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A famous river runs through this unspoiled spot for family adventure.
The "Grande" Canyon
Big Bend is one of those hidden jewels in the national park system. Very hidden. Tucked in a far corner of southwest Texas, it's more than 100 miles from the nearest interstate, and at least 200 miles from the closest city.
But don't let distance stop you and your family from taking a trip here. The park, named for a curve in the Rio Grande River, closely rivals the Grand Canyon in beauty and adventure. There are more than 1,200 rugged square miles of stark desert, craggy, tree-covered mountains, steep river canyons, crystal clear skies, and untrammeled trails along the muddy ol' River.
What's more, Big Bend's far-flung location actually works in your favor. While others are jockeying for parking spaces at Arizona's big hole in the ground, your family can be taking a scenic drive, hiking, rafting, stargazing and rock scrambling -- all without crushing crowds.
Because of its remote desert location, you'll need to plan carefully. Reserve at least a long weekend for your visit, arrive before or after the searing summer heat, and include plenty of sightseeing stops -- not to mention bribes -- for your most fidgety travelers.
Inside the Park
Rabbit Ears Rock in Boquillas
Canyon, copyright National
From 500-million-year-old rocks at Persimmon Gap to modern-day sand dunes at Boquillas Canyon, geological formations illustrate the amazingly diverse actions that shaped this region. Ocean sedimentation, volcanic activity, periods of geological uplift and erosion have all been at work here.
Chisos Mountains, copyright
The mountains. The magnificent Chisos Mountains rise from the center of the park, with their highest point, Emory Peak, topping out at 7,825 feet. Park highlands are usually cooler and a bit wetter than the surrounding desert, accounting for the Douglas fir, drooping juniper, Texas madrona trees, mountain lion, and a rare breed of white-tailed deer.
Here, you'll find the park's only lodging (other than campgrounds), a visitor center and several easy to moderate hiking trails. The altitude and remote location means spectacular daytime views and night-time stargazing.
The river. Don't come expecting to find a big river; the Rio Grande is only a few yards across in most places. Even so, don't let kids in the water. The river's sandy banks and seemingly calm surface are deceptive. Treacherous currents and underwater tree branches can quickly snag a youngster.
A safer option: Hike on well-marked trails along the river's banks. Even better, book a float trip. This is the most popular way to explore the Rio Grande and its canyons, some measuring up to 1,500 feet deep. Several commercial operators run trips ranging from a half day to 10 days in 6- to 8-seat inflatable rafts.
Portions of the river, however, may be unsuitable for kids because of white-water rapids; ask the operator about its experience with children before making a reservation. More-experienced water rats can rent small rafts, canoes, and kayaks.
The desert. The Chihuahuan Desert covers most of the park. Though seemingly dry and dusty, it bursts into colorful bloom after a wet spring. Most visitors spend little time in Big Bend's desert. But several short trails teach kids about the desert and its unique ecosystem -- temperatures permitting, of course.
Drive and hike. Locals advise not missing the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and Santa Elena Canyon, both easy day trips from the Chisos Visitor Center. The scenic drive gives everyone a taste of the Chihuahuan Desert and leads to the Rio Grande. Along the way, stop at these scenic overlooks: Sotol Vista, Mule Ears Viewpoint and Tuff Canyon. Short walks to Sam Nail and Homer Wilson ranches, as well as a visit to the Castolon Historic District, offer a glimpse into Big Bend's Wild West past.
Highlight of the day: the short (1.7-mile roundtrip) and moderately difficult walk into Santa Elena Canyon, one of Big Bend's most scenic spots overlooking a stretch of Rio Grande popular with rafters.
Programs for kids. Pick up a Junior Ranger Activity Booklet at any visitor center, complete the easy, kid-friendly activities and return the booklet to a center to receive a Junior Ranger badge or patch, a park sticker, a wildlife bookmark and a certificate. The park service offers a daily variety of ranger-led nature walks and slide programs; most are held at the Chisos Visitor Center.
Camping. There are three developed campgrounds in the park, adjacent to the Rio Grande at Rio Grande Village and Castolon and in the mountains near Chisos Visitor Center. Electrical, sewer and water hook-ups for RVs are found only at Rio Grande Village. All campsites are first come, first served.
You can find lots of primitive campsites (no services or facilities) along the park's secondary, unpaved roads. Many require a high-clearance vehicle. A backcountry permit is required for these sites and can be obtained for free at any visitor center.
