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Image: river rafting
Michael Graczyk  /  AP
Rafts piloted by guides from Far Flung Outdoor Center of Terlingua, Texas, float through a canyon carved by the Rio Grande on March 25 through Big Bend National Park. The river outfitter and San Antonio chef Francois Maeder conduct unique gourmet trips on the river.
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updated 4/6/2011 1:25:29 PM ET 2011-04-06T17:25:29

On the banks of the Rio Grande where the river has carved steep canyons through the mountains of the Chihuahuan Desert dozens of miles from any civilization, Chef Francois Maeder is whipping up white chocolate mousse.

"A lot of people think when you go camping you should have hot dogs and beans," Maeder says.

Not here.

Luscious food and white-linen dining takes a backseat only to the spectacular desert terrain and star-filled night skies at one of the most remote and least visited national parks in the continental United States.

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For 24 years now, Swiss-born Maeder has taken his San Antonio restaurant's gourmet kitchen on the road — and on the river.

Maeder, 64, prepares and serves exquisite meals on raft trips along the Rio Grande through Big Bend National Park, an 801,163-acre wilderness some 700 miles west of Houston.

The park gets its name from the sharp 118-mile-long northeastern arc taken by the river that forms an 889-mile border separating Texas from Mexico. At more than 1,200 square miles, Big Bend, a national park since 1944, is the 15th largest in the national park system. Its river, desert and mountain environment make it home to more types of birds, bats and cacti than any other U.S. national park. Its location, more than two hours south of the nearest interstate highway, keeps the crowds down and makes Big Bend a destination rather than a casual stop on the way to somewhere else.

About a half-dozen times a year, during the cooler spring and fall, Maeder and guides from Far Flung Outdoor Center, an outfitter from nearby Terlingua, pack a portable kitchen and coolers filled with fixings for breakfasts, salads, dinners and desserts for gourmet river trips aboard 16-foot inflatable rafts through the canyons.

'Float and bloat!'
Valynda Henington, co-owner of Far Flung, which has been leading trips through the isolated area for decades, describes them as "scenic float trips."

The outfitter offers more rugged, intense and longer adventures along the Rio Grande, which includes portions federally designated as Wild and Scenic River, meaning it's nearly inaccessible, primitive and free of development.

The gourmet trips, however, "bring us a clientele that wouldn't come in normally," Henington said.

"A lifetime experience for me," Tim Tritch, 56, who works for a paint manufacturing firm in Dallas, said of his recent voyage.

"It's like being on a three-day cruise with a very small group of people ... pursuing what they like to enjoy," Tritch's wife, Amy, 43, said.

"Float and bloat!" Patrick Harris, 45, the guide team leader, hollers as a March trip through Heath and Temple Canyons gets under way opposite the ghostly and apparently abandoned village of La Linda, Mexico.

Up to four passengers ride in rafts piloted by a Far Flung guide for trips that typically cover about a dozen miles. Most of the time on the river comes before the intense afternoon heat, where temperatures even in early spring can reach 100 degrees. The trip leader selects a riverbank campsite for two-person tents. The latter half of the day is for cooling off in the clear river, taking a siesta or exploring the desert.

"We're trying to make it an experience where you don't have to do anything unless you want to," guide Jenny Schooler, 29, a North Carolina native who's been with Far Flung for 16 months, said.

A dining experience
As the sun begins to drop behind the mountains and the scorching heat abates, dinner is a several hours-long experience. Under an open-sided portable white tent softly lit with a string of tiny battery-powered lights, appetizers like pate, truffles and cognac and smoked salmon with cream cheese begin the evening's feast, followed by fresh spinach pasta, salad and New Zealand rack of lamb. Dessert is white chocolate mousse with Irish cream, freshly whipped in the desert.

A typical second-day dinner includes Texas Gulf shrimp, ricotta tortellini with cream and garlic sauce, charbroiled steelhead trout and Muscovy duck breast in wine and mushroom sauce. For dessert, raspberry mousse.

Breakfasts are omelets made to order or eggs benedict. Lunch is a deli-style buffet.

