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National Park History: Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park in west Texas celebrated its 64th birthday June 12. This remarkable park preserves a 1,252-square mile section of the Chihuahuan Desert that is tucked into the huge southeast-to-northeast bend in the Rio Grande River from which the park takes its name.
Situated about halfway between El Paso and Laredo, Big Bend is a vast swath of riverine corridor, high and rugged terrain, scenic canyons, and arid plains. Not merely big (the eighth-largest national park in the Lower 48), it is also remote in the true sense of the word. It’s not near any cities or transportation hubs, it’s not on the way to anything, and you really have to want to get there.
Some say that Big Bend is the least known of all the National Park-designated units in the Lower 48. True or not, the place does have an image problem. Local Indians believed that this was a place where the Great Spirit stored rocks. When Spanish explorers encountered this area they simply called it "the uninhabited land." Today, relatively few Americans even know there’s a national park there.
There might not have been a park at all in this rugged, lonely place had it not been for the Mexican Revolution, some zealous local boosters, an influential newspaper publisher, and cooperative state legislators.
Fewer than 200 people lived in the whole Big Bend region in the 1930s. Half of these residents were Hispanics eking out a living on subsistence farms scattered along the Rio Grande. The rest were Anglos, mostly ranchers of the open-range, “no need for fences” variety.
Outsiders paid little heed to the Big Bend region until the Mexican Revolution (1915-1920) spilled over the Rio Grande and some bandit raids in the area drew lots of media attention. Now, at least, the public knew that Big Bend was on the map. (We’re even more keenly aware of the region today, thanks to illegal immigration from Mexico. Big Bend National Park and the Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River – both administered by the National Park Service – stretch for 245 miles along the Rio Grande and account for a whopping 13% of the entire United States-Mexico border.)
Providentially, some Big Bend residents were dreaming big in the early 1930s. J.O. Langford, the proprietor of a local attraction called Hot Springs, wanted more people to visit his isolated little spa on the Rio Grande and leave some of their money behind. Everett Townsend, a well-known Big Bend personality, was elected to the state legislature in 1932 after stints as a Texas Ranger, deputy U.S. Marshal, mounted customs inspector, ranch manager, and sheriff. Townsend, who had long dreamed of having a park established at Big Bend to preserve the area’s scenic wonders, enlisted the aid of Amon Carter, influential publisher of the Fort Worth Star Telegram. Together these men boosted the Big Bend park idea throughout Texas and garnered many key supporters. They were rewarded for their efforts when Texas Canyons State Park was created in May 1933. Shortly afterward the park was renamed Big Bend State Park.
Alas, the new park didn’t rescue Langford's investment. He closed his Hot Springs resort – a tiny village with a hotel, bathhouse, and post office -- after many years of dealing with Indians, Mexican bandits, drought, and other issues, including an acute scarcity of customers. Today park visitors can drive to Langford Hot Springs to see the bathhouse site and enjoy the 105-degree hot springs if they’re willing to traverse several miles of scary-awful road, complete with a memorable white-knuckle benchcut.
Lon Garrison, Big Bend’s second superintendent, was once asked whether it was true that the state of Texas wanted a national park so badly that it bought one and gave it to the United States. Actually, that’s pretty much the way it happened.
In 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, the federal government sent a Civilian Conservation Corps contingent of several hundred young men (mostly Hispanics) to Big Bend State Park to build an access road and visitor facilities. By the time the CCC project was terminated in 1942, the park had a six-mile road to the Chisos Basin, a number of trails (most originally used by livestock), several cottages, and other infrastructure elements still in use today.
Texans lobbied hard to make Big Bend a national park. Congress passed the enabling legislation in 1935. Park Service officials waxed enthusiastic, but there was no federal money to buy the hundreds of thousands of acres of private land needed to flesh out the park. This is where the state of Texas stepped in and opened its wallet. The Legislature allocated $1.5 million in 1942 to buy the needed land. The approximately 600,000 acres acquired from private owners was deeded over to the federal government in September 1943, and on June 12, 1944 – a scant week after D-Day – President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation establishing Big Bend National Park.
The park headquarters was established in the old CCC barracks at the Chisos Basin, and Big Bend National Park opened for business on July 1, 1944. There were 1,409 visitors that first year.
Now, around a third of a million people visit Big Bend every year to “get away from it all” and enjoy pleasure driving and sightseeing, hiking, biking, camping, rafting, birding, stargazing, and other outdoor recreational activities – including climbing and some other “unofficially discouraged” pursuits.
