Way, way off the beaten track, across a vast, rocky, and dusty landscape, not on the way to anywhere but here, is Big Bend National Park. To get your passport stamped at this park requires a lengthy trek deep down into the southern extent of the western Texas panhandle. This is where the Rio Grande makes its “big bend,” a grand curve composed of many smaller twists and turns. Here, the river flows through impressive canyons that separate the United States from Mexico. Hidden among the mostly brown landscape are lush and colorful biological surprises nourished by the ever-meandering Rio Grande. Big Bend is one of those national parks that could be visited again and again, exposing a new feature or providing a new experience with each exploration.
Far Away and Deep Into the Chihuahuan Desert
Michael and I explored Big Bend National Park with my father in April of 2017. We timed our travels to enjoy the cacti bloom while avoiding the more crowded spring break weeks. Although it was technically springtime, one especially strong memory from our time in this park is of the heat. It was hot and dusty in the RV park at Big Bend Resort & Adventures and even hotter down in Rio Grande Village. However, some days were hotter than others, and, with some planning, we enjoyed the higher elevations on the hot days and lower elevations on the cooler days.
If your only mental image of Big Bend National Park is of massive brown canyon walls and sage-studded buttes, you are in for a surprise. The park encompasses 801,163 acres of Chihuahuan Desert, riparian forest and scrub, spring-fed wetland oases, and the Chisos Mountains, a sky-island, where you will find high elevation trees such as Douglas fir and quaking aspen. Diverse habitats and numerous dirt roads and trails provide endless opportunities for exploration.
We began our trip in El Paso, Texas. On the day my father made his way from Maryland to Texas, we stocked up on groceries in El Paso. Our rig was too big and awkward to pick my dad up at his hotel the next morning. Instead, he opted to take an Uber to meet us at the Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino, where we had spent two nights in their RV park. As we were dumping our waste tanks, my dad showed up with his suitcase and shocked us with his new slim and fit form! This was the first time we had seen him since he made the change to the ketogenic diet, but that’s a story for another time. It was time to follow the Rio Grande all the way down to the Big Bend.
We headed east on Interstate 10 and turned south at Van Horn. Looking out over miles and miles of vacant desert, we chucked along on the bumpy roads as if on horseback. We passed the “Prada store” in the middle of the desert, which is really a work of art, not a real store. After Marfa and Alpine, we crossed more desert, mostly void of development. One hundred and eighty miles south of the Interstate, we were surprised to see trailers and small homes dotting the landscape as we entered the Study Butte-Terlingua area. Here, out in the middle of nowhere, was a surprising number of residents. We checked into Big Bend Resort & Adventures, my dad in a motel room, while Michael and I pulled into the RV park in his backyard. It was the perfect setup for our travels together.
Altogether we spent eight full days in the Big Bend area, which gave us time to explore different parts of the park, relax on hot afternoons, and take night drives to view wildlife. I’ll share our favorite spots to experience the three main ecosystems in the park: the Rio Grande and associated wetlands; desert scrub and spring-fed wetland oases; and the Chisos Mountains.
The Rio Grande
A main attraction of Big Bend National Park is the Rio Grande, which marks the southern boundary of Texas and of the United States. We recommend three locations for experiencing the Rio Grande in the Big Bend area: Rio Grande Village; Santa Elena Canyon; and Closed Canyon and the Hoodoos in Big Bend Ranch State Park.
Rio Grande Village
The nature trail at Rio Grande Village provides access to the river and its riparian habitats, and a short hike up a hill offers sweeping views of the Rio Grande. From here, you can also enjoy a wall-free view of our neighbors over in Mexico. In this part of the World, the landscape is mostly undeveloped, except for a small town in Mexico called Boquillas del Carmen. The nature trail crosses some marshy areas on boardwalks and then splits. From here, you can take a couple of switchbacks up a hill for the overlook, or you can continue onto the sandy river peninsula and take a dip in the Rio Grande. Both are short trips, and it is worthwhile to do both.
