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Big Bend National Park - Texas

In Southwest Texas, the Rio Grande makes a U-turn, and inside this large curve lies Big Bend National Park -- the size of Maryland, and a spectacular landscape of mountains, canyons, stunted forests, badlands, and low desert.

Volcanic ash is heaped in great mounds, while unusual desert plants dominate the hillsides, including gigantic yucca, cacti of a dozen varieties, stands of lechuguilla, bunchgrass, alligator juniper, pinion pine, and creosotebush. This is the Chihuahuan Desert, flowing over the Mexico/Texas border, creating a timeless scene that remains largely untouched, even though mining has taken place in the region over the past century.

Big Bend is one of America's great national parks, still largely unknown to non-Texans, but gaining popularity among nature lovers who come here to gaze upon the stark landscape, the circular Chisos mountain range in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert. The park now sprawls over 1,252 square miles, include the southernmost tip of the bend, all of it an awesome scene, including flat sandy desert and badlands areas. The Rio Grande draws the park's southern boundary. From Rio Grande Village -- a park campground and RV facility about a half hour's drive from the park headquarters -- you can drive to the river's edge and take a private boat to a tiny, primitive Mexican town.

This is truly a magnificent collection of ecosystems, many of them seeming to be barren wastelands, but actually full of life. You just have to look closely to find and enjoy the Nature of Big Bend.

How to Get There

The northern park entrance is located at Persimmon Gap, 410 miles from San Antonio and 323 miles from El Paso. You reach the park at this gate, by taking U.S. Highway 385, leading south from U.S. Highway 90 at Marathon.

The southwest entrance to the park is just east of Study Butte. State Highway 118 leads south from U.S. 90 (at Alpine), and continues to the park entrance.

From the northwest and El Paso, take Interstate 10 to Van Horne, then take U.S. 90 to Alpine and then turn south on State Route 118.

To reach the southwest entrance by driving the scenic Camino del Rio (Texas Ranch Road 170), take U.S. 90 to the town of Marfa, head south on U.S. Highway 67 to Presidio (61 miles), and turn east onto Farm Road 170 in Presidio. This is the Camino del Rio, leading beside the Rio Grande, and passing by the towns of Lajitas, Terlingua and Study Butte, before reaching the park entrance -- 70 miles from Presidio.

The main visitor center is in the middle of the park, at Panther Junction (at the intersection of U.S. 385 and State Route 118).

Inside the Park

Chisos Mountain Lodge is the sole lodging place inside the park. Operated by the concessionaire for Big Bend, the lodge offers comfortable motel-style rooms, plus cottages, in the incredibly scenic Chisos Basin, at the end of Basin Road. All accommodations have private baths (showers only in the cottages). These are not expensive rooms, with overnight rates ranging from about $60 to $70 for two people. Rooms in the lodge have one double bed. The cottages are furnished with three double beds: perfect for large families on a limited budget. Motel units have two large beds.

For information, or to make reservations, call (915) 477-2291, or write National Park Concessions Inc., Big Bend National Park, TX 79834-9999. The same concession operates facilities, including stores and RV/trailer sites in the Chisos Basin, and at Rio Grande Village, and the store at Castalon.

Campgrounds

Developed campgrounds are located at Rio Grande Village, Chisos Basin, and at Castalon -- overlooking the Rio Grande above Santa Eléna Canyon. Camping is on a first-come, first-served basis, with no reservations taken. A fee is charged at these campgrounds, which accommodate RVs and trailers of varying lengths. Hookups are not available. The Castalon Campground has pit toilets, and a water supply, but no hookups. Trailers longer than 20 feet and RVs longer than 24 feet are not recommended for traveling on the road to Castalon (Ross Maxwell Drive). The same caution holds for the Basin Road, which has a 15 percent grade and tight curves.

Tent camping is also available at primitive sites along several backcountry roads, and in the Chisos Mountains. Free backcountry permits are available at park visitor centers (Panther Junction, Persimmon Pass, Rio Grande Village, and Castalon).

RV and trailer hookups are available in separate areas at Rio Grande Village and Chisos Basin. There is no size restriction, but each RV must be equipped with water and electrical hookups, and a three-inch sewer connection. Register at the store in each location. Remember that the road into the Chisos Basin is not recommended for long trailers and RVs. These vehicles should be parked at Rio Grande Village.

