Big Bend National Park Offers A Drastic Change From Vistas This Easterner is Accustomed To Seeing

South Rim Trail view, Danny Bernstein photo.Trailhead trinkets, Danny Bernstein photo
The South Rim Trail offers sweeping vistas of Big Bend National Park, while at some trailheads you can find trinkets that are being illegally sold. Photos by Danny Bernstein.

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.

Chisos Basin

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.

Resources

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.

Comments

As a transplanted Texan (I'm a born Mid-westerner) we have YET to make this National Park. It's not from endless nagging and begging on my part. No I am not without shedding a bit of my dignity to see this treasure. Our problem lies in a limited amount of vacation time and TOO MANY beautiful places in America to see! We have been to Yellowstone too many times to count as it is my husband's "happy place". Don't believe me just look at the bumper sticker on our car that actually reads,
"YELLOWSTONE IS MY HAPPY PLACE!"
Big Bend was actually on the vacation plans for this Spring until we realized that Glacier is celebrating its Centennial this year and well,
"GLACIER IS my HAPPY PLACE!"

When will we finally get to Big Bend? That's hard to say, it might not be until retirement in 5 years or it might be sooner. I am eager to experience its wonders and treasures! If there are any Texans reading this and you LOVE Big Bend, there is a way to support this National Park. Both of our vehicles have specialty plates supporting Big Bend NP.

http://rts.texasonline.state.tx.us/NASApp/txdotrts/SpecialPlateOrderServlet?grpid=60&pltid=74

"From the $30 specialty plate fee, $22 goes to Big Bend National Park. The money is used by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to support the activities of a designated nonprofit organization that has as its primary purpose the improvement or preservation of Big Bend National Park."

I actually own a few of those wire scorpions, which I keep in my office. I also purchased a few painted stones. I was amazed at the honor system as folks were leaving donations, and at least on that day in early July (temp 110 degrees), the money wasn't walking off in the pocket of some hiker. The cache was at a bend in the trail, about 100 yds from the river. A small dusty village (I'll leave out the name) was just across the river. I had no reservations whatsoever leaving money for some poor soul who probably makes in one year what I make in one week. That is the last person in the world I consider to be a threat to our national security. Up until 911, it was possible for the locals and Americans to legally cross over and back without hassle. Those days are gone. I'd rather support an enterprising impoverished individual than buy Chinese made trinkets in a gift shop. I'd rather he/she have an opportunity to earn some of my money that way than being left to be recruited to smuggle drugs in order to support his/her family. I suspect that individual probably crosses over and back each night to collect his/her money and to replenish his/her "store". It's a crying shame that I can not legally cross over there to conduct business on my own. There are a heck of a lot bigger fish to fry along that border, and I hope the park continues to look the other way in this matter. Just my opinion.

I was just there in January and was impressed -- and will be back. Connie, figure out a way to get there! And thanks to Danny for a nice posting. I'll add a plug for that side trail up Emory Peak, which has absolutely gorgeous views.

I met one of the people from Boquillas leaving out his wares in mid-morning, so it's not just at night. At various locations I saw more than a dozen of these stations. I happened to walk with a Border Patrol agent for a while near Hot Springs, and we saw a couple of them. He shrugged them off, as they're interested in the illegal immigration not the "smuggling." However, the Border Patrol check station north of Panther Junction did specifically ask me if I had purchased any of those items.

We, too, visited Big Bend in January. I've lived in the southwest my entire life and finally made it to Big Bend! I will say, it far exceded my expectations. It's beautiful! I would encourage anyone to make it a priority for a visit. I've just posted pics on the NP Flickr site.

Editor's note: You can find the photos at: http://www.flickr.com/groups/nationalparkstraveler/

I had the pleasure of camping for five days at the Chisos Basin Campground back in early December as I traveled in a decidedly circuitous fashion from Michigan to Florida. Big Bend Is an awesome National Park...lots of trails, interesting views and friendly people. The campground host at Chisos Basin, Bob, is a great guy...friendly and efficient. I liked his dog, Jay, as well...a good dog.
The rock formations at Big Bend are somewhat different than other Parks that I've visited (e.g., Glacier, Yellowstone, Denali, etc.). I understand that this is due to the arid climate...less water erosion.
I was impressed by the fact that most of my camp mates were long-time repeat visitors to Big Bend. They're definitely on to something, and I plan on returning next year.
Love the National Parks Traveler...keep up the good work!

I was fortunate to lead the Sierra Club trip Danny was on in Big Bend in February. Our 15 hikers braved cold nighttime weather and enjoyed cool daytime highs to accumulate nearly 50 miles of day hikes in a week, including some of the best hikes in Texas. I appreciate the professionalism evident in Danny's writing about Big Bend. It's a compelling place that seems to draw people back year after year. Next year will be my fifth annual trip from Wisconsin to the Rio Grande, and I never seem to tire of the trails, mountains, desert, river or the isolation. Thanks, Danny, for the memories.

We just got back from our Spring Break visit to Big Bend. It is simply 'Awesome'! We had a great time. It did get cold at night but wonderful weather during the day. We hiked to see The Window, that was beautiful. I was afraid to see children getting there before their parents and the smaller child almost slid out, until most of the adults screamed for him to slow down, because it was slippery rock. Just wondered if anyone has slipped off that rock??

i never went but i hope i would soon i wish i can really see it then see pics of it because it looks beautiful but i want to really see it to know