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Big Bend Part 3: Ross Maxwell

west Texas

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is considered to be the pièce de résistance of Big Bend’s gorgeous routes. Safe to say, the vast majority of the world’s magnificent roads weren’t built based on beauty. Rather, the incredible views are secondary to the road’s main purpose: connecting point A to point B. But Ross Maxwell was created specifically to showcase the best of Big Bend National Park. It was developed by a geologist who also happened to be the park’s first superintendent. And his name was Ross Maxwell. The previous and second ride in this four-part series, Chisos Basin, lies to the east. Back on the main highway heading west, it’s 10 miles and a left turn onto Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The 30-mile route is the perfect length and is rich in the colors of Big Bend: hues of red, white, yellow, orange, gray and black define the striking geography while the cactus, yucca, ocotillo and other vegetation provide green and brown. There are several hikes along the way but the best one starts where the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive ends: at the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon. The experience is similar to the first video in this series featuring Boquillas Canyon on the eastern side of Big Bend. A short trek through lush undergrowth, along a hillside and high above the Rio Grande leads inside Santa Elena Canyon and its towering 1,500-foot limestone cliffs. The hike ends with a tropical feel along river’s edge with Mexico just a few feet away. The next and final Wide Open Ride in the Big Bend series starts west of Ross Maxwell and outside the park. And El Camino del Rio just may be more magnificent than Maxwell’s masterpiece.

Best Time to Visit

It’s beautiful all year although summers are excruciatingly hot. But once you get into Santa Elena Canyon, it’s downright refreshing thanks to the cooling waters and shade from vegetation and canyon walls.

Route & Map  

This map shows the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive in relation to the previous story, Chisos Basin. Starting at the visitor center, it’s six miles to the main highway and then another 10 to the Ross Maxwell turnoff. It’s 31 miles more to the Santa Elena Canyon Trail parking lot.

Length & Time

Plan on a good half day to explore the 30-mile scenic drive and hike into Santa Elena Canyon.

Major Towns

There are services within the national park: gas, lodging, food and camping. Just outside the park’s western entrance is the small community of Terlingua. It provides some options although you’ll find a lot more in Alpine, Marfa and Marathon. 80 miles away, Alpine is the closest of the three towns to Ross Maxwell.


Before setting out check fees, conditions and closures on Big Bend National Park’s official site. Alpine, Marfa, and Marathon can help with planning, too.

Next rides along this route:
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