Big Bend National Park

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Big Bend National Park
IUCN Category II (National Park)
Big Bend National Park
US Locator Blank.svg
Location: Texas, USA
Nearest city: El Paso
Area: 801,163 acres (3,242 km²)
Established: June 12, 1944
Visitation: 298,717 (in 2006)
Governing body: National Park Service

Big Bend National Park is a National Park located in Texas, USA. For more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km) the Rio Grande / Río Bravo forms the international boundary between Mexico and the United States; Big Bend National Park administers approximately one-quarter of that boundary.

Big Bend National Park has national significance as the largest protected area of Chihuahuan Desert topography and ecology in the United States. The park covers 1,252 square miles (3,242 sq km). Few areas exceed the park's value for the protection and study of geologic and paleontologic resources. Cretaceous and Tertiary fossil organisms exist in variety and abundance. Archeologists have discovered artifacts estimated to be 9,000 years old, and historic buildings and landscapes offer graphic illustration of life along the international border at the turn of the century.

Because the Rio Grande serves as an international boundary, the park faces unusual constraints when administering and enforcing park rules, regulations, and policies. The park has jurisdiction only to the center of the deepest river channel; the rest of the river lies within Mexican territory.

This is one of the last remaining wild corners of the United States, and offers an experience unmatched in sights, sounds, and solitude. A wildly beautiful unspoiled region, it has a complex and fascinating history.


Pine Canyon Falls inside Big Bend National Park.

South of the border lie the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila and the new protected areas for flora and fauna, which are comprised of regions known as the Maderas del Carmen and the Cañón de Santa Elena.

The 118 miles (190 km) of river that form the southern park boundary include the spectacular canyons of Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas. The Rio Grande, meandering through this portion of the Chihuahuan Desert, has cut deep canyons with nearly vertical walls through three uplifts comprised primarily of limestone. Throughout the open desert areas, the highly productive Rio Grande riparian zone includes numerous plant and animal species and significant cultural resources. The vegetative belt extends into the desert along creeks and arroyos.


The park exhibits dramatic contrasts; its climate may be characterized as one of extremes. Dry and hot late spring and summer days often exceed 100° F (38° C) in the lower elevations. Winters are normally mild throughout the park, but sub-freezing temperatures occasionally occur. Because of the range in altitude from approximately 1,800 feet (550 m) along the river to 7,800 feet (2,400 m) in the Chisos Mountains, a wide variation in available moisture and in temperature exists throughout the park. These variations contribute to an exceptional diversity in plant and animal habitats. Some species in the park, such as the Chisos Oak, are found nowhere else in the United States. The highest point in the Chisos Mountains is Emory Peak with an elevation of 7,832 ft.

Flora and fauna

Given its harsh environment, Big Bend has an amazing variety and number of plant and animal species. The diversity of life is largely due to the diverse ecology and changes in elevation, ranging from the dry, hot desert to the cool mountains to the fertile river valley.

It has more than 1,200 species of plants (including 60 different cacti species). The desert-dwelling cactus plants are plentiful throughout the park displaying their colorful blossoms from spring to late summer especially following the usual July and August rains. To protect itself from drought, the stem fills up with a thick sap during the rainy season, which then seals it as a wax in the dry season and therefore prevents evaporation. The shallow root system of the cactus spreads out in a formation that best collects the rainwater that occurs. Throughout the spring and summer the wildflowers are in full bloom and the yucca flowers display bright colors. Bluebonnets are prevalent in Big Bend, and white and pink bluebonnets are sometimes visible along the roadways.

The creosote bush is the most prevalent shrub in the park. Their tiny leaves are coated in a resin that retains moisture exceptionally well. The shrubs located next to the road tend to be twice as tall as shrubs further back due to the collection of pavement runoff.

The desert is teeming with life. There are an impressive 450 bird species, 75 mammal species, and 67 species of amphibians and reptiles. There are also approximately 3,600 species of insects. The golden eagle feeds mostly on rodents and rabbits and has a wingspan of six to eight feet. The common roadrunner can run at speeds up to 20 miles per hour and consumes mainly lizards and small snakes. The jackrabbit, famous for its large ears, transfers excessive heat from its body to the environment. The kangaroo rat is especially adept to the extreme dryness of the desert as it can metabolize water from the carbohydrates it eats, never needing to drink for its survival.

