I can see now why Big Bend National Park is the least-visited national park. Coming here is not just a casual stop along the route to lots of other places; it’s remote location makes it a destination that requires driving more than two hours south of the nearest interstate highway. That’s a good thing, and a bad thing, at the same time.
The good is that fewer people (even during spring break) makes it less trampled, and we were able to take excellent hikes without seeing another human for hours. But if there’s a bad, it’s that this gem’s unbelievable beauty is not appreciated by more travelers. Regardless, we’re very happy that we decided to make it our destination!
Just a tad bigger than Yosemite National Park (and the state of Rhode Island), at 801,163 acres this park has been described as “three parks in one”. At an elevation of less than 1,800 feet along the Rio Grande, to nearly 8,000 ft. in the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend includes massive canyons, vast desert expanses, forested areas and an ever-changing river. Because of these factors, it’s considered the most ecologically diverse park in the entire national park system.
Although it’s said that everything in Texas is big, Texans can definitely claim that the Chisos Mountain range is the only mountain range to be contained within a national park’s boundaries. It’s also the southernmost mountain range in the United States. Emory Peak, the highest in Big Bend National Park, is a rocky promontory that stands at 7,825 ft.
Big Bend became a national park in 1944 and is listed as the 15th largest in the national park system. It’s nestled at a bend of the Rio Grande and gets its name from the sharp 118-mile-long northeastern arc taken by the river that forms an 889-mile border separating Texas and Mexico.
Every day brought us new sights and varied perspectives. The park constantly amazed us with its vastness, geological marvels, contrasting ecology and diversity. We spent a week trying to experience as much of it as we could, and there are so many ways. For us, it was driving, hiking, floating and flying.
The west side of the park
For now let’s take a drive along the 31-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which is on the west side of the park. This route diplays all the geologic wonders that the park is famous for. It was an all-day drive for us, as there were a number of pullouts with interpretive signs that allowed us to read and learn, trailheads to follow for short and long walks, and scenic vistas. We didn’t want to miss any of them! I took so many pictures that it was difficult to choose which to post so I could best capture the experience. Here are my highlights of our drives through the park:
Tuff Canyon (below) was carved out of soft volcanic tuff or compressed ash.
The Chihuahuan desert floor was painted with various species of blooming Prickly Pears.
The layers we saw on the Cerro Castellan formation revealed millions of years of volcanic activity. Stacked in this tower were several lava flows and volcanic tuffs, or ash deposits.
At the very end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive was the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon, one of Big Bend’s most scenic spots. The view from within the canyon is grand indeed. Half of the canyon is on the U.S. side, and its other 1,500 ft. south wall towers over the Mexican side of the border.
When we arrived there we were in awe, surrounded by the towering vertical cliffs of solid limestone. On the left of the canyon below is Mexico, and on the right is the U.S. side.
If you could visit only one section of the park, the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive would be your best bet to see most of the famous, expansive vistas that mix scenery located in both Mexico and the U.S.
The east side of the park
On another day we drove to the east side of the park. Here we viewed the Rio Grande flood plains looking towards Sierra del Carmen in Mexico. That rig in the picture below is on its way to Rio Grande Village RV park, the only campground in the park with full hook ups. When we saw that the campground was basically just a very small paved parking lot we were glad that it was full when we tried to make reservations. We were very happy with our spot at BJ’s RV Park in Terlingua. It was outside of Big Bend Park, but a much nicer place with access to stores and other places we wanted to visit.
The east side of the park also had river access from the U.S. to the mexican town of Boquillas. We didn’t have our passports with us, but we weren’t impressed by what we saw of the town from across the river anyway. For folks who do want to cross into Mexico for lunch, you can do so on a rowboat on Wednesdays through Sundays to visit “The Most Remote Town in Mexico”. Woohoo.
Instead, we drove a bit farther to hike into Boquillas Canyon, and we enjoyed the scenery there. The Rio Grande on the easternmost side of Big Bend National Park cuts through the Sierra del Carmen Mountains of Mexico, creating this beautiful canyon. It’s about 20 miles long, and not as deep or sheer as Santa Elena, nor as rugged as Mariscal. But it is still impressive, and worth the drive to get there.
When we got close to the entry of the canyon, we saw what we thought was a sentinel of the river. He turned out to be a mexican entrepreneur illegally selling goods across the river from his country. We heard that when the border patrol shows up, he simply gallops across the shallow river on his horse and he’s safely back in his own country!
Our final stop of the day was at Dugout Wells, where we followed the Chihuahuan Nature trail. Here I learned that it is only in the Chihuahuan desert that the Blind Prickly Pear species thrive.
This post details only our driving tours. We should mention that folks with 4-wheel drive or high-clearance vehicles can also follow the many miles of gravel roads throughout the park, to undoubtedly see many additional gorgeous sights that we couldn’t. But we did about all we could from the paved roads, and there are many more adventures from this stop that we’ll be detailing soon!