“This looks like the very edge of the world.” ~Lady Bird Johnson
“Visitors to Big Bend don’t just happen by and decide to drop in,” said a young Ranger during a recent presentation we were attending. “People who come to this park REALLY want to be here.” No truer words were spoken. Talk about being off the beaten path! Headed west on Interstate 10, you hang a left at the farming community of Fort Stockton, Texas and then drive a mere 100 miles or so across some of the starkest landscape in our country JUST to arrive at the park’s entrance gate. But, you’re really not there yet . . . things don’t start to get interesting for another 25 miles or so. Yes, Big Bend is truly an isolated national park.
Nevertheless, your heart might tend to beat a little faster once you pass the Persimmon Gap Entrance. Maybe it’s relief you’re feeling—“Finally, we made it SOMEWHERE!” you say enthusiastically. Of course, the caveat to your exclamation is that somewhere is actually a wilderness. Don’t expect much in the way of services or creature comforts here. You’ll be staying in a remote and isolated location where wild animals, desert lizards and creepy crawlers far outnumber humans. If you don’t mind that aspect, then you’re going to love it here!
Headed down the Main Park Road the landscape slowly begins to change—unfolding in a pretty miraculous way. First appearing like an apparition on the horizon, the Chisos Mountains begin to take shape. The true centerpiece of the park, this mountain range practically dances above the desert floor. We would come to realize during our tenure here that the Chisos (Chee’-sos) dominate nearly every panorama in this park. For mountain lovers such as ourselves, this one feature would add the special glow to what many might perceive as a rather desolate and bleak place.
Few U.S. national parks are as remote as Big Bend—the two main entrances are both well over an hour’s drive from any mainstream town, and the nearest major city is El Paso, 300 miles west. Then again, we are in Texas. Yet despite the isolation, visitation has been steadily increasing in recent years as more people learn about the fantastic mixture of desert, mountain and river canyon scenery within and around the park. How remote is Big Bend? You have to want to go there because it truly is the end of the road. It is also on the United States-Mexico border. To go any further, you need a passport. There is neither TV nor radio service here. Cell towers arrived at the neighboring village of Terlingua recently, but the coverage is poor and all but non-existent in the Park. The newspaper delivered into the area is a three-day-old copy of the El Paso paper. The closest doctor is 100 miles away.
Once entering the park, with every successive mile covered, those distant mountains become more vividly clear. As a first-time visitor to the park, you must confront a common misconception—Big Bend isn’t just all about desert scenery. In fact, you might say there’s something here for everyone.
Big Bend’s natural features are many. It is the only U.S. National Park to contain an entire mountain range within its borders. It also has more bird and reptile species than any other National Park and more than 175 species of butterflies. The Rio Grande forms the international border for over a hundred miles in the Park. The river flows through three magnificent canyons and is designated as a Wild and Scenic River, making it one of the premier float trips in North America. Any one of these would make it interesting on its own, but all of these together in one Park make it someplace very special. Therein lies the basis for it becoming one of our national parks.
When you reach Panther Junction you’re nearly at the heart of the park. Here you’ll find the largest of the park’s five visitor centers. Great information is provided as well as a video that gives a superb overview of the park. Once on your way, you’ll have a choice of three directions to decide between. Take the road leading southeast, you’ll end up at Rio Grande Village. A few miles further on, the route dead ends at Boquillas Canyon. Head due west from Panther Junction and in 3 miles a lefthand turn climbs into the heart of the mountains. If instead you continue heading west, the route takes you out of the park in 25 miles or so. A couple miles further on you’ll come to the semi-ghost town of Terlingua. Whichever way you choose, many rewarding destinations will be found. As one who chronically has trouble making decisions, our stay would give us a taste of all three. First up would be Rio Grande Village, where the only full-hookups park campground awaited. With only 25 sites offered, reservations were a definite requirement.
Paralleling the eastern flanks of the Chisos, our route set out across a large expanse of Chihuahuan Desert before slowly pealing away from those Chisos peaks. It wasn’t all monotonous desert scenery as the road lost nearly 2,000 feet of elevation—we could see distant mountains along the horizon. Who would’ve known Big Bend had such a diverse landscape?
