Ecosystems

The Chisos Mountains rise up behind a high desert grassland scene.
Chisos Mountains

NPS/R. Wonite

Big Bend National Park is often referred to as "three parks in one", due to the multiple ecosystems found within its boundaries. The author Fredrick Gelbach describes these borderlands aptly when he calls them “a carpet of interacting plants and animals deftly woven on a geologic loom.” This statement conjures up images of looming mountains, stark desert landscapes, and a ribbon of water slicing through it all. And, indeed, this is what Big Bend and the surrounding area is—a diverse natural area of river, desert, and mountains, and a land of extremes—hot and cold, wet and dry, high and low. To wander the shimmering desert flats, to ascend the rimrocks of the desert mountains, to float the canyons of the Rio Grande—to be “on the border"— is to experience sights and sounds and solitude unmatched elsewhere.
 
A river winds through a canyon with high limestone walls that are lit up by a setting sun.
The Rio Grande through Boquillas Canyon

NPS/M. Schuler

River

The one location where you can count on seeing water in the park is along the Rio Grande—an oasis that’s been called the “lifeblood” of Big Bend. Although the river, as the boundary between the United States and Mexico, looks like a solid line on maps of the area, it is always changing, always carving, subject to its own whims. The Rio Grande takes us along on its current, opening our eyes to a panorama of towering cliffs, brilliant bird life, grassy beaches, and a slower way of life. Without the river, we wouldn't have "the Big Bend". Without "the Big Bend", what would this place be?
 
Ocotillo and prickly pear cactus make up the foreground of a desert scene with a backdrop of mountains
Elephant Tusk and the Chisos Mountains rise up from the desert

NPS/B. Trester

Desert

Big Bend National Park is located at the northern end of the Chihuahuan desert. Since most of the Chihuahuan desert is located in Mexico, Big Bend represents the largest protected portion of the Chihuahuan desert in the United States. The preservations resulting from its national park status have allowed Big Bend to remain one of the most pristine examples of America's Chihuahuan desert. As such, it has been designated a Chihuahuan Desert Biosphere Reserve.

 
A view looking down on mountain tops that surround a lower basin.
A view of Casa Grande and the Window

NPS/R. Wonite

Mountains

In the heart of Big Bend lie the Chisos Mountains, mountains born of fire during volcanic eruptions and intrusions 40 - 60 million years ago and exposed by the incessant forces of erosion. As you ascend the slopes of the Chisos, the thorns of the desert give way to evergreens like pinyon pine and juniper. Some surprising species living at the very limit of their ranges can be found in the higher, moister areas—bigtooth maple, quaking aspen, and Douglas fir. Although only 2% of the park is woodland, this area draws people like a magnet—especially in the summer—as daytime temperatures are usually about 20 degrees cooler than by the river. Here, in this mountain island surrounded by a desert sea, one can find flora and fauna unique to the Chihuahuan desert and some unique to Big Bend.
 
A dirt trail skirts a hillside covered in pine trees, wildflowers, and succulents.
Emory Peak trail

NPS/J. Jurado

Ecosystem Stories

Diversity Makes the Difference

Chihuhuan Desert Biosphere Reserve

Last updated: August 17, 2020

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

PO Box 129
Big Bend National Park, TX 79834-0129

Phone:

432-477-2251

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