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Spectacular Big Bend: Mother Nature's Bonanza

September 21, 1986|SHIFRA STEIN | Stein is a Kansas City, Mo., free-lance writer. and

MARFA, Tex. — FM-2810 south of Marfa is one of those well-maintained Texas farm-to-market roads. It crosses the foothills of the beautiful Cuesto del Burro Mountains, rolling, chocolate mounds that fold softly into themselves along this little-traveled route to Big Bend National Park.

You can fly into the gateway city via Midland-Odessa airport to the north, rent a car and take the easy five-hour drive south on U.S. 385 to the park headquarters.

But the more adventurous can pick up Texas 17 south from the Interstate and skirt the beautiful Davis Mountain region on the way to Big Bend.

The tiny town of Marfa is the last gas-water-food stop before you pick up FM-2810. The only lunch between Marfa and Ruidosa, Tex., is a vulture's road kill--and he's not sharing.

Ranchers live around here, but mostly you'll see only cactus and tumbleweeds in this open range that stretches as far as your imagination.

Spectacular Scenery

Eventually you'll run out of paved highway and hit gravel. If you have good tires and brakes, extra water and a Texas county map, you'll be rewarded by spectacular scenery.

You'll pass rambling vistas covered with wildflowers amid the awesome moonscape of Pinto Canyon. Test your brakes before proceeding from the entrance of the canyon. There are no guard rails, no safety barriers or cables; one mistake and you'll be tumblin' with the tumbleweeds.

At Ruidosa take a left (east) on T-170, the river road to Lajitas, a new resort area on the western edge of Big Bend National Park. T-170 snakes across the vast landscape of the Chihuahuan Desert, home to diamondback rattlers, lizards, roadrunners and kangaroo rats, along with myriad varieties of cactus and the lechuguilla, a mean-looking bladed plant that grows only in this desert.

Outside Lajitas the shrub desert that makes up half the park takes in 10 inches of annual rainfall if it's lucky. Another 49% of the park is desert grassland that extends about 5,500 feet up.

Climbing skyward are mountain canyons filled with woodlands of pinyon, junipers and oak along with forests of Rocky Mountain trees.

Paradise for Birders

The wide choice of habitats makes Big Bend a birder's paradise, offering more resident and migrant birds than any other U.S. national park. Some plants and animals found here occur nowhere else in the world.

An oasis in the Texas badlands, Lajitas got its name from the little flat rocks of the Boquillas Formation that are abundant in the area. In 1902 the town had a store, saloon and schoolhouse and was the best river crossing between Del Rio and El Paso.

The old cavalry post has been transformed into a comfortable motor inn. Amenities such as a swimming pool, golf course, tennis courts, shops and full-service restaurant have been added to make Lajitas attractive to visitors.

Lajitas is also the home of the beer-drinking goat, Clay Henry, who the town claims is running for mayor. Clay Henry quaffs about 15 cans of beer a day! He's penned at the Old Trading Post around the corner from the Badlands Hotel, one of several hotels and motels in town.

From Lajitas it's an hour or so into the heart of the park and another hour to Boquillas Canyon. Lajitas can also be your starting point for a variety of bus, river raft and horseback tours.

Preview at the Museum

One of your first stops could be the Lajitas Museum and Desert Garden. Its exhibits give you a preview of the desert area you'll experience. Pick up a copy of the Big Bend Official National Park Handbook, a great buy at under $5 that will acquaint you with the area.

Big Bend National Park stretches across 1,106 square miles inside the southernmost tip of the Rio Grande Bend. Human beings have lived in Big Bend for more than 12,000 years. Those early nomads probably came up short for adjectives to describe the breathtaking beauty of the natural architecture that once lay beneath an ancient sea.

In Big Bend the past is always present in carved, weathered monuments of ancient geological eras. The fossil remains of simple marine animals are embedded in the 300-million-year-old rocks that rise from the former sea floor of Santa Elena Canyon.

Three River Canyons

Santa Elena Canyon is one of the big three river canyons in this region. It's eight miles of looming cliffs are home to the endangered peregrine falcon. At the tip of the Big Bend lies mysterious and remote Mariscal Canyon; Boquillas Canyon, on the eastern edge, makes an ideal float trip for beginners.

About half the float trippers go with one of the professional outfitters; the more adventurous do it themselves. The two fastest rapids in the park, Santa Elena Canyon's Rockslide and Mariscal's Tight Squeeze, are treacherous even for veterans--even the best pros scout the rapids every time before trying it.

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