Wildest West Texas: Big Bend National Park
Updated: Mar 27, 2020
Deep in the southwest panhandle of Texas is a remote National Park unlike any other in the country. Big Bend National Park is a place where two nations meet, and all roads end at the Rio Grande, the border between Mexico and the United States. The river is a place where three states meet - Texas in the USA, and Coahuila and Chihuahua in Mexico. Many of the expansive vistas and scenery in the park actually do belong to both nations. One of Big Bends most well known attractions is the Santa Elena Canyon, which sits half in the United States and half in Mexico. This park also marks the northernmost range of many plants and animals - a place where typically eastern and typically western species meet, such as the Mexican long-nosed bat. Big Bend is an excellent destination for 'birding', as it's location is a bird migration route between South, Central, and North America. Not to mention, the Rio Grande river is a huge migration highway for many animals passing through the desert landscapes. There is also so much elevation variation here in Big Bend, that it contrasts varied microclimates and further enhances and diversifies plant and animal life.
Big Bend is a mix of river, desert and mountains - a wild landscape of over 800,000 acres in one of the most remote locations of Texas. It is one of the largest National Parks we have been too so far, taking more than an hour to get from the park entrance to our camping location, as well as more than an hour to get from one side of the park to the other. The best way to break up your exploration of Big Bend NP is to separate the river areas from the mountain areas from the desert areas, and conquer them all individually, allowing a full day or more for each. Lucky for us, we had 3 full days and an additional afternoon to really get to know the park and the area.
Check out my YouTube video of the park here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Qy-1yuzfnI
Visiting The Park
From elevations of 1,800 along the Rio Grande to almost 8,000 feet in the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend National Park includes it all - from massive canyons to forested mountains, to vast desert lands. Consider this one of the last wild corners of the United States that you can explore, and to allow you to discover just how much diversity and life there is in the desert!
When visiting Big Bend, it's important to remember that this is a remote part of southern Texas and it can be best to check supplies before leaving nearby towns of Alpine or Marathon. Gas stations and water sources are few and far between here and cell service is extremely unreliable. Some park roads are also only available to those who have four-wheel drive!
Geology & History
Big Bend is located in the northern part of the Chihuahuan Desert, one of North America's four major deserts. One side of the desert is vast semi arid plains, and the other three sides are composed of rain blocking mountain borders. The Chihuahuan Desert is only just about 8,000 years old and is green and pretty lush overall. Rainfall comes here typically in July to October during monsoon season and with it's rains and clouds it can mean for a far cooler summer than you would typically expect in a desert. However with that being said, rains and seasonal winds can increase the aridity and summer ground temperatures can still reach 140 degrees F in the midday or even freezing in the winter as norther storms sweep in.
Big Bend is the great southwest Texas U-turn, formed by the 118 mile boundary of the Rio Grande river. I have never seen the Rio Grande before and could not get over the ribbon of green color that cut across the desert and carved through the deep canyons. The headwaters for the river are in Colorado and a lot of the rivers resources are sapped out of it before it ever even makes its way to the park. There are living fossils and other fish and turtles in the Rio Grande that hint at a lush savannah and swamp land that must have existed here some 50 million years ago. Long ago their ancestors swam with crocodiles and hippopotamus like creatures.
Ancient people would have lived here some 10,000 years ago but they really didn't leave much evidence of their inhabitants until the Archaic or Desert Culture 8,000 years ago. They would have used hundreds of desert plants as food and medicine, including the lechuguilla, yucca, prickly pear, and acacia. They also commonly wove baskets and sandals, hunted deer and rabbits, and made stone tipped darts. They were able to get their drinking water from the desert springs and their home sites still have remnants of rock shelters and fire rings.
In the late Archaic times there was a lot of trade introduced to settlers, amongst agriculture like cultivated corn, beans and squash. Around 1200, the farmers related to the upper Rio Grande Puebloan people, also known as the La Junta people, farmed floodplain areas west of the park. The Spaniards enslaved a lot of Indians in the 1500's and greatly transformed the entire culture here. The Apaches also moved into this area in the 1700's because they were being pushed south by the Comanches. Around the 1800's encroachment by Anglo-American homesteaders forced the Comanches southward into Apache territory and early Mexican settlers started to live in Big Bend.
US Army Maj. William H. Emory did a boundary survey in 1852, and in 1881 a Texas ranger led party floated the santa Elena Canyon on the west side of the park to survey. In 1899 a US Geological Survey party was the first group known to run Boquillas Canyon on the east end of the park. After 1884 the Anglo-American settlers began farming the river's banks and the Mexican settlers did around 1900. Food crops and cotton fields were grown around the parks Rio Grande Village before the park was even created.
