We’re planning to do a short series on Big Bend National Park because there is so much to share from our eight-day experience there. This post kicks off our series. Stay tuned for more!
We knew little about Big Bend National Park prior to our arrival other than it’s remote, desert-like, one of the lesser visited national parks, and currently experiencing a pretty severe drought; we also knew that it looked really cool in the film Boyhood. Jason’s Texas cousins raved about the park just before our departure, which made us more excited, but we still weren’t sure what to expect. We planned to spend about five days in the park and instead ended up spending eight. I have a feeling that we’ll say this about a lot of the national parks we visit, but I’ll say it anyway – we fell in love…with its uniqueness, beauty, remoteness, quietness, and variety.
So, the first thing I think you need to know about Big Bend National Park is this: Go! Move it up on your list, or add it to your list of national parks to visit. It’s worth the trip. And it is quite a commitment to visit. Many hours and many, many miles from any city, Big Bend truly transports you away from it all. We met a fellow traveler (from Gastonia, NC of all places) in the park who said, “You don’t come to Big Bend by mistake. You don’t just get lost and keep driving and run into the place. If you get lost out here, you’re more apt to turn around and go back the other direction than keep driving, because it’ll be a long time before you hit the park.” A park ranger (a graduate of Warren Wilson College in NC – so many NC connections!) told us she drives three hours round-trip for groceries. When we left the park with plans to stop for groceries on our way to our next destination, we totally understood that experience. This remoteness is one of the charms of the park; you know everyone you encounter inside park boundaries really wants to be there, and you know the presence of too many other people won’t ruin your interaction with nature. There was a day when we hiked for about eight hours on connecting trails and saw a total of four people, all of whom we saw within the first two miles. It was marvelous. However, a word of caution: park staff report that the park gets quite busy and campgrounds fill up around Christmas and spring break season.
The remoteness does require some planning. We’ll cover the details of eating, camping, etc. in a later post. For now, I’ll just say that unless you plan on eating all, or most, of your meals in the Chisos lodge restaurant, stock up on groceries well before entering the park, like in Fort Stockton or El Paso. Get gas at every opportunity before entering the park or the surrounding region. Make sure you have all the camping, hiking supplies you need. Most of these things are available inside the park or in nearby tiny towns, but they’ll be exponentially more expensive (except for Nalgene water bottles, which were surprisingly cheap to purchase).
We were both significantly impressed by the variety we found within the park. The park is located in the Chihuahuan Desert and features desert plains in addition to high mountains, deep canyons (carved ages ago by water and volcanic activity), and the Rio Grande River, which allows lush vegetation to grow along its banks and in surrounding areas. The Rio Grande also serves as the border between Mexico and the United States, and there are areas of the park where this international boundary is certainly felt and experienced. With three distinct ecosystems – the desert, the mountains, and the river – the park is home to an incredible diversity of plant and animal life, most abundant where the ecosystems cross, at what are known as ecotones. We saw tons of birders and photographers enjoying the richness of life in the park.
Adding to this richness, there are desert and mountain springs scattered throughout the park that create lush water oasis habitats. Though some of these springs were dry during our visit, most had at least some water, and we even discovered a waterfall on one hike.
The Park Service has also preserved many historical sites within the park, including old mercury mines, ranches, and villages.
Most of all, we marveled at the awesome geologic formations and vistas throughout the park, many of which can be accessed by foot or car, and some by simply sitting at your campsite soaking it all in.
It does seem like there is something for everyone at Big Bend. River adventurers/paddlers can go on river expeditions – both daytrips and overnight trips seem common (although, the water level was quite low while we were there, turning some boat trips into watery hiking trips). Hikers can enjoy trails in all three ecosystems, ranging significantly in terms of length and difficulty. Backpackers can journey along connecting backcountry trails for multiple days with many options for backcountry camping. Folks who like a slower pace can see much of the park by driving the main paved roads, which feature roadside exhibits, overlooks, and some short walks and hikes to popular destinations. There are also a number of dirt roads that wind through the backcountry; one could easily spend hours or days exploring these roads with a high clearance vehicle (some of them are quite rough!).
Before I begin to sound like I’m being paid to write this (I’m not. But it sure would be nice.), I’ll wrap things up for now. More to come on camping/lodging, eating, hiking trails, and various other park activities. And also, lots of pictures to come. We have nearly 500 to comb through and edit first.