West Texas is part of the northern end of the Chihuahua desert, one of four deserts in North America (others: Mojave, Sonora, Great Basin). It is hot, flat, dusty, and featureless. It is really flat: roads and highways lead without kink or curve straight off into the distance to be swallowed up by the haze and heat. But about 500 miles southwest of Dallas, past the rugged oil towns of Midland and Odessa, past all the pump jacks and the pickups and the grass fires, the desert experiences a sea change. Mountains rise up on the horizon. The roads start to curve. Flora and fauna begin to appear one by one, and then abound. These changes signal the periphery of Big Bend National Park, an oasis of life in the west Texas wasteland.
Big Bend is defined on its south end by the Rio Grande, covers 1,250 square miles, and is the only National Park to contain an entire mountain range. The mixture of lush river banks along the Rio Grande, dry Chihuahuan desert, and cool elevations in the Chisos Mountains provide such variant conditions that the scenery teems with life. Roadrunners, black-tailed jackrabbits, and kangaroo rats shoot across the road ahead of passing cars. Red-tailed hawks perch atop the appendages of various cacti. Javelinas grunt and snort in the evening scrub. Rattlesnakes warm themselves on the hot pavement. Buckeye butterflies flutter around the mouth of the potable water spigots. Grasshoppers the size of pocket knives spring up like corn kernels popping at each footstep in the brush. Tarantulas as big as your hand crawl amid the campgrounds at night and investigate human activity. Mexican black bears are commonly spotted along the mountain hiking trails, and the park’s two dozen cougars make occasional unwelcome appearances in the parking lots. Plant life is equally diverse: prickly pear and ocotillo and lechuguillo and creosote spread across the desert floor like a tapestry of alien forms. Wildflowers of gold and purple and white spring out of every hole and between every rock.
And cutting through this bounty of life is some of the best riding ever encountered on two wheels, where the immaculate pavement curves over and around the mountains and hillsides. As Big Bend is relatively inaccessible (412 miles from San Antonio to the east and 292 miles from El Paso to the west) compared to its better known peers like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite, the roads are nearly empty, offering contemplative solitude to a rider. This dreamscape of curves continues well beyond Big Bend via Texas Farm Road 170, which begins near the park’s west entrance and follows the Rio Grande for 120 miles upstream. Passing through small towns and abandoned farms, the road is an echo of the Old West, where communities huddle together against the hardscrabble landscape.