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Texas' Big Bend National Park - An Overview

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Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park

Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park

© longhorndave via Flickr

Contact Info:

Mail: 1 Panther Junction, Big Bend NP, TX, 79834

Phone: 432-477-2251

Overview:

Texas is home to more than cowboy boots, authentic Mexican cuisine, and the Alamo. In fact, the state boasts one of the most surprising national parks in the country. From terrain covered in yuccas, bunchgrasses, and cactuses to the Rio Grande and its steep canyons, this area is spectacular and wild.

Known for its complex rock formations, Big Bend’s rocks were actually formed when two seas flowed into the area millions of years ago, leaving thick deposits of limestone and shale. Around 75 million years ago, the mountains lifted while a 40-mile wide trough sank along fault lines creating cliffs above the desert floor. As if that weren’t enough, volcanic activity helped create the land, especially the Chisos Mountains. It is as unbelievable to see as it sounds.

The land is more than desert or rock. Visitors can examine the limestone and shale rock of Big Bend or travel the Chisos Mountains which house pine, juniper, and oaks trees as well as mountain lions and bears. Many may also be surprised to find that Big Bend supports a diverse wildlife including more than 450 species of birds and 1,200 species of plants.

Housed in a remote location, Big Bend National Park is a surprise to most who visit. It offers much to do, see, and explore.

History:

This national park earned its name based on its geography. If you follow the Rio Grande along the Texas-Mexico border you will find that is loops northward in a dramatic curve – much like the shape of a horseshoe. Inside that horseshoe is the area known as Big Bend. Catchy, isn’t it?

Yet the name is not the most intriguing thing about the national park. It is rich in history, culture, and geology. For at least 10,000 years, people have inhabited the Big Bend region including the Apache, Comanche, Spanish conquistadors, soldiers, miners, and ranchers. Evidence has been left behind in the form of pictographs and petroglyphs on rock walls and mortar holes along the river's bank.

Big Bend National Park was established as the very first national park in Texas, as well as the 27th national park in the U.S. on June 12, 1944. It was also designated as a United States Biosphere Reserve in 1976.

When to Visit:

As one of the less traveled national parks, Big Bend remains relatively uncrowded much of the year. It is open year-round, 24 hours a day, and each season brings a new reason to visit. Wildflowers are at their peak in spring and early summer and the greatest variety of birds – 170 species- flock between May and October. Winter lasts from November through March and provides great access to snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

Visitation is highest in March and April, especially during spring break – typically the second and third week in March. Holiday weekends are also very busy. To avoid the crowds, try planning a trip in August or September.

Getting There:

Drivers coming from Marathon should follow US 385 south which leads directly to the park’s entrance. Those coming from Alpine can follow Tex. 118 south to the park’s west entrance while those traveling from Presidio can take Ranch Road 170 to Tex. 118.

If you choose to fly, the nearest airports are in El Paso (Find Flights) and Midland-Odessa. Both are over 200 miles from the park.

Fees/Permits:

Drivers will be charged $20 for a seven day pass good at any park entrance. Those traveling by bike or within a group will be charged $10 (per person) for the seven day pass. Children 15 years old and younger are admitted free of charge.

Keep in mind, all national park passes can be used to waive all entrance fees.

Major Attractions:

Be sure you have a few days as Big Bend has a lot to offer. Here are some highlights:

  • Chisos Mountain Range Basin: This will take you past much of the park’s geological highlights.
  • Casa Grande: Considered a landmark of the park, this summit is almost castle-like.
  • Sam Nail Ranch: Visitors can view the remains of an old ranch house and windmills.
  • Tuff Canyon: A .75 mile hike carved by the Blue Creek and layers of lava flows.
  • Hot Springs: A great spot to see Indian pictographs on the cliffs along the trail to the springs.
  • Santa Elena Canyon: Amazing sites of limestone and shale cliffs.

The “don’t miss” recommendation for all visitors is an excursion floating down the Rio Grande. View the areas of the Mariscal and Boquillas Canyons in easy floats. Looking for more adventure? Try the Santa Elena and Lower Canyon floats. An excursion like this brings together the beauty of the land, primitive camping, hiking, fishing, and all who are ready for the experience of a lifetime. Call 432-477-2251 for more information about half-day to weeklong trips.

Accommodations:

There are three campgrounds within the park, all of which are open year-round and have a 14-day limit. Fees range from $10-$18 per night. Call 877-444-6777 for reservations from mid-November through mid-April.

Backcountry camping is allowed but permits are requires. They can be obtained in person at visitor centers or ranger stations.

Chisos Mountain Lodge is a great option for those seeking a comfortable place nearby. It offers 72 rooms, including six cottages, and is equipped with a great restaurant. Rates range from $89-$100 per night. (Get Rates)

The Gage Hotel is another great option located in nearby Marathon. Prices range from $76-$330. Other hotels, motels, and inns are located near the park. (Get Rates)

Areas of Interest Outside the Park:

The McDonald Observatory is located 140 miles northwest of Big Bend National Park on Hwy. 118 and is a great place to check out stars and night views. Guided tours of some of the telescopes are also available.

If you want to add a few more parks to your resume, check out Guadalupe Mountains National Park (about 275 miles away), Davis Mountain State Park, and Indian Lodge State Park (both located 130 miles away). All offer areas to camp, picnic, and enjoy grand view of the landscape. Davis Mountain and Indian Lodge are also great locations for wildlife viewing.

For the history buffs, check out Fort Davis National Historic Site which preserves one of the best surviving examples of an Indian Wars' military post in the Southwest. Located about 128 miles north of Big Bend National Park, the historic site is a “can’t miss”.

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