Big Bend National Park Overview

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Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park (Visions of America-Joe Sohm/Digital C113Vision/Getty)
Big Bend National Park

Established: 1944
Acreage: 801,163
Average Yearly Visitors: 322,000
Location: Southwestern Texas, 330 miles southeast of El Paso

Contact Details
Big Bend National Park
P.O. Box 129
Big Bend National Park, TX 79834
Phone: 432-477-2251

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Big Bend may well be the most anonymous of the national parks in the Lower 48. If it's solitude you seek, you'll find it here. Besides serving up quiet in big, Texas-size portions, Big Bend boasts geologic wonders, unique wildlife, and plenty of room for hikers and campers to spread out.

The park, which earns its name for the sharp turn the Rio Grande takes in its midst, sprawls across an astounding 801,163 acres of arid plains and mountains in far-west Texas. The Indians thought this land was the Great Spirit's rock storage facility; the Spaniards called it "El Despoblado," or "the uninhabited land." However you see it, Big Bend is not soon forgotten: It's a place of mystery and timeless beauty.

Year-round, Big Bend is generally crowd-free; Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's are exceptions. Park officials also recommend steering clear during spring break time—usually the second and third weeks of March—when sun-starved college students descend.

Hike Smoky Creek
Varied topography, numerous springs and seeps, interesting canyons, and endless sky make the trail along Smoky Creek a popular route for more experienced hikers. As long as you avoid spring break time, the trail offers plenty of solitude for much of the year.

For the most part, this 15.3-mile, one-way hike through the Chisos foothills follows the dry wash drainage of its namesake, occasionally leaving the drainage to bypass pour-offs or difficult areas. You'll need good map-reading and route-finding skills to navigate the many confluences of the dry wash, especially when hiking north or upstream. That said, several infrequently traveled trails and routes, giving adventurous hikers plenty of opportunity to explore, intersect this moderately strenuous hike.

If you're not up for a long desert hike, bear in mind that it is not necessary to hike the entire Smoky Creek trail; it offers many options for long or short hikes in the middle and lower Chihuahuan Desert. There are numerous springs on the trail, and water is often surprisingly abundant. During these periods, Smoky Creek is a particularly attractive area for long or short hikes. Be sure to inquire with park rangers as to the current water situation before you set off.

A side note for solitude-seekers: Cross-country hiking is widely permitted in Big Bend. If you're up for a true wilderness experience, it is yours to find. The Smoky Creek trail is but one of many seldom-used trails—experienced hikers may also want to try the routes to Mesa de Anguila or the Deadhorse Mountains. Beginners should stick to the desert, or try hiking Santa Elena Canyon. Just remember that even marked and well-traveled trails are, at times, vague. Due to the complex topography of the area, the NPS recommends a detailed 7.5-minute topographic map and compass for all hikers. And don't forget to take plenty of water—at least one gallon per person per day.

More on hiking in Big Bend National Park

Camp Chisos Basin
At an elevation of 5,400 feet, Chisos Basin Campground is the highest of Big Bend's three camping areas. There are 63 sites available, in addition to running water, picnic, and grill facilities. From Chisos, you'll be within day-hiking distance to a wide range of terrain, from floodplain and arid badlands to grasslands and rugged volcanic peaks. In spring and fall, however, Chisos Basin Campground is often full. However you get to the park, you'll no doubt be in for a very long trip. It is best to call the park before you leave, at 915-477-2251.

If the campgrounds are crowded, or if you just prefer wild cacti to neighbors, you may want to consider primitive camping. At Big Bend—unlike most other national parks—you can pitch your tent wherever you like. With adequate water stores and a portable stove, you're all set to camp like a cowboy. All you need is a free backcountry permit and a willingness to play by a few rules. Of course, the farther you're willing to walk from roads, the more privacy you'll earn. So find a patch of desert and call it home.

