Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park

After Dark in the Park

As the setting sun slips below the western horizon a parade of colors dances across the mountains and sky. Another day has come to a close in the Chihuahuan Desert. This spectacular ending takes with it the scorching temperatures that keep much of the wildlife out of sight. As the temperatures slowly fall, things begin to fly, slither, creep, and crawl in the cool darkness of the desert night. Now is the time to experience a different side of Big Bend National Park, the night life.

You can begin your night time adventure by watching a breathtaking sunset. The clouds above the desert floor turn a crimson red followed by a rich, golden yellow, and finally an ashen gray. Watching this drama unfold can take away the build-up of everyday frustrations. So, where is the best spot to catch this nightly event? There is really no best place to view a Big Bend sunset, but some favorite spots are the Window View Trail in the Chisos Basin, Sotol Vista along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Maverick Junction, and the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail. From any of these places you'll get a wonderful panoramic view of the park's scenery and a sunset you'll never forget.

Dusk descends upon the land and many animals leave their hiding places to forage in the night. For these animals the cloak of darkness helps protect them from some predators and they avoid competing with diurnal animals for food. It's a perfect time for you to see more than the tracks or scat they leave behind. Dusk and dawn are the prime viewing times for wildlife in the park. Often, these animals are just off the road's edge enjoying the soft grass. Be sure to take it slowly as you enjoy your drive, because the jackrabbits, mule deer, and javelina are notorious for jumping in front of your car. Rattlesnakes are attracted to the warmth of asphalt and the abundance of rodents and other prey along the roadside.

On those occasions when a full moon graces the sky you may have the feeling that you're being followed because of your shadow. The high pitched howl of the coyote singing to the moon pierces the night air and you strain to determine which direction the sound is coming from. About that time an owl passes by on silent wings. This is also the time that bats take flight to navigate the night sky in search of food.

With the fading of sunlight, the sky begins to reveal a most impressive display. One by one stars begin to twinkle with the brilliance of diamonds in the night sky. Many visitors are amazed by the infinite number of stars overhead. The remoteness of Big Bend National Park makes it a stargazer's paradise. There is no light pollution from city streets and shopping centers. It's as if you can see the entire universe. Do astronauts get this same feeling while in space? Here, it's easy to see how the Milky Way got its name as it spills across the sky from horizon to horizon. A delightful way to take in this celestial celebration is while enjoying the warm waters of the old bath at Hot Springs, near Rio Grande Village. While soothing sore muscles after a long day's hike, tilt your head back and enjoy the drama unfolding overhead. What better way to end a perfect day in Big Bend National Park?

Exploring Big Bend National Park is fun and challenging, especially at night. Always think safety first: carry a flashlight, drive a little slower, and follow park rules. No matter how you choose to spend your night—enjoying a sunset, looking for wildlife, soaking in the hot springs, or counting shooting stars—there's a whole other world in Big Bend at night. Who could even think about sleep with all this going on?

Stargazing:

What are the boundaries of Big Bend National Park? Most of us would reply in lateral terms, defining the "ground level" boundaries of the park. Yet what about the park's vertical boundary? We cannot define an upper limit to Big Bend National Park. Panoramic views of the horizon extend for almost 250 miles on a clear day, but on a clear night we can see as far as 2 million light years away to the Andromeda galaxy! (Converted to miles, that's 13.2 x 10 to the 17th power or 13,200,000,000,000,000,000 miles.) At night we look back in time as well as across space. For instance, when we see the reddish star Antares in the constellation of Scorpio, we're looking at light that takes 500 years to reach us.

Several factors make Big Bend an excellent place for night sky-watching. Our remote location, far from any large towns, provides naturally dark night skies. Big Bend's infrequent cloud cover and low humidity, especially in winter, allow for sharp visual acuity.

Casual observation and detailed study show that winter skies in Big Bend are the cleanest, compared to air quality at other times of the year. A great deal of air pollution blows into the park from sources in Mexico and other parts of the U.S. in the summer, but northerly winter winds bring much less debris. One more attribute to winter sky-gazing in Big Bend: the nights are longer than the days, so take advantage of them!

For city-dwellers accustomed to seeing only a handful of stars, Big Bend's star-laden skies can be dazzling and a little intimidating. On the clearest nights, around 2,000 stars are visible to the naked eye. Add a few planets and some "shooting stars", or meteorites, and you've got a nocturnal display that's well worth the cold weather! You don't need a telescope to observe the night sky, although some people use binoculars.

As it becomes increasingly difficult to find places free of air pollution and light interference, places with dark, clear night skies become that much more valuable. The noted Englishman Havelock Ellis said, "The moon and stars would have disappeared long ago had they been within the reach of human hands." Though they still remain far from our reach, we are indeed losing sight of the stars through the work of our own hands.