Writer Edward Abbey seriously damaged his fiancee's new Ford convertible and destroyed their relationship when he ignored a ranger's advice not to venture down a closed road in Big Bend National Park in southwestern Texas. I admired Abbey's writing ability and his respect for nature, but I didn't want to repeat his trail mistakes. We'd come to the park prepared to do some serious off-road exploring in our new Ford F-350 4x4.
There are several "improved" dirt roads in the park. Old Maverick Road is a 14-mile gravel road to Santa Elena Canyon, where the Rio Grande River flows between limestone cliffs 1500 feet high. Grapevine Hills Road, an eight-mile gravel road, leads to Grapevine Spring and the Grapevine Hills trailhead to Balanced Rock.
Now, eager for some real adventures, we bought a road guide at the Panther Junction Visitor Center. A park ranger answered our questions about road conditions and gave us advice. Then we drove south to the Glenn Spring Road, which is designated as an "unimproved" dirt road for high clearance or four-wheel-drive vehicles only.
I shifted into four-wheel low and listened to our diesel engine rumble slowly along the narrow, rock strewn, dirt road through washes and creosote bushes. The dusty, desert air was rich with a strange flint-like smell. We were finally alone in the Chihuahuan Desert; we felt free and it was good.
The road got rougher near the Juniper Canyon Road turnoff, and I had to drive slower over the bedrock and large rocks jutting up in the road. After about nine miles, the scant remains of Glenn Springs came into view. Nearby, a candelilla wax factory was constructed here in 1914, where they extracted the wax by boiling the candelilla plants, which are plentiful in this area.
We made our way back toward the main road and turned west onto the Pine Canton Road, rising upward toward the Chisos Mountains. This was definitely a high-clearance road with numerous washouts and large rocks that would tear the bottom out of a small sedan. As we climbed higher into the canyon, the clean, pine-scented air became cooler and the vegetation more plentiful.
Four and a half miles into the canyon, the road ended at the trailhead, with a fantastic view of the surrounding mountains. Pummel Peak, Lost Mine Peak, Casa Grande, and Crown Mountain dominate the southern vista. A mountain biker, who had spilled most of his water, asked us for a drink, and we filled up his water bottle from the large insulated jug we always carry.
For our last day in Big Bend, we decided to explore Old Ore Road, which begins five miles west of Rio Grande Village and winds 26 miles to Dagger Flat Road. Wagons once used this road to carry ore from Boquillas, Mexico, to the railroad at Marathon. A "4x4 Only" sign warned us when we left the pavement and drove north on the rocky road through washes and along stream beds to the former village of La Noria.
Layers of folded rock surrounded us as we hiked the dry creek bed up to Ernst Tinaja, a large circular hole the creek has carved into the limestone. Water is present year round, but animals sometimes drown, when they try to get a drink and cannot climb back up the steep sides of the tinaja.
The naked beauty of the desert enchanted my eastern eyes, but I understood the potential dangers for careless or unwary travelers. As we followed a setting sun to our campground in Study Butte, I promised myself that we'd return to travel more of the backcountry roads of Big Bend National Park.
The east entrance to Big Bend is 39 miles south of Marathon on Texas 385. The west entrance near Study Butte and Terlingua is 58 miles south of Alpine on Texas 118. For more information about the park and its facilities contact: Superintendent, P.O. Box 129, Big Bend National Park, TX 79834-0129; 915/477-2370; or www.nps.gov/bibe on the Internet.
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The information presented in this column is, to the best of our knowledge, correct and accurate at the time of publication. However, because of our lengthy lead time, we recommend calling the proper authorities or local experts for confirmation before visiting.