SERIES NARRATOR: You're watching Inside The Big Bend.
[canyon wren chirp]
NARRATOR: Scenic vistas, diverse wildlife, historic sites. All these rank among the features that visitors enjoy in Big Bend National Park. As one of the last remaining wild corners of the United States, Big Bend National Park is a place where you can experience unmatched sights, sounds, and solitude.
Nestled into the southwest curve of the Republic of Texas, over twelve hundred square miles of open land invite you to explore, wander, and linger. In addition to 100 miles of paved road, over 150 miles of dirt roads wind through the park, as do some 200 miles of hiking trails.
Sometimes considered "Three Parks In One", Big Bend National Park includes mountain, desert, and river environments. An hour's drive can take you from a mountain basin over a mile high to the banks of the Rio Grande. Elevations span over six thousand feet, from eighteen hundred feet at Boquillas Canyon to over seventy-eight hundred feet atop Emory Peak. This wide range of elevation produces an exceptional variety of plants, animals, and scenic vistas.
The Big Bend provides almost limitless opportunities for hiking, camping, biking on dirt roads , horseback riding, and other backcountry adventures. Additionally, the Rio Grande borders the park for 118 miles, giving river runners the option of floating canyons or open water by raft, canoe, or kayak.
But what if you have only one day?
If you have only one day for your first visit to Big Bend National Park, here are a few suggestions:
A great place to start is the Panther Junction Visitor Center, located in the middle of the park. Re-modeled and updated in 2008, the visitor center features excellent exhibits, a comfortable bookstore stocked with titles on all aspects of the park, and helpful staff to answer your questions. It's also a good place to find out about current road conditions, weather forecasts, recent wildlife sightings, temporary restrictions, and to obtain any needed permits.
Be sure to make the short drive into the Chisos Mountains to take in the spectacular views. On the road up Green Gulch, the vegetation changes quickly as it climbs toward Panther Pass. The road then winds down steeply into the Chisos Basin, which showcases the Basin Window, Casa Grande Peak, and Emory Peak. Plus, you'll find overnight lodging, a restaurant for a wide range of appetites and pocketbooks, and one of the park's three campgrounds and camper stores.
Walk the short, self-guiding Window View Trail to get a better feel for the mountain scenery. Benches are located at a number of places along the trail, and it is wheelchair accessible. This trail provides one of the better sunset viewpoints in the park.
If you're in the mood for something moderately difficult, hike the Lost Mine Trail, which begins near the summit of Panther Pass. The Lost Mine Trail is an excellent introduction to the plants and animals of the Chisos Mountains. The trail starts at an elevation of 5,600'. It then climbs steadily for 2.4 miles to a promontory just under 7000' which looks down into Pine Canyon and Juniper Canyon, away south into Mexico, and up toward the High Chisos Mountains. If you don't want to hike the whole round trip of four and three-quarter miles, one of Big Bend's greatest viewpoints is from the saddle about three-quarters of a mile in.
The 31-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive offers a taste of the Chihuahuan Desert and the Rio Grande. You'll find a diverse array of overlooks, exhibits, and short trails.
At the very end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon, one of Big Bend's most scenic spots. You absolutely don't want to miss it! Since it's at the far end of the paved road, you may want to make it your first stop. Walk the short trail into the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon. The view from there is one of the grandest spectacles in the park. You'll be surrounded by towering 1,500-foot vertical cliffs of solid limestone. If the trail is flooded or otherwise too challenging, you can gaze into the mouth of the canyon from the shaded Santa Elena Canyon Overlook nearby.
A few miles back the way you came is the short Dorgan-Sublett Trail, which showcases a farm that operated in the Rio Grande floodplain nearly a century ago.
Eight miles east of Santa Elena Canyon, the Castolon Historic District preserves a trading post once utilized by communities along both sides of the Rio Grande. Today, its La Harmonia Store offers shade and refreshments.
As you make you way north up Ross Maxwell Drive, there are a number of worthwhile stops. The short trail into narrow Tuff Canyon leads to cool air, even on warm days. The Mule Ears are a pair of towering volcanic dikes revealed by erosion. Sotol Vista offers a sweeping panorama of the west side of the park and deep into Mexico. You can glimpse into Big Bend's ranching past at the well-preserved ruins of the Homer Wilson Ranch line camp and the well-watered shade trees of the former Sam Nail Ranch.
