Shut down the computer. Unplug the TV. Put any leftovers in the freezer. Then load up the family car/RV/SUV with kids and head for Texas.
Not Dallas, Austin, Amarillo, or El Paso, but put your finger way, way down in the southwest corner on a state map, where the Rio Grande takes a big curving bend around the craggy Chisos Mountains of the Chihuahuan desert.
Your destination is Big Bend National Park (BBNP), one of the lesser-known US National Parks, where remoteness is part of the appeal. It's a spectacular blend of wide-open desert, craggy mountains, and river canyons that almost earns the park the designation of "a best-kept secret."
While some 4.5 million annual visitors descend on parks like Yosemite or Yellowstone, BBNP welcomes a scant 300,000 visitors a year - mostly Texans - to 800,000 acres. You can hike, river-raft, backpack, camp, go horseback riding, or mountain and trail biking (on dirt roads only). The full national-park experience is here, plus some surprises in adjacent parts of Texas as you travel to and from the park.
Nearby also is Big Bend Ranch State Park, smaller than BBNP at 300,000 acres. It has mostly dirt roads, but is beautiful enough for a stretch of road between Lajitas and Presidio on Highway 170 to be called "possibly the prettiest drive in all America" by National Geographic magazine in l985.
A week-long trip adds up to a fun-packed, as well as educational, journey for families with kids, who might say, "Do we have to go the desert?"
Listen kids, BBNP and the surrounding area are also cowboy country, where about every Texan, from wrangler to waitress, has a supply of yarns and stories to tell at the drop of a howdy. And what about dinosaurs, you ask? In late January, the neck bones of a sauropod - a creature that could grow to 130 feet long - were found in the park. And there's an exhibit of casts of other fossil bones at Tornillo Creek Bridge.
BBNP is 230 miles from Midland, Texas (also the location of the nearest airport in case you fly in and rent a car), and 325 miles from El Paso, Texas. On the other side of the Rio Grande, Mexico has designated 2 million acres as a wilderness preserve.
Together, the BBNP, the state park, and the Mexican wilderness are home to an amazing mix of plants, animals, and geology. Watch for the little kangaroo rat, a small desert-adapted creature that does not have to drink. It can manufacture metabolic water from digested seeds. You also might see a javelina, a hoglike, bristly creature with a big head and small hooves. More than 400 bird species have been seen in the park.
According to the locals, the best times to visit the Big Bend area are March and April, or September and October. A few days in summer can be scorchers, but not so hot at the higher elevations. The average temperature in the park is around 82 degrees F. in July.
"It can get up to 119 degrees a few times," says David Alloway, a naturalist and survival-skills trainer from Presidio, Texas, who adds with a smile, "but the 'wind-chill factor' will knock it down to 110."
This is desert country, so if you stop at Fort Davis (see box) on your way to the park, it's a good idea to reload your water bottles, check the tires, dab on more suntan lotion, and fill the gas tank. Be sure to visit the historic fort, too, the restored home of the legendary Buffalo soldiers, an all-black regiment that patrolled the Texas frontier from 1867 to 1885.
The water level of the Rio Grande fluctuates almost daily, says park interpreter Lisa Lackey, who notes that the area has recently received much-needed rainfall. The water level was down when I visited in the spring. At that time, Gay Davidson of Far Flung Adventures, a rafting company in Terlingua, told me, "Don't expect waves splashing over you in a raft, but day trips and overnights are still good."
Far Flung and other rafting companies tell parents to bring kids as young as 5. "We'll take care of all the details of the trip, including food, and the parents can be with their kids from start to finish," says Ms. Davidson. These companies also offer trips that combine rafting with horseback riding and gourmet meals.
The park is a vast desert shaped by volcanic activity millions of years ago, followed by erosion that has exposed an extraordinary collection of prominent buttes and mesas. Tufts of grasses and slender cacti now dot the land. Equally as dramatic are the deep Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas canyons shaped by the flow of the Rio Grande.
First, head for the visitors' center at Chisos Mountains Lodge, but be sure to make reservations for rooms well in advance by calling (915) 477-2291. Campsites are also available, first-come, first-serve.
Two booklets are a must and can be picked up at the visitors' center or park headquarters: the "Hiker's Guide to Trails at Big Bend," and the "Road Guide" to paved and improved dirt roads. Both have clear directions, descriptions, and a sprinkling of anecdotes about some of the desert characters and ranchers who settled here long before the area became a national park.
There are more than 200 miles of hiking trails and routes, from easy to strenuous, and you'll need a backcountry permit to hike to primitive campsites. But there are plenty of short hikes that still expose you to the wonders of geology, vistas, and river.
For the spectacular 17-mile-long Santa Elena Canyon, with 1,500-foot walls towering high on either side, the choices are to raft through it, or head first for the canyon overlook. When the river is fat and rain-filled, the part of the river named Rockslide can be a Class IV rapids.
For a calmer view, try the Canyon Nature Trail, a 1.7-mile walk that begins just past the overlook and leads into the interior of the canyon. You might have to cross the muddy Terlingua Creek, so wear suitable shoes.
The chirping of a wren or maybe a raven's call are the only breaks in the silence and solitude.
Visitors can also enjoy guided walks, slide shows, workshops, and caravans to park sites. And the Big Bend Natural History Association gives a series of seminars, which includes topics such as butterflies of the Big Bend and desert survival.
For more information:, visit www. nps.gov/bibe or www.big.bend.national-park.com. For rafting, call Far Flung Adventures, 1-800-359-4138 or Big Bend River Tours, 1-800-545-4240.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society