"We try stuff people like," says Maeder. "A lot of cooks make it too complicated. I've seen recipes with 25 or 30 ingredients. It's not necessary. I believe in keeping it simple."

He brings the food from San Antonio, where he owns a restaurant called Crumpets, and works off a shopping list.

"Sometimes you forget something," he acknowledges. "You improvise."

Maeder arrived in Texas in 1977, from Montreal, after working in Asia and Europe. He took his first Rio Grande trip in 1987 with his teenage stepson, fell in love with the place and convinced the folks who ran Far Flung to try offering a trip that featured fine dining. That was 160 trips ago for Maeder, who rows his own raft.

Despite the generally tame nature of the gourmet trips, which generally attract from eight to more than two dozen guests, the desert can be daunting. It's not unprecedented for a scorpion to crawl into a tent. Wild burros howl in the night. Maeder has stories of trips marked by tennis ball-size hail, flash floods, dramatic temperature swings and unexpected visitors to tent sites.

"You look up at a horse," he said, recounting one nighttime episode.

Despite drug violence in Mexico border towns and controversy over undocumented immigrants crossing the border, Maeder said none of his trips has encountered trouble. "We're five hours away by car," he said, pointing toward the canyon wall on the Mexican side of the river. "Once in a while you'll see a rancher on a horse, looking for cattle or goats."

If you go

The specific canyon for a trip depends on the depth of the Rio Grande, water-depleted in many spots by drought. No rain fell in the Big Bend from September 2010 through March of this year, making trips unsuitable for rafts through Santa Elena Canyon and its 1,500-foot-high limestone cliffs.

More than a century ago, long before dams far upstream harnessed the Rio Grande and slowed the flow of water, running the river was a death-defying experience. When government boundary surveyors in 1852 launched an empty wooden boat into Santa Elena Canyon, it exited as broken planks and splinters. The first successful trip wasn't documented until 1882.

The Rio Grande through Heath and Temple Canyons, off the northeast edge of the park, is fed in part by springs, accounting for an increased water flow. And while the canyons lack the tunnel-like sensation of Santa Elena, they are no less impressive.

"It's an experience we'll never forget," said Rosie Wilson, 58, of San Antonio, who made a recent trip with her husband, Grant. "The night sky. My goodness! It's so beautiful and it's here every night and we get to see it."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: America's lesser-known national parks

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  1. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado

    In this case, the name does not say it all. Sure, Great Sand Dunes features 30 square miles of flowing sand — Star Dune, the highest, is 750 feet — but within its 150,000 acres, you’ll also find forested trails, alpine lakes and the 13,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The biggest “crowds” come in late spring to swim in Medano Creek, a short-lived snowmelt stream that flows across the sand. Come summer and fall, those with a taste for adventure (and a high-clearance 4WD vehicle) can enjoy high-country hikes and fall foliage via the primitive Medano Pass Road. (Stephen Saks / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

    With famous neighbors including Bryce, Zion and Arches national parks, it’s not surprising that some visitors to southern Utah completely miss Capitol Reef. That’s too bad because within its 400 square miles stand the white reef-like domes that give the park its name, the monoliths of Cathedral Valley and the 100-mile-long geological wrinkle known as Waterpocket Fold. The park is also home to the largest fruit orchard (2,600 trees) in the National Park system, so after a day in the outdoors, head to the Gifford Historic Farmhouse in the Fruita Historic District for fresh-baked pies of peach, pear, cherry, apple and apricot. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

    Mt. Rainier may be more imposing, but if you want to get a sense of the explosive energy beneath your feet, Lassen’s the place. (It also gets one-third as many visitors.) From the main park road, you can view the results of the 1915 eruption in the aptly named Devastated Area, experience ongoing hydrothermal activity amid the bubbling mud pots of Bumpass Hell or make the 2,000-foot climb to the summit for the big-picture view. For a more remote experience, head to the northeast corner of the park, where the 700-foot-high Cinder Cone rises above a moonscape of lava beds and painted dunes. (Witold Skrypczak / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