If your vehicle and road conditions permit, you can make Santa Elena Canyon and the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive part of a loop. The Old Maverick Road is 14 miles of graded gravel that starts at the west entrance to the park. It passes Luna's Jacal, a well-preserved example of traditional earth-sheltered rock dwelling.
If it's a river trip you want, two possibilities are Hot Springs Canyon within the park and Colorado Canyon just outside the park in Big Bend State Ranch. There are several commercial river outfitters in the area from which to choose, or you can get a private permit from the park and float the river on your own with your own or rented gear.
The lofty forest of Chisos Mountains. The open expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert. The towering cliffs above the Rio Grande.
Whatever you chose to do, you're likely to find what many others have: In one day, you've only scratched the surface of possibilities within Big Bend National Park.
SERIES ANNOUNCER: You’re watching, “Inside the Big Bend”
[canyon wren chirping]
WOMAN #1 (MOTHER OF SMALL CHILDREN): What are the chances of seeing a mountain lion here?
MAN #1: How many people have been mauled by the bears here?
TEENAGE BOY: How often do people get bitten by rattlesnakes?
WOMAN #2 (MOTHER OF BABY): Are those big hairy tarantula spiders poisonous?
MAN #2: Is it safe to be so close to the border here?
NARRATOR: At Big Bend National Park, employees hear and answer these questions daily. But while we encourage visitors to be concerned for their safety, other serious issues are much more common here. By far, the most risky thing you can do in Big Bend National Park is travel by vehicle. You can greatly increase your chances of an incident-free visit if you always wear your seat belts, never drive when under the influence, drive only when you’re well-rested and, most importantly, you always obey the posted speed limits. While they may seem slow, there are good reasons for them. Park roads have narrow lanes, steep or no shoulders, sharp curves, rough pavement, but most of all,
WOMAN #1: LOOK OUT!!!!
NARRATOR: abundant wildlife. Deer, javelina, rabbits, snakes, birds, coyotes, bears, mountain lions, spiders, and even toads can appear suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere. Drought conditions are especially hazardous, since the only fresh greenery may be at the pavement edge. But wildlife can create a road hazard even when it’s well off the pavement. Remember, too, that you share the road with bicycles. So slow down and stay alert!
The SUN is the second-leading cause of serious visitor problems at Big Bend National Park. Even on cool days, it’s easy to underestimate how much moisture and salt your body is losing. Your kids are even more vulnerable. If you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. So ask the locals for current advice on how much water to carry and how often to drink and eat. Minimize caffeine and alcohol. Keep your head and body shaded with a hat, loose clothing, and plenty of sunscreen. Avoid hiking in the heat of the day.
Getting stranded or lost is the third most common cause of serious visitor problems here in the park. With over eight hundred thousand acres of remote mountain, desert, and river, visitors to Big Bend can wander and explore to their hearts’ content. But with this freedom comes risk. Every year, park staff must rescue hikers and motorists who overestimate themselves. Talk to the park staff about road, trail, and weather conditions. Plan hikes and drives within your ability. Take along a map and a compass, and know how to use them. Make sure your footwear and all of your gear is in good shape. Take extra water, food, clothing, bright flashlights, and a first aid kit. Just in case.
If you drive the back roads, make sure your vehicle is in good condition and has a good spare tire, a working jack, and other emergency equipment.
Always, be sure someone knows where you are going and when you expect to return. Remember to obtain a backcountry use permit before heading out overnight. If you do get lost or injured, stay in one place to conserve water and energy. Cell phones may not work where you go, so know how to signal for help. Carry a whistle and a signal mirror.
If your vehicle breaks down or gets stuck, stay with it! It is much easier for us to find a car on a road than a person walking through the desert.
Wildfire is a possibility in the Big Bend, especially when grass and shrubs are brown and dry. Wood or ground fires are not permitted in the park and some restrictions may apply to the use of gas stoves, charcoal grills, and cigarettes. Check with a ranger for the latest information.
