Big Bend National Park

Scenic Driving
Gorp.com

Some of the Lone Star State's most scenic drives traverse Big Bend National Park, offering views of west Texas' wide, sweeping vistas and its dramatic and rugged terrain. Although many of these roads (including the ones described below) are paved, others are more primitive, and some are suitable only for four-wheel-drive vehicles. These byways offer opportunities to view a variety of scenery and interesting plants, animals, and historic features. But if you want to explore the more remote parts of the park, plan ahead. Check with the park rangers about the condition of roads, and let them know where you're going.

The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive — This 30-mile paved route through the park is perhaps the most famous of the area's offerings. It begins in the western foothills of the Chisos Mountains (about 13 miles west of park headquarters on the main park road) and winds down to the valley of the Rio Grande, ending at the spectacular gorge of Santa Elena Canyon. Along the way, visitors often stop to check out hiking opportunities. Trails just off the Scenic Drive lead to the abandoned Blue Creek Ranch, Sotol Vista, Burro Mesa, the Chimneys, and Mule Ears. Spectacular historic and geologic features are found along the drive. You observe wall-like dikes, massive gravel deposits, an ancient buried valley, and a narrow canyon cut through volcanic tuff. Across the river near Castolon is the Mexican village of Santa Elena. On the U.S. side are adobe and stone ruins of dwellings for farms on the river flats. Near the end of this drive a viewpoint gives an excellent view of Santa Elena Canyon. Summer sunlight only strikes the canyon mouth for several hours after sunrise. To take pictures, make this trip in early morning. The canyon is usually hot midday during summer.

Basin Drive — From Basin Junction southward the Basin drive climbs out of desert lowlands into the cooler woodlands of the Chisos Mountains and their Basin, the park's "island" of green. The grade of the approach road is deceptive: Watch that your vehicle does not overheat. The Big Bend agave plant, which you may see along the way, reaches heights of 4 meters (15 feet). Even if you miss its bright yellow blossoms in summer, the old stalk remains standing for a year or two. As you drive up Green Gulch, the vegetation changes from desert shrub to woodland species. The road's highest point is Panther Pass, more than 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) in elevation. At the parking lot here the Lost Mine Trail begins its ascent of Lost Mine Ridge, where legends of a rich Spanish mine have touched off many a vain (no pun intended) search. From the top you get superb views into Mexico. As you leave the parking lot the road begins to descend into the Chisos Basin via a series of sharp curves.

Persimmon Gap Drive — This drive offers short side trips: on a motor nature trail up to Dagger Flat, or just off the highway north of the Tornillo Creek bridge to the fossil bones exhibit. Signs along the Dagger Flat road identify Chihuahuan Desert species, including the giant-dagger yuccas, found in the United States only in Big Bend country. The Fossil Bone Exhibit shows an extinct mammal, Coryphodon, whose remains were found in sandstone deposits about 50 million years old. Tornillo Creek is one of the park's largest drainages. The Chisos Mountains, seen as you approach Panther Junction, are the park's highest. Panther Junction is such a focal point that you may overhear park employees call it PJ.

Maverick Drive — Terlingua and Study Butte are ghost towns—or nearly so—which were once prosperous cinnabar (mercury) mining communities. The large, rounded Maverick Mountain north of the road near the Maverick entrance is the eroded exposure of an intruded mass of molten rock pushed up through softer, older rock beds. You will also see the Painted Desert and many plants of the desert shrub community. Outside the park to the north the Christmas Mountains are prominent. To the east the Chisos define the skyline. Along the Maverick drive you come to the Santa Elena Junction, where the Santa Elena drive begins. Farther on you will see dry washes that can carry flash floods and gravel slopes formed by the erosion of the mountains. Then you come to the Basin Junction, where the Basin drive begins (see above). Near this area you may also see mule deer, the peccary (or javelina), coyote, or other desert animals. The next stop—except for pictures—is Panther Junction.

Boquillas Drive — From Panther Junction you can head southeast toward the Rio Grande's Boquillas Canyon. Along the way are the Dugout Wells picnic area and self-guiding nature trail, Hot Springs, and Rio Grande Village. Boquillas Canyon is one of the Rio Grande's three grandest canyons here in the park. It was cut through the Sierra del Carmen (sierra is Spanish for mountains) and is the longest of Big Bend's famous gorges. Across the river is the Mexican village of Boquillas.


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