    Talk about a water park: With just a few short roads that barely pierce its borders, this park in northern Minnesota is a boater’s paradise of bays, islands and passages. Those without their own watercraft can rent canoes to paddle to remote islands and campsites, visit historic sites via a pair of large tour boats or recall the days of the 17th-century voyageurs by joining a 26-foot North Canoe voyage. This year, the park is celebrating its 35th anniversary with a variety of special events, including several nighttime Starwatch Cruises on Rainy Lake on board the Voyageur tour boat. (QT Luong / terragalleria.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska

    Less than 2,000 visitors last year, but almost 500,000 caribou each spring and fall. In other words, the only crowds you’ll experience at Kobuk will likely have antlers and four legs apiece. In fact, this roadless expanse, just north of the Arctic Circle, is so remote that the U.S. Geologic Survey still hasn’t named some of its river drainages. But for those who are prepared for a true wilderness experience, rafting the Kobuk River, hiking the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes or climbing among the Baird and Waring ranges that ring the park can be the adventure of a lifetime. (Tom Walker / AccentAlaska.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Big Bend National Park, Texas

    The “Big,” of course, refers to the sweeping arc the Rio Grande makes along this park’s southern border, but it also applies to the park’s approach to diversity. At 800,000 acres, Big Bend is home to more species of birds (450), butterflies (180) and cacti (60) than any unit in the National Park system. It’d take years to see it all, but for a quick trip, hike the high-country trails of the Chisos Basin, float the Rio Grande between the sheer walls of Santa Elena Canyon and bone up on local history along the new Dorgan-Sublett Trail near Castolon. (Witold Skrypczak / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Channel Islands National Park, California

    The five islands of this park — Anacapa, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, Santa Rosa and solitary Santa Barbara — are just a boat ride or scenic flight from the sprawl of Southern California, yet feel worlds away. In fact, while 350,000 people visited the park’s visitor centers on the mainland last year, only one quarter of them actually made it to the islands themselves. Add in 125,000 acres of protected waters and you’ve got a park that’s part American Galapagos (145 species are found here and nowhere else) and part playground for hikers, divers, boaters and whale watchers. (Stephen Saks / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

    With its cliff dwellings and stone villages, this park in southwest Colorado features some of the best-preserved remnants of the Anasazi people, who lived here from A.D. 600 to A.D. 1300. Unfortunately, many visitors zip in and out, driving the Mesa Top Loop Road or visiting well-trod ruins like Balcony House and Cliff Palace. This summer, however, the park is offering three new ranger-guided tours, including a two-hour, three-mile hike to Mug House; a six-mile, six-hour tour of the Wetherill Mesa area, and an eight-hour, eight-mile hike to several remote dwellings hidden in the recesses of Navajo and Wickiup canyons. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Biscayne National Park, Florida

    Although Biscayne lies on the doorstep of Miami, it’s actually part of the Florida Keys, a 172,000-acre expanse of crystalline water dotted with sea-grass shallows, patches of coral and 30 keys and islets. In summer, when winds are calm and the bugs are bad, stay on the water with a guided snorkel trip to the natural aquaria around Shark Reef or Bache Shoal; when fall winds pick up (dispelling the mosquitoes), take a three-hour tour to Boca Chita Key where you can climb the 65-foot ornamental lighthouse for panoramic views of the park, Key Biscayne and downtown Miami. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Alaska

    No roads, no visitor facilities and no designated trails — if it’s solitude you seek, this 13,000-square-mile park above the Arctic Circle has your number. (Total number of visitors last year: 9,975.) Some visitors arrive by bush plane; others hike in via Anaktuvuk Pass, but all would be advised to plan ahead, either by using a guide service or being appropriately self-sufficient and wilderness-savvy. The rewards? Endless days under the midnight sun in summer, caribou migrations in spring and fall and panoramas of wild rivers, glacier-carved valleys and the craggy peaks of the Brooks Range year-round. (Lee Foster / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Great Basin, Nevada

    Given Great Basin’s location — just off U.S. 50, aka The Loneliest Road in America — it’s hardly surprising that the park accounted for a measly .03 percent of visits (85,000) to the National Park System. Most visitors come to tour the limestone wonderland of Lehman Caves or hike amid the gnarled, 4,000-year-old bristlecone pines on Wheeler Peak. It’s also popular (relatively speaking) with stargazers who come to the park because it boasts some of the darkest night skies in the Lower 48. Consider joining them August 6–8, when the park will hold its first-ever Great Basin National Park Astronomy Festival. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

