Secrets of the National Parks
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Big Bend National Park, Texas
The setting: Big Bend National Park encompasses nearly 250 miles of the Rio Grande on the U.S. side of the Mexican border. The diversity of the landscape means that you can visit a river, desert, and mountain range in a single day.
The inside scoop: Jack Sullivan, operations manager at the Far Flung Outdoor Center, has been hiking, biking, and rafting in the park since he was 19. If you've taken the trouble to drive all the way to Big Bend (it's five hours from El Paso), he recommends a multiday float on the Rio Grande through Santa Elena Canyon. The 20-mile trip takes you past spectacular 1,500-foot limestone cliffs. You can do it in two days, or choose a three-day version that includes hikes into side canyons along the way. You can float along in a raft, which is powered by the guides, or opt for a canoe and do the work yourself.
Plan B: Hike the south rim of Chisos Basin. While the surrounding desert averages only 10 inches of rain per year, this mountain range gets about 24 inches, so it's a completely different ecosystem, with black bears and oak trees.
Money-saving tip: The only hotel in the park, the Chisos Mountains Lodge, costs just $113 per night. A three-day float trip with Far Flung is $495 a person, including meals and camping gear.
When to go: Summer temperatures peak around 115 degrees, but it's a dry heat—and a little cooler on the water. If you want a bigger ride, river levels tend to be higher in October.