Rio Grande Village RV Campground
There are plenty of dry camping opportunities on both the west and east end of the park, but there is only one spot in all of Big Bend that offers RVers a chance for full hookups. I was lucky enough to snag a spot, as there is only about 25 spots total and they are often fully booked. It is a bit of a tight squeeze for larger rigs, but busses and 5th wheels can still fit near the front of the campground. It's weird to call it a campground, as it's really just a parking lot with designated spots, but it really does give you a sense of community, especially being that there is no cell reception in the park. Oftentimes our neighbors were always sitting outside, soaking up the heat of the sun and were always up to strike up a conversation. Out of total randomosity, we even saw some fellow Minnesotans, and one that was even from the same city we lived in, Woodbury, and had even bought their vehicle from the Ford dealership that Adam worked at prior to going nomadic. What are the chances!
If you're someone like me, and you still rely on WiFi to connect to your friends, family, the world, or even to do remote work - the RV Village campground is right next to the Rio Grande Village store that offers free WiFi connections. People would often gather outside the store front sitting at picnic tables to get a connection for awhile, and sometimes I was even able to get my phone to connect to it from our RV. Not sure how I got that lucky!
Other lodging is available for overnight use at the Chisos Mountains Lodge for those not in an RV. And tent camping can be done in the Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, or Cottonwood campgrounds. Most campground are first come first serve, so plan accordingly.
Things To Do And See
Big Bend is a park that I would definitely consider far too big to see in one single day, but even if you only had the opportunity for a day trip in on the scenic drives throughout the park you can still experience and take in it's outstanding beauty. Here are some additional things to check out and add to your itinerary if you have multiple days to explore!
Hot Springs and the Rio Grande River
I could sit by the Rio Grande and stare at it's green beauty for hours, and doing so is made even easier by the Hot Springs not too far from the Rio Grande Village where we camped. The hot springs have been a focal point for tourists and people who travel in the desert throughout the 20th century because they represent health, home and a center of community. In 1909 J.O. Langford, an original homesteader in Big Bend, discovered the hot springs were known for their miraculous healing properties and he took it upon himself to bathe and drink the water to combat being ill from malaria as a child. He began to feel healthier and stronger than ever and immediately set up the area as a source of business - building a bathhouse and desert health resort.
A tub like section in the hot springs still exist where travelers are able to drop in and soak for awhile, but it is something that is more enjoyable in the winter months before the air temperatures far exceed the 105 degree springs.
The park itself does also administer over 245 miles of river use on the Rio Grande for recreational use. You can get a river float permit and more information at the park headquarters or any of the ranger stations. There are not any equipment rentals in the park itself, but you can also contact river outfitters for guided tours.
Hiking is a common thing to do in Big Bend and there are plenty of places to do it. One of the 'desert' hikes we partook in was to the Boquillas Canyon, which borders Mexico on the east side of the park. It is located at the end of the road in the Rio Grande Village area and takes you to the entrance of a spectacular canyon along the river. The day that we explored this area was quite warm so it's very important to bring plenty of water with you for your hiking adventures.
One thing to mention and note near Boquillas Canyon is that you will find small trinkets and items for sale along the path from the Mexicans. They cross the riverbed and lay things out for tourists, alongside cans to put your money in and come over periodically to collect what has been "donated". The park advises you not to purchase these items and states it is considered illegal and if they see the items they can confiscate them. We only ran into this on the Boquillas Canyon trail and along the Rio Grande river.
Santa Elena Canyon
Another popular area to hike in the park is the Santa Elena Canyon, where limestone cliffs rise 1,500 feet above the Rio Grande on the west side of the park, also bordering Mexico. This is considered one of Big Bend's most scenic spots, that also allows you to take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, giving you even more fantastic views of the Chihuahuan Desert landscape. There are plenty of overlooks to stop at along the way to the Canyon, including the Sam Nail Ranch and Homer Wilson Ranch to show you more about Big Bend's past.
When you get to the canyon you can take a short walk to the viewpoints where the river runs through it or you can continue to make your way through a path that is just about a mile and a half round trip into the canyon and back out. To avoid crossing directly through the river and/or a pile of knee deep mud, there is a connection point down the riverbed to the right that will get you across and to higher ground. Walking into the canyon is surreal and humbling, with massive boulders, tall lush grasses, and strong echoes of everyone around you.
