Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park


Spend a few days in Big Bend National Park, and you’ll become very familiar with all of its roads.  There aren’t very many of them — but they are all quite long, and since this is a big park, you’ll be doing a lot of driving, back and forth, between wherever you stay (Terlingua, Chisos Basin, or farther afield in towns like Marathon, Alpine, or Marfa) and whatever it is you want to see.  During all that driving, the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is bound to become one of your favorites.

I thought I’d start with a black-and-white photo I shot of Ross Maxwell Drive, about six miles from Santa Elena Junction, where the drive begins.  The photo looks north, giving you a look at most of those first six miles.  The drive is already getting quite beautiful, and some of its best features are still to come.

One stop I missed (repeatedly) on those first six miles of Ross Maxwell Drive was the Sam Nail Ranch.  It’s an old homestead that still has a windmill that pumps water, making the area greener than the surroundings, and attracting wildlife.

Another turnoff, near the point where I took the photo of the road, serves as a viewpoint and a trailhead for Homer Wilson Ranch.  You can either hike out to it, or just look at it.  The Homer Wilson Ranch was built in the early 1900’s, and abandoned in 1945.

That turnoff is immediately followed by another one, the Sotol Vista Overlook, which overlooks the tail end of the Chisos Mountains.  In the far distance, you can barely make out a notch in the horizon.  That’s Santa Elena Canyon, Ross Maxwell Drive’s final destination.

Just after the road drops down from Sotol Vista, there are two places worth stopping.  The first is Burro Mesa Pouroff — a side road leads to a trailhead, where a one-mile hike takes you to the bottom of the pour-off (a point where the Burro Mesa “bowl” spills over, creating a waterfall during flash-flood conditions.  Most of the time, it’s dry, and you can hike on to the top of the pour-off if you have the time and energy.  While I didn’t hike Burro Mesa Pouroff, I did hike to The Chimneys.  The trailhead is just a few miles further south on Ross Maxwell Drive.  You can see my account of that hike here

Cell phone coverage is almost non-existent throughout Big Bend National Park, and for that matter, in the nearby towns (like Terlingua) as well.  But, much to my surprise, I did find one place where my Verizon phone worked — along Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, just south of Sotol Vista.  It didn’t work at Sotol, which makes no sense, but it did work after I dropped down the hill from the viewpoint, for a few miles, to somewhere around Cerro Castellan Mountain. So, plan your contact with the outside world accordingly.

A few miles further, another side road leads to a viewpoint of Mule Ears, a double-peaked mountain that tops out at 3,881 feet (1193 meters).

Mule Ears is still quite a long distance away, but if you have a zoom lens, you can still get a nice picture of them.  You’ll also see Mule Ears poking up over the horizon, as you drive north on Ross Maxwell Drive, a few miles south of here.

This is probably the most interesting part of Ross Maxwell Drive, as the road winds between hills.

The biggest attention-grabber on this stretch of the road is Cerro Castellan, which stands 3,293 feet (1,004 meters).  It looks beautiful when struck by the light at sunset.  And having a full moon in just the right spot helps, too.

Also in this area, watch for Tuff Canyon.  I the trailhead is somewhere near the stretch of the road that looks like this:

A short walk will take you to an overlook of the deep, but narrow canyon (about 3/4 mile round-trip), while a longer trek leads to the canyon floor.  By the time I passed this area, it was getting dark, so I didn’t have time to explore the canyon, but if you do, you should.

A few miles before the end of the road, you’ll pass Castolon.  There’s a ranger station and store here, but I passed by every time, and never drove into “town” to see what was there.

Beyond Castolon, it’s 8 more miles…

… to Santa Elena Canyon.  And it’s a boring 8 miles.  The road enters the river’s flat floodplain, so you’re no longer winding around hills.  Your ultimate destination (the canyon) is within view the entire time, but due to the slow speed limit, it seems to take forever to get to it.  At long last, when you get there, you can choose to view it from a viewpoint (not spectacular), or drive a little further to a trailhead that lets you walk into the canyon.  I’ll cover that trail on the next page.

Drivelapse Video

The best way to appreciate the entire trip down Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is to watch the Drivelapse video.  This clip starts in Terlingua, and enters the park, then turns onto Ross Maxwell (around 2:56, if you want to jump ahead).

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