Also in Rio Grande Village, the picnic area at Daniels Ranch is an excellent site for birding. We spent one morning wandering around Daniels Ranch. While we were chasing down a bright red bird that turned out to be a summer tanager, we were surprised by a whole family of javelinas foraging in the grass beneath the trees. The place was loaded with singing Bell’s vireos and the colorful and entertaining golden-fronted woodpeckers.
We visited Rio Grande Village twice during our trip, and each time we were sweating bullets in the oppressive heat. Being near the river at the lowest elevation in the park and blocked from breezes by the river canyons, Rio Grand Village is typically the hottest place in the park. During spring and summer, mornings are the best time to visit.
Santa Elena Canyon
This slot canyon is one of the more impressive vistas of the Rio Grande inside the park. Santa Elena Canyon is a photographer’s favorite: vertical cliffs of warm yellows and browns framing the calm olive-green waters of the Rio Grande. The Santa Elena Canyon trail crosses the mostly dry Terlingua creek bed and climbs up some switchbacks into the slot canyon, where the temperature instantly drops in the shade of the canyon walls.
The cooler air and beautiful views put us all in a good mood as we entered the canyon. The moment reached perfection when the bouncing song of a canyon wren echoed off the canyon walls, and we decided to plop down on a boulder and stay a little while. To top it off, on our way back we glanced down and caught a glimpse of a water snake swimming in the river.
Closed Canyon and The Hoodoos
One day we ventured west into Big Bend Ranch State Park on the other side of Terlingua. The State Park encompasses another 311,000 acres in this area and is even more undeveloped than the National Park. Seventy miles of dirt roads and 238 miles of trails provide even more opportunities for exploring backcountry in the Chihuahuan Desert. Since the National Park is the main attraction down here, the State Park is quiet and lonely in contrast. One paved road, Farm-to-Market (FM) 170, follows the Rio Grande along the southern edge of the park. All other parts of the park must be accessed on foot, horseback, or bicycle, or by high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle on dirt roads.
Since we had just one very hot day for exploring this park, after stopping in at the Visitor Center to pay the fee and collect some maps and information, we drove the main road, stopping at various viewpoints for short hikes. Our favorite stops were the Hoodoos and Closed Canyon.
The Hoodoos are pinnacles of rock located in the canyon formed by the Rio Grande. There is a small picnic area with shade structures overlooking the Hoodoos and a trail that provides access to the river. We ate our lunch in the shade, looking out over the river, considering the message carved into the picnic table: “NO WALL.”
I can’t even begin to imagine a wall here. Who would get the river? Mexico or the United States? Wildlife, as well as people living and recreating near the border, would be negatively impacted by a wall. Meanwhile, criminals, the only types with which we should concern ourselves, would find a way around it – they always do.
We took a very hot and sweaty hike down to the river’s edge and watched turtles soaking up the sun on rocks in the river and a spotted sandpiper bouncing along the riverbanks. After barely making it back up the hill in the oppressive heat, we were all too happy to jump into the air-conditioned truck.
Closed Canyon is a narrow slot canyon formed by a tributary to the Rio Grande. The trail into the canyon begins on the south side of FM-170. On this hot April day with no storms in sight, the canyon floor was a dry trail of gravel deposited by storm flows from a distant memory. The canyon was a refuge. We walked into the shade of the steep walls and felt immediate relief. We followed the path over flood-polished rocks and deep gravel as it descended toward the river. The canyon grew narrower, and the descending steps grew steeper. At a certain point we had to stop. The drop-offs were too high to navigate without climbing gear. Without the satisfaction of seeing the river, we had no choice but to turn around and hike back out of the canyon. This hike was a refreshing break from the heat nevertheless.
Immediately outside of the slot canyon, we observed what we thought were bighorn sheep on the cliffs and upon closer inspection discovered that they were Barbary sheep. Unfortunately Barbary sheep do not belong here and are a threat to the native bighorn sheep and mule deer. Native to North Africa, Barbary sheep were brought to the United States for hunting on private properties and for zoos. By the 1950’s Barbary sheep were reproducing in the wild. Texas allows hunting of the sheep to control their population.
