The first person to brag that “Everything’s bigger in Texas” wasn’t talking about Austin. The city is beloved for its small music venues, boutique breweries, and one-off eateries. All rad qualities; none associated with “bigness.” They probably weren’t thinking of Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, or El Paso either. Each of those cities is one of the nation’s 25 most populous (as is Austin), but you’d have to combine the top four to close in on New York City’s size.
In fact, though many Texas cities are well worth visiting, none truly encapsulates the “bigness” of the Lone Star State. To witness that spirit in action, you have to venture into the wild. You have to sleep under a blanket of stars and hear your voice echo through ancient canyons. You have to ride a horse with the sun beating down, wipe sweat from your brow, and finish your day sipping a cold beer as a rusty-looking guitarist strums a Willie Nelson cover. In short, you need to get to Big Bend.
Big Bend National Park is all of your grandest ideas about Texas (especially South Texas) rolled together — the gritty cowboys, roaming javelinas, spice-laden Tex-Mex food, and empty, endless expanses. It’s where you can ford the Rio Grande to enter Mexico for tostadas and tacos, admire the thick ribbon of the Milky Way in a Gold Tier-designated, International Dark Sky Park, and soak in a hot spring along the riverbank.
Best of all, you can do it all without much trouble or laying out a ton of cash. Here’s how:
Getting to Big Bend might be the hardest part of your trip. Last year, the park ranked 130th in the entire NPS system for visitors and 43 of 61 national parks. It’s five hours on the 10-West and another two and change on the 385-South from Austin, just at the edge of “long weekend” territory. If you’re eager for an escape from El Paso, it’s easier — a 4.5-hour shot down the 10-East and 90-East.
WHAT TO DO — HOT SPRINGS
Ages ago, a man named J.O. Langford, suffering from poor health, heard about a mineral spring that could cure any illness. He raced to file a claim on the land through the Homestead Act. After curing himself, Langford created a signature 21-day treatment and built a bathhouse along the edge of the Rio Grande.
The building is long gone, but you can still do your best to emulate Langford’s regimen of soaking in the 105-degree water and drinking straight from the spring. The foundations of the building create a pool — perfect for long days of lounging, with dips in the river when you can’t stand the heat anymore.
Drive along a gravel road to the Hot Springs Historic District and Trailhead, then hike a quarter of a mile to the river’s edge. Note that there are no facilities or services at this site.