Established in 1944 Big Bend National Park in southwestern Texas protects 801,163 acres of boulder-strewn desert and a mountainous oasis rich with wildlife. Despite being a Texas sized park (bigger than the state of Rhode Island) Big Bend National Park receives only 350,000 visitors annually, most during the college spring break season in mid-March. Its limited visitation is due to its remote setting and a misunderstanding of just how much the park has to offer.
Nestled on the border of Mexico along the Rio Grande River and residing mostly in the unforgiving Chihuahua Desert, Big Bend offers many of the standard activities found in a desert based park including hiking, jeep touring, and rock climbing. What you may be surprised to find out is that Big Bend also offers 118 miles of canoeing, kayaking and rafting through whitewater rapids and deep canyons, hundreds of miles of backcountry trails and excellent wildlife viewing opportunities.
When compared to other large national parks Big Bend's, 112 miles of paved roads, 150 miles of dirt roads and 200 miles of hiking trails requires careful trip planning for a visit. From the closest airport in Midland, Texas it is a Texas sized four hour drive to the northern most edge of Big Bend, so park visitors should plan on staying at least two days.
If you want to visit the park by car you are in luck with five possible scenic routes. Three of the best drives include the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, the most popular route in the park. Thirteen miles west of park headquarters the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive winds for 30 miles south through the western foothills of the Chisos Mountains. The road passes huge gravel deposits and deep canyons before ending at Santa Elena Canyon and the Rio Grande River below. The view at Santa Elena by itself makes this worth the trip.
Along the way you can access a number of easy hiking trails that lead to the Old Sam Nail Ranch, the Homer Wilson (also know as the Blue Creek) Ranch, Mule Ear Springs and the Chimneys. The views from Sotol Vista and Tuff Canyon overlook are sure to please. Sunlight reaches the bottom of Santa Elena Canyon for only a few hours in the morning, so be sure to start this drive with the sunrise and before things become brutally hot.
On the return trip from Santa Elena Canyon Overlook be sure to stop at the Castolon Historic District. The Castolon region of the park documents modern habitation of Big Bend and is the most intact of historical areas in the park. At the turn of the twentieth century the banks of the Rio Grande were alive with fertile fields growing corn, beans, squash, and melons. In 1901 Cipriano Hernandez opened the first general store in the area operated out of his adobe house.
When the Mexican Revolution of 1915 to 1920 spilled over into the United States in 1916, United States troops were stationed in the area and started construction on a permanent fort in 1919. In 1920 with the revolution over the fort was abandoned and in 1921 one of the barracks became home to the La Harmonia Company Store. Purchased by the Park Service in 1961 the store still operates today and is a critical lifeline to a handful of residents who live on both sides of the river.
Visitors of Castolon today will not only find the La Harmonia store still operating, but will also find that the Alvino House, home to Cipriano Hernandez, still stands. Old farming equipment rusting in the desert heat, numerous adobe structures and foundations as well as two nearby cemeteries, are ready to be explored. The Cottonwood Campground is located here and from November to April interpretive ranger programs explore the history of the region.
Three miles west of park headquarters is the start of Basin Drive that climbs into the green oasis in the heart of Big Bend. The road is very steep and it is not recommended for vehicles pulling trailers or recreational vehicles. The towering agave plants rising up almost 15 feet with their bright yellow flowers give way to a woodland setting in the middle of the Chihuahua Desert. After reaching mile high Panther Pass the road continues down into the basin through a series of very tight switchbacks.
Chisos Basin is an island of green surrounded by rugged sun scorched mountains. A visitor center, 72 room lodge, group camping area, general store, post office, restaurant and coffee shop are available in the heart of the park. A number of hiking trails snake their way into the Chisos Mountains to the south, several rising up well over 7,000 feet. Evening ranger programs are available year round.
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