Big Bend Nat’l Park is big even for Texas

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Glenda C. Booth

Visitors paddle canoes down the Rio Grande River in Texas’s Big Bend National Park. The sprawling park covers nearly 1 million acres in the southwestern part of the state.
Photo by Glenda Booth

Any mention of Big Bend National Park invokes powerful descriptors: “One of the most remote,” “large and vast,” “one of the least visited,” “darker than anywhere else in the lower 48 states” and “one of the last remaining wild corners of the United States.”

Larger than the state of Rhode Island, the park sprawls across west Texas, where the state juts into Mexico and the Rio Grande River flows through 1,500-feet-deep gorges as it makes a 90-degree bend (after which the park is named). The number of annual visitors is a testament to its remoteness — 365,000 versus Yellowstone’s more than 2 million.

The park’s 1,250 square miles are a river-desert-mountain landscape, where Native Americans believed the Great Spirit dumped all the rocks left over from the creation. But there’s lots of life here, too. “You can see little miracles here every day,” said James Evans, who’s been photographing Big Bend for 23 years.

Desert, mountains and river

As you approach this National Park Service (NPS) park from the north across miles and miles of flat desert, suddenly big grayish-black limestone mountains loom, rising to 8,000 feet. As you get closer, they become orangey and russet bulging boulders, nubby knobs, protruding thumbs, rounded humps, sharp crevices, pointy mini-castles, curved ridges and jagged cliffs.

Geologists treasure Big Bend because the rocks’ strata are easy to see. The park is 75 percent wilderness; 99.5 percent is open to visitors. Roads twist and turn, and trucks toot before attempting hairpin curves. The orange-brown-to-black hues and dramatic contrasts, from parched desert to mountain peaks, lure the curious.

Visitors soak in the vastness, and at high elevations have long panoramic vistas for over 100 miles on a clear day. Quiet high-mountain trails invite short guided walks and long backcountry treks. Even the mountains’ name is inviting — chisos, probably shortened from the Spanish word “hechizos,” which means enchanted and is what early explorers called the mountains.

Big Bend has three ecological regions and over 200 miles of trails as well as paved and unpaved roads.

The park lies in the Chichuahuan Desert under a relentless sun where summer ground temperatures can reach 180 degrees Fahrenheit at midday. It’s so hot that many desert animals emerge only at night. The lower desert can be around 80 degrees even in winter.

The Chisos Mountains are dotted with wildflowers, evergreen and deciduous trees, and hardy bushes like mountain mahogany, Texas madrone, junipers and pinyon pines. The Chisos oak and drooping juniper are found only here.

For over 1,250 miles, the Rio Grande River serves as the international border between the U.S. and Mexico. About 250 of those miles constitute the park’s southern border, where the river has carved three rugged canyons — Santa Elena, Mariscal and Boquillas.

Paddling through the park

Canoeing on the Rio Grande from Gravel Pit to Rio Grande village through the Hot Springs Canyon, you can glide on gently-rippling water and bounce through a few Class I rapids. You might see ravens nesting on canyon ledges.

When your legs get cramped, you can stretch out on sand bars or bubble in a hot spring. Check out the fading murals in the remains of the former Hot Springs Resort and examine ancient pictographs on rock walls.

A 2.5-mile hike up the winding Lost Mine Trail and back is a good introduction to Big Bend. This round trip from 5,500 to over 6,000 feet among Mexican pinyon pines, 17 species of oak and weeping junipers takes about four hours.

You may be greeted by the cactus wren’s “ack, ack, ack,” protecting its globular nest in the cholla cactus, as a peregrine falcon soars overhead. The trail has many switchbacks and gets steep in a few places, but offers 75-mile views over the desert.

People say that in much of Big Bend, it is so quiet you can “hear yourself think.” And because of low artificial light at night, the park won the Gold Tier Level Dark Sky Park certification by the International Dark Sky Association in 2012.

With minimal light pollution, star gazing is spectacular. Park ranger Gail Abend tells a story about introducing school children to the Milky Way.

“I remarked how spectacular the Milky Way looked. The kids wanted to know where to look. Most had never seen that milky band of stars that crosses the sky. Here we can see our Milky Way from horizon to horizon. You don’t need equipment. Just look up. It’s inspiring.”