The Chisos Mountains Basin
Right in the middle of the park, breaking up the desert and river landscapes, are the Chisos Mountains in all their glory and beauty. There is no shortage of hiking trails and areas to explore here, and I do wish we had more time to do more hiking, but I'm happy we did get to experience the Lost Mine Trail through the middle of the mountain basin. The trail was about 5 miles long round trip and offered sweeping views of the mountain range. It was popular, even with less than perfect weather, and I was frequently heard saying "Oh my gosh, is this real life?" as we walked through the trail.
The entire Chisos Mountain Basin is an excellent way to see firsthand how the park transitions from arid desert to cooler mountains. The road leading you in is winding and rises about 2,000 feet above the desert floor. Aside from many miles of hiking trails, in the Basin there is also a visitor center, campground, lodge, restaurant, and gift shot.
Port of Entry: Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico
Border crossing into Mexico is available at the Port of Entry, but it does require a US passport. You can ask a ranger in the park for more info about crossing, but for the most part it is one of the easiest border crossing experiences you will ever encounter. It's important to note that the Boquillas Port of Entry is only open from Wednesday to Sunday, from 8 am to 5 pm in the winter, when we visited, and from Friday to Monday, 9 am to 6 pm in the summer.
When preparing to cross the border you first drive to the designated area and park your vehicle before heading into the Port of Entry building. After passing through you have the option to be ferried across the Rio Grande river in a small rowboat for a $5 per person fee. You are also allowed to walk across through the river itself, but you must be careful if the river levels are too high. From there, you can walk to the village itself which is about a 1/4 mile venture, or you can pay an additional small fee to ride on a burro, horse or in a vehicle with a local Mexican guide.
While a passport is required, we did make this crossing with my year old expired passport, and were able to get back and forth without any issues at all. I was very concerned this would cause issues or they would not allow me to cross, but everything went extremely smooth. It is a bit strange, as you don't physically interact with US Customs when traveling to and from Mexico, but instead you scan your passport and call them on the phone to check in. The conversation was only while returning back into the US, was very brief, and they mainly were concerned to ask if we had brought anything back into the States with us.
Lucky for us, on our way over the border we met another couple about our age and traveled with them the entire time. We also went to a restaurant together, one of only two in town (go to the one on the left, it's better) and enjoyed a drink together. Due to how small and run down the town was it was much more enjoyable to experience with new friends. However with that being said, we did not ever feel unsafe or in danger during our experience. This town HIGHLY relies on tourism for its survival, as the next closest town in Mexico is about 160 miles away. There were several years after 911 that the border was closed and they took a very hard hit because of it. Everyone we encountered were extremely friendly and helpful and treated us with respect.
Wildlife in the Park
I feel like there are more wildlife in Big Bend NP than any other location we have been to thus far on our nomadic journey. The desert-mountain landscape is rich in biodiversity, with the Rio Grande being the linear oasis and the Chisos Mountains being the green island in a sea of desert. Dating all the way back to the ice age, as colder and more moist climates retreated northward, many plants and animals became stranded in the Chisos Mountains. One example of this is with the Carmen Mountain white-tailed deer, that live in the Chisos Mountains and nearby sky-island mountains, but they are completely unknown anywhere else.
Many animals here beat the desert heat and are only showcased at night. Snakes particularly, as hot summer days on the desert floor would kill them in minutes. You can either hide from the sun, or climb above the heat into the Chisos Mountains. Insects will even fly straight up a short distance just to cool themselves off.
The Rio Grande itself creates an amazing corridor space for creatures that are not able to adjust to the arid desert life. You can walk the river and find beaver tooth marks on cottonwood or willow trees. You can spot killdeer sprinting on the sandbars and cliff swallows fly to adobe nests of river mud.
Overall there is a vast array of wildlife in every corner of the park. Jackrabbits, kangaroo rats, roadrunners, golden eagles, are a few of the most common finds. While we were in the park we saw a bobcat, wild javelinas, many roadrunners (which quickly became my favorite), many coyotes (which we could also hear outside of our RV at night), and plenty of various kinds of birds.
If we had more time...
Big Bend is a park that you could easily explore for a weeks' time and still continuously look at new areas and hike new trails. We had met a couple in the RV village that had been there for weeks, hiking every trail available to really take in and capture the beauty of the area. If we had more time ourselves I would have definitely liked to spend more time in the Chisos Mountains, exploring every inch of hiking trails and scenic views. It was truly one of the most breathtaking desert meets mountain landscapes we have come across and the area is so wild and free, without service, or towns or name brand stores to distract you.
Don't forget to watch the YouTube video I made of our travels throughout the park, found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Qy-1yuzfnI
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