The larger mammals include the black bear, mountain lion, coyote, white-tail and mule deer, and javelina. Javelinas are often called pigs, however, they are in a different family with several differences such as three toes on the hind foot verses the pig’s four toes. The mountain lion plays an important part in keeping the balance of the biological diversity. Research shows that the lions keep the javelina and deer populations within their food resouce limits.

Among the many plants and animals listed on the endangered species that live in Big Bend National Park are the Chisos hedgehog cactus, black-capped vireo, Mexican long-nosed bat, Big Bend gambusia, and Rio Grande silvery minnow.


Pink bluebonnets mingling with blue ones.

Due to the sparse vegetation that allows the various strata to be easily studied, some geologists describe Big Bend as a geologist’s paradise. Over 135 million years ago, a warm shallow sea covered the Big Bend area depositing lime mud and the remains of clams, snails, and other sea-dwelling organisms. Layers of limestone formed from the shallow muds and can now be seen throughout Bid Bend. Approximately 100 million years ago, this shallow sea began a gradual retreat to what is now the Gulf of Mexico. The near-shore deposits have yielded petrified wood, fossil turtles, and crocodiles—one measuring an incredible 50 feet long. One of the most famous fossil treasures from this period is the giant flying reptile, Quetzalcoatlus northropi, with a wingspan of more than 35 feet.

For nearly 10 million years after the uplift ended, non-marine sediments of the Tertiary period constitute the only record of events in the Big Bend area. With the dinosaurs long extinct and replaced by numerous mammals, many remains found are from animals such as horses, camels, rodents, and rhinos along with the fossils of the plant life on which they thrived.

Today’s landscape at Big Bend National Park was formed by the compression, volcanism, and tension of the land. Higher lands eroded and filled in the surrounding basins. In time, basins from El Paso to Big Bend were all filled and subsequently linked by the Rio Grande, which is the youngest major river system in the United States. The process of erosion comprise the most active aspect of Big Bend’s geology today.

Cultural resources

Cultural resources in the park range from the Paleo-Indian period 10,500 years ago through the historic period represented by Native American groups, such as the Chisos, Mescaleros, and Comanche. More recently, Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo settlers farmed, ranched, and mined in the area.

Throughout the prehistoric period, humans found shelter and maintained open campsites throughout the park. The archeological record reveals an Archaic-period desert culture whose inhabitants developed a nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle that remained virtually unchanged for several thousand years.

The historic cultural landscape centers upon various subsistence or commercial land uses. The riparian and tributary environments were used for subsistence and irrigation farming. Transportation networks, irrigation structures, simple domestic residences and outbuildings, and planed and terraced farmland lining the stream banks characterize these landscapes.

Human history

During the early historic period (pre-1535) several Indian groups were recorded as inhabiting the Big Bend. The Chisos Indians were a loosely organized group of nomadic hunters and gatherers who probably practiced limited agriculture on a seasonal basis. The origin of the Chisos Indians is not known. Linguistically, they were associated with the Conchos Indians of northern Chihuahua and northwestern Coahuila. Their language group spoke a variation of Uto-Aztecan, a language whose speakers ranged from central Mexico to the Great Basin of the U.S.

The Jumano was a nomadic group that traveled and traded throughout west Texas and southeastern New Mexico, but some historic records indicate that they were enemies of the Chisos. Around the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Mescalero Apaches began to invade the Big Bend region and displaced the Chisos Indians. The last Indian group to use the Big Bend was the Comanche who passed through the park along the Great Comanche Trail on their way to and from periodic raids into the Mexican interior. These raids continued until the mid-nineteenth century.

"The Window"

The Historic Era begins circa 1535 with the first Spanish explorations into this portion of North America. The expedition of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca passed near the Big Bend and was followed by other expeditions in the search for gold and silver, farm and ranch land, and Indian slaves. In an attempt to protect the northern frontier of Mexico, a line of "presidios," or forts, was established along the Rio Grande in the late 1700s. The Presidio de San Vicente was built near present-day San Vicente, Coahuila, and the Presidio de San Carlos was built near present-day Manuel Benavides, Chihuahua. These presidios were soon abandoned, however, because of financial difficulties and because they could not effectively stop Indian intrusions into Mexico.

Very little study has been made of the Mexican occupation of the Big Bend following the abandonment of the Presidios. In 1805, the Mexican settlement called Altares existed 30 miles (50 km) south of the Rio Grande. Mexican families lived in the area when Anglo settlers began moving in following the secession of Texas during the latter half of the nineteenth century.

The Sierra del Carmen mountains, a limestone uplift at the southern border of the park.

