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Photo courtesy of NPS

How Big Bend Inspired My Love for National Parks

Photo courtesy of NPS

It’s hard not to become instantly obsessed with national parks when you’re trudging through the muddy Rio Grande, refusing to let the quicksand-like slurry deter you from the other-worldly splendors of Santa Elena Canyon. Although looking back, I’m probably lucky I didn’t fall and lose my phone and wallet, but it was worthwhile for the hike of a lifetime, and memories so vivid and exciting that they practically single-handedly transformed me into a nature enthusiast. It’s a testament to the wonders that await at Texas’ Big Bend National Park, one of the most remote and least visited parks in the contiguous United States, and one every hiker, rafter, and daredevil should visit at least once in their lifetime.

Jumping for joy at Big Bend

As I was planning a week-long vacation with my brother and a couple friends from Chicago, we knew we wanted to focus on national parks, and we found ourselves weighing the pros and cons of places like Badlands and Sequoia. I hadn’t even heard of Big Bend before then, and it checked off all the requirements on our list: ample hiking, rafting, solitude, epic wildlife, and proximity to other offbeat eccentricities like ghost towns and a town with a goat mayor (that town is nearby Lajitas, and the goat loves drinking beer straight from the bottle). So one week in early October, after the summer heat had dissipated, we flew down to El Paso together and road tripped through five hours of desolate West Texas terrain to reach Big Bend.

After hundreds of miles through monotonous hills and desert, Big Bend seems to rise suddenly from the horizon, erupting with mountains and canyons and roadways that disappear into cavernous valleys. Driving by the Big Bend National Park entry sign, I felt like how the characters in Jurassic Park probably felt when they passed through those ominous front gates—an apt comparison considering a park ranger later told us that the velociraptors in that movie were actually modeled after roadrunners in regards to their cunning hunting tactics and the fact that they’re at the top of their food chain. Fortunately, at no point during our time in Big Bend were we hiding in a kitchen from any roadrunners, though two or three did dart across the road in front of us at raptor-speed.

My favorite hike was the Lost Mine Trail, a five-mile roundtrip ascent through thick trees, over vast valleys, and atop broad rocks to a peak with soaring vistas of Big Bend’s mountains. A ranger’s warning that we might see a black bear proved true, though instead of hollering and throwing twigs like he suggested, we froze up and stood in silent shock as it crossed our path nonchalantly. Turns out, our method worked too. When I asked that same ranger if there were mountain lions, he calmly told me that we wouldn’t see any, but that they’d see us.

Hanging out at the hot springs/Photo by Brian Kirouac

While the mountains command much of the views in Big Bend, the heart of the park, and the aspect that inspired its name, is the Rio Grande. Despite its desert locale, water is a visible focal point here, be it raging rapids, a hot spring, or a gentle raft ride. The latter is what we enjoyed during the river’s calmer season, embarking on an afternoon voyage with a local outfitter. Aside from our guide’s stories of people occasionally driving their cars off cliffs into the river, it was a pleasant and peaceful trek along one of the country’s most storied rivers, as we drifted gently back and forth across country lines (the center of the river is the dividing line between Texas and Mexico, which is all well and good as long as you don’t disembark on the wrong shore).

Back on land, despite the fact that the early-October temperature in Big Bend hovered around 90 degrees, we couldn’t resist a dip in a natural hot spring. Further southeast along the Rio Grande, where the water is more rapid, a trail leads to a discreet spring sandwiched between reeds and river. Considering how sweltering it was, we sat on the edge of the spring, dangling one foot in the hot water and another in the chilly rapids.

Wading our way into Santa Elena Canyon/Photo by Brian Kirouac

The star of the show in Big Bend, river or otherwise, is the Santa Elena Canyon. Carved by the Rio Grande, the yawning chasm showcases the very best of the park. Though the start of the canyon trail was flooded, dissuading most hikers who didn’t want to slip face-first into sludge, we refused to give up on the part of the trip we were most looking forward to. Slowly but surely, we inched our way through waist-high water and sticky mud to scramble up the shore and into the canyon. I’m so glad we did, because the opportunity to have the breathtaking canyon to ourselves is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Almost eerily quiet and mercifully shielded from direct sunlight, we strode along the water’s edge, through tall plants and under boulders, ever watchful for dinosaur-like animals.

The interior of Santa Elena Canyon/Photo by Brian Kirouac

My time spent in Big Bend was a formative one. Since that trip, my friends, my brother, and I have sought to recreate the grandeur of that experience with trips to Acadia, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, Joshua Tree, and beyond. The Texas park will always be ingrained among my most cherished memories, though. And I’ve still got the dry mud on my water shoes to prove it.

Header photo: Courtesy of NPS

Matt Kirouac has been writing about food and travel since 2008, for outlets like Travel + Leisure, TripSavvy, DiningOut magazines, Plate Magazine, KOA, Culture Trip, Zagat, and Food Fanatics magazine. He’s the author of The Hunt Guides: Chicago and Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago. He fell in love with national parks while on a trip to South Dakota, where Badlands National Park stole his heart…and has been holding it ransom ever since.

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