Visiting Mexico. Although there are no official ports of entry into Mexico from the park, it is relatively easy to visit the tiny Mexican villages of Boquillas and Santa Elena. In both cases, leave the car on the U.S. side and take a small ferry the few yards across. There's at least one small restaurant in each town and many gift shops selling Mexican crafts.
Outside the Park
Considering the driving distances in West Texas, it makes sense to stop along the way, if for no other reason than to keep the kids from killing each other. The roads leading into the park from west and north offer some of the finest scenic drives in Texas -- and three great places to spend an hour, or a night.
El Camino del Rio
Also known as The River Road or Hwy 170, this route parallels the Rio Grande for 50 miles west of the park, slicing through Big Bend Ranch State Park and offering superb views of steep canyon walls. Several picnic areas and trails leading to the river bank dot the route. Plan at least an hour, not including any stops, to make the drive.
Ft. Davis National Historic Site
Just outside of the town of Ft. Davis, you'll find this well-preserved historic fort, which protected travelers and mail shipments through the Southwest. Tour the ruins and restored buildings to get a sense of what life was like between 1854 and 1891, when the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry and the 24th and 25th U.S. Infantry were garrisoned here.
The University of Texas McDonald Observatory
About 10 miles west of Ft. Davis, this observatory (elevation 6,800 feet) gives families a chance to see and learn about the sun and stars. Take a 90-minute guided tour, participate in a solar viewing session, or look through the big telescope. The observatory's most popular program is its sunset star parties, where you can view the moon, planets, and stars through smaller telescopes as they appear in the evening sky.
Balmorhea State Park A two-acre swimming pool brimming with crystal-clear water will make the kids forget they couldn't take a dip in the Rio Grande. Stop at this park in San Solomon Springs on your way to or from Big Bend.
Type of trip: Mountains, river, and desert adventure
Best ages: 9 and up
Ideal trip length: Two or three days, not including drive time from nearest cities
Best time to go: Autumn through spring. Avoid spring break, when Texas college students head for the park. During major holidays, book accommodations at the park's lodge at least six months in advance.
Weather: 65/45 degrees in fall, 60/35 in winter, 70/45 in spring. Avoid summer, when temperatures along the river can hit 100 degrees F.
Lodging: From campsites to secluded stone cottages in the park. Motels and bed and breakfasts are in nearby towns.
Squirm factor: Some at the park; a lot during long drives
If You Go...
Big Bend National Park
General park information: 915-477-2252
Balmorhea State Park
On Hwy 17 about 30 miles north of Ft. Davis near I-10, Toyahvale
Alpine & Big Bend Chamber of Commerce
The Inside Scoop
Favorite local spots:
Chisos Loop Trail, copyright K. Brantley
Favorite local spots:Window View Trail
See panoramic sunset views at the end of this short, self-guided nature trail in the Chisos Mountains.
Santa Elena Canyon
A 1.7-mile round-trip trail along one of the most scenic stretches of the Rio Grande River.
Best souvenir: Small, hand-crafted items, such as Mexican dolls or pottery, from Falcon's, a small shop in Boquillas.
Traffic alert: Distances between gas stations and other services are considerable. It's about 130 miles, for example, from Ft. Stockton, the nearest town of any size, to park headquarters at Panther Junction. Be sure your car is in good condition and check fuel often.
Marfa Mystery Lights
What are those mysterious flickerings on the night-time horizon? Swamp gases, UFOs, a secret military project, glowing coyotes, ghosts -- or a well-promoted tourist come-on? Let your kids be the judge when they see the Marfa Mystery Lights.
For more than 100 years, sane and sober people have reported seeing strange, seemingly inexplicable lights moving through the wide-open desert southwest of this town. The best place to see these lights is at the official viewing area, 10 miles east of town. But don't spoil the fun for the kids by suggesting that maybe, just maybe, the lights are from cars passing along a rural highway that cuts through the area.
Aside from this serendipitous claim to fame, Marfa boasts scores of Old West and Victorian buildings dating back to its days as a cavalry town during the Indian Wars. Of note: a set of beautiful homes built from 1895 to 1915, when Marfa was a prosperous ranching district. Marfa is about 120 miles northwest of Big Bend Park at the intersection of Hwys 17 and 67.