It's not easy to get to Big Bend National Park. Located in the crook of Rio Grande River in West Texas where the river bends from a southeast meander to a northeastern direction, the park promises spectacular vistas, river canyons, and desert plants. But it's a 225-mile drive from Midland-Odessa and 325 miles from El Paso, the closest airports, so no one goes there on a whim. Indeed, last year the park saw just 363,905 visitors, making it one of the least-visited national parks in the country.
As an Easterner who casually drives and hikes into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park almost every week, I knew that Big Bend was going to be different. I signed up for an end-of-February Sierra Club trip that advertised solid hiking and primitive camping in three diverse areas of the park.
Big Bend National Park is unlike other parks I've visited. On the front page of the park newspaper, The Paisano, Superintendent William E. Wellman's welcome message was not about flowers, trees, birds, and marvelous rock formations but of law enforcement. He emphasized the number of rangers and Border Patrol agents who were sent to Big Bend so that "issues south of the border do not begin to spill into this pristine natural park."
To get the feel for the area, I read Borderline by Nevada Barr, a mystery set in Big Bend. I watched Paris Texas, a movie that starts with the main character walking in the Big Bend desert, but most scenes were in other Texas locations. And I searched right here in the Traveler. Bob Janiskee wrote a good historical introduction in this post, and Claire Walter recounted a float trip on the Rio Grande through the park.
That was all good pre-trip research, but still, what I encountered as our group visited three distinct areas of the park was wonderfully surprising.
South-of-the-border problems were not evident in the Chisos Basin where we camped for three nights at 5,400 feet. This green island in the typical desert was hot during the day and cold at night. Most nights the temperature hovered around the freezing mark. I was cold from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., though I had a good sleeping bag, rated to 25 degrees, and several layers of thermals and fleeces. I wore a hat and gloves to bed. As soon as the sun came up, the layers came off and I hiked in shorts and a T-shirt.
Two classic half-day hikes, Lost Mine Trail (4.8 miles, round trip) and The Window (4.4 miles), provide a good introduction to the Chisos Mountains. At first glance, the desert looks bare but it teems with life: prickly pear cactus; sotol, a classic with its swordlike leaves; ocotillo, which looks like gray dead leafless stems, and; candelilla, which is used to make candles and waxes. I found myself continually staring at Casa Grande, a large rock that hovers over the Chisos Basin.
The signature hike in the Chisos Mountains is the South Rim loop - it rambles 12 miles with 1,800-foot ascent. The South Rim is considered one of the most scenic hikes of the park but that could describe almost any hike. We slowly climbed on the Laguna Meadow Trail up to the South Rim of a canyon where the vast Chihuahuan Desert stretches out. The South Rim is a large escarpment on the edge of the mountains. Here we spent a long lunch looking down into the rocky slopes and cliffs below and out into the Mexican mountains. No sign of civilization.
The hike continued down on the Pinnacles Trail with a view of a prominent boot, a rock formation that resembles an upside down boot. On the way we passed the side trail to Emory Peak, the highest point in the park (7,825 feet) This is the lush part of the park with oaks, pinyon pine trees, and drooping junipers.
Rio Grande Village
Paradise ended the next morning when I woke up to a snow storm. I broke camp in record time and went for breakfast at Chisos Mountains Lodge. As we headed down to a campsite on the Rio Grande River at about 1,800 feet, I thought the drop in altitude would provide a little more warmth at night, but no such luck. It was just as cold.
Rio Grande Village is more crowded than the Chisos Basin campground because it offers showers and a laundry. Roadrunners, large birds with a long white-tipped tail, check out the campground. This resident bird is a carnivore, often seen with a lizard in its beak. Because of its position at the edge of southern and northern ranges, the park attracts many serious birders. Peak of bird migration is late April to early May.
This area is also where I started to understand the "border issues." The Rio Grande River forms the boundary between the United States and Mexico. Before 2002, the border was open in several places in the park; a dated video still shown at the Panther Junction Visitor Center encourages visitors to visit Boquillas, a border town and meet the locals. But now the border is closed and the closest border crossing into Mexico is over 100 miles away at Presidio, Texas. At a trailhead close to the Rio Grande Campground I found trinkets and walking sticks with a note explaining the price of the items and how to pay for them. Buying these items is illegal.
We hiked Marufo Vega, a 14-miler, the highlight of the Rio Grande area. The hike starts in a typical wash - a dry streambed - with ruins of an old tramway that brought ore from Mexico in the early 20th Century. Then up the limestone cliffs of Dead Horse Mountains where the village of Boquillas with its flat-roofed house is visible. The trail climbs above the muddy Rio Grande. The river looked languid until I watched a stick float in the river and saw how fast it was moving. A water release on the Mexican side of the river caused the river to rise to over 8 feet. The hike was hot and dry; I carried three quarts of water and probably should have taken more.
Homer Wilson Ranch
Unlike most Western parks that were carved out of federal land, the land that became Big Bend was owned by ranchers. The state of Texas bought out the private land and turned it over to the federal government and it became a national park in 1944. Today you can still see the Homer Wilson Ranch. A half-mile walk (round trip) off the Ross Maxwell Scenic Road leads to the house, storeroom, and corral. I continued on the Blue Creek Trail to see hoodoo-like structures, stone columns carved by wind. The hoodoos are not as famous or fanciful as those found in Bryce Canyon National Park but they're lovely.
I went to Big Bend National Park hoping for fine hiking in a desert environment and the park certainly provided that - and more. I saw new birds, unusual plants and several javalinas - a peccary that looks like a large pig. I, maybe naively, think of national parks as natural islands and was taken aback at the concerns about illegal immigrants coming into the park. Still, I encountered nothing beyond those concerns, and this is a truly a beautiful park to experience, particularly if you're coming from a lush area such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park and are looking for a contrast in park scenery.
Big Bend National Park: http://www.nps.gov/bibe
Hiker's Guide to the Trails of Big Bend National Park. This 32-page booklet covers all major trails in the park, from short self-guiding nature trails to strenuous backpacking routes.
Big Bend - Official National Park Handbook
Big Bend National Park Trails Illustrated Map # 225
Big Bend Natural History Association is the cooperating association that sells many books and guides about Big Bend National Park.
Friends of Big Bend -- The park's friends group that works to raise charitable funds for the park.