Following the Mexican-American War, which ended in 1848, military surveys were made of the uncharted land of the Big Bend. Military forts and outposts were established across Trans Pecos Texas to protect migrating settlers from the Indians. Around 1880, ranchers began to migrate into the Big Bend, and by 1900, sheep, goat, and cattle ranches occupied a majority of the landscape. The delicate desert environment, however, was soon overgrazed.

In the early twentieth century, the discovery of valuable mineral deposits brought more settlers who worked in the mines or supported the mines by farming or by cutting timber for use in the mines and smelters. Communities sprang up around the mines; development of the towns of Boquillas and Terlingua directly resulted from mining operations. During this period, the Rio Grande flood plain was settled by farmers. Settlements developed with names such as Terlingua Abajo, San Vicente, La Coyota, and Castolon. These were often no more than clusters of families living and farming in the same area, and they were successful only to the degree that the land was able to support them.

In the 1930s, many people who loved the Big Bend country saw that it was a land of unique contrast and beauty that was worth preserving for future generations. In 1933, the State of Texas passed legislation to establish Texas Canyons State Park; later that year the park was re-designated Big Bend State Park. In 1935, the U.S. Congress passed legislation that would enable the acquisition of the land for a National Park. The State of Texas deeded the land that they had acquired to the Federal government, and on June 12, 1944, Big Bend National Park became a reality. The park opened to visitors on July 1, 1944.


Big Bend is one of the largest, most remote, and least-visited National Parks in the lower 48 United States. In recent years 300,000-350,000 visitors have entered the park annually.

  • Hiking—Big Bend's primary attraction is its hiking and backpacking trails. Particularly notable among these are the Chimneys Trail, which visits a rock formation in the desert, the Marufo Vega trail, a loop trail that passes through scenic canyons on the way to and from the Rio Grande, and the Outer Mountain Loop trail in the Chisos, which begins in the Chisos Basin, climbs into the high mountains, descends into the desert along the Dodson Trail, and then returns to the Chisos Basin, completing a 30-mile loop. Other notable locations include Santa Elena Canyon and the Mule Ears, two imposing rock towers in the middle of the desert.
  • Canoeing—Another fascinating way to see the park’s canyons is from the middle of the Ro Grande River. There are numerous possible canoeing excursions from half-day floats to seven-day expeditions.
  • Birding—Big Bend National Park is ideally located along a migration route, which makes for a diverse assortment of species viewing. The birds from the north come for the winter and birds from the tropics come to the area in the spring to breed. From April to September the Colima warbler is found exclusively in the Chisos Mountains of the park.
  • Stargazing—Big Bend National Park is a stargazer’s paradise. Due to its remoteness, the desert sky reveals a spectacular display of diamond-like stars. One of the most relaxing ways to take in the heavens is in the warm waters of the old bath at Hot Springs near Rio Grande Village.

The Rio Grande emerging from Santa Elena canyon. The left canyon wall is in Mexico, the right is in the USA


  • Dayton, Gage H., Raymond Skiles, and Linnea B. Dayton. 2007. Frogs and toads of Big Bend National Park. W.L. Moody, Jr., natural history series, no. 36. College Station: Texas A&M University Press. ISBN 1585445762
  • Gómez, Arthur R. 1990. A most singular country a history of occupation in the Big Bend. Charles Redd monographs in western history, no. 18. Santa Fe, NM: National Park Service, Dept. of the Interior. ISBN 1560850000
  • Hall, Margaret. 2006. Big Bend National Park. Symbols of freedom. Chicago: Heinemann Library. ISBN 1403466971 and ISBN 9781403466976
  • Jameson, John R. 1996. The story of Big Bend National Park. Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0292740433
  • Mallouf, Robert J., William A. Cloud, and Richard W. Walter. 2006. The Rosillo Peak site: a prehistoric mountaintop campsite in Big Bend National Park, Texas. Alpine, TX: Center for Big Bend Studies, Sul Ross State University and Big Bend National Park, National Park Service. ISBN 0970770944
  • Maxwell, Ross A. 1968. The Big Bend of the Rio Grande; a guide to the rocks, landscape, geologic history, and settlers of the area of Big Bend National Park. Austin: University of Texas.
  • Parent, Laurence, and Joe Nick Patoski. 2006. Big Bend National Park. Bill and Alice Wright photography series. Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0292714416
  • Tyler, Ronnie C. 1975. The Big Bend: a history of the last Texas frontier. Washington: Office of Publications, National Park Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior.

External links

All links retrieved October 1, 2023.


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