Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park: An Emerald Isle in a Red Sea

February 9, 2010, 12:15 pm

"Half the pleasure of a visit to Big Bend National Park, as in certain other affairs, lies in the advance upon the object of our desire. Coming toward the park from the village of Lajitas deep in west Texas, we see this rampart of volcanic cliffs rising a mile above the surrounding desert. Like a castled fortification of Wagnerian gods, the Chisos Mountains stand alone in the morning haze, isolated and formidable, unconnected with other mountains, remote from any major range. Crowned with a forest of juniper, piñon pine, oak, madrone, and other trees the Chisos rise like an island of greenery and life in the midst of the barren, sun-blasted, apparently lifeless, stone-bleak ocean of the Chihuahuan Desert. An emerald isle in a red sea." - Ed Abbey

Located in southwest Texas along the border with Mexico, Big Bend National Park is one of the most remote and least visited National Parks in the U.S. The Rio Grand forms a 1,000-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico, with 244 miles being administered by the park. Within the 118 twisting miles that also define the park’s southern boundary, the river’s southeasterly flow changes abruptly to the northeast and forms the “big bend” of the Rio Grande.

Big Bend National Park encompasses 800,000 acres comprised of three very distinct geographic regions. Sometimes considered "three parks in one," Big Bend incorporates mountain, desert, and river environments and  is the largest protected area of Chihuahuan Desert topography and ecology in the United States. The weather is dry and hot in late spring and early summer days often exceed 100 degrees in the lower elevations. Winters are normally mild throughout the park, but sub-freezing temperatures occasionally occur.

The seemingly inanimate park actually teems with life. More than 1,200 species of plants (including 60 different cacti species), more than 600 animal species, and about 3600 insect species inhabit the park. Most of these animals are nocturnal and rarely see, especially those that live in the desert habitats. The park comes alive at when the sun goes does as  many of the animals leave the safety of their dens and burrows to foragefor food. Big Bend is home to more than two-dozen mountain lions, jackrabbit, kangaroo rat, roadrunner, Golden Eagle and black bears in the mountainous areas.

The diversity of cactus and other plant life adds a layer of color to the Big Bend landscape. Cactus species in the park include prickly pear, claret cup and pitaya. In the spring, wildflowers bloom and yucca flowers display bright colors. Bluebonnets are common in Big Bend, and their white and pink  petals are sometimes visible by the road. Other flowering plants such as the desert marigold, desert willow, ocotillo, rock nettle and lechuguilla abound in Big Bend.

The first U.S. record of the Tufted Flycatcher, a Central American species, was from this site in November 1991. Birders also flock to the park as it is home to the only area in the United States within the breeding range of the Colima Warbler.

The Big Bend region’s human history is as interesting as its natural history. Humans have inhabited the area that is now the park for centuries, if not millennia, although knowledge of the Rio Grande among non-indigenous peoples dates back less than 150 years. Spanish people crossed the Rio Grande in the 16th and 17th centuries searching for gold, silver, and fertile land. Comanche Indians crossed the river in the 19th century, traveling to and from Mexico with their raiding parties. Mexican settlers followed in 1900, living as subsistence farmers on both banks of the river’s floodplain. Anglo-Americans joined the Mexicans after 1920, when boundary unrest ended. Cotton and food crops were grown around Castolon and what is now Rio Grande Village even after the park was established.

Today, you can drive your car along portions of the Comanche Trail, the same route that Comanche warriors once traveled on raids into Mexico, or you can visit the La Harmonia Store at Castolon where locals (and visitors) have shopped for eighty years.

And how does one get to Big Bend National Park ? Well, its remoteness  is a draw for some, you have to plan in advance and dedicate  a meaningful amount of time if you want to explore the park . The nearest airports with commercial airline services are located in Midland/Odessa, Texas (235 miles from park headquarters) and El Paso, Texas (330 miles from park headquarters).