Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park

Activities at Big Bend

When President Franklin Roosevelt signed the bill authorizing Big Bend National Park on June 20, 1935, could he have imagined how popular the park would become over the next half-century? According to the enabling legislation that created the park, Big Bend National Park was set aside and protected for its "scenic and recreational values." Once a remote and seemingly inhospitable area reached only by miles of dirt road, Big Bend has become one of the most popular vacation destinations in the state of Texas, visited by an average of 300,000 visitors each year. Scenic vistas, diverse wildlife, historical sites, and the border culture all rank among the features that visitors enjoy in Big Bend, but the primary reason that many visitors give for visiting the park is the opportunity for outdoor recreation.

Over 800,000 acres of open land invite you to explore, wander, and linger. Over 150 miles of dirt roads and about 200 miles of hiking trails wind through the park, providing almost limitless opportunity for hiking, camping, mountain biking, horseback riding, and other backcountry adventures. Additionally, the Rio Grande borders the park for 118 miles, giving river runners the option of floating canyons or open water by raft, canoe, or kayak.

Hiking and Backpacking:

Hikers who really want to experience the three major ecosystems of the park will want to hike trails in the Chisos Mountains, in the desert, and along the Rio Grande. The Chisos Mountains, lying in the center of the park, provide about twenty miles of hiking trails and forty-two campsites for backpackers. Rising to 7832 feet in elevation, the Chisos Mountains preserve a relict forest of oaks, pines, junipers, madrones, and Arizona cypress that provides a pleasant, shady hiking area year-round. Emory Peak, the highest point in the park, provides a panoramic view of the Chisos Mountains and the desert; the view from the South Rim extends far into Mexico on a clear day. It is not uncommon for hikers to see the tracks and scat of black bear, mountain lion, and gray fox along mountain trails. Carmen Mountains white-tailed deer, rock squirrels, rusty-rumped whiptail lizards, spotted towhees, tufted titmice, and Mexican jays are also common in the Chisos Mountains.

The Chihuahuan Desert covers about eighty percent of the park, surrounding the island of the Chisos Mountains like a desert ocean. Trails in the desert range from short, easy nature trails to multi-day treks marked only by rock piles, if at all. The remote desert routes provide a wonderful wilderness experience for experienced backpackers. Silence and solitude are key resources protected here, as there are few other places like this where people can escape civilization so completely. Quite often, the only sounds you hear are the wind and your own breathing. Bare rocky ground and sparse vegetation are hallmarks of the desert, but the observant hiker will find plenty of life here. Look for termite nests built up along the stems of plants, white exoskeletons of millipedes long dead, piles of animal droppings, and tunnels dug into the soil by rodents and reptiles. Bird life is plentiful in the desert, especially in the morning; look for nests hidden in yuccas, cacti, and other prickly vegetation. Hikers who roam the desert in the spring will find wildflowers adding their colorful blooms to the desert landscape. Bluebonnets, paintbrushes, bi-color mustard, desert bailey, yucca, ocotillo, and various types of cactus are some of the more obvious plants found blooming during the spring; a careful observer will find many more.

The Rio Grande creates yet another distinct environment in the Big Bend. Dense stands of reeds and mesquite thickets line the river for much of its length along the park boundary, making human access to the river difficult, but providing habitat for many types of wildlife. The best way to enjoy this area is from the river itself, but a short walk into one of the river canyons or elsewhere along the shore will show you a world very different from the rest of the park. A myriad of bird species can be found in the riverbank vegetation. As the river provides water for many desert animals, look along the muddy shoreline to identify who has visited it recently.

River Trips:

Floating the Rio Grande can take you through miles of canyons up to 1,500 feet deep, where the sunlight may reach the bottom only briefly on winter days. Canyon wrens call from the high cliffs, and cliff swallows dart in and out of their colonies of mud nests. Sounds echo, magnifying the noise of rapids to make them seem much larger than they really are. The constant hiss is caused by silt in the water brushing against the bottom of your boat. The geologic history of the canyon walls is laid bare by eons of carving by the river, making canyon trips especially interesting for geologists.

Along the more open areas of the Rio Grande, you may see local people fishing, farming, and engaging in other traditional activities. These quiet stretches of the river offer expansive views of the colorful buttes, mesas, and mountains in both the U.S. and in Mexico. Far fewer people float the open water between the canyons, so it is possible to go for days without seeing another boater.

