Travel

A Photographers Guide to West Texas

by Darren Huski | June 24, 2010

© Darren HuskiTexas is known as a big state, but it is probably not really known as nature photography destination, except for hill country wildflowers. Most people also think of Texas as flat. Put those two together and that pretty much keeps photographers away. Now, in the populated eastern 2/3 of the state flat is a fairly accurate description. There are a variety of ecosystems in Texas but flat seems to win out. What most folks overlook is that hidden in the thinly populated deserts of west Texas are 29 mountain ranges, two national parks, several state parks, and a more than a few neat towns that make it fantastic photography destination. It offers up views on par with any of the highly visited national parks but in a place few people know of and fewer people visit.

This “unknown” factor is a huge plus for the Texas bound photographer as the locations are seldom (if ever) crowded. It is nothing like the “full contact photography” that can be found in the more famous western parks. In Texas, you usually have it all to yourself.

So for a big adventure in a big place, travel west of the Pecos into the wilds of west Texas. As they say on the commercials-it’s like a whole other country!

Here are a few of the highlights of west Texas for the photographer.

Mountain Ranges © Darren Huski

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend is one of the largest and least visited national parks in the system. It is an isolated place, a vast empty desert landscape tucked deep in a mighty curve of the Rio Grande. Once, an uninhabited place that was known as El Desplobado, today it’s 800,000+ acres is the end of the road. There is no passing through Big Bend; you have to want to get here to be here.

Desert mountains Big Bend © Darren Huski

I consider it to be one of the very best parks for photography. While most folks think it is a desert park, and that is true- it is desert, there is more-mountains, magnificent canyons, the wild Rio Grande, the border, and the southernmost aspens in the USA. It truly is a landscape that is both grand and intimate. The park contains an entire mountain range, a 1500′ cliff runs for miles on it’s western side and successive lonely ranges stack up along the eastern side of the park. You can find amazing wildflower and cactus blooms, there are waterfalls, or hidden tiny springs that are an oasis in the desert. The Rio Grande has carved three incredible canyons that can all be floated. The spring rains bring wildflowers and the late summer monsoon brings a 5th season when the desert will spring to life overnight. It truly is a landscape photographers dream. Wildlife photographers are not left out either as Big Bend has more bird and reptile species than any other park, plus opportunities at larger animals such as coyote, javalina, black bear, and mountain lion. It is a place that needs many days to see and even begin to explore. Spending a week here is standard and even after a lifetime there will still be new locations to find.

The park can be explored by car on paved road, by 4×4 on the primitive backroad system, on horseback, by foot, and by boat in a float trip down the Rio Grande. There are three campgrounds, a lodge, and assorted backcountry sites. Big Bend is best visited from September through early May for the best photography conditions and to avoid the worst of the summer heat.

Get here once and I guarantee you will be back.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

The Guadalupe Mountains are the largest exposed reef in the world. That’s right-this mountain range was an underwater reef. Today the Guadalupes rise a mile above the salt flats of west Texas, a sky island in the desert. From the desert to a high alpine environment can be found in these rugged peaks. They are carved by magnificent canyons that are a hidden oasis of life with pines, aspens, and even maple trees. Some of the best fall color in the west can be seen here in the middle of the desert. For those wanting to see vivid maples, plan a trip to Guadalupe Mountains around Halloween and day hike into McKittrick Canyon. The canyon itself is amazing and has been called the prettiest spot in Texas. Many times I have spent the day here and encountered less than three other people at the peak of fall color, you will not say that very often in Yosemite Valley.

Fall color Guadalupes © Darren Huski

Guadalupe Peak at about 8,900′ is the highest point in Texas. The high country around it is a relic ice age forest of ponderosa pines and aspen that is a worthy backpacking destination. West of the park you find both salt flats and sand dunes to explore.

This is a more rugged park than most with only a basic campground and zero services, so plan to rough it here. Note this is also a very windy park, where 50mph winds are common and 75mph winds are not unheard of. The park is very nice year round with fall being my favorite season, possible snow in the winter, and one of the coolest spots in the state in summer. The Guadalupes can also be combined with a trip into the nearby Carlsbad Caverns which is just across the state line in New Mexico.

Davis Mountains

Also known as the Texas Alps, the Davis Mountains rise out of high ranching grasslands and several peaks are in the 8,000′ range. Three towns circle the heart of the mountains; Alpine, Marfa, and Ft. Davis. All three are neat locations and each offers something different. Alpine is a small college town and also an Amtrak stop for those who would think of arriving by train. Marfa is an artist colony and several movies such as Giant, No Country for Old Men, and There will be Blood were filmed here. Ft Davis is a B+B town and the old fort has been preserved as a National Historic Site. Davis Mountain State Park is near there and probably the best central location to stay during a visit out into the area with both a nice campground and a neat lodge. The McDonald Observatory is in the heart of the mountains and offers up “star parties” at night where you can look through some of their telescopes. On the northeast edge of the mountains find Balmorea State Park and a great spring fed swimming pool that is a delightful stop in the warmer months. Note, like much of Texas, the majority of the Davis Mountains is private property. Your photography here will mainly be from the roadside or in one of the small park locations but do not let that stop you from a great visit to a scenic area.

Hueco Tanks State Park

Hueco Tanks has been called the Sistine Chapel for rock art. This small state park near El Paso is really a huge pile of rocks. The rocks are a world class climbing destination and the covering many of them are pictographs and petroglyphs. If your photography interest turns toward such historic landscapes, it is an ideal destination for a day or two. Note, the rules regarding access to this park are stricter than most so try to preplan your visit and possibly make a reservation. Bonus- if in the area check out Chicos Tacos in nearby El Paso to have the Tex-Mex equivalent of White Castle.

Road Big Bend © Darren Huski

These are just a few of the destinations you can find in the far west of Texas. Bring a sense of adventure, plenty of film/memory cards, and keep an eye on the gas gauge as it can be a long way to the next station. Finally if you are out here and see a guy with a large format camera, it is likely to be me, stop by and say hi.

About the Author

Darren Huski is a landscape photographer from Fort Worth, Texas. He photographs the far reaches of the Lone Star State and throughout the American west and midwest. He works with a 4x5 view camera and a modern digital SLR. His work and travels can be seen at www.WildernessPhotographer.net.

Post a Comment

Logged in as Anonymous