Desert Scrub and Wetland Oases
The majority of Big Bend National Park consists of desert scrub, an arid habitat dominated by shrubs rather than trees. Desert scrub is surprisingly diverse supporting many species of shrubs, such as creosote bush, mesquite, and ocotillo. Colorful wildflowers, grasses, and cacti grow among the shrubs. Here you’ll find animals adapted to this dry environment, including lizards, snakes, kangaroo rats, jackrabbits, and coyotes.
In such an arid environment, the presence of water creates an “oasis,” attracting wildlife. These oases are found where surface water gets trapped and remains through the summer or where ground water comes to the surface in the form of a spring. There are several places in Big Bend National Park where you can immerse yourself in the desert scrub ecosystem.
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is a must-do in the park. This paved route takes you through Chihuahuan Desert, up and over some hills that provide views of the Rio Grande canyons and mountain ranges beyond, and down through Tuff Canyon out toward the river. Don’t miss Sotol Vista and Mule Ears View Point along the way. The unpaved Old Maverick Road may be a more direct route to Santa Elena Canyon, but it’s a rough and bumpy ride over gravel washboards and not quite as scenic as the paved route. Of course, if you have the time to explore and you want to get away from the crowds, Old Maverick Road delivers.
On one of our first days in the park, we hiked to Mule Ears Spring, starting from Mule Ears View Point along Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. For us, the journey was more impressive than the destination. The spring itself is small, though any oasis in the desert offers the potential for unexpected life, such as frogs and wetland wildflowers. We enjoyed a bit of both upon reaching the spring.
The hike was one of our two favorites in the park for experiencing the Chihuahuan Desert and its colorful inhabitants. The trail takes you across the rocky desert and down into some sandy streambeds filled with bright green shrubs, such as honey mesquite and desert willow. There were vibrant pink and yellow cacti blossoms and lizards scurrying in front of us with almost every step. This was where we got our first look at a greater earless lizard, whose name utterly fails to describe these rainbow-wrapped critters skittering across sand and rock. Orange, pink, green, and turquoise patterns light up the males in the spring and early summer.
We were also rewarded with good, long looks at a couple of special desert birds: the pyrrhuloxia and Scott’s oriole. At a round-trip distance of about four miles, the hike to Mule Ears Spring is an excellent way to immerse yourself in the Chihuahuan Desert.
This 2.2-mile round-trip trail is noteworthy for the rock formations in the area, especially the balanced rocks that are the destination for this hike. For herpers (i.e., those who enjoy searching for reptiles and amphibians), Grapevine Hills should not be missed. The trail begins near the end of Grapevine Hills Road, three miles west of Panther Junction. The road is gravel/dirt but in good condition. The hike is a slight but steady uphill walk along a gravel wash through a rocky canyon. The hills on either side of the wash are covered in boulders and interesting rocky outcrops, plenty of nooks and crannies for lizards and snakes.
When we took this hike in early April, greater earless lizards were everywhere, scurrying across the sand and posing on rocks. There were also canyon lizards and whiptails – a herpetologist’s dream. About three-quarters of a mile up the wash, the trail begins to climb into the rocky hills. A series of switchbacks with a bit of rock scrambling leads to the final destination, a group of balanced rocks and sweeping views of the desert.
A tinaja is a depression in bedrock formed by erosion that collects water, making it an important feature in deserts. “Tinaja” is originally a Spanish word for a large earthenware jar, which describes how these natural pools in bedrock function for wildlife. Tinajas are often found in rocky streambeds where they hold the remainder of stormwater flows well into the dry season. The Ernst Tinaja is an especially deep tinaja. During the dry season, when water levels are lower, Ernst Tinaja is so deep and surrounded by such steep walls that animals have fallen in and gotten trapped there while trying to get a drink.
The canyon and tinaja are worth exploring and far enough off the beaten track that you may find yourself alone there. Access to the trailhead requires driving five miles north from the Rio Grande Village end of the park on Old Ore Road, a narrow and fairly rough dirt road. Conditions vary throughout the year, so check with a park ranger before venturing out there with your rental car. We headed out Old Ore Road in our high-clearance, four-wheel drive, heavy-duty truck. It was slow going, but the road was in fairly good condition. We heard that Old Ore Road becomes a rocky nightmare some distance beyond Ernst Tinaja, so you’ll need a true off-road vehicle to explore the length of it.