Interesting geology, extraordinary biodiversity, and extreme remoteness are three of Big Bend’s signature characteristics. The land is rugged, rising well over a mile from the Rio Grande River (elevation ca. 1,800 ft.) to 7,832-foot Emory peak in the Chisos Mountains. The Rio Grande, flowing in a great 118-mile long arc along the park’s south border, has carved three majestic, vertical-walled canyons – the Santa Elena, the Mariscal, and the Boquillas. Complex geologic features such as faults, anticlines, and curiously eroded rock formations, abound in the park and delight the eye.
Big Bend’s blend of riparian, arroyo, mountain, and desert environments is reflected in a complex array of ecosystems exhibiting tremendous biological diversity with a healthy dose of uniqueness. Indeed, some of the species inhabiting the park are found nowhere else on this planet. Recognizing the richness and scientific value of this ecological treasure, the United Nations designated Big Bend an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976.
When you scan the species lists for this park, you just have to think, “Wow!” Take birds, for instance. More than 450 species have been observed in the park, including the Mexican duck, Lucifer hummingbird, Mexican jay, black-capped and gray vireos, Colima warbler, and other bird species unique to Big Bend or rarely seen outside the Texas-to-Arizona border region. This is a true mixing area. Many tropical birds come no farther north than Big Bend, and many northern birds don’t go any further south.
Big Bend’s species tally features 55 species of reptiles (including seven venomous snakes), 40 species of fish, 1,200 species of plants (including more cactus species that any other national park), and around 3,600 species of insects. Among the park’s 75 mammal species are such charismatic creatures as mule deer, javelinas (peccaries), coyotes, and black bears. There are an estimated two dozen mountain lions in the park, but they are seldom seen.
Rarity or uniqueness is a hallmark feature of the Big Bend species list. The greater long-nosed bat and the Sierra del Carmen Mountains white-tailed deer are generally not found north of Mexico, but you can find them in Big Bend. The park is also the only place in the world where the Chisos oak grows and the endangered Big Bend mosquito fish lives. Many birders come to Big Bend specifically to see rare birds like the Colima warbler, which is found nowhere else in America.
Don’t expect to see golden eagles. To placate local ranchers, an area game warden and a pilot trapped, shot, or poisoned 2,500 golden eagles in a 12-year period before the park was established. Golden eagles are now rarely seen in the park.
Big Bend’s geographic remoteness is one of its prime assets, since solitude and quiet are prime values for many people at least some of the time. If you can’t “get away from it all” in 1,252 square-mile Big Bend, where can you?
Solitude and quiet are not the only gifts bestowed by Big Bend’s vast remoteness. The park’s location far from bothersome urban light pollution makes it a favorite with stargazers. Computer models reviewed by the National Park Services Night Sky Team confirm that, of all the national park units in the 48-state U.S., only Capitol Reef National Park has darker night skies.
If you want to visit Big Bend, don’t forget that this big, isolated park has pronounced seasonal variations, lacks public transportation, caters primarily to campers, and presents some potentially dangerous challenges. To get the most from your trip (and avoid trouble) you’ll need to do some homework, time your visit wisely, make some arrangements beforehand, adopt a realistic activities agenda, and be prepared for rapidly changing weather, road conditions, and river levels.
Big Bend has five developed areas with visitor services. Panther Junction, situated 28 miles from the northern entrance, has the main visitor center, the park headquarters, and one of the park’s two gas stations. The high (5,400 ft.), centrally-located Chisos Basin developed area occupies a gorgeous mountain rimmed site and offers the park’s only restaurant and lodging as well as a visitor center, camper’s store, and nearby 60-site campground with an adjacent amphitheater. Rio Grande Village, which functions as the main visitor hub during winter, has a visitor center, a campground, store, laundry, and shower facility. The Castalon service hub on the western side of the park has a seasonally operated visitor center, store, and a nearby campground. The Persimmon Gap area has an entrance station and a visitor center (open most of the year), but you won’t be able to buy gas or food there. Don’t look for visitor services in the northern section of the park, which is minimally developed.
Timing your visit is very important. The best time to visit Big Bend depends on what kinds of weather you can tolerate, how much solitude you want, whether you need a developed campsite, what your recreational interests are, and what areas of the park you’ll be visiting.
