Of Desert, Mountain and River: Big Bend National Park

We were in the state of Texas for 17 days, and most of our time was spent in one place: Big Bend National Park. Big Bend, established in 1944, is the 15th largest national park by area (801,000 acres). We spent six days exploring its desert, mountain, and river ecosystems. There was plenty to do in a park of this size, so in addition to hiking in each area, we opted for several other activities. 

There are an abundance of backcountry roads leading to campsites in the park, with most requiring a 4×4 vehicle. Upon our arrival, we obtained a permit to drive to the Black Dike primitive campsite, located just a short distance from the Rio Grande River. It took us about an hour to drive 10 miles on the occasionally challenging sand and rock road. When we arrived at the campsite, we were able to park under the shade of a cottonwood tree, as the temperatures were in the low 90s F. After setting up camp, we walked down a short path to the river. 

The Rio Grande was narrower than we thought it would be, and just a stone’s throw across from us was Mexico. We could see paths on the other side and wondered if people might come across the river in the middle of the night. However, we heard nothing as we slept. The next morning we left early to drive back to the main road and secure a campsite at the nearby Cottonwood Campground. 

Road to Black Dike campsite
Rio Grande River a short distance from our campsite

Big Bend’s largest ecosystem is in the Chihuahuan Desert, the easternmost of the United States’ four deserts. Most of the Chihuahuan is in Mexico, with its northern portion covering southeastern Arizona, southern New Mexico, and West Texas. The Chihuahuan elevation is higher than the other U.S. deserts, resulting in milder summer temperatures, cooler winters, and greater precipitation.

We set off to hike to Mule Ears Spring, overlooking a mountain resembling donkey ears. As we walked, we saw hundreds of blooming ocotillo plants, as well as many flowering cactus. It was in the high 80s F and there wasn’t much shade, but the four mile hike was a great introduction to Big Bend’s desert terrain.

View of Mule Ears with blooming ocotillo and cactus
Blooming cactus along the trail

Our next desert hike was to the Chimneys, a series of rocky hills containing Native American petroglyphs. It was another hot day, but after our hike we got some relief from the heat by heading up to the mountainous Chisos region and camping at Chisos Basin ( 5,400 feet) that night. 

Hiking to the Chimneys in front of us
Some of the Chimneys petroglyphs

The Chisos are the United States’ southernmost mountains, and we completed several hikes in the cooler weather there. During one hike we descended to the Window, an opening in the Chisos Mountains looking down to the desert below.

View of the Window before our hike
Looking through the Window to the desert below

The next day we climbed to Lost Mine Peak (7,550 feet). It was a beautiful hike through the forest overlooking Juniper Canyon. Unfortunately it was hazy at the top, limiting our view. We did see a mule deer just off the trail on our way back. 

Forest trail to Lost Mine Peak
View of Juniper Canyon near the top
Mule deer spied on the trail

Our last hike in the area was to Balanced Rock in the nearby Grapevine Hills. A short walk up a wash ended at a rocky canyon where we had to scramble on our hands and knees for the final quarter mile to the top. It was well worth it to see the rocks perched precariously on top of one another.

Scrambling up to Balanced Rock
Balanced Rock

Big Bend’s name refers to the U turn that the Rio Grande makes, defining the park’s boundary (and the border of the U.S. and Mexico) for 118 miles. We spent time observing the river on both the park’s west and east sides. On the west side we hiked to Santa Elena Canyon. The trail climbed to an overlook before descending to the canyon’s river bank. The view of the sheer 1,800 foot walls in the afternoon sun was stunning.

Santa Elena Canyon

The east side of the park is popular with birders at this time of year, as it is migration season between South and North America for many birds. We learned that over 450 bird species have been recorded in the park. A hike took us to Boquillas Canyon, and while not as spectacular as Santa Elena Canyon, we found more solitude there while sitting by the river for a time watching the water and listening to the birds around us.

Boquillas Canyon
Sitting by the Rio Grande River

Our longest hike at Big Bend (six miles) was from Daniels Ranch to the Langford Hot Springs adjacent to the Rio Grande. It was our final desert hike, and upon arriving at the springs, we changed into our bathing suits and enjoyed the natural 105 F temperature of the water, which flowed into the Rio Grande just below us.

View from desert trail to the Rio Grande and hot springs
Enjoying the hot springs with the Rio Grande below

Our Big Bend hiking complete, we took part in one more activity before leaving – a trip across the border to Boquillas, Mexico. A border crossing within the park is open to Boquillas five days a week. Locals row you across the Rio Grande in a boat for $5.00 per person roundtrip. Once in Mexico, we could pay to ride a donkey into town, but opted instead to walk the one mile each way along a dirt road. There were several craft shops and restaurants in Boquillas, and we enjoyed a tasty lunch of guacamole and chips, chile rellenos, and tamales on an outside patio looking back across the Rio Grande to the United States. Upon our return to the U.S. we went through immigration at a kiosk with a phone connection to El Paso, Texas to answer the agent’s questions.

Rowing across the Rio Grande to Mexico
Boquillas, Mexico
Eating lunch in Boquillas

Our time at Big Bend allowed us to become better acquainted with the desert, mountain, and river ecosystems of the park. Not only did we hike a total of 29 miles, but we were able to venture off the paved roads to a primitive campground, soak in a hot spring next to the Rio Grande, and cross the border into Mexico. Though the Chisos area was more crowded, we found solitude in other sections of the park, ranked 42nd in 2016 visitors. In addition to the mule deer we observed while hiking, we also saw numerous javelinas and roadrunners.

Roadrunner behind our car

We will be visiting a historic hot spring at our next stop in the National Park system, Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas.

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2 thoughts on “Of Desert, Mountain and River: Big Bend National Park

  1. John Fahland

    I was really impressed with Big Bend National Park. Beautiful country and quite desolate. I hope you were able to visit Terlingua while you were there.

    It has been a long time since my only visit, but would love to return. We did a rafting trip on the Rio Grande. A lot of the time we were walking in the river.

    Hot Springs National Park is pretty cool too. It is a wonderful historic town. The Clinton Birthplace National Historic Site should be along your route. Regardless of your politics, it would probably be an interesting visit.

    • Sandy Post author

      Hi John – Thanks for your comments. We just loved Big Bend as well. Your rafting trip sounds great – would have loved to do that if we had more time. We didn’t get a chance to visit Terlingua, maybe next time. Just finished the Hot Springs post, it was a pleasant surprise for us. Again we didn’t have a chance to do any Clinton stuff, but would have liked to if we had time. We went to the LBJ museum in Austin and will be visiting Monticello (Jefferson) and Hyde Park (FDR) in the coming weeks. Sandy

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