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Adventure Guide: Big Bend National Park

Texas-sized solitude is practically guaranteed when you explore the high peaks and striking river canyons of this lightly visited wilderness.

©Steve Howe

Blame it on Rio: The deep gourge of Santa Elena Canyon and the jumbled mess of rock slide rapid testify to the erosive power of the Rio Grande.

To early Indians, it was where the Great Spirit stored his rocks. To the Spanish, it was El Despoblado, “The Uninhabited Land.” To hikers and backpackers, it’s Big Bend National Park, 801,163 surprisingly scenic acres in southwest Texas along the Rio Grande. Designated in 1935 to preserve the most beautiful, complex slice of the Chihuahuan Desert north of the border, Big Bend is larger than Rhode Island, yet receives only 360,000 visitors per year. Few of those pilgrims explore its 200 miles of trail, 150 miles of dirt roads, or the 234 miles of Wild and Scenic River administered by the park. Which is great news for adventurers who seek the serene isolation of a vast desert setting.

We scouted six routes to help you explore this extraordinarily diverse park, which comprises three geologic regions: the Chisos Mountains, with their spectacular vistas; the Rio Grande’s cathedral gorges, with their alternately placid and turbulent stretches of canoeing; and the stony desert lowlands, filled with otherworldly rock formations and ear-ringing quiet. Start making your plans now, because the southern latitude makes Big Bend the perfect winter escape.

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