Okay. Okay. So: What ABOUT all those wild critters? Big Bend is bear and mountain lion country, especially the Chisos Mountains. But mountain lion sightings are as unusual as they are exciting. Most of the lucky few who do see a lion will be traveling in their vehicle. Big Bend’s lions are truly wild. That means they think people are the top predators! Even so, NEVER let children run ahead or lag behind you on trails. In the rare chance you encounter a mountain lion when you’re on foot, and it moves toward you, DO NOT RUN. Do not turn your back. Hold your ground! Group together and pick up small children. Wave your arms to make yourself look big, and shout. If the lion doesn’t go away, throw rocks and sticks. Prepare to defend yourself aggressively, if need be. Daypacks and other objects make effective shielding. Report all sightings to a ranger.
Much about lions is true of our black bears. However, there has NEVER been a case here where a bear has attacked a human. If you encounter a bear or bears while on foot, the best policy is to back away slowly. Again: DO NOT RUN, and report all sightings.
As for other wild mammals you might see wandering about, do not allow them to get near you. Although they sometimes appear tame, all of them are unpredictable.
NEVER feed any of Big Bend's wildlife. Store all food, coolers, cooking utensils, and toiletries in a hard-sided vehicle, preferably in the trunk, or in your campsite’s bear-proof box. Dispose of all garbage in the bear-proof trashcans and dumpsters.
Other animals to watch out for, especially during warm weather, include: venomous snakes; scorpions; spiders; and centipedes. But your chances of being bit are tiny, as long as you pay attention to where you walk and place your hands, and you always use a flashlight at night. Inspect your shoes and sleeping bags or bedding before use, and consider wearing high boots while hiking.
But as for those great big tarantula spiders? They are quite harmless.
Remember: ALL wildlife in the park is protected by law.
Last, but not least, is the question of border safety when visiting the park. Big Bend National Park shares 118 miles of border with a remote region of Mexico. Although they get little use compared to elsewhere on the border, precisely because it is so rugged and so remote, visitors should be aware that smuggling routes pass through the park. IF by chance you see any activity which looks illegal, suspicious, or out of place, DO NOT INTERVENE. Withdraw, and report it as quickly as possible.
A few simple steps can help keep Big Bend National Park safe for everyone.
ANNOUNCER: You’re watching, “Inside The Big Bend”.
TOM ALEX, ARCHAEOLOGIST & CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST, BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK: J. L. Sublett was a dirt farmer. He came in here and set up a farming operation in the Rio Grande floodplain in the early 20th Century. He formed a partnership with Albert Dorgan. They operated what was called Grand Canyon Farms for a couple of decades in the Rio Grande floodplain, between Santa Elena Canyon and Castolon. They provided feed crops for some of the local ranchers, as well as food products for some of the local communities, particularly the mining community of Terlingua.
Sublett’s farming operation was irrigated by water that was pulled out of the Rio Grande. Remnants of the old irrigation system are still in place. The river flooding has started to reclaim that. It’s deposited a lot of silt on top of it.
But we’ve been able to go back, using aerial photography. You can see the old farm fields. You can see the outlines of the farmland. We’re able to go back now, by digitizing over that. We can take that digital file, load it into a GPS unit, walk back on the ground, and re-trace the edge of that. We can also see how the vegetation has encroached upon it and significantly altered that whole historic scene.
One of the things we’ve been able to do using historic photographs is use some of the Sublett family photographs. We’ve got one in particular of Eunice Sublett on the front porch of their house on top of the mesa, overlooking their farmland. In the distance we can see in that photograph we can see cotton fields and the river in the background, in the distance there. That’s helped us to get an idea of what it actually looked like.
We have a wonderful photograph here taken by Nat Dodge of that floodplain scene from a different view, a different angle. But it’s a much more scenic view, the Cerro Castellan in the background. This really gives us a good visual effect of what that farmland looked like, and how the floodplain was very open during the historic period.
There were about 30 acres or so of land that was farmed during the 1920s and 30s. Vegetation now has grown up, and that includes tamarisk and mesquite. There’s a LOT of mesquite that’s come in since the 1930s and 40s. It’s completely reclaimed portions of the floodplain.
One of the things we’ve tried to do at Sublett Farm is clear that out from the original farm fields. We’ve used a combination of things. In 2006 and '07 we did a prescribed burn. That actually got in and cleared out a lot of the vegetation in the floodplain around the Sublett Farm district.
