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Big Bend National Park - Miles Ahead

Back To Mother Nature: Texas Style

Photography by Carl Calvert

Big Bend National Park, located in a scenic section of western Texas, is bordered on the south by the Rio Grande and on the north by wide-open Texas country. Considering the size of Texas, the drive to Big Bend takes a while, but what awaits you in this corner of the Lone Star State is well worth the effort. Big Bend National Park is a sprawling landscape filled with a vast and stunning collection of flora and fauna, spectacular vistas that awe the senses, and enough outdoor recreational opportunities to satisfy the most dedicated enthusiast.

On a recent cross-country trip in our F-250 Power Stroke and fifth-wheel combo, we visited the Big Bend area for nearly a week and sampled the richness of this Texas hideaway. Besides the national park, these borderlands have a lot to offer, including historic forts and monuments, the magnificent Pecos and Rio Grande rivers, a collection of observatories, ancient American Indian artifacts, and much more.

Alpine, TexasDuring the first part of our trip, we made Alpine, Texas, our home. Alpine has the distinction of being the second-highest town in Texas, with cool nights and warm, sunny days. From Alpine, we would visit Big Bend National Park, due south of the town, and also take time to check out Fort Davis, home to an 1800s Army fort, and McDonald Observatory, located in the mountains adjoining Fort Davis.

Big Bend National Park is an immense area that encompasses the Rio Grande, desert, and mountains. The name Big Bend refers to the U-turn the Rio Grande makes in southwest Texas. The area along the river offers some of the most spectacular sights in the park, including Santa Elena Canyon. This canyon was carved out by the Rio Grande, and a hike through the canyon's walls and along the river is not to be missed.

Big Bend has superb walking, hiking, river-running, and bird-watching opportunities. Like any desert region, the area is home to an interesting collection of plants and animals, some found nowhere else in the United States. This is an area where pine trees and aspens grow wild on the mountain slopes, and the desert floor is dotted with cacti, ocotillos, and yuccas. We spent a full day at Big Bend National Park, but we suggest more time to appreciate the park to its fullest.

Fort DavisAlso located near our home base of Alpine is the small town of Fort Davis, which is named after the historic fort that played a major role in the history of the Southwest. From 1854 until 1891, troops stationed at the post protected emigrants, mail coaches, and travelers on the San Antonio-El Paso road. Today, Fort Davis is one of the best remaining examples of a frontier military post. The fort was also home to the Buffalo Soldiers during that time period. A visit to Fort Davis is a step back in time, and it's very well preserved. During our visit, we saw the enlisted men's barracks, the commissary, the officers' kitchen, the servants' quarters, the post hospital, the commanding officer's quarters, and other historic buildings.

McDonald ObservatoryNearby, in the heart of the Davis Mountains, is McDonald Observatory, one of the major astronomical research facilities in the world. A visit to the observatory is definitely a one-of-a-kind experience. You can explore the Decoding Starlight exhibit at the visitor's center, enjoy a solar viewing program, and take part in a 90-minute guided tour of the observatory's large research telescopes and spectacular 100-mile mountain vistas. The observatory also offers night tours and twilight workshops.

Seminole CanyonFrom Alpine, we moved our F-250 just east of Big Bend to Comstock, Texas, which offered its own unique array of experiences. Just down the road from Comstock is the Seminole Canyon State Historical Site, the home of ancient American Indians who left their artistic mark on the canyon's rocks. The park is open year-round, and the Rock Art Foundation conducts day tours by appointment (the only way to see the American Indian rock art) for $10 per person.

Our tour of Seminole Canyon was definitely worthwhile. Although we had visited several areas in the Southwest that exhibit the drawings and etchings of ancient American Indians, each piece of artwork is different and well worth a visit. Although the pictographs (images drawn on the rock with pigment) were somewhat faded in Seminole Canyon, the huge figures were still magical to behold. In addition to the canyon tour, the park also offers a number of hiking trails, a campground, and an interesting visitor's center/museum.

Jersey LillyNear Comstock is the small town of Langtry, Texas, which happens to have been the home of Judge Roy Bean's Jersey Lilly. Judge Roy Bean was "The Law West of the Pecos," and he ruled with his own brand of justice. His decisions were pronounced in the combination saloon/billiard hall/courtroom he called the Jersey Lilly. The judge may be gone, but the Jersey Lilly still stands in Langtry. The Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center houses the courtroom and is free to the public. The adjacent museum (also free) is an interesting place to spend an afternoon and learn about the judge and his era.

The Pecos River flows through this area of Texas, and cuts through the arid and wild country with abandon. We stopped for a moment to admire the Pecos as it flowed under Highway 90, and a pair of popular recreation areas-Rough Canyon and Armistad-stand ready to receive visitors.

This area of Texas is big and offers diverse scenery and recreational opportunities that should not be missed. Although our travels took us to other areas of Texas, the Big Bend area will always loom large in our memories.

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