfield

The Chisos Mountains form the centerpiece of Big Bend. Hidden inside the mountains, the Chisos Basin forms the ideal home base for visitors. The Basin features accommodations for all types: a lodge for those who want all the creature comforts, and a campground for those who find comfort with creatures. Look carefully, and you’ll find the “no generator” zone for a supremely quiet campsite. Accommodations start at $83 per night for two people at the Chisos Mountains Lodge, while putting a tent over your head will set you back only $8 a night.

Map of Big Bend National Park
Map of the Big Bend National ParkCruiser

Most of the activities in Big Bend are of the outdoors variety. If you want to leave your motorcycle behind, a 5.2-mile (round-trip) hike will take you to the Window. Here, all of the rain that falls in the Basin must exit if it isn’t absorbed into the thirsty ground. The polished rock displays the wear of eons of rushing water. More ambitious hikers will throw themselves at the Rim Trail, a 12.6-mile circuit hike that takes you to some of the most stupendous views in the park. Be sure to take plenty of water, though. For my day, I carried 4.5 liters of water—four liters in containers and a half in my stomach at the start of the trip. A two-mile side trip to Emory Peak delivered spectacular 360-degree views and lengthened my day to 15 miles.

Langford Hot Springs is another popular attraction—and is perfect for easing those post-hike muscles. You’ll want to take your dip early in the morning or in the evening because the lower elevation makes for scorching daytime temperatures in all but the winter high season. At the other end of the park, upstream from where the Rio Grande brushes against the hot spring’s foundations, the awesome Santa Elena Canyon beckons with the beauty of water-carved stone cliffs 1500 feet high. You can hike into the canyon 0.8 miles, weather and water permitting.

Tour of Big Bend, Texas
Don't have a ten-year hiatus from Big Bend.Photography by Evans Brasfield

After three days of savoring the pleasures that Big Bend had to offer, I remounted my steed for another day’s worth of spectacular winding roads. Just out of the park on SR 118, I took a left and followed Ranch Road 170 through Terlingua. Stop at the Terlingua Ghost Town and explore some ruins and reconstructed buildings from the Bend’s past. The Terlingua Trading Company offers a wealth of information about the ruins and a nice bookshop to boot. Soon the road begins to follow the course of the Rio Grande just west of Lajitas, offering some wonderfully swoopy turns as well as terrific views. Pay attention, though, this pavement has some tricks up its sleeve.

Near Contrabando Canyon, I stumbled on what I thought were the best preserved ruins of the entire trip. Closer inspection revealed that it was an abandoned movie set. Still, these buildings also give a feeling of the history surrounding the area.

Tour of Big Bend Texas
What better way to relax after a day of riding than taking a dip in the hot springs.Photography by Evans Brasfield

Ranch Road 170 maintains its confounding twists and turns all the way to the outskirts of Presidio. Here riders face a decision: continue to court the Rio Grande on 170 or take US 67 toward Marfa where it connects with US 90 back toward Van Horn.

For me, a trip always ends the moment I turn my wheel toward home, and this end began in Presidio when I opted for US 67. My adventure was worth the 10-year wait. Don’t take as long as I did to visit Big Bend.

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