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Shooting Big Bend

The West Texas region offers a variety of rewarding photographic opportunities.

By Earl Nottingham


I’m often asked which part of Texas is my favorite to photograph, and I usually respond that it is like being asked to choose a favorite child — it’s an answer that’s hard to give diplomatically. Like a child, but from a photographic perspective, every corner of our state is unique in its own way, each having its own beauty and visual merits. However, if really pressed, I’ll admit that my favorite location for photography is the Big Bend region. I’m always amazed by how many Texans have never visited this magnificent place.

An accurate description of the “Big Bend” and its geographical boundaries can be somewhat nebulous, but in a nutshell it’s the roughly triangular-shaped part of the Trans-Pecos region of West Texas, north of the prominent bend of the Rio Grande and south of U.S. Highway 90. Some consider the Union Pacific railroad tracks, running from Del Rio to El Paso, as the northern boundary and the gateway to Big Bend. The exception is the Fort Davis area, which lies north of those boundaries but is still an important part of the Big Bend experience.

As you venture into this grand landscape you begin to notice a stark change in the geology, geography and remnants of human history, beginning with the rugged yet delicately beautiful Chihuahuan Desert, where everything is purported to either stick or sting. Within a few minutes’ travel, you can be at water’s edge below a towering canyon of the Rio Grande or up in the cool and lush alpine environs of the Chisos Mountains.

It is precisely this visual contrast that is part of the allure of the Big Bend landscape and what makes it a magnet for photographers. The region offers other contrasts as well: delicate wildflowers against volcanic terrain, dramatic sunrises and sunsets and towering thunderheads seen and heard miles away — the stuff of great landscape photos.


Where to shoot

If traveling to the Big Bend region for the first time you’ll want to give yourself plenty of time to truly experience the many faces of this dramatic country. A minimum of five days (not including travel time to get there) is what it will take to get an introduction to the over 1 million acres of public property as well as surrounding towns. Here are the top must-see destinations.

Big Bend National Park

After checking in at the Panther Junction headquarters, your first stop should be just a few miles away in the higher elevations and alpine world of the Chisos Basin. There you’ll find numerous hiking trails of various skill levels, including the iconic South Rim, Lost Mine and Window trails. Additional days can be spent in the lowlands and along the Rio Grande at several lookout points, including Boquillas and Santa Elena canyons. Camping is also available near those locations.

Big Bend Ranch State Park

The state park is one of the state’s best-kept secrets, with more than 300,000 acres of desert vistas and mountains to photograph. Its southern boundary is the River Road (Texas Highway 170), which follows the Rio Grande from Lajitas to Presidio and is designated as one of the most scenic highways in America. In addition to numerous hiking, biking and equestrian trails, the park features well-maintained but rugged campsites as well as lodging options.

Surrounding areas

A trip to the Big Bend isn’t complete without exploring the nearby (and photogenic) small towns. In close proximity to the national and state park you’ll find Study Butte, Terlingua ghost town and Lajitas. Farther north are Marathon, Alpine, Fort Davis and Marfa, which can be driven as a loop. Fort Davis is a great place to spend a day or two, with a stay at nearby Davis Mountains State Park in either the campsites or the CCC-era Indian Lodge.

When to visit

The Big Bend is truly a country for all seasons, each bringing its own unique look and subject matter for photographers. Spring is, of course, the most colorful season with a multitude of wildflowers and other desert bloomers. Make lodging or campsite reservations early, though — it’s a very popular season, especially at spring break. The other “best” season is one that people usually don’t think about. It’s late summer, when the almost-daily monsoonal rains turn the desert its greenest and a bring a variety of wildflowers not found at springtime. During this period, you’ll also see awe-inspiring evening skies as thunderheads build, dissipate into Technicolor sunsets and leave you with clear, starry nights.

Please send questions and comments to Earl at earl.nottingham@tpwd.texas.gov. For more tips on outdoor photography, visit the magazine’s photography page at www.tpwmagazine.com/photography.

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