As in other parts of the park, your ears may tell you more than your eyes. Listen for beavers crawling through the brush, and you may see one slide down the riverbank into the water. Turtles, especially red-eared sliders, often sun themselves on rocks and logs just above the waterline. Great blue herons and green kingfishers are just some of the many birds you may see flying along the river.

Backroads:

The many miles of dirt roads in Big Bend National Park will lead you across washboards and boulders, through canyons and creekbeds, past old settlements and cemeteries. As an end in themselves, or as a means to access hiking trails or the river, the backroads may also test your vehicle and your driving skills. These roads are not for those who want to keep their expensive four-wheel-drive vehicles in pristine condition, but for those who wish to leave the blacktop behind and experience the park more slowly and intimately. The apparent monochrome of the desert separates into many unexpected hues as your slower driving pace provides a more close-up view of the desert vegetation. Several of the dirt roads provide excellent vantage points to see the looming South Rim of the Chisos Mountains change color throughout the day.

Mountain bikers are encouraged to explore the backroads as well. Although bicycles are not allowed on trails or off-road, the backroads offer sufficient challenge to most cyclists. Mountain bikers have some advantages over motorists on some stretches of particularly rough backroad, as it is easier to pick a route for one set of wheels than for two, and they always have the option of getting off and walking through or around the rough spots.

Camping:

What's a full day of exploring Big Bend without a night out under the stars? Big Bend offers a variety of camping experiences, regardless of your means of travel. For those who want to camp with some degree of civilization, the park maintains three developed campgrounds with individual sites, charcoal grills, picnic tables, water, and restrooms. For those who don't mind having close neighbors, these campgrounds are the most convenient.

Visitors also have a number of primitive camping options. A backcountry use permit, available at a visitor center, is required. Over seventy primitive roadside campsites line the park's dirt roads; what these sites lack in amenities, they make up in scenic views. Many campers request specific sites based on the sunrise or sunset views visible there. Many of these backroad areas are single sites, giving campers a private camping experience.

Backpackers in the Chisos Mountains can choose from forty-two designated campsites. Some are surrounded by trees deep in Boot Canyon, while others lie in fairly open Laguna Meadow. Some are perched high near the South Rim, while others sit lower and closer to the trailhead. Some sites have spectacular views, while others are more sheltered and protected. Backpackers in the desert have the freedom to choose their own campsites in open zone areas, as there are no designated sites for backpackers there, but it can be a real challenge to find a flat, clear spot large enough to accommodate a sleeping bag. The desert may look barren from a distance, but you'll find a surprising amount of vegetation when you try to find an open area for a campsite.

With few exceptions, river runners can camp almost anywhere along the Rio Grande. Like desert backpackers, they can select their own campsites, although sheer cliffs and dense river cane limit the camping options in many areas.

Regardless of where or how you camp, you'll find that sleeping out adds another dimension to a trip to Big Bend. Camping distills our lives to the bare elements of living: finding a campsite, preparing a simple meal, laying out a bedroll. Sleeping out sharpens our senses, as we strain to identify every odd sound around our campsite. With no walls or ceilings in the way, campers witness nature firsthand. The changing colors of the Sierra del Carmen at sunset, the rising of the full moon, the rumbling of the Rio Grande, a chorus of coyotes, and a night sky sprinkled with thousands of stars are just a few of the rewards bestowed on those who camp out. And few experiences compare with waking up to a desert sunrise, with birdsong the only sound you hear.

 

There are as many ways to enjoy Big Bend as there are people who visit. The diversity of recreational options here offers something for almost everyone. People come to the park seeking escape, entertainment, exercise, and many more intangible things. Some go for multi-day treks, while others prefer to relax. Some visit to test their limits, while others come to recharge their batteries. Some visit the park alone, to reach and reclaim an inner peace, while others come to bond with family and friends. Some bring mountain bikes and kayaks, while others bring lawn chairs and novels. Talk to any of these visitors, however, and you'll find that they have one thing in common: they've all found the type of recreation they were looking for in Big Bend National Park.

Bicycling:

Lightly traveled roads and varied terrain make Big Bend a premier bicycling location. Over 100 miles of paved roads, and 160 miles of backcountry dirt roads provide challenges for riders of all types and abilities. Bicyclists must be extremely cautious and well-prepared, but bicycling allows outstanding panoramic views, unobstructed by a windshield. It also allows the bicyclist to see and hear some of the smaller wonders of Big Bend from a more intimate viewpoint.

