Road Trip Big Bend: Scenic Drive

This following post represents the collective experiences and thoughts of three women who set out on a 1,500 mile trek across West Texas in December 2003. This is their “Road Trip: Big Bend.”

 

SATURDAY

We enter the park at Persimmon Gap, some 40 miles south of Marathon. Almost immediately, the landscape becomes Seussian—small tufts of trees, green and purple cacti, and ocotillo — tall, finger-like plans that grow from a center base and reach upward in random direction. In the spring, they are green with red flowers, but in winter, they are ashen and dry, like fingers of an old man reaching up for something more.

And as we drive, each of us imagines this place in early days, remembers the Indians, the cowboys and ranchers, the horse and cattle that once enjoyed this vast and remote wilderness.

We spy a family of javalina (do not call them pigs!) on our way to Panther Junction. On this trip we will see javalina, deer, jack rabbits, hawks, road runners, cattle, goats, sheep and golden eagles.

After a stop at the Panther Junction Visitor’s Center, we head east to the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.

We drive for nearly two hours along this curving road, stopping along the way to visit the abandoned Sam Neil Ranch, to enjoy the view from Sotol Vista.

[The] Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive [extends 32 miles south from ] Santa Elena Junction to Santa Elena Canyon overlook in Big Bend National Park .

Wedged within the big bend of the Rio Grande, which forms the U.S. border with Mexico, the 801,163-acre Big Bend National Park contains deserts, canyons, mesas, and mountains. The drive—designed by Ross Maxwell, a geologist and the national park’s first superintendent—gives you a look at Big Bend’s remarkably varied terrain. From Santa Elena Junction in Big Bend National Park, the drive heads south. Mountains command the left view, with Burro Mesa on the right. After about 2 miles, you can make out angular and domed formations in the mountain rock that indicate ancient volcanism. Fortress—like outcroppings called dikes—are also common here. For the next few miles you ascend steadily past boulder strewn slopes. Sotol Vista, one of the best views in the park, offers a stunning perspective on Santa Elena Canyon and the floodplain of the Rio Grande. From here, the drive descends through a series of switchbacks, past views of the unmistakable Mule Ears Peaks formal icon: Tuff Canyon, named for its gray, volcanic ash rock and Cerro Castollan, a pile of volcanic rock that towers 1,000 feet. As you continue curving down, the Chihuahuan Desert benchland suddenly opens before you.

Don’t bypass the old Army compound of Castolon, a frontier trading post still open for business. Paralleling the Rio Grande, the road crosses a fertile floodplain. The scattered remains of old adobe buildings along this stretch mark former farms. About 8 miles from Castolon, the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook offers a view down on the narrow Rio Grande flowing through a chasm with 1,500-foot limestone walls, The road ends half a mile farther, where a 1.5-mile trail leads into the mouth of the canyon.

National Geographic Guide to Scenic Highways and Byways

Javalina in the foreground
Ocotillo
View from the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
View from the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
Mule Ears Peaks
Looking north from Soltol Vista, where we’ve been…
South from Soltol Vista, into Santa Elena Canyon, where we go.
Road Trip: Big Bend narrative & photos ©2020, Jen Payne.

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