After reaching the parking area, the trail to Ernst Tinaja immediately enters an impressive canyon. The sedimentary layers that form the canyon walls look like stacks of paper, neatly upright in some areas and folded in others. The trail substrate alternates between sand and polished bedrock. Along the way, we got some good looks at greater earless lizards and an ash-throated flycatcher. Further upstream and deeper into the canyon, the walls begin to close in. Eventually some climbing on the canyon’s sedimentary steps is required to gain a full view of the Ernst Tinaja in the middle of the streambed. We took a seat in the shade and admired the colorful patterns of rock around us and watched a northern rough-winged swallow taking sips from the tinaja as he flew back and forth across its surface.
Smack in the middle of the park is an isolated cluster of mountains called the Chisos Mountains. The Chisos are high enough – Emory Peak is the highest peak at 7,832 feet – that trees such as Arizona pine, Douglas fir, quaking aspen, and bigtooth maple occur here. This is quite surprising considering the miles and miles of hot desert scrub surrounding these mountains.
Ascending into the mountains on Chisos Basin Road, the vegetation slowly changes from desert scrub to mountain mahogany, evergreen sumac, and Texas madrone. Eventually the foothill scrub vegetation gives way to oaks, junipers, and pinyon pines. Finally, hikes toward the mountain peaks offer cooler air and the shade of tall trees. The Chisos are an example of what scientists call “sky islands,” isolated mountains that form “islands” of moist, green, higher elevation habitats surrounded by arid deserts. Isolated from other mountain ranges by miles of desert, unique species live here, such as the Carmen Mountain white-tailed deer.
We drove up into the Chisos Mountains on several occasions for short walks among the oak-juniper-pinyon habitats. However, we dedicated one whole day to a long hike into the depths of the forest in search of a small bird that nests only in the Chisos Mountains – the Colima warbler.
April 12th was a cooler day up in the mountains with the threat of thunderstorms in the afternoon. We climbed through the oaks and junipers and up the switchbacks of the Pinnacles Trail into stands of bigtooth maples, pines and Douglas firs. Blooming wildflowers and cacti were plentiful along the trail, and the views of the Chisos Basin were spectacular. Slow and steady, we continued to climb as I pushed beyond my physical limitations with the mental goal of seeing my first Colima warbler. Just a little bit further and we’ll finally see one!
We made it partially into Boot Canyon, taking in the sight of the rock formation known as the “boot.” We were hiking among the treetops along the upper edge of the canyon, and there were lots of songbirds moving around us. However, not one of them was a Colima warbler. Exhausted and concerned about the stormy clouds moving in, we returned along the same path back down to the Chisos Basin. In total, we hiked 6.75 miles and ascended 1,723 feet, reaching an elevation of 7,052 feet!
While I was disappointed that I couldn’t add Colima warbler to my life list, and the hike left me barely hobbling into the Chisos Mountain Lodge Restaurant, this was my favorite hike in the park. If I ever overcome my chronic illness and regain the physical fitness of my former self, I will convince Michael to return with me and take on an even longer hike into these mountains, and we WILL see a Colima warbler!
After the “big hike,” we enjoyed a steak dinner at the Chisos Mountain Lodge Restaurant as we watched an incredible sunset in the stormy skies and later a lightning storm all from our dinner table. One last night drive back to Terlingua gave us a couple more surprises: a black-tailed rattlesnake and a western diamondback rattlesnake crossing the road. See my upcoming post on our night drives in the park for more on Big Bend snakes!
Though it’s way, way out of the way, we would return to the Big Bend, because there is so much left to explore. While the heat was sometimes unbearable, we appreciated the colorful wildflowers and wildlife that we would have missed in a different season. However, for deep exploration of this park, we would probably choose a cooler time of year, perhaps a bit earlier in the spring, for our next visit.