The road to Rio Grande Village takes a straight line approach towards those distant peaks rising abruptly across the Rio Grande. A forbidding wall of rock, the mighty Sierra del Carmens, an almost flat-topped limestone wall on the Mexican border, loom dramatically 5,000 feet above the river’s bank. It’s a formidable sight, the likes of which we had never seen, even being the veteran travelers we thought we were. A photo op if I’d ever seen one!
Big Bend National Park is known for its size (801,163 acres—45 miles to drive across it)—the seventh largest of our national parks in the lower 48, it’s vast diversity in elevation (as high as 7,832 feet in the Chisos Mountains and as low as 1,800 feet in the Rio Grande River Valley), its assorted biology (1,200 species of plants, 450 birds—the most varieties found in any single national park in our country), 75 mammals (including black bears, mountain lions and javelinas) and 56 reptiles, it’s important paleontology and archeology (artifacts as old as 9,000 years old!) and over 100 miles of international boundary shared with Mexico along the Rio Grande (Río Bravo in Spanish). All this and Big Bend is still considered one of the most underrated, most remote and least visited parks in the lower 48. Yosemite sees more people in two weeks than Big Bend does all year.
The full-hookup Rio Grande Village RV Resort was nothing more than a concrete parking lot. The nearby Rio Grande Village Campground, on the other hand, lacked hookups but made up for it in scenery and more privacy between sites. Proving you can’t always please everyone every time, we made our choice (at least one of us did) and then learned to live with it for the coming 4 days (Scenery: 0; Conveniences: 10). What we lacked in privacy (does packed in like sardines give you a picture?), the location more than compensated. Our first night showed us what was waiting just down the road.
Sometimes considered “three parks in one,” Big Bend includes mountain, desert, and river environments. Less than an hour’s drive can take you from the banks of the Rio Grande to a mountain basin nearly a mile high. Big Bend offers its visitors a chance to explore one of the last remaining wild corners of the United States, and to experience unmatched sights, sounds, and solitude. Extensive paved roads allow for a quick look at the landscape, and over 150 miles of dirt roads provide for a more adventurous perspective. Hiking trails can be found along the river, in the desert, and up in the Chisos Mountains; trail lengths vary from short dayhikes to multi-day backcountry treks. And RV camping is allowed in designated areas off backcountry roads!
First and foremost, there is the river–the dominant feature of the park. The Rio Grande. Spanish for “big river”, although in Mexico it’s called Rio Bravo del Norte or just Rio Bravo—meaning “wild river”. Flowing south and east from its origin in Colorado, it eventually passes through the park before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, a journey of 1,885 miles. In Big Bend the river forms the 118-mile long southern boundary of the park, passing through three major canyons (Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas). Alternately, it flows through the desert, where green stands of trees, tall grasses and other riparian life cling to its banks. It is the epitome of an oasis in the desert, as well as being the prime subject for many a landscape photographer. It beckoned to me most everyday spent in Big Bend.
The desert of Big Bend is the Chihuahuan. The largest desert in North America, most of it lies south of the international border. Taking in a small area of southeastern New Mexico and extreme western Texas, it extends south into a vast area of Mexico. Its minimum elevation is above 1,000 feet, but the vast majority of this desert lies at elevations between 3,500 and 5,000 feet. While some winter rain falls, most precipitation occurs during the summer months.
The early Spanish explorers, the first Anglos to set foot in this forbidding place, called the area El Despoblado (The Uninhabited Land). The name still holds true today, hundreds of years later. The wildlife population exceeds the human one, by quite a substantial number. Plant life is varied and plentiful, with over 60 species of cacti and other spiky plants. Landscapes include narrow canyons, colorful badlands, eroded rock formations, sand dunes, desert plains, dry washes and oases.
And then, there are the mountains. While the park has several peaks and mesas jutting out from the desert floor, it is the Chisos Range that stands as a magnificent centerpiece in this park. For many, this is the main draw they come to see. A collection of huge, angular cliffs and rocky peaks, the highest rising to 7,825 feet. Their tree-covered slopes stand in stark contrast to the arid desert lowlands far below, giving refuge and habitat to wildlife that includes black bears and mountain lions.