Big Bend National Park is home to more types of cacti than any other U.S. national park. Desert plants bloom from late February through April and July through September.
Photo by Glenda Booth

Fauna and flora


Peering through my binoculars last October, looking for a pyrrhuloxia (the desert version of a cardinal), I sensed slight movement in the tall, amber grasses. It turned out to be a well-camouflaged, Sierra del Carmen whitetail deer, about three feet tall and unique to the area. “That’s prime mountain lion food,” quipped Mark Flippo, a local guide.

In a place so open, so huge, so uninhabited by humans, some animals are quite visible, some not. There are 11 species of amphibians, 56 species of reptiles, 40 species of fish, 75 species of mammals, 450 species of birds, and about 3,600 species of insects. Local favorites include the tarantula, road runner, coyote and javelina, a pig-like animal with a pointy snout.

The park is the northern-most habitat for some species more common south of the Rio Grande, like the Mexican long-nosed bat. Big Bend boasts more types of birds, bats and cacti than any other U.S. national park.

Big Bend is on the “bucket list” of many birdwatchers because every spring, Colima warblers arrive from Central America to mate and nest in the Chisos Mountains chaparral at 4,000 to 8,000 feet. Birders descend from March to September, undeterred by a long hike up to see these brown and gray yellow-rumped birds.

Northern Virginia residents Ray and Anne Smith were determined to see them. Describing their trek, Ray said, “Going up and down at 45 degree angles on switchbacks, it was 9.3 miles round trip. We saw many new birds, including a Lucifer hummingbird, ash-throated flycatcher, Montezuma quail and elf owls.

“The Colima warbler is definitely one of the most difficult birds to see in the U.S. Some people are lucky and catch it part way up the mountain. We were not and had to do the whole hike.”

Wildflowers burst out of the parched desert in big bunches and little sprigs. There are 1,500 different types of plants, like ocotillo, yucca and desert marigold. Agaves reach up to your shoulder.

Visiting Big Bend

Big Bend has five visitor centers open year round: Panther Junction, the park headquarters; Chisos Basin; Castolon; Persimmon Gap, and Rio Grande Village. Select one closest to where you enter the park and pick up materials and tips to fit your interests and schedule.

The Chisos Mountain Lodge has 72 rooms and a dining room. Rooms start at around $125 a night in the summer. Reservations are strongly recommended.

There are four campgrounds, including the Rio Grande Village RV Camp with full hookups. Backcountry campsites (a permit is required) have no amenities. Cellphone coverage is limited in the park.

NPS staff can suggest lodging options outside the park if there are no vacancies in Big Bend.

The most popular time to visit is October through April, say park rangers. All year, temperatures vary significantly between the desert floor and the mountains.

Air temperature changes around five degrees for every 1,000 feet in elevation change. That means that the temperature in the high mountains can be 20 degrees cooler than temperatures along the Rio Grande. On the same day, you can sweat at ground level and wear fleece at 4,000 feet.

May and June are hot, into the 90s. Desert plants bloom between late February and late April and July to September. Humidity is low.

Big Bend is 559 miles from Dallas; 474 miles from Austin; 406 miles from San Antonio; 329 miles from El Paso; 39 miles from Marathon. A vehicle is a must since there is no public transportation in the park. Distances are long between services. Fill up your gas tank in Alpine or Marathon.

Crossing the border from the park into Mexico is illegal, with up to $5,000 in fines and/or one year in prison. Park officials caution visitors against buying items from Mexican nationals who may approach you. Items can be seized as contraband.

You can also check out the nearby funky ghost town of Terlingua. One October afternoon, the front porch of the trading post seemed infested with aging hippies, imbibing various liquids as mongrels wandered among dusty pickups and guitar pickers plucked.

Next door, at the Starlight Café, margaritas, infused with who knows what, were going for $2. The joint was hopping, Texas-style, at 2 p.m.

For more information on Big Bend, download a visitor’s guide at A friends group sponsors some events. See

See for van tours and for river trips.

Ask NPS officials for recommendations. There are no equipment rentals in the park.

Glenda C. Booth is a freelance writer in Alexandria, Va.