Arts & Culture

Why you should visit Big Bend National Park

Tour one of the nation's least-visited, but most spectacular, national parks

More than 150 miles of hiking trails wind through Big Bend National Park's 801,000 acres. (Bob Sessions photo)
More than 150 miles of hiking trails wind through Big Bend National Park’s 801,000 acres. (Bob Sessions photo)
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Big Bend National Park in Texas is aptly named, because everything about this park is big: its size, its vistas, its ecological and geological importance, and the amount of time it takes to get there.

Located in southwestern Texas along the Mexican border, the long journey to Big Bend is definitely worth the trip. With more than 800,000 acres, it includes the northernmost section of the Chihuahuan Desert, the entire Chisos Mountain Range, and 118 miles of the Rio Grande River that forms the U.S. border with Mexico.

“For a long time, hardly anyone knew about this place — we were truly the last frontier in the mainland U.S.,” said Tom Vandenberg, chief of interpretation and visitors services at the park. “But gradually word has gotten out about the treasures here. We have more species of birds than any other national park, for example, and our geology is world-renowned. But most of all, I think Big Bend is a quiet place where people come to be inspired. There’s a feeling of remoteness and primitiveness here that draws people back again and again.”

Big Bend National Park is named after the U-shaped curve the Rio Grande makes as it passes through southwest Texas. The river slices through the desert and below deep canyons, its banks providing a brilliant splash of green in the midst of the arid landscape.

“The Rio Grande is the life blood of the region, but it’s a vulnerable ecosystem, subject to frequent droughts,” said Vandenberg. “Much of its water now comes from Mexico’s Rio Conchos, because most of the Rio Grande’s water is taken upstream by irrigation, dams, and manufacturing.”

To experience the park at its most scenic, take a boat ride on the Rio Grande. Visitors can bring their own canoe or kayak, hire a vessel, or take a guided float trip lasting anywhere from two hours to 10 days. Gliding down the Rio Grande, you’re likely to see some of the 450 species of birds that have been spotted in this region, from summer tanagers and painted buntings to vermillion flycatchers. Sandpipers and killdeers frequent the sandbars, while cliff swallows live in mud-nests perched high on rock walls. The park is so rich in birdlife because of its location on a migration route between South, Central, and North America.

Big Bend shelters many other animal species as well, from bears and mountain lions to coyotes and four species of rattlesnakes. It’s located at the northernmost range of many Latin American plants and animals, including the endangered Mexican long-nose bat.

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Big Bend is also one of the best places in North America to study geology, in part because the rock layers can be clearly seen here because the vegetation is so sparse. Its rugged landscape, which was formed more than 500 million years, showcases an array of paleontological treasures, including dinosaur fossils from nearly 100 species. In total, the park preserves one of the most complete fossil records of a prehistoric ecosystem to be found anywhere on the planet.

While Big Bend is full of treasures, its formidable landscape requires respect and planning. During the summer its lower elevations can be brutally hot, though cooler temperatures can be found in the mountains. Many of its peaks have considerable vegetation, due to the fact that parts of the Chisos Mountains receive more than twice as much rainfall as the desert below.

Hiking in Big Bend ranges from short, self-guided nature trails to challenging, multi-day cross-country routes. One of the most beautiful treks is through Santa Elena Canyon, a limestone gorge carved the by the Rio Grande. Wherever you walk, be aware that the weather can change rapidly here and that arroyos or washes can be dangerous in wet conditions. In winter, temperatures can plunge below freezing, though daytime temperatures are generally very pleasant.

Some of the best views in Big Bend are visible only at night. The area has been designated an International Dark Sky Park, which means that this is a splendid place to watch the heavens. It has the least light pollution of any spot in the lower 48 states.

Whenever you visit, an epic landscape awaits you. “The canyons of the Rio Grande are some of the most storied landscapes in the West,” said Tom Vandenberg. “The park is full of remote sites where you can hike and camp and not see another person the entire time you’re out. This is a place where you can find yourself.”

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