Big Bend is prevailingly sunny and warm, but temperature varies with both season and altitude and the weather can change very quickly (and sometimes dangerously) any time of year. Fall and spring weather is typically pleasant, and winter is usually mild. Summers are hot, as befits a subtropical desert, so if 100-degree heat is a turnoff you’ll probably want to avoid the hottest months (May and June) and do your leisure thing at the higher and cooler elevations if you visit during summer. During the rainy season, which brings frequent thunderstorms from mid-June to October, you need to watch out for flash floods and dangerous lightning.
Elevation dramatically affects weather conditions at Big Bend, so visitors moving through the park’s rugged terrain need to plan for a variety of conditions. The temperature drops about 3.5 degrees per 1,000 ft. gain of altitude in still air, and around 5 degrees when it’s breezy. This means that rafters can be sweltering in drink-a-gallon-of-water-a-day weather on the Rio Grande at the same time hikers are enjoying 20-degree cooler temperatures in the high Chisos Mountains.
Be sure to check current conditions before leaving for Big Bend. You can get 24-hour weather information as well as daily road condition and river level updates at this site.
Big Bend is uncrowded most of the year, with visitation at its yearly ebb in August and September. March is a very different story. The spring break season, usually the second and third weeks of March, brings hordes of sun-seeking college students and makes March by far the busiest month. (In fact, the March tally of about 80,000 visitors accounts for nearly a quarter of Big Bend’s total annual visitation.) Expect all area lodging to be booked solid at that time, and also on Easter weekend, Thanksgiving weekend, and the week after Christmas. The bracket months of February and April are busier than normal, too.
There are lots of motels in the area, but the only lodging inside the park is at the 72-room Chisos Mountain Lodge. Nearly all the frontcountry campsites at Big Bend are available on a first-come, first served basis, the only exceptions being some reservable sites in the Rio Grande Village and the Chisos Basin campgrounds. Lower demand makes camping reservations unnecessary (and unavailable) from April through November. If backpacking is your thing, you’ll need a free permit, but you can pitch your tent practically anywhere you like.
Recreational interests are an important consideration, timing-wise. Conditions for hiking and backpacking, the two primary visitor activities, are best in spring and fall, and at higher elevations in summer. (The same goes for mountain biking and camping.) If it’s wildflowers you want to see, you’ll find blooms at their best in March and April in the lower elevations and late summer in the high Chisos Mountains.
Birding in the park’s principal hotspots – Rio Grande Village, Chisos Mountains, and Cottonwood Campground area -- is good the year round, but best in the cool season (overwintering northern species) and spring (breeding season, tropical species). If you’re interested in canoing or taking a Rio Grande rafting trip – available in lengths from a half-day to a week -- you’ll get the highest water and friskiest ride during the summer rainy season.
Remember that traversing Big Bend’s rugged terrain can be more than routinely difficult. Some sections of the park’s road system traverse bedrock and are just plain awful. Stay on the smooth sections if you can’t stand to drive very slowly. Rain quickly causes Big Bend roads to deteriorate or even wash out. Always inquire about road conditions and closures before heading out.
Speaking of driving, Big Bend has more than 100 miles of paved roads and about 160 miles of backcountry dirt roads available for pleasure driving and sightseeing. This is a park that really rewards visitors willing to combine pleasure driving with short hikes. For mountain scenery, the drive to the Chisos Mountains Basin and the short (0.3-mile) walk on the Window View Trail are great for a stop-and-walk. The 30-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive offers desert scenery (great overlooks) and takes you to the Rio Grande. Short walks to the Sam Nail Ranch, the Homer Wilson (Blue Creek) Ranch, and the Castolon Historic District offer glimpses into this area’s fascinating history. At the terminus of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is the trailhead for a short hike into Santa Elena Canyon, one of most gorgeous places in the park. There are, of course, lots of other interesting drives and stop-and-walks in this huge park.
If you have several days to spend in the park, you might want to do some exploring “off the beaten path.” There are some improved dirt roads that family cars can handle under favorable conditions, but negotiating the more primitive routes and coping with bad weather calls for a high-clearance, four wheel drive vehicle. (ATVs are banned in Big Bend, so that’s not an option.) Many veteran park visitors recommend the Boquillas Canyon road, which takes you to a Rio Grande overlook and the strikingly beautiful Boquillas Canyon (accessible via the Boquillas Canyon trail). People used to visit the Mexican village of Boquillas during trips here, but a 2002 US Customs and Border Protection decision put a stop to that. Now there are no authorized border crossings anywhere in Big Bend National Park.