A land of striking contrasts, at the confluence of multiple ecosystems,
Big Bend National Park is a place unique in Texas and the American southwest.
Human use of the area dates back almost 10,000 years. The Chisos and Jumano tribes, nomadic hunter-gatherers, practiced agriculture on a limited basis. Mescalero Apaches and Comanches began to move into the area in the early 1700s. Spanish explorers first reached the region in 1535, when Cabeza de Vaca passed through. Over the next two centuries, the Spanish established several presidios along the Rio Grande, serving both as monasteries for the Franciscan friars who sought to convert Native peoples to Christianity and forts for Spanish soldiers protecting the northern boundary of New Spain. After the Mexican-American war, the U.S. army began to survey the area. In the 1870s ranchers began to establish sheep and goat ranches, followed by the discovery of valuable minerals such as mercury and fluorspar.
In 1933 the Texas state legislature established Texas Canyons State Park, redesignating it that same year as Big Bend State Park. The federal government passed legislation in 1935 to allow the purchase of land for a National Park, and Big Bend National Park opened for visitation in 1944.
The Park encompasses 801,163 acres, an area of over 1,200 square miles. Within its boundaries are various distinct ecosystems: the delicate riparian zones of the Rio Grande and its tributaries; the sky island of the Chisos Basin (the only mountain range in the U.S. completely contained within a National Park); the scorched low desert where an astonishingly complete fossil record has been reconstructed; and the grassy rolling plains of the Chisos foothills. More than 1,200 species of plants, 450 of birds, 56 of reptiles and 75 species of mammals are protected within its boundaries. The park and surrounding areas are designated as an International Dark Skies Park.
What to Expect in Big Bend National Park
Visitors to Big Bend are often unprepared for the vast distances between features there. Simply driving the main roads in the park boundaries can be an all-day affair, especially as the low speed limits are vital to protecting both visitors to the park and its flora and fauna. If you only have one day to see Big Bend, choosing features in a single area of the park will save you hours of road time and provide a richer experience. For visitors with multiple days to spend, organizing each day by geography will save time and pack more delights into the experience.
The Chisos Basin features the Chisos Mountains Lodge and Restaurant, a visitor’s center, and many hikes for adventurers of all ages and abilities, including a paved viewing loop for the Window, one of the park’s most popular geological features. Below the Basin, a side trip to the Grapevine Hills and Balancing Rock rounds out a day of gorgeous views and short, rewarding hikes. Panther Junction, the main visitor’s center at the junction of Highway 385 and 118, is a wealth of information and exhibits for children and adults. Nine miles north of Panther Junction on Highway 385 is the Dinosaur Fossil Exhibit, a striking open-air interactive museum of the paleontological history of the park. Carefully made and chock full of fascinating stories and specimens, even the design of the building is worth a visit.
For young explorers, the park provides Junior Ranger activity books—children fill out the appropriate number of activities for their age group, and after a chat with a ranger at the end of your trip, they will receive a ranger badge. Park rangers take this task very seriously; they will kindly quiz your little ones and have them repeat the Ranger Oath before presenting them their badge.
All of these activities and many more are located in the central part of the park.
Rio Grande Village is the hub of activity on the east side of Big Bend. Here, the low desert ecosystem meets the Rio Grande with sweeping river views, true desert flora and fauna, and fascinating cultural history. See both ancient petroglyphs and the ruins of an old health spa settlement at the Hot Springs before you soak in the thermal baths on the bank of the river. Those with adequate vehicle clearance can visit Ernst Tinaja, a rare geological feature that provides drinking water year-round to countless species. Ranger-led interactive lectures happen frequently at the amphitheater. Boquillas Canyon is a short, easy-to-moderate hike over alluvial overlooks peppered with metates, depressions worn into the stone by ancient people grinding seeds and grain. It continues down along the riverbank, where towering forests of cane lend a tropical feel, before winding between the canyon walls. When the border is open, visitors with passports can go to the village of Boquillas and enjoy the local hospitality there. Boquillas has been an integral part of the Big Bend for a hundred and fifty years; visiting the tiny village is like stepping into a different century, and it’s a must-see cultural experience.
The ancient mud flows and colorful sandstone deposits on the east side of the park are where the majority of Big Bend’s fossil history has been uncovered. From seashells embedded in the stone bottoms of the arroyos to the massive Alamosaurus discovered there in 1999, the eastern portion of the park is the place for lovers of paleontology.
This section of the park has extreme temperatures and should be explored with caution during the hot months, May through October. The Rio Grande Village ranger station is only in operation during winter months. Always get a ranger’s advice before planning a hike in the desert.
The west side of the park is another world entirely, with sweeping grassy plateaus, fascinating volcanic formations and many traces of the history of human settlement in the region. The Ross Maxwell Scenic drive, which ends at Santa Elena Canyon, offers a number of hikes of varying degrees of difficulty. It also provides access to the Chisos Basin backcountry from various points for the more advanced hiker and backpacker.
The towering walls of Santa Elena Canyon, in places 1,500 feet high, offer a breathtaking view both from the overlook on the road and the trail up the canyon. The Castolon Historic District which served as a barracks for miners until 1961, is an excellent stopping point for a history lesson. Though the store burned in 2019, the historic district still offers a fascinating glimpse into the Big Bend’s recent past. Food and supplies can still be obtained there, and the ranger station is manned throughout the winter and spring. For those interested in ranching history, the Sam Nail Ranch and Homer Wilson Ranch are short side hikes close to the road, where pioneer life can be seen up close. The Chimneys Trail is more challenging; five miles there and back will offer a juxtaposition of ancient petroglyphs and a primitive ranchers’ camp.
The Ross Maxwell Drive offers stunning views and many adventures, short or long; as with all parts of the park, extreme caution should be used when planning hikes, even when in sight of your vehicle. The paved, well-maintained Drive is not a loop; be prepared for the same scenery coming and going, and slow progress around many curves and dips.
When Exploring Big Bend, preparedness is key. Getting to trailheads early and planning to finish a hike before noon is vital to safety, even in the cooler seasons. A minimum of one gallon of water per person per day may not be adequate for more advanced hikes, and visitors should be mindful that electrolyte loss is just as deadly as dehydration. Salt tablets or other electrolyte supplements are recommended. When planning a long hike in the park, talk to rangers to get advice about current conditions. Backpacking, camping and floating the Rio Grande require permits that can be obtained at the visitor’s center. And as in all national parks, collecting of plants, animals and artifacts is strictly prohibited—take only pictures!