    Seventy miles west of Key West and surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Dry Tortugas saw just 52,000 visitors last year — probably because you have to take a ferry, seaplane or private boat to get there. Once on site, visitors can tour the hulking Civil War–era Fort Jefferson, stroll the beach of Garden Key (most of the other islands are closed to the public) and snorkel amid conchs, corals and kaleidoscopic fish. (Park personnel are monitoring the local waters for oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill, but are currently reporting no evidence of contamination.) (Eddie Brady / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

    The largest park in the National Park system spans 13.2 million acres, features nine of the 16 highest peaks in the country and boasts the continent’s greatest assemblage of glaciers, yet received less than 60,000 people last year. Crowds? Not a problem. Most visitors drive the 60-mile McCarthy Road to visit the rustic town of the same name, tour the Kennecott Mill site or hike up to the toe of Root Glacier. If that sounds too busy, opt instead for the lesser-traveled Nabesna Road, which offers equally stunning scenery and more chances to see wildlife. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado

    Rocky Mountain National Park got 2.8 million visitors last year. Black Canyon of the Gunnison? Less than 175,000. Cut steep and deep by the thundering Gunny, the canyon’s near-vertical walls rise as high as 2,700 feet above the water and provide a vivid (and vertiginous) view of 2 billion years of geology. Most visitors stick to the more-developed, easier-accessed South Rim, so consider the more primitive North Rim for equally impressive views with even fewer people. “There’s only a quarter of a mile between them,” says Chief of Interpretation Sandy Snell-Dobert, “but it’s so much quieter.” (Jim Wark / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

    Let’s face it, without Teddy Roosevelt, the U.S. would probably have far less protected space than it does, so a visit to his one-time homestead is more than appropriate. (Besides, it gets half as many visitors as the better-known Badlands.) Most visitors hit the South Unit, snapping pictures of T. Roo’s cabin and the Painted Canyon, while others venture to the North Unit to see prairie dogs and river views. Only a handful make it to the remote Elkhorn Ranch Unit, which Chief of Interpretation Eileen Andes says features “the best view of the Little Missouri and maybe the best view in North Dakota.” (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

    Closer to Ontario than Michigan, this island park in Lake Superior is only accessible by boat or seaplane, which probably explains why it saw only 15,000 visitors last year. For day trippers, easy trails around Windigo and the lodging and tour services at Rock Harbor offer scenic views and glimpses of island history; for canoers, kayakers and backpackers, the bays, interior lakes and backcountry trails are as wild as they come. Ferries and water taxis can transport you to remote docks scattered along the 45-mile-long island; after that, you’re on your own. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

    Heading to Carlsbad Caverns? If so, consider adding a visit to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which sits just an hour away, sees less than half as many visitors and offers some of the Southwest’s most surprising topography. Check out the unexpectedly lush vegetation in McKittrick Canyon, the 265-million-year-old marine fossils along the Permian Reef Trail and the backcountry trails off the park’s remote Dog Canyon entrance. Prefer some company? This summer, the park is offering its first Hike with a Ranger program, which will offer full-day backcountry hikes with a ranger on the last Sunday of the month. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. National Park of American Samoa, American Samoa

    They don’t come much more remote — or more scenic — than this little beauty, which is located 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii, spread across four islands and blessed with tropical rainforests, pristine beaches and gin-clear waters teeming with fish. Start your visit with a scenic drive to Vatia on the main island of Tutuila, then hop a flight to Ofu or Olosega for beachcombing and snorkeling. More intrepid visitors should also visit Ta’u, the fourth island, which is considered the birthplace of the Polynesian people. “Access is difficult,” says Park Ranger Sarah Bone, “but the reward will pay for itself several times over.” (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
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    Above: Slideshow (18) America’s lesser-known national parks
  2. Gareth Mccormack / Lonely Planet Images
    Slideshow (28) America's national parks

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