The Rio Grande River follows the border between Texas and Mexico for over 1000 miles. 244 miles of it are administered by the National Park Service in Big Bend National Park. Big Bend is sometimes called "three parks in one" because it has a mountain areas, a desert area and the area along the river. There is evidence of human habitation here for almost 10,000 years and fossils have been found from the Cretaceous and Tertiary Periods. At over 800,000 acres, Big Bend is also one of the largest parks under the National Park Service. Big Bend got its name from the way the Rio Grande curves in this part of West Texas.
Big Bend was a popular destination for high society in the early 1900s. There were some fancy hotels here and a popular hot spring resort. This was also a popular crossing point into Mexico. The springs are still here but the facilities are closed and falling to ruin (still worth checking out though). The border crossing is closed not that it seemed to stop people from crossing from Mexico, setting up some souvenirs, crossing back to Mexico, and then coming back to collect their money later.
There are a wide variety of places to stop along the scenic drives through the park and a number of recreational possibilities. A lot of the park is only accessible with gih clearance and/or 4 wheel drive vehicles. There are miles of hiking trails and you can also boat on the river. One very nice trail takes you to a formation called "The Window" for the way it opens up a view between two mountain ridges to the valley beyond.
Fondest memory: When I first entered the park the lower desert was clear, then in the distance you saw some low clouds and the peaks above, seeming to grow out of the clouds.
The Panther Junction Visitor Center is open all year from 8:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M.
Here you will find exhibits that will help to inform you about the geology, as well as the natural and cultural histories within the park. You can also purchase books, maps, and postcards at the center, as well as fill up your personal water bottles. This is also the place to get backcountry camping and river use permits. There is a small self-guided nature trail next to the porch of the visitor center.
Panther Junction also has public phones, and a full service post office. This is the only post office in the park. The post office is open Monday through Friday from 8:00 to 12:30, then from 2:30 to 4:30.
Fondest memory: My favorite part of the Panther Junction Visitor Center was its outside nature trail. You could pick up a pamphlet at the start which corresponded with numbered desert plants in the garden to identify and give you information about the various plants.
The Rio Grande Village Visitor Center is open November through April, 8:30 to 4:00. This visitor center is located a quarter of a mile north of the Rio Grand Village area. At this visitor center you will find a small exhibit that will help you to learn more about the animal life along the Rio Grande River in Big Bend. Staff will be happy to help you plan your activities in the park, such as hiking the nearby Rio Grand Nature Trail (see photo), Boquillas Canyon, Hot Springs, and other trails in the area. There is also a small desert garden in front of the center with a variety of plants from the Chihuahuan Desert. A small theatre shows Big Bend videos. A bookstore, public phones, and restrooms are all available at the Rio Grande Visitor Center. A water faucet with potable water is available for filling your water bottles. This is another good location to obtain backcountry and river permits at the center.
Fondest memory: My favorite thing in the Rio Grand Village area was the pond at the beginning of the Rio Grand Nature Trail as well as the javalinas and road runners that frequented our campsite.
Chisos Basin Visitor Center and Persimmon Gap Visitor Center are open all year. Chisos Basin Visitor Center is located in Chisos Basin in the developed area at the end of the drive. There is a small exhibit about black bears, mountain lions, and the peregrine falcon that live in the area. Use the water faucet to fill your water bottles before heading out on a hike. Persimmon Gap Visitor Center is located at the Persimmon Gap Entrance Station at the north entrance to the National Park. The small exhibit is a good orientation for the first time visitor to the park. Both centers have a bookstore and restrooms available, as well as a staff who can help you with your plans for exploring the park. Backcountry and camping permits may be gotten at these centers.
Fondest memory: The Window View Trail was my favorite trail. Not only were the views along the route beautiful, but the Window area at the end of the trail was really interesting.
Favorite thing: This visitor center is open November through April, 10:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M., except it is closed for a lunch break. The visitor center is located in the east end of the historic La Harmoni store and the store is in the west end. This area is reached by traveling 22 miles south along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to Castolon. Here you will find the visitor center, a store, and a few remaining historic buildings. The Visitor center has a small exhibit about the history of the Castolon area, which ran from 1901 to 1951. A bookstore and restrooms are also available. If you plan on backpacking or floating the river the Visitor Center is a good place to obtain the needed permits. The personnel can also give you information on hiking in the area. The photo shows the Santa Elena Canyon hike, which is 8 miles west of Castolon Visitor Center.
Favorite thing: The scenic beauty in Big Bend can be spoiled by a haze that hides its expansive views. This haze has been increasing since the 1980s. A study showed that the haze is caused by particles suspended in the air. These particles vary, but the largest number are sulfate particles that came from a variety of sources, especially coal-fired power plants, metal smelters, refineries, and other industrial activities. Dust from soil particles and forests fires also affect the Big Bend haze. It is so sad, as Big Bend is really an out of the way, off the beaten path park, yet here comes air pollution from a long distance away. Some of these air born particles come from Mexico, but more than half of the sulfate comes from the United States, especially the eastern United States and Texas. Hopefully the federal government will pass regulations to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions. The haze in Big Bend peaks in the spring months, April to June, and again in late summer and early fall, August through October.
Generally Big Bend is most crowded in March and April, and very crowded during spring break when college students arrive at the park. College spring break usually falls around the second and third week on March. Holiday weekends such as Easter and Thanksgiving, or the week between Christmas and New Years Eve are also very popular times. Even so, we arrived in mid January and found that there were only 4 campsites available in the campground we wanted to camp in. Other campgrounds, however, did have more space. The ranger at the entrance gate can tell you what is open when you arrive, so you won’t have to drive all the way in to find out what is available.
As far as when to go based on weather conditions, fall and spring are usually warm, pleasant months, while summers are hot, with May and June the hottest months. From July to October you may find afternoon or evening rains, which help to keep the desert cooler than earlier in the summer. Although winters are usually mild, there can be cold spells, including light snow, so if you visit in the winter season, be prepared for a variety of temperatures and conditions.
Big Bend National Park is huge, spanning about 50 miles (75 km) North-South and East-West, for a total of 801,000 acres (3241.5 sq. km). It is nothing to drive the more than 70 miles (110 km) to Marathon or more than 100 miles (150 km) to Alpine for a good diner, supplies or lodging. The roads are very empty (meaning not many cars and in the middle of nowhere!), but just take enough gas. There are gas stations in the park, but the price is very high. It is also worth the trip to drive towards Presidio (92 miles or 150 km) along the Rio Grande as the landscape is beautiful there!
This map was taken from http://www.big.bend.national-park.com/map.htm
Take a late night dip in the hot spring. It's part of an old health spa right on the Rio Grande, and next to a cliff face containing some ancient petroglyphs.
Big Bend is a naturalists' dream. There are many good books available with lots of photos. The park rangers also really know their stuff.
Favorite thing: You must spend time just hiking and driving through the desert. Open your eyes and see all the colors and life that is there.....