As you drive more than two thousand feet up Green Gulch, the vegetation rapidly changes from desert to montane forest. A dramatic drive, having its fair share of hairpin turns and steep grades, you’ll pass through several vegetation zones before reaching the pinnacle of this park.
Ensconced within those towering peaks lies the Chisos Basin, sheltered on all side by high cliffs and the mountaintops of this range. There you will find the park’s most appreciated facilities—a lodge and restaurant, as well as a visitor center, general store and even a primitive campground for tents and smaller RVs.
Lording over the Chisos Basin, Casa Grande, though not the tallest peak of the range at slightly over 7,300 feet, dominates the view. Truly a landmark feature!
Big Bend National Park has an unusually rich history, the effects of which are present everywhere you look. The landscape is living testament; shaped over millions of years by volcanic forces, erosion, and enormous seismic events, it also still holds untold numbers of dinosaur fossils and sea creatures from when the area was engulfed by an ancient ocean.
Humans have inhabited the park for more than 10,000 years — first were Native American tribes such as the Chisos, about which little is still known and, more recently, the Comanche and Mescalero Apache; all of whom have left their mark in the form of rock art, mortar holes, and shelters. Mexicans and Anglo settlers would establish a presence later, building homes, farms, ranches and mines (some persisting until as recently as the 1960s), of which many ruins can still be found.
One such interesting ruin, a place known as Luna’s Jacal, was the home of Gilberto Luna (jacal is an adobe-style housing structure designed to keep the interior dramatically cooler than the surrounding environment). A pioneer Mexican farmer, Gilberto came here in 1900, raised a large family, and peacefully coexisted with the otherwise hostile Comanche. He planted vast cotton fields in the flood plain of Terlingua Creek, flowing just beyond his front door. Back then, the creek was a wide-running stream, lined with cottonwoods and alive with beaver. After the nearby mines opened, the cottonwoods were all cut to fuel the furnaces and the creek became a perennially dry wash. The area was overgrazed, and the resulting erosion has left only rocky desert supporting cactus and creosote. Gilberto died here in 1947 at the age of 108. His home has been on the National Register since 1974.
The general area where the park now exists was set aside as protected land when locals and others who had strong feelings for the place lobbied the state of Texas to take action to preserve it. In 1933 the state legislature established what was originally named Texas Canyons State Park.
Later that year it was re-designated Big Bend State Park. Before the new park would be suitable for visitors, roads, trails and facilities needed to be built. Enter the CCC for this task. Several hundred young men, most of whom were Hispanic, worked in the Chisos Mountains between 1934 and 1942. Using only picks, shovels, rakes, and one dump truck, they built the 7-mile road into the Chisos Basin. After that humongous job was done, they set about constructing trails and several stone and adobe cottages in the Basin. The results of their hard-earned labors are still being utilized by visitors today.
Despite all the progress made on behalf of the state park, Big Bend supporters wanted something more—for it to become a national park. But first, more land needed to be acquired from surrounding private property. In the midst of the Great Depression a grass roots movement swung into action and with the help of matching state funds, $1.5 million was allocated to purchase 600,000 acres from private owners. With the blessings of its supporters, the State of Texas delivered the deed to the Federal Government in September, 1943 and Big Bend National Park was officially established on June 12, 1944. It opened to the public on July 1 of that same year.
So, you might be wondering “Just WHAT is there to do in such a wild and desolate place???” Good question, which I must admit, the answer to which is not so readily apparent when one initially comes to Big Bend. It sure appears to be a WHOLE LOTTA DESERT . . . and pretty bleak as deserts go. With our first initial days having less than desirable weather (clouds and even some uncharacteristic rain showers), I was really beginning to wonder when the place would begin to stir me (as usually is the case with our national parks). I must admit, it did require some in-depth searches . . . a few trails taken . . . and persistence on my part.
Slowly, the place began to reveal itself . . .
Airstream Travelers, Melinda and Chris
Part Two coming soon.