Vast and wild, Big Bend National Park is a land of extremes, diversity, and a few contradictions. Its rugged terrain harbors thousands of species of plants and animals, some seen almost nowhere else on earth. A visit to the park can be a hike into the sun-baked desert, a float down a majestic canyonland river, or a trek in mountains where bears and mountain lions rule.
Geologists tell us that an inland sea once covered this area. As it dried up, sediments of sand and mud turned to rock. Tectonic plates collided and mountains were created; further upheaval occurred later from volcanic eruptions. It took millions of years of geologic activity and subsequent erosion to form the delightful canyons and rock formations we marvel at today. These rock formations, with their wonderful hues of red, orange, yellow, white, and brown, have created a unique and awe-inspiring world of immense and rugged beauty. This is not a fantasyland of delicate shapes and intricate carvings, such as Bryce Canyon in Utah, but a powerful and dominating landscape. Although the greatest natural sculptures are in the park’s three major river canyons—the Santa Elena, Marsical, and Boquillas—throughout Big Bend you’ll find spectacular and majestic examples of what nature can do with this mighty yet malleable building material we call rock.
Visitors to Big Bend National Park encounter not only a geologic wonder but also a wild, rugged wilderness populated by myriad desert and mountain plants and animals, ranging from box turtles and black-tailed jackrabbits to funny-looking javelina to powerful black bears and mountain lions. The park is considered a birders’ paradise, with more species than at any other national park. It’s also a wonderful spot to see wildflowers and the colorful display of cactus blooms.
For hikers, the park offers a tremendous variety of options, from easy walks to rugged backcountry routes that barely qualify as trails. There are also opportunities to let the Rio Grande do the work, carrying watersports enthusiasts on rafts, canoes, and kayaks through canyons carved into 1,500 feet of solid rock. Adventurers with 4WDs enjoy exploring the backcountry roads, and history buffs enjoy a number of historical attractions and cultural experiences.
If You Have Only 1 Day
Big Bend National Park is huge, and you can’t hope to see all of it in 1 day or even 2. It’s best to allow at least 3 days, essentially devoting 1 day each to the desert, river, and mountains. If you have a limited amount of time in the park, however, the best choice is to start with the Chisos Basin and see the mountains in the middle of the park. Take the short, easy Window View Trail, a self-guided nature trail that highlights the flora and fauna of the Chisos Mountains. Then head back down and drive the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive through the Chihuahuan Desert to the Rio Grande. If time allows, hike into Santa Elena Canyon, one of the most beautiful canyons in the park. Finally, take in a ranger program at one of the park amphitheaters.
Exploring the Big Bend National Park by Car
The park has several paved roads—one goes through the park, and others take you to different sections. In addition, there are several roads that require high-clearance or four-wheel-drive vehicles.
The park has two scenic drives, both with sharp curves and steep inclines and not recommended for certain RVs and trailers.
The 7-mile Chisos Basin Drive climbs up Green Gulch to Panther Pass before dropping down into the basin. Near the pass are some sharp curves, and parts of the road are at a 10% grade. The views are wonderful any time of the year, and particularly when the wildflowers dot the meadows, hills, and roadsides. The best month for wildflowers is usually October, after the summer rains.
When you’ve breathed your fill of clear mountain air, head back down and turn west toward the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive through the Chihuahuan Desert and finally to the Rio Grande. This drive winds through the desert on the west side of the Chisos Mountains, providing a different perspective. Afterward, it passes through Castolon and then continues along and above the river to Santa Elena Canyon. Here you should park and hike the trail, which climbs above the river, offering great views into the steep, narrow canyon.
Another worthwhile drive, recommended for all vehicles, begins at Panther Junction Visitor Center and goes to Rio Grande Village, a distance of 20 miles. From the visitor center, head southeast through the desert toward the high mountains that form the skyline in the distance. The first half of the drive passes through desert grasses, which are finally making a comeback after severe overgrazing in the decades before the establishment of the park in 1944. Recovery is slow in this harsh climate, but the land is beginning to revegetate.
As you progress farther into the desert, the elevation gradually decreases, and the grasses give way to lechugilla and ocotillo stalks, cacti, and other arid-climate survivors. To the south is long, rather flat Chilicotal Mountain, named for the chilicote, or mescal-bean bushes, growing near its base. The chilicote’s poisonous red bean is used in Mexico to kill rats. Several miles farther, the River Road turns off and heads southwest toward Castolon, more than 50 miles away. This primitive road is for high-clearance vehicles only.
If you feel adventurous, take the Hot Springs turnoff about a mile beyond the Tornillo Creek Bridge. It follows a rough wash to a point overlooking the confluence of Tornillo Creek and the Rio Grande. A trail along the riverbank leads to several springs. The foundation of a bathhouse is a remnant of the town of Hot Springs, which thrived here about 20 years before the park was established and continued as a concession for another 10 years.
Back on the paved road, you’ll soon pass through a short tunnel in the limestone cliff, after which is a parking area for a short trail to a viewpoint overlooking Rio Grande Village. It’s just a short drive from here to Rio Grande Village, your destination, where you can take a .75-mile nature trail ending at a high point above the Rio Grande that offers terrific views up and down the river, as well as some great bird-watching opportunities.