Sunset Drive in Big Bend National Park
NPS Photo/Mark Schuler
Big Bend truly is wild country. In fact, many people visit Big Bend precisely because it is remote and rugged. But remember, as you enjoy the splendor of this great wilderness area, make safety a priority. By giving forethought to your actions you can have a safe, exciting, and rewarding vacation in Big Bend National Park. Spend a moment reviewing these common safety concerns:
The imagined versus the real dangers of Big Bend National Park.
- 7 minutes, 57 seconds
- Credit / Author:
- Reine Wonite
- Date created:
[canyon wren song]
SERIES ANNOUNCER: You’re watching, “Inside the Big Bend”
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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.
Most visitor injuries and accidental deaths in Big Bend result from car accidents. While driving is a popular way to see the park, it can also be dangerous, particularly if you are tired or are going too fast. Drive within the speed limit, 45 mph maximum in the park, and watch for javelina, deer, and rabbits grazing along road shoulders, especially at night. Remember, too, that you share the road with bicyclists and pedestrians. Some park roads, such as the road into the Chisos Mountains Basin, are steep and winding and require extra caution. The Basin Road is not recommended for RVs over 24 feet or trailers over 20 feet. Always select a designated driver before drinking alcoholic beverages.
Fire danger is always an important safety consideration in Big Bend. Wood or ground fires are not permitted in the park, and you must exercise caution in the use of gas stoves, charcoal grills, and cigarettes. Restrictions may apply to the use of these heat sources during drought conditions. Check with a ranger for the latest information about fire safety in the park.
Desert heat can be very dangerous. Carry plenty of water (at least one gallon per person, per day) and wear a hat, long pants, long-sleeved shirt, and sun screen when hiking. Springs are unreliable and often dry up for a portion of the year, despite what maps indicate. Avoid hiking during mid-day in summer; travel as wild animals do, in the early morning or late evening hours rather than during the heat of the day.
Exploring this desert and mountain country on foot requires both mental and physical preparation. Trails vary from well maintained in the Chisos Mountains to primitive and barely visible in the desert. Plan hikes within your ability. Take along a map and compass and know how to use them. Follow these practical considerations to ensure a safe hiking experience:
- Flash floods may occur following thunderstorms so avoid narrow canyons or dry washes.
- Stay low and avoid ridges during thunderstorms.
- Carry a flashlight and a first aid kit. Let someone know where you're going and when you expect to return.
- If you get hurt or lost, stay in one place to conserve water and energy. Signal for help; three blasts on a whistle is a well-recognized distress call. In remote areas, a large "X" marked on the ground by any means visible from the air will signify that help is needed. Carry a signal mirror.
- Remember to obtain a backcountry use permit before heading out overnight.
Hot weather makes the muddy Rio Grande look very inviting, but swimming is not recommended. Water-borne micro-organisms and other waste materials can occur in the river and cause serious illness. The river can be hazardous, even in calm-looking water. Strong undercurrents, deep holes, and shallow areas with sharp rocks and large tree limbs are common and make the Rio Grande unsafe for swimming. If you do choose to swim, wear a life jacket and avoid alcohol.
Black bears, javelinas, skunks, coyotes, and raccoons frequent Big Bend's campgrounds. Although they sometimes appear tame, all of the animals in the park are wild, and could pose a threat to your health and safety if you attempt to approach or feed them. Never feed any of Big Bend's wildlife. To prevent animals from becoming habituated to people, store all food, coolers, cooking utensils, and toiletries in a hard-sided vehicle, preferably in the trunk of your car. Food storage lockers are available for hikers and campers in the Chisos Mountains. Dispose of garbage properly. At the Chisos Basin Campground, throw away garbage in the special bear-proof dumpsters and trash cans provided. Remember to report sightings of bears and lions to a ranger.
Big Bend is mountain lion country, especially the Chisos Mountains. While lion attacks are rare, several have occurred in the last decade. Should you encounter an aggressive mountain lion, hold your ground, wave your arms, throw stones, and shout. Never run. Keep groups together and consider hiking elsewhere with young children if you come across a special mountain lion warning sign posted at a trailhead.
Venomous snakes, scorpions, spiders, and centipedes are all active during the warmer months. Inspect your shoes and sleeping bags or bedding before use and always carry a flashlight at night. While snake bites are rare, they usually occur below the knee or elbow. Pay attention to where you walk and place your hands. Consider wearing high boots or protective leggings while hiking.