A jewel in the desert, Big Bend National Park is a bucket list destination tucked away in a remote corner of south Texas.
Hours from the nearest major airport, its location restricts the park to only the most dedicated of travelers. As one of the least-visited national parks, last year they counted just more than 463,000 visitors.
The journey is certainly worth the reward. Big Bend is significant because it is the most representative example of the Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem in the U.S.
The park features three distinct ecosystems: the desert, the mountains, and the Rio Grande River.
“Big Bend,” however, refers to the great turn in the river, which defines the park boundary for 118 miles. The meek, yet mighty river provides an oasis in the desert landscape.
Over millions of years, the Rio Grande also carved canyons, such as the famed Santa Elena Canyon. Rising 1,500 feet above the river, these limestone cliffs are one of the park’s most scenic spots. The canyon is 8 miles long and at some points only 30 feet wide. Adventure seekers and photographers can cross a shallow creek to access a short trail for a 1.5 mile round-trip hike into the canyon.
Here, the river also serves as the boundary where two nations meet. On one side is the United State. Feet away is Mexico.
Big Bend is also the only national park to house an international Port of Entry on its grounds. Those with a valid passport can cross into Mexico at the village of Boquillas. Visitors can either walk across the river or pay to take a small rowboat across the border. The village features a couple of restaurants and merchants, but it’s more than 200 miles to the next town.
The diversity of plant and animal life in these landscapes are an example of how unique this wild corner of the U.S. remains.
“If the Rio Grande is the Big Bend country’s linear oasis, then the Chisos Mountains are its green island in a sea of desert,” a National Parks Service pamphlet reads.
Sunsets in the park are spectacular, especially from the mountains. The show in the sky doesn’t end once the glow of sunlight fades in the west. Stargazing and astrophotography are major motivators for the park’s visitors. This area features some of the darkest skies in the entire country.
“Solitude and darkness can be a fearful place, but when met with a mindset of potential, can be a place to soothe the soul, and the very reason the national parks were created,” park ranger Bob Smith said in the latest issue of The Paisano, the park’s newspaper.
PRO TIPS FOR VISITING BIG BEND
- Check the park’s website while planning your trip and regularly during your stay. Weather conditions, fires, and other unexpected situations can lead to sudden closures. Safety is key and the park posts updates promptly.
- Cell service is limited. Corners of the park have no connectivity whatsoever, while some areas have LTE.
- Upon arrival, stop by any of the parks visitors centers (even those that are closed for the season) and pick up a map and the park’s newspaper, The Paisano. This will feature timely information, as well as updates on new attractions and best practices in the park.
- Know your limitations. Most visitors will not be acclimated to a desert environment. Even experienced hikers and cyclists should prepare for extreme conditions. There’s good reason for ominous signage throughout the park’s trail system.
- Keep your vehicle topped-off. Gas stations are few and far-between throughout Big Bend Country. When you spot a filling station, always stop and fill your tank. The “next station down the road” may close for whatever reason, including power outages.
- Keep an eye on the weather. Even in the desert, conditions can change quickly, especially during Monsoon season.
- Research activities in the area. From birding to stargazing and mountain biking to photography, there’s something for everyone.
- Book accommodations in advance. Camping, lodging, and RVing are permitted inside the park. You’ll also find affordable cabins and motels in the surrounding communities listed on Airbnb.
- Sharing the space. Just because this is the desert, doesn’t mean you’re alone. Be aware of the many creatures and critters that call the area “home.” Watching the wildlife can be a lot of fun, but don’t get too close.
- Leave pets at home. Even though they make perfect traveling companions, bringing your pet to Big Bend can seriously limit what you’ll be allowed to do. Pets are only allowed to go where your car can go. Pets are not allowed on any trails, off roads, or on the river. If you must bring them along, carefully research the park’s website for detailed regulations.
- Bring your passport. Don’t miss the opportunity to visit rural Boquillas, Mexico. Again, check the park’s website to make sure the Port of Entry is operational. During the winter, it’s open Wednesday to Sunday. Each Summer, it’s Friday to Monday. You can walk across the river if the level is low enough, but they also ferry people across on a small rowboat for $5. Once in Mexico, you can pay to take a burro, horse, or vehicle into the village. You’ll also need to check in with Mexican immigration officials. The village has restaurants, bars, and shops. U.S. currency is accepted there.
- Pack your own food and water. While restaurants and stores are located across the region, it’s a good idea to bring plenty of snacks and water. You’ll need a gallon of water for each hike you plan. Buying a hydration backpack is a great idea. You’ll also need salty snacks and protein for any outdoor activities in the heat.
- Research permits. You’ll need proper permits if you want to backpack or camp, as well as for horseback riding or any activities on the river. Again, the park’s website is the best place to start.
The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of KLTV/KTRE-TV or Gray Television. They are solely the opinion of the author. All content © Copyright 2020 Lane Luckie