Big Bend In One Day
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.
If you have only one day for your first visit to Big Bend National Park, here are a few suggestions.