Park Features

Visitor Center

The site of the park Visitor Center, a gas station, and convenience store, Panther Junction is at the intersection of the three major paved roads in the park. To the east is Rio Grande Village. To the west are the Chisos Basin, and backroads leading to Santa Eléna Canyon. The main park road running west exits near Maverick Junction. To the north of the junction is the road leading to Persimmon Pass, and on to the town of Marathon. Panther Junction is the place to orient yourself to the park features, and to obtain trail maps and several useful booklets, including a guide to park trails and two handy books on paved and backroad drives in the park..

In front of park headquarters is Panther Path, a short nature trail that provides a view of some of the wildflowers that grow in the park, including the Big Bend bluebonnet (lupine), desert marigold, mustard, paperflower, and desert marigold. The gas station and store beside the main park road offers basic car and tire repairs.

Chisos Basin

Lying at about 5,400 feet, the bottom of this spectacular bowl offers striking views of the surrounding peaks, as well as comfortable accommodations. Located at the end of the seven-mile Basin Road, the basin provides a strong contrast to the rest of the park, with its pinion pine and juniper woodland, interspersed with oaks. Higher up in the Chisos mountains, where the climate is much cooler, you'll see ponderosa pines, Douglas-fir, Arizona cypress, and bigtooth maple. This green ecosystem can be reached by hiking trails leading from the basin.

Back in the bottom of the mountain valley, the park concessionaire offers overnight accommodation in the Chisos Mountain Lodge, plus camping for tents and trailers. The lodge includes a restaurant and gift shop.

A sign along Basin Road reads "Bear and Mountain Lion Country." The mountains harbor wildlife quite different from that found in the dryer, hotter desert. Thus, the need to be forewarned about lions and bears. Campers should use the food lockers provided in the basin campground, to secure their food from bears. Fifteen to twenty black bears live in the Chisos Mountains, and mountain lions have been sighted during the past decade, with a very few physical encounters. Visitors to this area are advised not to be on trails at dawn or dusk, and not to hike alone. Most trails can be walked on easy one-day hikes, and backcountry trails offer camp sites along the way.

Rio Grande Village

At the southeastern side of the park, Rio Grande Village sits just north of Boquillas Canyon, and across the river from the Mexican village of Boquillas. Picnic sites, a large developed campground, and RV park are available here, in addition to a campers' store with hot showers and a service station. A nature trail leads from the campground, past a beaver pond, to a high point with good views up and down the river. Evening talks and nature walks are scheduled from late fall through early summer.

Boquillas

As you come along the park road toward Rio Grande Village, you'll see a turnoff to the left, just below the tunnel. This road runs four miles to the Boquillas Canyon parking area. The road cuts through huge limestone cliffs. This is the same geological formation as found in the Sierra del Carmen, the range to the east. A short trail is found at the end of the road, off the parking lot. The trail takes you over a ridge, and descends to the river, where you'll find Indian grinding holes along the river, at the water's edge. These holes were used to grind mesquite beans and other food. Then the trail enters the canyon, beside a large sand slide, formed by winds blowing riverside sand up the slope.

A dirt road leads down to the river. It is found off the canyon road, beyond the junction with Rio Grande Village Road. Here, you'll find the international crossing to the village of Boquillas, reached by taking a short trail upstream until rowboats are seen on the Mexican side. One of the villagers will row over and ferry you to the other side. The village is three quarters of a mile from the ferry crossing. You may choose to ride a burro, or walk to the primitive town.

Hot Springs

Located near Rio Grande Village, this is the remains of an early pioneer homestead and a small resort community. The current attraction is what enticed J.O. Langford to settle along the river in 1906. A spring pours hot water from the rocks beside the river, into a bathtub-style depression carved out of the rock by Indians in the past, enlarging a crack in the rock face. Langford built a house and hired a stonemason to construct a bathhouse of limestone blocks over the hot springs. In 19133, with news of the Mexican Revolution reaching the Langfords, and with fear of border raids, the family left their home to re-settle in Marathon and finally in El Paso. They returned in 1927 to find ranching had come to the area, and set about to create a modest resort, including a limestone motel and post office.

The desert tranquillity of the resort was short-lived, with devastating floods in 1932 and 1938 engulfing and partially destroying the bathhouse. The property was sold to the state for donation to the national park, and the hot springs and post office were operated as a concession, until 1952. The remains of the motel and post office may be seen near the hot springs parking lot. A short trail leads along the river to the springs. The bathhouse has disappeared -- a victim to more recent floods. Visitors soak in the open rock tub, just as the native Indians did before Langford arrived. The water temperature is 105û F, year round. Even though the volume of water pouring out of the spring has decreased since the 1930s, at least 200,000 gallons a day of hot water flows from the spring to the river.

