The Spring, Big Bend National Park
Wildflowers and More
by George Oxford Miller
Thoughts of spring wildflowers usually bring visions of lush hills and meadows with picturesque streams. Not the desert. Certainly not arid West Texas. Yet by April, especially in years following a wet autumn, wildflowers and cacti turn the rugged landscape of Big Bend National Park into a palette of rainbow hues. And migrating birds add their colorful magic to the trees and thorn-covered vegetation.
Big Bend National Park encompasses 1,200 square miles of the most rugged country in North America. The great horseshoe curve, or "Big Bend," in the Rio Grande embraces a mountain range, cuts three spectacular canyons with 1,500-foot walls, and creates a green ribbon of life in the parched desert. The combination of horizon-to-horizon panoramas, mile-high mountain peaks, hundreds of miles of back roads and hiking trails, and more species of cacti and birds than any other national park makes Big Bend a global treasure.
We pitch our tent in Rio Grande Village, a wooded oasis on the banks of the Rio Grande on the east side of the park. With nature trails, ranger programs, showers, and a store, the campgrounds provide a convenient bivouac for exploring the desert. The cacti begin blooming in April and flower into the summer. More than 60 species decorate the rocky landscape. Button cactus and similar petit species have dime-sized blooms while larger species sport clusters with dozens of flamboyant flowers.
Despite the harsh environment and inhospitable thorns, cacti produce some of the most dazzling flowers of any plant. Starting on a limestone ridge near the river, we crisscross the parched hillside like miners searching for nuggets of gold. Rainbow, hedgehog, and turk's head cacti glisten in the morning sun. A clump of strawberry cactus has so many scarlet blossoms we can hardly see the thorny stems.
The lipstick red flowers of claret-cup look like molded wax. The magenta blossoms of cholla cacti spring from long, slender stems like flames on a blow torch, while the golden flowers of barrel cacti circle the stems like jewels a thorny crown. Lemon-yellow blossoms cover the pads on head-high mounds of prickly pear. In another month, thirsty desert creatures will feast on the succulent fruit.
Some cacti bloom for only one day. With waxy petals to conserve moisture, the rose-like blooms use a rainbow palette of colors to attract insects. Many yellow flowers have red centers to guide insects to the pollen-rich stamens. Wicked thorns, some shaped like fishhooks, protect the moist stems from nibbling animals.
Cacti aren't the only players in the spring pageant. The ephemeral wildflower bloom depends on the amount of rain from the previous fall. Many flowers germinate in the autumn and overwinter as tiny rosettes. In a boom or bust ecology, some springs produce few flowers, others turn the hills into a impressionistic mosaic of colors. We arrive on a better than average year. Wildflowers splash moist flats and protected hillsides with dazzling hues. (2004 is expected to be the best in a decade and a 50 year record in many places across the Southwest.)
We start our wildflower quest along the drive to Boquillas Canyon at a broad arroyo that crosses the road. Purple globes of desert verbena and tall clusters of pink globe mallows line the banks. The lemon-yellow disks of desert marigold dot the dry wash. Delicate orange poppies, red firewheels, and clumps of purple wooly locoweed grow among the dagger-like lecheguillas. Yellow balls decorate the thorny acacia bushes like dobs of butter.
Throughout the park we've seen a few examples of the three-foot tall Big Bend Bluebonnets, but no dense displays. Now we find a hillside blanketed with the fragrant blooms. The color paints the rocky slope like blue spilled from the sky. In the midst of the profusion of blossoms, lanky wands of ocotillo tipped with red flowers bob in the breeze. Bees dive into the bluebonnets and, like an eager dance partner, a hummingbird weaves back and forth with the waving ocotillo flowers.
Each spring, especially the last two weeks of April and first week of May, birds migrating north from Mexico across the Chihuahuan Desert find the lush vegetation bordering the Rio Grande a haven of life. Of the 380 species of birds occurring in the park, more than 100 stay to nest. Eleven species of hummingbirds sip nectar from the abundant agave and ocotillo blossoms.
We don't have to stray far from our tent to see the aerial display. Vermilion flycatchers bounce along the mesquite branches like little balls of fire. Scarlet tanagers, blue grosbeaks, and yellow-breasted chats add color to the campground, and painted buntings and black-chinned sparrows flit along the grassy roadsides.
Like a supermarket, Big Bend attract birds with a dependable supply of water, insects and seeds, and nesting places. We set out early for Dug Out Wells, a picnic spot on the road between Rio Grande Village and the park headquarters at Panther Junction. Early settlers built a school near the spring but now the only chatter comes from the feathery residents. Cottonwoods, mesquite, and a tangle of scrubby brush surround the water hole.
Our arrival startles a roadrunner sunning on the roadside. The yellow flash of a verdin on the way to its nest zips through the brush. Only a white-winged dove singing "who cooks for you" and a drumming woodpecker interrupt the desert silence. In the distance the Chisos Mountains with 7,000-foot peaks and forests of ponderosa pine and oak loom against the cobalt sky.
Unexpected worlds reside within the universe that exists just beyond our daily routine. Worlds where the blue of the sky floods parched hillsides and desert valleys hide a jackpot of jewels. A trip to Big Bend offers the discovery of vast new landscapes, both outer and inner.
If you go
Information: For maps, brochures, and trail guides, contact the park at 423-477-2251, www.nps.gov/bibe/home.htm, e-mail BIBEInformation@nps.gov. Stop at the Visitor Center at Panther Junction when you arrive to check ranger program schedules, road, trail, and weather conditions, and to see the exhibits.
Accommodations: Chisos Mountain Lodge, Reservations strongly advised. Spring break (late March), Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's receive the highest visitation with campgrounds and lodging at capacity. Camping: The park has three campgrounds and doesn't accept reservations. The Basin in the Chisos Mountains has tent and RV camping with showers and complete visitor concessions nearby. Rio Grande Village offers tent and RV sites, showers, a store, and gasoline. Cottonwood Campground at Santa Elena Canyon, has water, a store, and gasoline. Primitive camping in designated locations is allowed with a permit.
Seasons: Depending on fall rains, wildflowers begin blooming in March and cacti in April. By mid-April, temperatures often reach the 90s, with summers exceeding 100 degrees F.. The Basin is 10 degrees cooler than along the Rio Grande. Thanksgiving through New Year's is a popular time when temperatures are moderate, though cold fronts can sweep through with freezing weather.
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