Bicyclists must share the roads with vehicles and obey all traffic laws. Traffic is sparse in summer and highest during March and early April and on holiday weekends during the winter. Use extreme caution, especially on paved roads, during busy times. In order to protect the fragile desert environment, off-road or single-track cycling is not allowed in the park. All bicycles must remain on paved and dirt roads.

Weather is often pleasant year-round and rewarding trips are possible most days of the year. Cycling from May to September is more of a challenge due to high temperatures; plan to take it easy when temperatures soar.

Road guides and more information

All Big Bend roads are open to cyclists. A good map is essential. The Road Guide to Backcountry Dirt Roads of Big Bend National Park and the Road Guide to Paved and Improved Dirt Roads of Big Bend National Park have good descriptions of the roads and points of interest (available at the Big Bend Natural History Association Book Store).

Additional information on bicycling in the Big Bend area can be found at the website of the Big Bend Trails Alliance.

Climbing:

Big Bend National Park is not typically considered a climbers' destination, but it offers some scenic, challenging, and wildly varied rock climbs. Over the years, park visitors have often inquired about climbing, but there is little written. A rudimentary climber's guide is available by request at most visitor centers.

Climbing in the park is unofficially discouraged because there is little written information to disseminate, the quality of rock ranges from fair to terrifying, the weather can be extremely harsh, and the approaches can be long, waterless ordeals. Bolting of any kind, electric or hand, is strictly forbidden. Climbing in Big Bend National Park can be very rewarding, but leaving any trace of impact on this resource, over time, will surely jeopardize access.

Climb safe! A climbing helmet is an absolutely necessary part of a Big Bend climber's rack. Dehydration kills park visitors every year; you cannot bring too much water. All rock in Big Bend National Park is suspect, so belayer position and gear placement are especially critical.

Please get involved. If you climb in the park let a ranger know about it. Provide a photo or sketch if you can, and a written description of the location, route, and overall quality of the climb. Your information will be much appreciated by future climbers.

Geology

The majority of the park's exposed vertical rock is composed of unstable igneous rock (rhyolite) and sharply fluted limestone. River canyon routes, Dog Canyon, and Mesa de Anguila routes are generally composed of limestone. Routes in the Chisos, Grapevine Hills, and Pine Canyon are generally composed of igneous rock. Don't let this discourage you too much; there are relatively solid climbs on igneous rock. As stated by Roger Sigland in his informal guide, "On any climb expect rotten rock and few good cracks for pitons."

Maps

Topographic maps and trail guides are available at the Panther Junction Visitor Center.

Registration

Permits are required for backcountry camping. Permits are not required for climbing, although voluntary registration at one of the visitor centers is encouraged. Some climbing areas are so remote, however, that a backcountry permit may be required to gain access to them. Please check in and out for safety reasons as well as to provide climbing information to park staff.

Equipment

Most climbs in the park require traditional gear from small nuts to off width protection. Many climbs involve a significant approach so check the weather and pack accordingly. Helmets are highly recommended.

Bolting

The use of portable electric drills is prohibited. Hand drilling is allowed only with written approval of the Superintendent. There are routes with bolts and even a few sport climbs in the park, but some were placed prior to any rules on the subject and some were placed illegally. Replacement of old bolts with 3/8 inch bolts is currently allowed.

Cultural Resources

Climbing, ascending, descending, or traversing an archeological or cultural resource is prohibited. Be aware of your impact and tread lightly.

Birding:

Big Bend's location, near the 100th meridian in the middle of the continent and along a migration route, is ideal for bird diversity at all times of the year.  While northern species migrate here to enjoy warm winters, birds from the tropics range this far north to breed in the spring.  One of Big Bend's highlights, the Colima warbler, is only found in the United States exclusively in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park from April to September.

Remember, birds can be unpredictable and they do not read guide books. Stated simply, any advice provided herein should be taken as a general guide not a rule book or itinerary. We highly encourage visitors to find their own special birding places in the park. During any visit to the park, you should speak with other bird watchers to find out what is being seen and where.

Observations/Documentation

Unfortunately, park staff are unable to observe birds regularly, though we are always interested in knowing what is out there. Park visitors are often our eyes and ears to rare or unique bird sightings.  If you have seen something that should be recorded (something listed as rare, sporadic, or otherwise not listed on the park's checklist), please stop in to visitor center to fill out an observation report  Only the most detailed reports will be taken at face value, so be sure to report all necessary information such as a overall description of the bird, activity or behavioral comments, habitat, time of day, and possibly the most important: the exact location of where the bird was seen.