This giant park (801,163 acres/324,219 hectares) is in a remote corner of West Texas 370 mi/595 km west of San Antonio, but it's worth the effort to get there. In the southwestern part of the state, where the Rio Grande makes its "big bend" (essentially a giant U-turn), the park includes three separate ecosystems—river, mountain and desert. Desert terrain—the Chihuahuan Desert—dominates, making the park a fascinating place to visit during late fall, winter and early spring. (The summer months can be hot.)
Most visitors begin their tour of the park in the Chisos Mountains, which tower over the surrounding desert, topping out with Emory Peak at 7,825 ft/2,385 m. Cooler and greener than the surrounding desert, the Chisos offer excellent backcountry hiking and camping in forests of pines and oaks. After visiting the mountains, visitors can head for the Rio Grande, an oasis of water amid the desert. (Visitors should not drink the water, as it is far from potable). Two canyons highlight this portion of the park: Boquillas Canyon to the east and Santa Elena to the west. Rafting and float trips have become popular on both stretches of the Rio Grande—the river includes Class I to Class IV rapids, tamer when the water is low. Extended float trips on the Rio Grande can be arranged through outfitters in three towns west of the park: Lajitas, Terlingua and Study Butte. Short hiking trails near both canyons let visitors get a glimpse on foot of the sheer rock walls.
Easy walking trails wind through the desert, and more strenuous hiking routes are also available. Cactus and lechuguilla (a plant with daggerlike leaves) are among the plant life. The oasis at Dugout Wells is a particularly good place to observe desert wildlife.
The desert, mountain and river areas of the park are laced together by paved and unpaved scenic roads. (The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which winds down to Santa Elena Canyon, is recommended.) Other activities within the park include bathing in historic hot springs, trail riding on horseback (visitors must take their own horse), fishing, swimming, camping and wildlife viewing. Animals in the park include mountain lions and bears (seldom seen), bobcats, deer, javelina, roadrunners, foxes, snakes (including rattlesnakes), tarantulas and an incredible variety of birds—it's the only place in the U.S. to see the rare Colima warbler.
Many of the park's services are centered in the Chisos Mountains Basin. In addition to containing the only lodge in the park, it has a restaurant, grocery, visitor center, campground and gift shop. Several hiking trails begin in the basin. Other centers of activity are Rio Grande Village (a campground, visitor center, grocery and gas station) and Castolon (a campground and grocery). There is another gas station at Panther Junction. Camping and lodging facilities within the park are often filled, so reservations should be made in advance.
The park is open daily 24 hours, and the entrance fee is US$25 per vehicle for a seven-day pass. Phone 432-477-2251. http://www.nps.gov/bibe.
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