Natural Treasures: Big Bend National Park
Natural Treasures: Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park, Texas
I have lived in Texas most of my life and sadly, I have only visited Big Bend National Park twice.
The first time, I was ten years old and on a road trip through west Texas with my mother. It was August and absolutely hot as hell! We Texans joke that you can fry an egg on the asphalt in summer— surely so in the Chihuahuan desert! My mother and I drove the 25 mile stretch through scrubland to reach the park ranger outpost. Upon arriving, we were reluctant to get out of our car. Dazed by the heat, we got out and squinted to survey the brown foothills of the Chisos Mountains. “Yup, that’s Big Bend alright!”
Within five minutes we were back in the car, headed for ice-cream in the nearby town of Marathon. If Big Bend were a person, they might have never noticed we were even there; we slipped in and out, without ever shaking hands.
I didn’t return back to west Texas until recently, at age 23. My friend and I packed his car with our camping gear and a week’s worth of fresh food and cold beer. It took us eight hours to get there, driving through Texas’ backcountry, passing cattle ranches, oil fields and wind farms.
We arrived at the park as the sun was setting, casting a golden hue on the limestone escarpments that surrounded our camp ground. I felt giddy with excitement for the coming days of hiking and exploring the lands of Big Bend. As the sun fell behind the Chisos Mountains and the quietude of the land enveloped us, I experienced the surrealism of the landscape; my ears were perplexed by the void of sound.
Over the next four days, Big Bend left a wild and purifying effect on me. The land is rugged, ruthlessly exacting resources and energy from the living. Over the millennia, wildlife has adapted to the conditions, growing spikes, thorns, horns and other prickly protection. Me? I did my best to dodge the cactuses and still got pricked at least ten times. In fact, my friend dubbed me the cactus queen; I still have three thorns lodged in the palm of my hand. You could say that Big Bend left a humbling impression.
And, I am left wanting more. I plan to go back soon, next time to spend two weeks camping in the desert.
Big Bend National Park sits in the Chihuahuan desert and stretches 118 miles along the Rio Grande river, the present-day border between the United States and Mexico. The landforms of Big Bend, which are product of water erosion, tectonic shift and volcanic activity, provide refuge for more than 450 species of birds, 56 species of reptiles, and 75 species of mammals.(1)
Big Bend holds treasures for naturalists and paleontologists alike, as the area has preserved numerous fossils, spanning across pre-historic millennia. There is abundant limestone and sea fossils dating back more than 100 million years, when Texas was an ocean. (2) Paleontologists have also found more than 90 dinosaur species, almost 100 plant species, and numerous fish, frogs, salamanders, turtles, crocodiles, lizards, and early mammals within the park.(3) The biodiversity of fossils found in Big Bend offers us one of the most comprehensive pictures of the prehistoric ecosystem known. (4)
Human activity dates back 10,000 years to the Paleo-Indian period.(5) Within the historic period, Chisos, Mescaleros, and Comanche peoples predominately inhabited the land; only in the last 200 years did anglo pioneers, ranchers, and miners begin to occupy the area.(6)
Today, Big Bend National Park is one of the largest national parks in the United States, providing for visitors a pretty secluded experience depending on the season.
Among the things that make Big Bend special, the National Park Service lends its visitors a surprising amount of autonomy. For $12 USD visitors can purchase a backcountry camping pass which permits its holders primitive camping for two weeks. Permit holders have the choice to reserve primitive camping sites or make their own. The primitive camping sites are stand-alone sites that have been leveled and equipped with a bear box for food. Visitors can also pitch their tent out among the cactus, so long as they register which park region they intend to sleep in. The self-made campsite must also be more than a half mile from the road or out of sight, but still, pretty rad. Thanks U.S. government!
The park offers numerous trails, varying in difficulty and distance. We chose to take on The Devil’s Den, Grapevine Hills, Santa Elena Canyon and Emory Peak/Boot Canyon/South Rim.
Devils’s Den Trail (4.5 miles) intermediate
All the reviews said this trail was easy, but we got so lost! I will always recount Devil’s Den trail as the one time I willingly followed my friend off a cliff.
Devil’s Den Trail
Way off trail
Grapevine Hills Trail (2.2 miles) easy
The trail guides you back into a large valley full of rounded boulders, and ultimately to a balanced rock formation. We treated Grapevine Hills Trail like a jungle gym and did a lot of bouldering. We were lucky that we didn’t encounter any snakes!
Grapevine Hills Trail
Grapevine Hills Trail
Santa Elena Canyon Trail (1.4 miles) easy
The trail leads you along the Rio Grande through the Santa Elena Canyon. The canyon walls are as tall as 1500 feet, making for some pretty awesome acoustics! The canyon marks the border between the United States and Mexico.
Santa Elena Canyon Trail
Emory Peak, Boot Canyon, and South Rim Trails (14 miles) strenuous
We saved the most epic hike for last, and holy cow the views were breathtaking! Emory Peak marks the highest point in the whole park, and I was happy to find the summit not nearly as grueling as I had imagined. Once up there, you can extend your hike by taking the Boot Canyon Trail and South Rim Trail, descending gradually.
I have to say, the 360 pano from Emory Peak was pretty sweet, but the views from the South Rim transported me to another world!
Boot Canyon Trail
South Rim Trail
Upon arriving back at the Chisos Moutain base, we could hardly move. We stocked up on Gatorade and chips and headed for the park’s hot springs.
It was the perfect way to celebrate an epic climb!
Interested in visiting Big Bend National Park? Have further questions? Comment below and I will be happy to give you further suggestions.
(1) Gray, J.E.; Page, W.R., eds. (October 2008). Geological, geochemical, and geophysical studies by the U.S. Geological Survey in Big Bend National Park, Texas. Circular 1327. U.S. Geological Survey. ISBN 978-1-4113-2280-6.
(2) US National Park Service, (February 2015). A Paleontological Paradise. https://www.nps.gov/bibe/learn/nature/dino.htm
(3) US NPS, A Paleontological Paradise.
(4) US NPS, A Paleontological Paradise.
(5) US NPS, A Paleontological Paradise.
(6) US NPS, A Paleontological Paradise.