Spanish explorers called it “the uninhabitable land.” Even today, the Big Bend region of Texas has no major cities and is one of the least-populated parts of Texas. The wilderness is scattered sparsely with only a handful of small towns, like Alpine, Marathon, Fort Davis, Marfa and Terlingua, and Big Bend National Park is remarkably remote. Still, the intrepid have always admired the region’s stark beauty, scoffing at those who call it a no-man’s land. Thousands of adventure seekers travel—sometimes hundreds of miles—to this distant triangle of Texas every year. And they vow to go again.
One of the largest towns in the Big Bend region is Alpine, the “heart of Big Bend.” Because of the rustic charm of the Alpine area, many movies have been made there, including two films starring Tommy Lee Jones: The Good Old Boys (a 1995 made-for-TV movie) and, more recently, No Country for Old Men.
Surrounded by the mountains of the high desert, Alpine is the home of Sul Ross State University. The cozy, red-brick campus has about 2,000 students and is the birthplace of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association. Visitors often stumble upon The Museum of the Big Bend, which is located on the campus of Sul Ross State. This free museum chronicles the history of the Big Bend region and is a great starting place for a visit to the area. Among the many historical treasures in the museum is a collection of maps dating from the year 1550.
Just a half hour’s drive from Alpine is Marathon, a quaint, peaceful oasis in the desert wilderness. Legend holds that Marathon got its name from an early settler, a former sea captain, who said the area’s terrain reminded him of Marathon, Greece. A town of only about 500 residents, Marathon is nonetheless home to a historic hotel. The Gage Hotel, built in 1927, boasts a Texas Historical Marker; Texas Highways magazine once named it the best small hotel in Texas.
Every October, the town of Marathon swells to more than twice its size when it hosts a marathon. Runners come from distant parts of Texas to run “Marathon 2 Marathon,” which has grown to include not only a marathon, but a half marathon, as well as 10K and 5K races.
Five miles south of town is Post Park, a peaceful county park and picnic area with the only spring-fed pond for miles around. There is evidence the spring was a stopping place for nomads thousands of years ago.
Nearby Marfa is perhaps best known for the mysterious “Marfa lights” first reported over 100 years ago. Although naysayers cite a coincidental similarity between sightings and traffic patterns on Highway 90, others insist the lights have no modern explanation and seem to have personalities of their own. There is now an official viewing center, where people gather on clear nights in hopes of catching a glimpse of the unexplained phenomenon.
Lights or no lights, Marfa is now a hub for art galleries and is a planned stop for many who visit the region. Movie buffs may remember the 1956 movie hit Giant, starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, was filmed near Marfa.
The town of Fort Davis sprang up amid the Davis Mountains to support Fort Davis, an Army frontier post in service from 1854 until 1891. Fort Davis National Historic Site is now magnificently restored and provides an interesting look at military, Native American, and local history.
Today, the town of Fort Davis has more than 1,000 residents. Many of them were extras in the 1998 dramatic comedy, Dancer, Texas, Pop. 81, which was filmed in Fort Davis.
Just down the road from Fort Davis is Davis Mountains State Park, which is popular among hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers. The park is situated on part of a 74-mile scenic loop which treats visitors to spectacular Texas mountain views. Davis Mountains State Park is the home of the Indian Lodge, a 39-room historic hotel built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the early 1930s.
Hundreds of miles from the lights of major population centers, the night sky is magnificent throughout the Big Bend region; however, it is the featured attraction at the McDonald Observatory. The observatory, located near Fort Davis on the highest paved road in Texas, is operated by the Astronomy Program of the University of Texas at Austin. The McDonald Observatory has state-of-the-art telescopic equipment and hosts about 60,000 annual visitors to “star parties” and exhibits.
Due south of Fort Davis lies Big Bend Ranch State Park, which is contiguous to Big Bend National Park. Known as the “other side of nowhere,” the park offers rugged mountainous terrain as well as steep canyons.
Terlingua compensates for its lack of natural beauty with its quirky image. Once a booming mining town, Terlingua has fewer than 100 full-time residents today and resembles a ghost town in places. The town received attention with the 1973 release of Jerry’s Jeff Walker’s album !Viva Terlingua!, but is perhaps best known today for its annual chili cook-offs. It is located near the far southwestern reaches of Big Bend National Park, near the border with Mexico.
Big Bend National Park
The Rio Grande River calmly does its job of providing a natural border between Texas and Mexico for many miles. However, in the far southwestern corner of Texas, it suddenly makes a sharp, southeast-to-northeast turn. It is this “big bend” that gave Big Bend National Park its name.
A trip to the Big Bend region would not be complete without a visit to this vast national park. Big Bend National Park encompasses 1,251 square miles (more than the state of Rhode Island), including more than 100 miles of the Rio Grande riverfront. There are three distinct ecosystems within its borders (river, desert and mountains), and a stunning range of elevation from 1,800 to 8,000 feet.
It has been said Big Bend National Park is on the way to nowhere, so it’s a destination unto itself. Still, more than 300,000 people make the trek to the park each year to enjoy the rugged beauty and remoteness of this unique national park. A visit, however, must not be taken lightly. In all except the most northern parts of the park, there is no gasoline or cell service available, so travelers need reliable transportation and plenty of water. Travel to some parts of the park is so treacherous, the National Park Service still uses mule trains to deliver supplies.
One of the most popular areas of the park is the Chisos Mountain Range, the southernmost mountain range in the United States. The entire mountain range is within Big Bend National Park. While there are many places to camp in the park, the only hotel, the Chisos Mountain Lodge, is located within the mountain range. It stays booked for months in advance of peak visitation times, so early reservations are encouraged.
Some travelers choose to explore Big Bend National Park from the comfort of their automobiles and enjoy the many miles of paved roads traversing the park. One of the more traveled routes takes drivers to the spectacular Santa Elena Canyon on the far western side of Big Bend National Park. En route, many explore the Castolon Historic District, which is a well-preserved peek back in time.
Big Bend National Park is particularly popular among hikers, who can explore a vast variety of terrain. The park has 150 miles of hiking trails and has more road-less public land than anywhere else in Texas. The park is also a haven for river rafters, who can enjoy the beautiful canyons along the Rio Grande as it snakes its way through the Chihuahuan Desert.
There are diverse plant and animal habitats within Big Bend National Park, and it is home to more than 450 species of birds. Among these birds is the Colima warbler, which makes its home in the Chisos Mountains from April to September. It is the only place in the country this bird exists. Wildlife in the park is similarly abundant. Many desert reptiles live there, as do mule deer, white-tailed deer, coyotes, antelope, javelinas and gray foxes. Caution is advised, however—there are several varieties of poisonous snakes in the park, as well as mountain lions and black bears.
The isolation and harsh beauty of the Big Bend region make it a favorite among people who want to “get away from it all.” Few other places in Texas provide such stunning scenery, spectacular night skies, and relaxing atmosphere. The most northern parts of the Big Bend Region are more than an eight-hour drive from Southeast Texas, and the closest airport at Midland is more than 150 miles away, so some people are discouraged from embarking on the trip. Those who make the effort are rewarded abundantly.
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