More on camping in Big Bend National Park

Stalk the Mosquito Fish at Big Bend Ranch
Just one mile east of Lajitas, Texas, a short drive from the main entrance of the park, you'll find Big Bend Ranch. It is a cienaga, or naturally occurring oasis, brought to life by the nearby Rio Grande and a neighboring spring. The cool waters and harsh desert climate have collaborated over time to create habitats for an exceptional wildlife community. More than 400 species of birds have been recorded in the area, coexisting with mule deer, javelina (wild hogs), and thousands of other species of mammals, large and small.

In addition to hosting this multitude of usual species, Big Bend is one of those rare environments where the collision of landscapes has also created a truly unique ecosystem, another world within our own. The extreme climate and geographic isolation of the area, as well as the unusual combination of craggy mountain, arid desert, and muddy river habitats have also fostered the development of a variety of one-of-a-kind species, some of which can be found no other place on earth. The Colima warbler, the greater long-nosed bat, and the Sierra del Carmen Mountains white-tailed deer are generally not found north of Mexico; the endangered Big Bend mosquito fish lives only here. Sightings of mountain lion and black bear are always a possibility as well. Rich in evolutionary history and full of surprising oddities, Big Bend and Big Bend Ranch are must-sees for anyone with a love of wildlife.

Raft the Santa Elena Canyon
The Rio Grande—or, as it's known in Mexico, Rio Bravo del Norte—is a great river for guided rafting and canoeing. Santa Elena Canyon, the largest of three major canyons in the area, lures hundreds of whitewater and nature enthusiasts every year to this last true wilderness area in Texas.

The trip is usually divided into two days. The first takes you down an easy stretch of the slow-moving Rio Grande, above the canyon. There may be a lot of lazy dazing, water fights, Kodak moments, and talk about the landscape and its history. You'll camp and sleep like a baby under the desert sky.

Day two is non-stop adrenaline. When the surveyor R. T. Hill paddled the river in 1901, he considered the first rapid in the canyon, Rock Slide, unnavigable. He and his men spent three days hauling their boats and supplies around it. These days, brave paddlers shoot the grizzly first half, but the second half still requires a little walking—some of the boulders obstructing the river are the size of small houses.

More on rafting in Big Bend National Park

Mountain Bike Glenn Spring and Old Ore Road
With over 100 miles of lightly used paved roads and 160 miles of backcountry dirt roads, Big Bend National Park is Texas's premier mountain biking destination. The panoramic views, desert solitude, and unexpected beauty of the region make any ride a pleasant one, provided that you're adequately prepared (water, water, water!).

Mountain biking in Big Bend falls into two categories: "I have a shuttle available" or "I have nothing but my bike." Either way, there are plenty of biking trail options, paved or unpaved, light or strenuous.

For those with a shuttle, the ride down Old Ore Road is highly recommended. The 26-mile ride is strenuous and will require four to six hours, but by all accounts it's well worth the effort. It's best taken from north to south for an easier ride and great views of the Chisos Mountains. The road is rough and rocky and the terrain is challenging. Park on the edge of the Dagger Flat Auto Trail at the north end of Old Ore Road.

The Glenn Spring Loop is for bikers with no shuttle. The rough 35-mile loop on unpaved roads will take at least half a day, or maybe all day if you make frequent stops. One of the more popular mountain bike rides in the park, it begins at Glenn Spring, makes a counterclockwise loop around the west side of Tally Mountain, following Black Gap Road. The last stretch cuts east onto the River Road back up to Glenn Spring. On the way, you'll pass the remains of dwellings, the ruined Mariscal Mines, and Mariscal Mountain.

More on mountain biking in Big Bend National Park

Climb at Indian Head
Sturdy rock for safe climbing is somewhat limited in the park, because the majority of the park's exposed vertical rock is composed of unstable igneous rock and sharp fluted limestone. The majority of climbing done in the park takes place at Indian Head. Other areas for climbing include Grapevine Hills, Appetite Peak, Boot Rock, Mesa de Anguila, and Dog Canyon. The rock faces of Casa Grande Peak are closed to climbing.


Published: 24 Oct 2008 | Last Updated: 3 Oct 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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