Winter in Big Bend National Park
Global, Unrecognized Treasure
by George Oxford Miller
West Texas reveals its charms grudgingly. The arid landscape looks as inhospitable now as it did 150 years ago when General Sheridan, fresh from the Civil War, said that if he owned hell and Texas, he’d live in hell and rent out Texas.
The 80-mile, two-lane approach to Big Bend National Park gives little hint of the scenic wonders hidden beyond the endless expanse of yucca and creosote bushes. But first impressions can be deceiving. "I thought that if the government paid 25 cents an acre for this land, they were cheated!" a woman from Michigan said in the campgrounds. "But we’ve been here a week, now, and plan to spend a month next winter."
With crimson sunsets, night skies overflowing with stars, and morning air that makes you feel 20 years younger, the most remote point in Texas enchants even the most skeptical visitors. Big Bend National Park encompasses 1,200 square miles of the most rugged country in the nation. Including adjacent preserved areas, 1.25 million acres of untamed wilderness stretch for 150 miles along the Rio Grande. And the Mexican side is just as wild.
We came to Big Bend in the winter to explore the desert, hike in the mountains, and float one of the canyons that the Rio Grande created, cutting through the craggy mountains like a giant cleaver. The Rio Grande runs generally south from the Rockies in Colorado until it hits the northern edge of the Mexican Plateau in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert. It deflects abruptly northeast for about 75 miles, then resumes its southerly course toward the Gulf of Mexico. In that great horseshoe curve, or "Big Bend," the Rio Grande embraces a majestic mountain range. It cuts three spectacular canyons which have walls up to 1,500 feet high. It creates a green ribbon of life in the 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 birds and cacti than any other national park makes Big Bend a global, though largely unrecognized, treasure. It ranks as one of the least visited national parks in the system.
We set up at Rio Grande Village, the park campground at the mouth of Boquillas Canyon. A short nature hike leads through the dense growth of cane and grasses bordering the river to a vista point overlooking the canyon and the Mexican village of Boquillas. The adobe houses shimmer white, and the cliffs of the Sierra del Carmen range glow golden in the setting sun.
The next morning we’re ready for our three-day float trip through Boquillas Canyon, but mother nature objects. She has met us with a 30-mph headwind which whips out of the canyon like a cyclone, making canoeing impossible. We regroup and decide to paddle Mariscal Canyon, the middle of the three canyons cut by the river. (Santa Elena Canyon, the third in the series, lies 65 miles away, on the western edge of the park.)
To reach Mariscal Canyon, we must take the River Road, a 4-wheel drive, high-clearance, double-track road that parallels the Rio Grande and passes through the most remote sections of the park. Even here, occasional signs of earlier human occupation dot the desert. An abandoned adobe house stands in ruins beside a dry arroyo. A wooden windmill screeches in the breeze. The debris of mining camps hints that prospectors’ dreams were more abundant than ore. Though tales of lost gold and silver mines abound, it was mercury that provided the riches. The ruins of Mariscal Mine mark the location of one of the few profitable operations in the region.
Finally, after a half-day’s delay, our spirits soar as we push off into the stream and Mariscal Canyon. The flute-like trill of a canyon wren accompanies us into the shadowed fissure. A peregrine falcon swoops from the cliffs that loom overhead. The swift current draws us deeper and deeper into the narrow confines of the unknown.
Unlike a Disney ride, the river makes us pay, not with an admission ticket, but with our skills. At places the walls rise abruptly from the water for 1,000 feet. The narrow slit frames the blue sky above us and hides the rapids we hear roaring around the next bend. Our guide shouts instructions. We maneuver the raft, then slide through the turbulence with showers of cold spray and shots of adrenaline. Mariscal is the shortest and least technical canyon in the park. The Boquillas and Santa Elena canyons challenge floaters with canoe-eating rapids in settings that can be days away from assistance.
That evening, on the way back to our campgrounds, we detour by Hot Springs, a 105 degree upwelling of mineral water beside the river. The ruins of a historic bathhouse remain, and only a narrow stone wall keeps the 58-degree river water from cooling the thermal flow. Someone lights a candle, and we sit beneath a million stars and massage each other’s tired shoulders.
Since the foul winds have cut our float trip short, we have an extra day. We decide to hike some of the trails in the Basin, a bowl-like depression in heart of the Chisos Mountains. The Chisos rise a mile above the desert basin and dominate the skyline from any locale in the park. With peaks exceeding 7,800 feet high, the mountains create a biological island of moisture surrounded by the thirsty Chihuahuan Desert. Thriving here are plants and animals that disappeared from the basins 10,000 years ago, when the Ice Age ended. Dense oak forests, ponderosa pines, juniper-madrone woodlands and even quaking aspens grow on the protected slopes. Black bears, cougars, rare birds, and a distinct sub-species of white-tailed deer call the mountain oasis home.
The Basin is also home of the Chisos Mountain Lodge, a restaurant and campgrounds. From here, trails lead to Lost Mine Peak, a 4.8-mile round trip, and to the Window, a 5.2-mile round trip through a wooded canyon to a narrow gorge with a precipitous pour-off onto the desert. Longer, more rigorous trails lead to the South Rim, an escarpment with views into distant Mexico, and to the Boot, a rock formation shaped like its namesake.
We hike the Lost Mine Trail to the base of Casa Grande Peak, a monolith that towers high above the Basin. It was somewhere near here, according to legend, that the Spanish enslaved local Indians to work a silver mine, but the Indians rebelled, slaughtered the conquistadors, and sealed the shaft. It is still hidden, perhaps forever. The trail circles around a dividing ridge and ends at a viewpoint overlooking the river far below. The view encompasses hundreds of miles of Chihuahuan Desert and the towering Sierra del Carmen range in Mexico.
After a day of exploring, we sit on the restaurant porch and watch the sky turn brilliant shades of mango as the sun slides into the jagged notch created by the Window. A white-winged dove coos from a nearby perch. Several deer munch grass on the hillside. Stillness settles across the mountains. A man from Dallas sips his iced tea. "I’ve seen sights around the world," he said, "but it just doesn’t get any better than this."
If You Go
Maps, brochures, and trail guides:
Current local information: Stop at the Visitor Center at Panther Junction to check ranger program schedules, exhibits, and road, trail and weather conditions.
Float trip operators: The park provides a list of operators that offer float trips through the canyons.
Chisos Mountain Lodge is operated by National Park Concessions, Inc.
Camping & RV Parks
There are three developed campgrounds and one RV campground at Big Bend National Park:
- Rio Grande Village - 100 sites
- Chisos Basin - 63 sites
- Cottonwood - 31 sites
- Concession-operated Rio Grande Village RV Campground
Check with the park's page for current fees, reservation and other information. Primitive camping in designated desert locations requires a backcountry permit that must be obtained in person from the visitor center.
Climate: Winter temperatures are moderate, though cold fronts can bring freezing weather. In December, highs average 62, lows 36 degrees. January ranges from highs of 61 to lows of 35 degrees, and February ranges from 66 to 38 degrees.
Directions: From Alpine, take highway TH 118 to Study Butte, or from Presidio, take FM 170 to Study Butte, then drive 26 miles west to the park headquarters. From Marathon, take US 385 south to park headquarters.
From the Midland/Odessa International Airport, it is 235 miles to the park headquarters. From the El Paso International Airport, it is 330 miles to the headquarters.
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