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Big Bend, Texas
Patrick Totty

When the leaves , it pushes southeast deep into the , marking the boundary between and . Then, 300 miles past El Paso, right where the borders of the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila run an imaginary line into the river, the Rio Grande makes a sweeping change in direction, looping to the northeast before curving back hundreds of miles later to make its final long approach to the Gulf of Mexico.

Where the executes this big bend is the location of the same-named national park, , one of the most extraordinary scenic surprises in the .

For one thing, is huge. , which is the size of and combined, has always been profligate with its spaces. So, at 1,250 square miles, is larger than and ranks with and as one of the largest parks in the continental

Yet for all its size, is relatively unknown. Most Texans hardly know it’s there. Because of its remoteness, the park – it’s hundreds of miles from any major metro area – draws only about 325,000 visitors per year. That’s a miniscule number compared to annual visits to (9.2 million) or (4.4 million).

The draw here is an unspoiled high-desert landscape, punctuated by ancient volcanic mountain ranges – some soaring to 8,000 feet – and three beautiful river gorges, including the 1,500-foot cliffs of , the most dramatic defile along the ’s 1,800-mile journey from its source to the ocean.

The park’s main mountain range, the Chisos, although surrounded by desert that is hundreds of miles from the or , preserves remnant forests that are typical of far wetter and more northern climes. Hikers who scale the park’s upper reaches are rewarded with cool woodlands of pine, fir and shady deciduous trees, thanks to the ability of the Chisos’ highest peaks to wring the water out of passing storms.

The human element is important here, too. The park abounds with abandoned ranches and mines. The Mexican side of the river is more populated, though very thinly so. The small Mexican settlements at Santa Elena and Boquillas are themselves so remote from mainstream that it’s faster for them to send letters to their Mexican kin via the postal system than it is through the Mexican post office.

’s isolation would seemingly make it a good place to cross the U.S.-Mexico border undetected. But the “coyote” trade has never caught on here. Not only is the area hard to get to  for both nationalities, it is far away from the concentration of factories and farms that attract undocumented workers. A visit to is an opportunity to experience a sense of remoteness, unhurriedness and relative wildness that few national parks outside of can offer.

A final small note: also adds a pleasing element of symmetry to the national park system. Fate has worked it out that each extreme of the lower 48 has a national park: in the Northeast; in the Southeast; in the Pacific Southwest; and Olympic in the . The wilderness Park marks the northernmost park that’s halfway between East and West as well as borders a foreign country (). is its southern counterpart.

A useful URL: http://www.nps.gov/bibe/

www.theculturedtraveler.com