We’ve also been using a lot of manual reduction. We’ve been using mechanized equipment: a Gyro Trac, to go in and clear that vegetation. We did one treatment in 2008 with a Gyro Trac. It was preempted by a major flood on the Rio Grande. We had to halt that work.
We have a number of National Register sites in the area around the Sublett Farm. The Sublett Farm itself is a National Register District. There’s also the Castolon historic compound.
And with all those historic buildings there, over the years we’ve had vegetation grow up against them and around them. That creates issues for structural stability of the buildings. The roots of the trees impinge on the foundations and destabilize the structures. This vegetation needs to be removed periodically. We’ve tried to create a 10Õ wide buffer around all of the historic buildings.
This photograph donated by the Sublett family was taken sometime in the 1930s. This is their farmhouse on top of the mesa, overlooking the floodplain. You can see it was a fairly large adobe house. It probably had two or three rooms inside.
But we have a later photograph, taken in the 1950s, that shows how this original house was expanded and essentially doubled in size. As the family grew, the needs of the family increased. They needed more room, more space. So they just added on to their house.
This is pretty typical of the way of a lot of the historic buildings, historic ruins that we see in the park. This is very typical. They start out with a single room, or maybe two rooms, then those houses expand as the family grows.
SERIES ANNOUNCER: You're watching "Inside the Big Bend".
NARRATOR JIM HINES: It's amazing just how many different birds think Big Bend National Park is a great place to be.
In the middle of their long, long migrations each year, between summers up north and winters down south, nearly 190 species of birds land here, each spring and fall, to rest up, to hydrate, and to feed. From chilly places way up north, about 100 species of birds fly south to here in the fall, to take advantage of the Big Bend's mild winters. From the steamy tropics way down south, another 116 species of birds fly north to here in the spring, to nest, and to raise their families. Additionally, there are some 56 species of birds that apparently think the Big Bend is such a great place, they live here all year round.
In the Big Bend country, far from any coastline, there can be classically eastern birds at the western edge of their ranges. Similarly, there can be classically western birds at the eastern edge of their ranges. Plus, one can find some 82 species of south-of-the-border birds at the northern edge of their ranges.
Surprise is a common experience of bird enthusiasts who come here to the Big Bend. Its immediate proximity to Mexico has a pronounced effect on the chance for the appearance of unusual or even extremely rare species for the United States.
Spring is the time of the most numerous reports of rare and accidental migrants, as well as the time of greatest diversity of species.
Yet, while unusual sightings are thrilling, the park features many locally common species that are often new to visitors. Big Bend is known for its specialty birds. These are species that occur in the United States only in southwest Texas and other areas along our border with Mexico. In fact, there is one species that comes here to nest that can't be found anywhere else in the United States.
Altogether, over 450 species of birds have been documented within the borders of Big Bend National Park. That's nearly two-thirds of all the bird species found in the continental United States!
What makes Big Bend National Park such a great place for birds?
For one thing, the Big Bend region is on a major migratory route: the Central Flyway of North America.
But why do so many birds land here? Why do some of them go no further south or north? And why do some of them not bother to migrate away at all? The answer to all these questions lies in the park's diversity of habitats. That is, the park has a wide selection of places where various kinds of birds can find shelter, water, food, and places to nest.
Big Bend National Park has a well-deserved reputation among its human visitors as "Three Parks In One": the Chisos Mountains, which lie entirely within the park; the Chihuahuan Desert, the majority of which lies in Mexico; and the Rio Grande, which borders Big Bend National Park on two sides and defines its name. This same three-parks-within-a-park idea can be used to categorize the park's myriad bird habitats.
With a little planning and luck, visitors to the park can see a great variety of birds within a single vacation. To guide visitors to the most rewarding opportunities, the Big Bend Natural History Association publishes the park's very own Bird Checklist, which is updated every few years. This Checklist is available for purchase at any of the park's visitor centers.
Not only does it cover which species are likely to be present in which seasons, the Checklist indicates the most likely habitats where each species can be found, and which locations in the park have those habitats.
The following places in the park provide good opportunities to observe a variety of birds. Let's go!
The Rio Grande Village area, on the east side of the park, produces the greatest variety of sightings year round.
You may wish to start your search for birds with an early morning hike along the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail. The trail crosses a beaver pond via a series of bridges and floating platforms. The platforms offer a number of benches to sit on while scanning the shoreline and snags. Further on, the trail passes a warm-water spring-fed pond.
