Sunday, October 18, 2009

Big Bend National Park

Inspired by Ken Burns' latest PBS series, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea", Pam Penick of the Austin garden blog Digging encouraged her readers to post their national park experiences on their blogs this past week. Apologies for my tardiness, but my broken write, er, I mean, right hand is slowing me down.
Hot Springs Trail

Big Bend National Park is, by far, my favorite national park. I've been to a few national parks -- Padre Island, Hot Springs, Rocky Mountain, Niagara Falls, a fort here, a shipyard there - but my most memorable national park experiences have been at Big Bend.
Lost Mine Trail

Big Bend is enormous, diverse, and unlike many popular national parks, sparsely inhabited by the human species, particularly in the summer. Its 800,000 acres include the flora and fauna of mountain, desert and river environments, and is home to the largest protected area of Chihuahuan Desert topography and ecology in the United States.
Sotol Vista

Altitudes within the park's borders range from 1,800 feet along the river to 7,800 feet at the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains.
Santa Elena Canyon

I'm happy to say that I've personally experienced the full range of elevations and environments Big Bend has to offer, and there's so much I haven't seen. I could go there every year for the rest of my life and not see everything I wanted to see, much less everything there is to see.
Cerro Castellan

The "big bend" in the Rio Grande River makes up the park's 118 mile southern border. That's one-tenth of the border between the Great State of Texas and the country of Mexico, folks. We're talking an immensely Big Bend here.
The Big Bend in the Rio Grande

Yet at multiple points in the park, you could easily swim or even walk across shallow parts of the river into Mexico. Not that you should - the INS prohibits border crossings into Mexico except at designated immigration checkpoints, with or without a passport -- but you could. (I'm just saying, that's all.) See the rocky bank on the opposite side of the Rio Grande, opposite the hot spring Jack's enjoying? That's Mexico, and although you can't see them in this picture, several simple houses stand along the river bank.
The hot spring

The actual border proper lies within the deepest river channel of the Rio Grande River, a fact that makes talk of building a fence along the Texas-Mexico border seem downright wacky, not to mention futile. Can you imagine a fence down the center of this canyon?
Santa Elena Canyon

Now, I've lived in Texas nearly all my life. I was born in Norfolk, VA (my daddy was in the Navy), but my parents were born and raised in the Texas Panhandle, and they returned to Texas when I was only a few months old, settling in Houston. However, my first Big Bend experience wasn't until 2005, at age 43. My husband, Jack, introduced me to Big Bend, while we were still dating; he'd been there before, and adored it.
Ocotillo, Santa Elena junction

Big Bend is a hiker's paradise. Laurence Parent's classic book, Hiking Big Bend National Park, lists 47 different hikes for people of all abilities. One trail, the Window View Trail, is wheelchair-accessible. This photo is from the moderately difficult Lost Mine Trail, a 3- to 4-hour hike.
Lost Mine Trail

On our first trip together, Jack and I hiked the Lost Mine Trail, the Hot Springs Trail, and the Santa Elena Canyon Trail, and drove the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, making several stops along the way.
Casa Grande

On our second trip, two years later, we hiked to Cattail Falls, then hiked the big hike, the iconic hike, what Laurence Parent calls the classic Texas hike, while we were still young enough and able enough to do it: a two-day, 6000-foot hike to the South Rim.
Big tooth maples on the Boot Canyon Trail

It proved to be an Outward Bound-like experience for me. I've never pushed myself that far, both physically and mentally, and I don't know that I ever could or would hike it again.
"Are we there yet?"

But the unparalleled vistas were well worth the effort. Here's the sunset we enjoyed the evening we reached the peak.
South Rim sunset

And, the splendid view the following morning, after we spent the night on the South Rim. South Rim in the morning

I have more of my favorite photos of Big Bend on my Flickr page
. Thanks to Pam for encouraging me to share them with you. I can't wait to go back!


  1. Caroline, I so enjoyed your stunning pictures of Big Bend. Your enthusiastic recommendation of this park has made me want to go more than ever. What is your favorite time of year for a visit?

  2. Pam, fall is our favorite time to go to Big Bend. The days are warm but not stifling like in summer; the nights are cool but not freezing like in winter, and there's less chance of monsoon-like rains than in the spring. In particular, we like to go the second or third week of November. Unless you like crowds, avoid the first weekend in November, when nearby Terlingua has their annual chili cookoff. Thanksgiving week is also a very busy time.

  3. Awesome scenery. I've wanted to go there for years. Not sure when it'll happen, but someday...

  4. Stunning says it all. This has renewed my desire to visit. Thanks to Pam for the idea and to you for responding with such an inspiring post!

  5. Caroline...what beautiful photos. This is another one of the parks I visited with my parents...many, many years ago.
    Thanks for sharing your trip. Now, I want to go back.

  6. Because of your photos and vivid descriptions, we are planning a trip next year. I have been to many of the national parks, but not one that is as wild as Big Bend appears to be. Alas, I think we are too old to do the 2 day hike. I may have waited too long to go. That hot spring did look good!