The park is the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan desert, which extends across from Texas, USA, into Mexico. The Rio Grande river makes a bend as it borders the southern end of the Park, marking the boundary between Mexico and the United States, and giving Big Bend its name.
Apart from its astonishing geological features, the park is full of wildlife. It is an excellent place for seeing rare species of birds, cacti, and other plants and animals.
Visiting Big Bend
Admission to the Park is $10 for one week, but an annual pass is available for only $20. It is recommended that pets are left at home, because many predators live in Big Bend that would find a dog a tasty treat. But if you do bring pets, they are required to be on a leash and with a human at all times, and are not allowed on trails, off-road, or in the river.
In the mountains, temperatures drop dramatically after nightfall, especially in the winter months, but even summertime can be a bit chilly. In the desert, low humidity contributes to the temperature drop. So be prepared for both cool and warm weather, make sure you have a warm place to sleep, take plenty of water, and make sure you have appropriate clothing.
When Should I Visit?
Big Bend is beautiful all year round. Summer is the rainy season, so it's a good time to look at the flowering vegetation, including cacti and ocotillo. In winter, average temperatures range from 60° to 70°F (15° to 21°C). In the springtime, the climate is the most pleasant, but this is also the most popular time to visit the Park, and your visit could be spoiled by other campers.
How Do I Get There?
The nearest airport is at Alpine, Texas.
Three paved roads lead to the Park:
US 385 from Marathon, Texas is 70 miles to the north entrance.
State Route 118 from Alpine is 108 miles to the west entrance.
If you're coming from Presidio, take Ranch Road 170 to Study Butte, and then State Route 118 to the west entrance.
Camping in Big Bend
Big Bend has three developed campgrounds. The Chisos Basin Campground is the most popular, offering flush toilets, running water, barbecue grills, and picnic tables. Many of the sites have covers over the picnic tables. Camping is $8 a night.
This is one of the best places to wake up in Big Bend. The Chisos Mountains surround the campground, and Casa Grande is an impressive sight. The name, meaning 'big house' in Spanish, is apt: the peak is squared off and quite large. Casa Grande was formed from a volcanic plug. In the evening, don't miss the view from the Window, a slot between two peaks that frames the setting Sun.
Many great day hikes, including the South Rim trail and the Window trail, are accessible from the Basin, and Lost Mine Peak trail (see below) is a two-minute drive up from the campground. There's a restaurant and hotel up the road, a Visitor Centre, and a store where campers can buy (overpriced) essentials.
For motorhomes or recreational vehicles (RVs) there are no hookups here, and it is recommended that RVs over 24ft long are not driven into the Basin, as the road is narrow and winding, with a steep gradient.
Rio Grande Village
Close to the river, Rio Grande Village Campground is a more desert-like environment. The sites are rocky and a bit dusty, but pleasant for most of the year. Flush toilets and running water are available, and some of the picnic tables are covered.
If you have an RV and would like to camp somewhere with hookups, the Rio Grande Village RV park is the only place where this is possible. Sites are available on a first come, first served basis.
Cottonwood Campground is the most primitive of the three, and the least visited. This is an oasis in the desert, because the Parks Department regularly waters the trees which surround the campground. The camping sites are grassed and shaded by the cottonwoods. The site offers pit toilets, running water, and picnic tables.
This is an excellent place for birdwatching; many visiting bird species from Mexico can be seen here.
Visitors to Big Bend can also camp anywhere in the Park with a backcountry permit, available at the Visitor Centre.
Hiking in Big Bend
Big Bend has several developed trails that are maintained by the Parks Department. Some are more strenuous than others, and hikers should plan their day accordingly. Some trails, like the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail, and the Window View Trail, can be walked in a few minutes. Some, like the South Rim Trail, take all day.
The Lost Mine Peak Trail
This is a 5.2-mile round-trip hike, and well worth the walk. Some of the best views of Big Bend can be seen here, as well as native plants. Legend has it that a meerschaum mine once existed in the area, but this has never been found. Meerschaum is a soft white clay-like material consisting of hydrated magnesium silicate.
Devil's Den is a limestone slot canyon to the south of Dog Canyon. (Dog Canyon was named by settlers in the 1800s, when an abandoned wagon was found with a dog tied to it. The dog was still alive, but there was no sign of the owner.) This is a dramatic cut in the rock, with sculpted sides. As you approach the cut, you'll see that it is very narrow: a larger-than-average person would not be able to enter the canyon.
The six mile round-trip trail leads up the wash and into the canyon. It is possible to hike all the way up the canyon and follow the trail to the top, along the southern edge. At the top, many small potholes and tinajas in the limestone can be found, filled with rainwater2.
This is an easy 2.2 mile round-trip hike up a sandy wash, surrounded by large water-rounded boulders. At the end is a 'window' of boulders, framing a great view of the Chisos Mountain range. This is one of the nicest views in the Park. The trailhead is located seven miles down the Grapevine Hills primitive road.
Burro Mesa Pour-off
This is a primitive 3.6 mile round-trip trail that follows a rocky wash to the top of Burro Mesa Pour-off. This is a high-sided box canyon, with a shallow cave at the end made by flash floods. At the very top of the rock wall you can see a groove in the rock, which after rain makes a dramatic waterfall. Don't stand under the fall - rocks and gravel are carried down by the rushing water! Hikers are advised not to try this trail during stormy weather, as flash floods can occur without warning.
South Rim Trail
This is one of the longest developed trails in the Park, 14 miles round trip. This can be done as a strenuous day hike, or a two-day trip. The South Rim is located at the southern edge of the Chisos Mountains. The view is almost infinite - when visibility is good, Mexico can be seen in the distance.
