Big Bend National Park

Trip Start May 06, 2010
Trip End Oct 14, 2010

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Big Bend National Park

Flag of United States  , Texas
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

I went to Big Bend National Park today.  It's nearly an hour drive from Marathon to the park entrance.  I first went to the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center where I looked at the exhibits, talked to a ranger for recommendations on what to do and watched a movie about the park.

Big Bend became a state park in 1933.  In 1935 Congress passed legislation that enabled acquisition of the land to form a national park although it didn't become a reality until 1944.  Significant portions of the park weren't acquired until 1987 and some land within the congressionally designated boundaries are still in private hands.  With over 800,000 acres, it's among the largest national parks in the lower 48 states.  Like most of our national parks, most of the infrastructure was built by the CCC.

Most of Big Bend is part of the Chihuahuan Desert.  There are mountainous portions that are a green island in a sea of desert.  Other portions are riparian, the most significant being along the Rio Grande, 118 miles of which forms the southern boundary of the park as well as the country.  All three of these ecosystems are radically changed since the time Europeans first came to the area.  The flow rate of the rivers in the park is about one sixth of what it used to be mostly due to diversion of water for other uses.  Mercury was mined in the mountains and many of the trees were used for construction and fuel for smelting.  Grass used to grow on thousands of acres within the park but it has all disappeared and has been replaced by a desert landscape of creosote bushes, sagebrush, agave and cacti, mostly due to overgrazing.  Candelilla plants were collected to produce wax.  Many animals in all three habitats were wiped out, some intentionally, some not.  Visibility, which used to be almost 250 miles, is now sometimes as low as 7 miles, the lower limit of the measuring equipment they have in the park. 

As an example of the change that's occurred, there's a trail to a grave of one of the early settlers.  When she died in 1911 she asked to be buried under the cottonwoods overlooking the spring where she used to read to her children.  In the 99 years since then the cottonwoods and all other sizable plants have all disappeared and there's not a drop of water in sight, leaving her grave baking in the desert sun.  In spite of the abuse the park has endured, there's still a lot worth seeing.

From the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center I headed south.  I took the Dagger Flat Auto Trail, which goes to a place in the desert with a large number of Giant Dagger Yuccas.  Next was the Fossil Bone Exhibit, which is in an area that has produced many important fossils from the age of the dinosaurs to the time of the early mammals.  I then visited the grave mentioned above.  From there I went to the Panther Junction Visitor Center and checked out the exhibits and took the Panther Path, a short nature trail through a garden of desert plants.

I headed east from Panther Junction toward Boquilas Canyon Overlook.  On the way there I stopped at the Dugout Wells and took the nature trail, which, in spite of the name, goes through the desert.  

I then went to the Boquilas Canyon Overlook at the end of the road.  This is one of three canyons along the Rio Grande within the park.  At the trail head is a sign warning you not to buy anything from any Mexicans.  At several points along the trail there handmade trinkets and things with a handwritten price list in broken English and a container for the money.  I guess that's what they were talking about.

The road leads up over a hill, down the other side and then along the Rio Grande.  After getting to the river bank the trail gets hard to follow.  At one point I saw a log of foot prints in deep mud.  I tried to avoid a similar fate; I didn't.  My feet got stuck so deep in the mud that I lost my shoes. 

I wanted to get a clear view of the river flowing into the canyon.  I followed the trail for a while but it didn't look like you could get a good view of the canyon from the US side so I turned around.  It was sunset by then so I started on the two-hour drive back to Marathon.  On the way I encountered another immigration checkpoint, which makes a lot more sense than the one last night since today I was heading away from the boarder, unlike last night.

 Tomorrow I'll be heading back to Big Bend National Park.
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