High water in the Rio Grande, during short periods of the year, makes bathing at the springs impossible, with the river height above that of the tub. It is advisable for fall and winter visitors to check with park rangers about the river level.

Castolon and Santa Elena Canyon

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (see below) leads to the historic Castelon townsite, and ends at Santa Elena Canyon. This trip is a must for park visitors staying for more than a day or two. This little village has been here since the early settlement of the region, serving as a crossing point to and from Mexico. Today, the park operates a campground, with the country store and trading post reflecting the earlier era. Mexicans still cross the river to shop here, from their homes in Santa Elena, Chihuahua. The settlement was founded in 1901 to take advantage of the fertile floodplain between the river and Castelon. Settlers cleared small fields, and in 1914, irrigation made substantial cotton farming possible. A 1974 flood destroyed what remained of the original cotton gin. A quarter-mile walk takes you though the historic Castelon Compound. Most buildings here were built as part of a cavalry camp during the days when the U.S. had to be protected against Pancho Villa's border raids.

Santa Elena Canyon Trail begins at the end of Ross Maxwell Drive, beyond Castelon. The 1.7-mile round-trip walk leads across Terlingua Creek, and climbs a series of concrete steps before descending into the canyon. The trail continues into the canyon, ending where the wall meets the river, at one of the narrowest parts of the seven-mile canyon. A canyon overlook is located along Ross Maxwell Drive. A popular put-in point for rafts and canoes is found beside the road, before reaching the canyon overlook.

Nature in the Park

Wildflowers

Big Bend is not only a paradise for those who appreciate the open desert -- with a multitude of desert plants and animals -- but the park also offers wildflowers at unusual times of the year. Late summer and early fall is a fairly rainy season in the Chihuahuan Desert, and visitors see many plants in bloom, including goldeneye, creosote bush, ceniza (covered with pink and purple blooms), sage, scarlet bouvardia, and ocotillo in the southeastern part of the park. Even in dryer seasons, you'll spot flowering plants in lower areas, along drainages, and in canyons leading into the Chisos range. The higher elevations in the mountains offer wildflower viewing throughout the year.

Wildlife Viewing

Migration seasons are prime times for birding, but some birds do live in the park year-round, including gray hawks, Colima warblers, and varied buntings. Birds which are seen more frequently in Mexico often stray over the border, particularly in late summer after the nesting period. While the spring migration brings many more species, the fall season is not without migrants, as late as into December. An updated checklist of Big Bend birds is available in the visitor centers.

While the open desert is the place to see jackrabbits, roadrunners, and dessert amphibians, the Chisos Mountains offer many opportunities to view other kinds of wildlife. Here, especially if your camping in the basin, you'll have a good chance to see javelinas (collared peccaries), raccoons, the unique Carmen Mountains white-tailed deer, and coyotes, as well as many varieties of birds including the golden eagle.

River Trips

The park borders the Rio Grande River for 118 miles. The Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River extends downstream, east of the park boundary, for another 127 miles. Both sections of the river provide thrilling rafting experiences. Three local companies offer float trips and guide services, but visitor are permitted to use their own equipment with free permits available from the park visitor centers. A self-permitting center for the Wild and Scenic River is located at Stillwell Store, five miles south of Persimmon Gap, on Farm Road 2627, on the way to La Linda, Mexico. Another self-permitting located is the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center, at Lajitas. Only permits for Santa Elena Canyon are available here. It pays to obtain river permits at park visitor centers, because of the rangers' knowledge of current river conditions, and the availability of river guide booklets. These booklets may also be purchased in advance, by calling the Big Bend Natural History Association at (915) 477-2236.

Companies offering guided float trips:

Big Bend River Tours, Lajitas, (915) 424-3219 or 800-545-4240

Far Flung Adventures, Terlingua, (915) 371-2489 or 800-359-4138

Texas River Expeditions, Terlingua, (915) 371-2633 or 800-839-7238

Equipment rentals:

Ivey Enterprises (rafts), Terlingua, (915) 371-2424

Scott Shuttle Service (canoes), Marathon (915) 386-4574

 

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