There are many backcountry hikes that receive no maintenance and are marked only by rock cairns. These are truly for those who want to get away from it all. Hikers should not attempt these trails without experience in using a compass and map, and should take all precautions for hiking in the desert. Free permits are available at the ranger stations for those who want to camp overnight. Some of the most rewarding experiences can be had by hiking these little-used trails.
The Geology of Big Bend
To a geologist, Big Bend National Park is like a good story, encompassing 500 million years of history. Today the Park shows ample signs of its past - if you know where to look. Canyons and mesas are scattered throughout the Park, and their rock faces make the strata easier to observe. (Strata are the layers of rock deposited by sedimentary action. As the environment changes in an area, the rock being deposited changes, and the speed at which it is deposited changes as well. This variable action forms visible layers, which can be seen by the human eye.)
Volcanic dikes, volcanic plugs, and volcanic ash can be found in the western part of the Park. Volcanic dikes are created by magma forcing its way between rock strata, then hardening as the softer sedimentary rock is washed away. Volcanic plugs are created when magma is forced beneath the Earth's surface. As with volcanic dikes, the softer sedimentary rock is eroded away to expose the hardened magma.
Cretaceous fossils are all over the Park, including evidence of plant life, sea creatures, and even dinosaur bones.
What makes Big Bend particularly unusual is the speed of the geological changes, and the variety of the formations in the area.
Big Bend began as a deep-sea trough, went on to become a mountain range, was eroded away, got covered by the swamp of the Cretaceous, was compressed into hills and valleys by the shifting of the Earth's crust, then ravaged by volcanic activity. More stresses of the crust caused shifting fault lines, which created Santa Elena Canyon and other formations in the Park.
Tectonic and volcanic activity have created Big Bend's magnificent range of mountains, while environmental conditions have resulted in the desert that surrounds it. Tectonic activity refers to the movement of tectonic plates - they slide against each other, and under and over each other. The resulting vibrations, if they're dramatic enough, are felt throughout the plate. For example, the 1995 earthquake in Marathon (70 miles north of the Park) was caused by tectonic activity, but tectonic activity also causes the San Andreas Fault, tidal waves, and volcanic eruptions.
Big Bend is still changing. The 1995 earthquake at Marathon shows that there is still activity beneath the crust. Erosion continues to make slow and subtle alterations to the landscape, through the action of wind and water.
The Cultural History of the Big Bend Area
Big Bend has seen human habitation for thousands of years. Its current arid conditions are a result of the earth's warming. In 9000 BC, after the last ice age, the Big Bend area was cool and wet, and much of it was forested.
Until 1000 AD, inhabitants of the area lived by hunting large game, such as bison. As the climate changed, becoming more dry and inhospitable, the inhabitants adapted by changing their hunting styles to hunt smaller animals such as jackrabbits and turkeys.
It is not known how many tribes occupied the area before the 1600s, but when the Spanish came, Chisos Indians were living in the Big Bend area. The Spanish forced the Chisos Indians to work in the mines, but they rebelled and gained their freedom, only to be overrun by the Mescalero Apaches in 1655. By the 1700s the Comanche Indians were also travelling through the area, taking cattle and captives.
In 1535, the Spanish had attempted to establish presidios or forts along the Rio Grande, to protect the northern border of Mexico, but they found these too expensive to maintain. The Mexican people continued to live in the area, even after the Mexican-American war in 1849. After the war military surveys were taken of the area, and American settlers began to move in, encouraged by the forts and outposts the Army had built to protect them from the Apaches and Comanches.
Settlers, attracted by the challenge and looking for new frontiers, moved to Big Bend to farm, to raise cattle, and to mine mercury and silver.
Farming was difficult. It was possible only on the flood plains of the Rio Grande, and the growing season was limited. The Rio Grande Valley was already hot in the 1800s, and getting steadily hotter as the climate shifted. Farmers managed to grow enough to live on, but weren't able to make enough to expand their operations. Very few managed to stay in the area for more than a generation.
Ranchers had more success. In the 1800s Big Bend was still covered with long plains grasses. These were harvested to sell to the military for their horses, and were also fed to cattle. Ranchers raised cattle in Big Bend until the 1930s, when climatic conditions and over-grazing had almost entirely eliminated the grass. It is speculated that ranchers deliberately over-grazed the land, knowing that it was soon to become a State Park.
Both mercury and silver mines existed in the Big Bend area. People came to mine the metals, and to provide goods and services for the miners themselves. But silver never existed in any large concentration, and the best lodes were soon worked out. The price of mercury made the extraction from cinnabar ore hardly worthwhile, and the mining of mercury was dangerous to humans, so the mining companies soon gave up and moved to more promising locations. Some of the equipment still exists today, rusting away in the desert sun.
Big Bend Today
In 1933, Texas made the Big Bend area a State Park, called Texas Canyons State Park. The Civilian Conservation Corps built much-needed roads and trails for the new Park. It became a National Park in 1944, and was renamed Big Bend. By 1976 it was designated a United States Biosphere Reserve.
Big Bend is one of the least-visited National Parks in the United States. The harsh climate and lack of luxurious visitor facilities may be part of the reason, but those who love Big Bend National Park don't want it to become more developed. More people in the Park would mean that the fragile habitats would be damaged and destroyed. Big Bend is one of the few National Parks where people can truly appreciate being in the wilderness, and wilderness is a commodity that is rapidly disappearing.
Big Bend National Park is the experience of a lifetime. From the stark mountain ranges and the unforgiving canyons, to the smell of the desert in the morning and the sight of the blazing stars at night, it's a memory that will remain with you. Come and enjoy the many faces of Big Bend.