National Park #42 was checked off our bucket list with a visit to Big Bend National Park in Texas. February seemed like a good time to visit and it was. The temperatures were great for hiking, spring break visitors had not yet arrived, and all the facilities in the park were open.
A visit to this vast and little visited park means there is plenty of room to roam by yourself. High season for this park is from November 15 to April 15. The two visitor centers close to the river are closed in the summer. We talked to several people who had been there in July and, with temperatures around 110°, that sounded pretty miserable.
Big Bend became a national park in June 12, 1944 after a lengthy process. In 1933, Texas established the Texas Canyons State Park using 15 school sections owned by the state. Lands forfeited for non-payment of taxes were added and the name was changed to Big Bend State Park, and by October 1933 it included about 160,000 acres. In 1935 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill that authorized the establishment of Big Bend National Park but it took another nine years before a deed for about 700,000 acres was formally presented to President Roosevelt and on June 12, 1944 Big Bend was established as a national park by Congressional Act. It was designated an international Biosphere Reserve in 1976.
Big Bend now encompasses 801,163 acres (1,252 square miles) making it the 14th largest national park and the 8th largest in the Lower 48. However, the 2015 visitation was just 381,747, with total visitation since inception in 1944 of only 15,431,497.
In 2015, of the 59 national parks, Big Bend ranked 41st in visitation. This tells you something about the location of the park and also why you can drive for miles and miles without ever meeting another car. Hundreds of miles from a major airport and with medical facilities at least a hundred miles away, Big Bend is very remote by Lower 48 standards. You have to be going there specifically to get there. It is not a place you would accidentally stumble upon.
The park is a vast part of the northern Chihuahuan desert with the Chisos Mountains rising like a fortress basically in the center.
We stayed at the Chisos Mountains Lodge in the Chisos Basin (elevation 5400 ft.), which because of its central location, was the ideal place for ranging out to visit the other areas of the park.
The Lodge is the only place in the park with a restaurant. Fortunately, the food was very good. The lodge restaurant also offered a magnificent view of the basin and through the “Window” overlooking the desert plain below.
The Window is a v-shaped opening, or pour off, in the mountains through which all rain and meltwater from the basin drains. The view through the window is particularly nice at sunset.
Our room faced the opposite direction but we had the magnificent Casa Grande as a view from our patio. No phone, no tv, no cell service and really sketchy wi-fi – really low-key and a relief to leave the constant primary election coverage behind.
Our first morning in the park, as we drove down out of the Chisos, we spotted four bears not far off the road. After taking numerous pictures, we headed straight to the ranger station at Panther Junction to report our wildlife sighting. The ranger there said it was a sow and three yearling cubs. I kept hoping we would see a javelin or a mountain lion to round out our visit, but that was not to be.
Big Bends’ topographic variety supports a diversity of life including 1200 plant species. Many migratory birds winter in Big Bend and 450 bird species have been counted here. We met a number of “birders” in the park and visitor centers have checklists available to record sightings.
Almost immediately we began learning a lot about cacti and yuccas, which actually was more interesting than it initially sounds.
Chihuanan desert vegetation covers the majority of the park. With over 1200 plant species, including numerous cacti and yucca, as well as other succulents masquerading as cacti or yucca, there is a great deal of variety.
On a nature trail, we came across a sign showing three kinds of prickly pear cactus:
Engelmann – spiny
Blind – no spines
We asked questions about whether the purple were distinct species or simply variations of the others and actually got several different answers so we’re really not sure.
A winding, narrow dirt road leads off the highway to the historic Hot Springs which was probably the first tourist destination in the area. J.O. Langford built a bathhouse over hot springs on the edge of the Rio Grande and offered “the cure” to visitors until the early 1960’s. Ruins of a motel and post office remain, as well as the foundation of the bathhouse where visitors can still bathe in the hot springs.
Several places we read that this desolate desert landscape had once been grassland which was a little hard to believe. Then reading about the large numbers of sheep and goats that were run on the range and the overgrazing, it became clear why it is nearly uninhabitable now.
It’s easy to imagine the Rio Grande as this majestic and grand river but in actuality it’s a shallow, meandering, slightly lazy stream. Part of that is the time of year and a bigger part, the fact that it is depleted along its 1,896-mile length by agriculture and industry. The river forms the border between Mexico and the U.S. state of Texas. Where we were you could easily walk across the river, but everyone is warned that there is a large fine for doing so and if you are in Mexico without your passport you’re in an especially tight spot.
We took numerous hikes. The hike to the balanced rock involved some bouldering and was rather steep near the end but certainly worth the effort.
Nearly all the hikes offered absolutely no shade, so the steep high walls of the Santa Elena Canyon provided a nice cool change.
We enjoyed our visit to Big Bend and then set out toward home across the unrelenting miles and miles of west Texas