Big Bend National Park
Where Time Stops
The Big Bend National Park is a wonderland of desert beauty that has something to offer everyone. Dubbed el despoblado, "the uninhabited land" by Spanish explorers, this area is harsh, dry, beautiful, and dangerous, but time seems to stand still in the silence of the Chisos Mountains or while floating down the Rio Grande River. If you ever wanted to get away from it all and back to nature, Big Bend is the perfect spot.
The name of the park comes from the u-shaped bend in the Rio Grande River that acts as the border between Texas and Mexico. Most of the park is part of the Chihuahuan Desert, which extends deep into Mexico, but the park also contains the rugged greenery of the Rio Grande Flood plains and the woodlands of the Chisos Mountains. Geologists and rock collectors love the fossils, limestone and sandstone formations in the Santa Elena, Mariscal and Boquillas canyons, while birdwatchers delight in the 450 different types of birds ranging from the comic roadrunner to the humming bird and peregrine falcon. Rugged outdoorsmen have several hundred miles of trails to choose from while the more leisure traveler can drive more than 100 miles of scenic roads.
The Rio Grande Plains
This magnificent river cuts literally through the mountains and is the greenest part of Big Bend. The sheer cliff walls on either side give the visitor a wondrous feeling of isolation. Canoeists and rafters are allowed on the river with the right permits. Commercial outfitters just outside the park also offer commercial float trips. Swimming is neither banned nor encouraged because the Rio Grande has some fast moving currents, steep drop-offs and is subject to dangerous flash flooding. Fishermen delight in angling for catfish. Hikers can choose to follow the river trails through Santa Elena, The Mariscal, the Hot Spring and Boquillas canyons and get a close up view of the hundreds of birds and animals that come to drink in the river. If you want transportation but prefer to stay off the river, then El Camino Del Rio or "the river road" is an excellent paved route that follows the Grand River through the mountains and canyons. However, this road has some hazards like steep grades, sharp curves and the occasional loose livestock.
The Chihuahuan Desert
This land is bordered on three sides by mountains and on the fourth by semi-arid plains. The mountains help block the rains, which make this area a fairly green, almost lush desert. Certainly after a summer storm, the land becomes alive with colorful cactus blossoms from the agave or century plants, lechuguilla and prickly pear. The animals here are mostly nocturnal but deer, coyotes, javelinas (wild pig), skunks and jackrabbits can sometimes be seen. The best time to visit this area is in winter. When the rest of the country is locked in snow, the desert is a comfortable 27 ºC but can get as hot as 42ºC in the summer. Hikers and mountain bikers are always warned to take more water than what they think they need. The dry climate makes dehydration the most serious danger here.
The Chisos Mountains
The Chisos Mountains erupt in the center of the Desert at the bottom curve of the Rio Grande River. Formed by volcanic movement during the Great Ice Age, this land had become an island of fertile soil surrounded by the arid lowlands. Many plants and animals are stranded here, creating an isolated environment for them to thrive. As you go through Green Gulch grasslands and up into the mountains, the bushes grow taller, eventually giving up ground to the junipers, pinyon and oak trees. They grow in the drainage sections of the mountains in clumps. Growing at the very edge of their ecological range are also ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, Arizona cypress, quaking aspen, and bigtooth maple. The Chisos, because of their cool nature, is the center of the recreational activity of the park. Here, visitors can rock climb up the volcanic peaks, hike, ride horseback or take the most popular drive, The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive which crosses all three areas.
Amenities and Accommodations
The only restaurant in the park is a part of the Chisos Mountain Lodge, which also has a gift shop, motel-style rooms and stone cottages for rent. The Lodge is frequently booked up so it is a good idea to always make reservations ahead of time. Other motels are available a short drive away outside the park in the towns of Terlingua, Alpine, and Fort Davis.
Five visitors' centers are sprinkled throughout the park with restroom facilities, maps, water and phones. However at Basin, Castolon, Panther Junction and Rio Grande Village, small grocery store/gas stations offer cold drinks and camping supplies. The Castolon stop, which has been in business since 1919, has adobe houses that reflect the pioneer settlements of the Mexican farmers and cattlemen.
The Two National Park Service campgrounds are Chisos Basin and Rio Grande Village both of which have a trailer park and supply store. Overnight primitive camping is allowed in the park but with several warnings. Ground fires are not allowed due to the extreme risk of grass fire. Pets can stay at the campgrounds but are not allowed in the backcountry. Too many pets wind up being some wildlife's dinner. Also be careful where you select your campsite. The summer rains often turn washways into flood zones in the middle of the night.
Depending on where you go in the park, there is no bad time to visit this rocky wonderland. Winter nights can be near freezing in the mountains but the daytime is more like short sleeve weather in the desert. During the summer, the heat is overbearing in the desert but comfortable in the mountains. Summer rains can hamper most visitors in that the floods can lead to closed roads and difficult passages. Either way, rangers warn that the weather injures and kills more hikers than any other factor. If you plan on hiking or camping, come well prepared for dramatic and unexpected weather changes.
Written by: Carla Lee Suson
Top Photo Credit: © Getty Images
Photo Description: The rugged landscape of Big Bend National Park