Desert and mountains, rivers and floodplains, canyons and mesas. Together, they make Big Bend a place of almost overwhelming beauty. Tectonic *and volcanic activity are what gave Big Bend its impressive range of mountains, while environmental conditions conspired to create the desert that surrounds it. The park is the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan desert, which extends into Mexico. The Rio Grande 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. Aside from its astonishing geological features, the park is full of life. It's an excellent place for seeing rare species of birds, cacti, and other plants and animals.
Admission to the park is $10.00 for a week. An annual pass is available for only $20.00. Pets 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. It's recommended that the pets be left at home, because many predators live in Big Bend that would find a dog a tasty treat. Be prepared for cool and hot weather. In the mountains, temperatures drop dramatically after nightfall, especially in the winter months, but even the summertime can be a bit chilly. In the desert, low humidity contributes to the temperature drop. So make sure you have a warm place to sleep, take plenty of water, and bring appropriate clothing.
When Should I Visit?
Big Bend is beautiful all year round. Summertime is rainy season, so it's a good time to look at the flowering vegetation, including cacti and ocotillo. In the winter, average temperatures range from 60° to 70°. In the springtime, the climate is the most pleasant, but it's also the most popular time to visit the park, and your visit may be spoiled by other campers.
How Do I Get There?
The nearest airport is in Alpine, Texas. Three paved roads lead to the park: U.S. 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 $8.00 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*. At evening, don't miss the view from the Window, a slot between two peaks that frames the setting sun. There are no hookups for RVs. It's recommended that people with RVs over 24' not make the drive into the Basin, as the road is narrow and winding, with a steep grade. There's a restaurant and hotel up the road, a visitor's center, and a store where campers can buy overpriced essentials. Many great day hikes, including the South Rim trail and the Window trail, are accessible from the Basin, and Lost Mine Peak trail is a two-minute drive up from the campground.
Close to the river, Rio Grande Village Campground is a more desert-like environment. The sites are rocky and a bit dusty, but pleasant most of the year. Flush toilets and running water is available, and some of the picnic tables are covered.
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. No generators are allowed at Cottonwood Campground. This is an excellent place for birders; many visiting species from Mexico can be seen here.
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.
Visitors to Big Bend can also camp anywhere in the park with a backcountry permit, available at the Visitor's Center. If you arrive at the park and the campgrounds are full, try spending the night in the desert. Find a relatively remote spot down a primitive road, set up your cot and sleeping bag, and fall asleep looking at the stars. Just be sure to shake your shoes out in the morning, because tarantulas and scorpions like warm places.
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 or the Window View Trail, can be walked in a few minutes, and some, like the South Rim Trail, take all day.
Lost Mine Peak Trail
This is a 5.2 mile round trip hike, but well worth the walk. Some of the best views of Big Bend can be seen here, as well as native plants. Make sure you start the hike in the early morning to watch the sunrise over the Chisos. Legend has it that a meerschaum mine once existed in the area, but it has never been found.
Devil's Den is a limestone slot canyon to the south of Dog Canyon*. This is a dramatic cut in the rock, very narrow, with sculpted sides. The 6 mile roundtrip trail leads up the wash and into the canyon. As you approach the cut, you'll see it's very narrow. A larger than average human would not be able to enter the canyon. It's 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 rainwater.
This is an easy 2.2 mile roundtrip 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 7 miles down the Grapevine Hills primitive road.
Burro Mesa Pour-Off
This is a primitive 3.6 mile roundtrip 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 a rain makes an impressive 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 happen 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 2-day trip. The South Rim is located at the southern edge of the Chisos Mountains. The view is almost infinite; when the visibility is good, Mexico can be seen in the distance.
There are many backcountry hikes that receive no maintenance and are only marked 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; their rock faces make the strata* easier to observe. Volcanic dikes*, volcanic plugs*, and volcanic ash can be found in the western part of the park. 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, covered by the swamp of the Cretaceous, 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.
Big Bend is still changing. A recent earthquake in 1995 at Marathon, 70 miles north of the entrance to the park, shows that there's still activity beneath the crust. Erosion continues to make slow and subtle alterations to the landscape, through the action of wind and water.
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 B.C. after the last ice age, the Big Bend area was cool and wet, and much of it was forested. Until 1000 A.D., Native Americans in the area lived by hunting large game, such as bison. As the climate changed, becoming more dry and inhospitable, the Native Americans adapted by changing their hunting styles to hunt smaller animals, like jackrabbits and turkeys. It's not known how many tribes occupied the area before the 1600's; when the Spanish came, Chisos Indians were living in the Big Bend area.* In 1535, the Spanish attempted to establish presidios, or forts, along the Rio Grande to protect the northern border of Mexico. 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 only possible on the floodplains of the Rio Grande, and the growing season was limited. The Rio Grande Valley was already hot in the 1800's, 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 more than a generation. Ranchers had more success. In the 1800's, Big Bend was still covered with long plains grasses. These were harvested to sell to the military for their horses, and fed to the cattle. Ranchers raised cattle in Big Bend until the 1930's, when climate conditions and overgrazing had almost entirely eliminated the grass. It's speculated that ranchers deliberately overgrazed their cattle, knowing that the land 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 mined out. The price of mercury made the extraction from cinnabar ore hardly worth the while, 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, and called it Texas Canyons State Park. The Civilian Conservation Corp built much-needed roads and trails for the new park. In 1944, it became a national park, and was renamed Big Bend. In 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 it, 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 blazing stars at night; it's a memory that will remain with you. Come and enjoy the many faces of Big Bend.