Back in the campground, walk the road through the No Generator Zone near the Nature Trail trailhead. Walk around the perimeters of the Rio Grande Village campgrounds, both the single-family and group areas. Peer into the mesquite thickets at the edges of the flood-irrigated grassy areas that were once farm fields, and up into the many shade trees, especially the tall cottonwoods.
At the far west end of Rio Grande Village Road is the Daniels Ranch picnic area. It features a shady grove of tall cottonwood trees with lush green lawns underneath. From there, it's only a short walk to the bank of the Rio Grande at the mouth of Hot Springs Canyon. The Rio Grande, although now much diminished by human demands from both countries it borders, irrigates a double ribbon of lush vegetation.
Between Rio Grande Village and Daniels Ranch is an extra-special place: the Common Black Hawk Nesting Area. Despite its name, the Common Black Hawk is a species whose numbers are in decline, primarily due to habitat loss. Marvelously, this grove of tall cottonwoods has been host to a pair of black hawks for several decades. Their annual nest-building and young-rearing often takes place within sight of the road. To help increase the black hawks' odds for successful breeding and their continued future use of the area, please remain well outside the signed perimeter, and limit your time there.
Another great place for birds along the Rio Grande is on the west side of the park, between the Castolon Historic District and Santa Elena Canyon. Although the riparian habitats here are somewhat similar to those around Rio Grande Village, it's not uncommon to find different species. Check out the tall trees and surrounding shrubbery at Cottonwood Campground. Walk the edges of the mesquite thickets along the riverbanks near Santa Elena Canyon.
The Chisos Mountains and their foothills attract many species of birds that otherwise would not be in Big Bend National Park. The Chisos Mountains can be thought of as a moist, forested "sky island" surrounded by a dry desert oasis, whose sheltering canyons serve as welcoming bays and estuaries.
Up in the Chisos Basin, you'll find many of the park's human accommodations: great places to find food, rest, and enjoy family activities. But the Basin also offers great places for birds to find food, rest, and enjoy family activities. Look in the grasses, shrubs, and trees around the visitor center, lodge, campground, and trailhead. The Window Trail, with its several trailheads from the resort complex and campgrounds, offers a smorgasbord of bird species as it leads thru a variety of habitats.
It takes some time and effort to hike up, but the higher elevations of the Chisos Mountains is where you'll need to be if you want to see the Colima warbler, Big Bend's premier specialty bird. Although the Colima warbler comes here each spring to nest and to raise its young, it has never been documented anywhere else in the United States. Most Colima warblers live in Mexico year round. The Chihuahuan Desert is studded with trickling springs and still-active windmills from the pre-park ranching era. These create oases of moisture and greenery that are a powerful magnet for birds. While most of the springs require a fair amount of hiking to get to, there are two historic places within a short walk from a paved or well-graded roadway.
A half-dozen miles from park headquarters, the cottonwood grove at Dugout Wells survives in the middle of open desert, watered by an old yet still-functional windmill. In addition to its resident desert birds, Dugout Wells is a secluded stopover spot for migratory birds passing through. Its picnic table, accessible by wheelchair, is a great place to sit while listening for bird songs and calls.
Another excellent place to look for birds and other wild creatures in search of moisture and shade in the desert is at the remains of the Sam Nail Ranch. Just a few miles from the Chisos Mountains and its Basin Window, a well-functioning windmill and large shade trees make Sam Nail Ranch a true desert oasis. A wooden bench under huge pecans that were part of the ranch house garden provides a comfortable place to sit while you watch the ever-changing pageant of wildlife.
One last thing: Park visitors like you are often our best eyes and ears for sightings of rare or unique birds, as well as the earliest and latest sightings of migratory and seasonal birds.
So if you see a bird that's listed as hypothetical, rare, sporadic, out of season, or otherwise different from the park checklist, please stop in at a visitor center as soon as possible and fill out an observation report. Be sure to include a detailed description of the bird, what it was doing, and when, but most importantly: its exact location. Because we want to try to see it, too! If you can get a clear photograph of your sighting, you may make park history!
Did You Know?
Big Bend area resident Albert Dorgan first proposed the idea of an international park on the Rio Grande in the fall of 1934. The remains of his adobe home are located a short distance from Santa Elena Canyon.