Named for the large, lazy turn in the Rio Grande river, Big Bend National Park defies expectations with lush flood plains, tree-covered mountains rising to almost 8,000 feet, narrow canyons, kaleidoscopic badlands, ever-changing sand dunes, and incredibly varied and plentiful wildlife. One visit to Big Bend and any and all preconceived notions of what southwestern Texas should look like fade away.
The park was established in 1944 and encompasses 801,163 acres, including 118 miles of the Rio Grande River, the border between the United States and Mexico. Big Bend is one of the largest national parks and is the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert in the country. It's also one of the most remote and least-visited, making it perfect for those answering the siren call of solitude.
A wide range of topography, altitudes and microclimates, along with the life-giving river make for superlative diversity of flora and fauna. In fact, the park boasts more types of birds, bats, and cacti than any other national park in the U.S. More than 1,200 species of plants, including approximately 65 cacti species, some of which are found nowhere else in the world, call Big Bend home. Add to that, 67 species of amphibians and reptiles, 40 species of fish, and 3,600 species of insects. Seventy-five species of mammals, including mountain lions, deer, Mexican black bear, and javalina roam the wilderness.
Big Bend proudly boasts the largest swath of roadless public lands in Texas, and contains over 150 miles of trails crisscrossing the landscape. Chisos Mountain Basin is a good place to start for an extensive network of trails, ranging from casual, half-mile jaunts, to multi-day backpacking trips. Day hikers need nothing but boots and some water; overnighters however, need a permit and backcountry campsite reservation.
The South Rim trail is the classic hike in Big Bend. It's 13 miles of difficult hiking, with 2,000 feet of elevation gain, but those sturdy enough to tackle it get rewarded with cooler temps and one of the most dramatic and spectacular views in the National Park system. It's a 2,000 sheer drop overlooking the desert floor below, with vistas of Santa Elena Canyon, 20 miles away, and the Sierra del Carmen mountains of Mexico. If feeling strong, hikers can bag the highest summit in the Chisos, the 7,832-foot Emory Peak — it's "only" an extra two miles and 1,000 feet of climbing. If that sounds like too much for one day, there are several excellent campsites along the route, making it a fun, casual overnight. Insider's tip: sites SW1-SW4 and SE1-SE4 are on the edge and have the best views, the northeast sites are more secluded.
If time is short, or a kid-friendly hike is needed, Santa Elena Canyon is easily the most majestic canyon in the park. Getting to the trailhead holds endless picture taking opportunities along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Look for Mule Ears Peak, the butte of Cerro Castellan, and the bizarre, white lava formations of Tuff Canyon (itself a great 1-mile hike). The Elena Canyon hike switchbacks down along the banks of the Rio Grande. See if you can skip a rock all the way into Mexico, then stand slack jawed, as you marvel at the limestone walls looming 1,500 feet above you. The entire hike is only 1.5 miles long with 137 feet of elevation gain, most of it in the shade.
When done there, a cool way to loop the drive is take the 2WD dirt shortcut through the badlands to the park’s western entrance on Old Maverick Road. Seek out the Trading Company in the Terlingua ghost town, sit on the porch, sip a cold beverage, and bask in a legendary Texas sunset.
Secrets of the Park
Cyclists have 100 miles of paved roads, and 160 miles of dirt roads to explore, both having options depending on fitness, skill and time. The wildly undulating terrain and incredibly variegated scenery makes any ride worthwhile. Low traffic makes solitude easy to find and increases wildlife-spotting opportunities, but requires more caution. In such remote country, riders need to be fully self-sufficient, a flat out here could quickly become serious.
Exploring the isolated, rugged dirt roads of the park via 4x4 is a fantastic way to see more of the region. Of the 160 miles of unpaved roads, only 45 miles of them are suitable for a 2WD car. The rest of them can be primitive and downright challenging, requiring 4WD, serious ground clearance, and honed skills. Signs warn drivers that certain areas of the park are not often patrolled, if at all; self reliance here is key.
The stars at night are, in fact big and bright. Big Bend is one of just 10 International Dark-Sky parks, having the darkest measured skies in the lower 48. Cloudless nights showcase literally thousands of stars and the heavenly Milky Way. Bring a telescope, a camera, and a tripod. Also, watch for the nocturnal black witch moth, one of the largest moths in North America.
More than 70 kinds of butterflies flutter by in Big Bend, some rarely found elsewhere in the country. Spring and fall sees swarms of monarchs pass through during their migrations. Also look for red admirals, dog-faced sulphurs, mourning cloaks, and various types of swallowtails.
Big Bend is a year-round birders’ paradise, with over 450 avian species, more than half the bird species found in North America. Some of these birds, like the Colima warbler, are found nowhere else in the world. Birds large and small, from darting hummingbirds and cuckoos to soaring golden eagles and screech owls, and desert dwellers to water lovers from Montezuma quail to great herons make their nests in Big Bend. The Rio Grande Village and the Chisos mountains are excellent places to start. Grab a checklist at the visitor's center.
To witness one of nature's greatest spectacles, head to the Frio Bat Cave just before dusk. Visitors are treated to a 10 million-strong exodus of Mexican free-tailed bats streaming out of North America's fourth-largest bat cave.
Rafting or canoeing the Rio Grande is one of the great unforgettable adventures in America. There are numerous tour companies that can arrange anything from half-day floats, to multi-day, whitewater adventures. Really want to immerse yourself? Lower Canyons is 83 miles of insanity. Paddlers negotiate up to class V rapids for up to 12 days in some of the most secluded, inaccessible terrain in the U.S. Fewer than 1,300 rafters attempt it annually, by comparison, 24,000 float the Grand Canyon. Literally days away from civilization, there are few places left that one can find themselves so gloriously alone, so impossibly still, so wondrously insignificant.
How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit
- As always, check the weather, be prepared with a few layers and a shell. To escape the heat, do the higher elevation hikes, there can be a 20-degree difference between low and high elevations. The visitor's center has the latest info. Hats and sunglasses are a must. It's easy exert oneself without sweating, leading to serious dehydration, so drink plenty of water.
- Photographers should bring a polarizing filter for deeper blue skies and better contrast on the canyon walls.
- Homeland Security treats all float trips as having left the country and requires identification such as a passport to re-enter. Also, stepping foot on the Mexican side is considered an illegal entry, except in cases of emergency.
- The only lodging in the park is at the Chisos Mountains Lodge. Hotel-style rooms and rustic stone cabins are available. They also have a restaurant with one of the best views in Texas. There are three developed campgrounds, Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village and Cottonwood.
- Basic camping supplies and groceries can be found year-round at Rio Grande Village, the Chisos Basin, and at Castolon. Gas can be found at Panther Junction Service Station and the Rio Grande Village.