|A Texas evergreen|
In southwest Texas, the Rio Grande makes a great U-turn as it etches the Mexican-American border. Ninety-seven percent of Big Bend National Park's 1,200 square miles is Chihuahuan Desertthe kind of country rattlesnakes call home.
The other 3 percent is what makes this park unique among desert landscapes: A thin thread of green-edged river and the sky-island Chisos Mountains. The river carves a life-giving corridor through this thirsty desert and attracts animals from miles around; the mountains poke into the clouds to an elevation of 7,835 feet, more than a mile above the desert floor. The combination of mountain, river, and desert gives Texas's largest national park enormous ecological diversity.
The coyotes, jack rabbits, and lizards you expect to see are here, of course, but so are more than 400 species of migrating birdsnot to mention some local oddities, like beavers who make their homes in burrows in the riverbank, and a desert subspecies of the whitetail deer, which live only here and in a handful of nearby mountain ranges. Other denizens of the park include javelinas, and, on the cooler forested slopes of the mountains, mountain lions and black bears.
One-hundred-fifty miles of marked and signed trails lead you through all the park's ecosystems and to stunning views from the rims and ridges of the Chisos Mountains. Down at the lower elevations, the Chihuahuan Desert is characterized by sparse vegetation, which makes for good bushwhacking.
If you know how to use a map and compass, and don't mind getting stuck by the occasional cactus, you'll find plenty of opportunities to explore dry creek-beds and wander through the desert canyons, but you'll need to plan your water sources carefully. Rangers recommend a gallon a day for winter desert hiking, and they caution visitors that springs can be unpredictable. Permits are required.
Snowbird stats: While winter temperatures at night can occasionally drop below freezing, daytime temps can be a balmy 80 degrees. In general, expect perfect hiking temperatures in the 60s. The week between Christmas and New Year's is crowded.
Information: Big Bend National Park, PO Box 129, Big Bend National Park, TX 79834, (915) 477-2251. Maps and guidebooks: Trails Illustrated Big Bend National Park Map, $8.99. Hiking Big Bend National Park by Laurence Parent, $12.95. Both available from Adventurous Traveler Bookstore. (1-800-282-3963.)
Getting there: We're talkin' Texas-size distances; the nearest big city is El Paso, 325 miles away. Take I-10 to 90 to 385, always heading south or east.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication