Posted by: kerryl29 | May 18, 2020

Big Bend National Park: An Introduction

I first became familiar with Big Bend National Park in the 1980s.  I don’t recall how; I must have read an article about the park in some publication.  Regardless of specifics, I’ve always wanted to visit the park and my interest only increased as I became truly serious about photography in the late 1990s.  And yet, I never even came close to actually making a trip to Big Bend.

Chichuahuan Desert Sunset, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend probably isn’t the most remote national park in the continental United States; either Isle Royale or Dry Tortugas, neither of which can be reached by land, probably wins that title.  But, make no mistake, Big Bend is plenty remote.  The nearest commercial airport is located in Midland, about three hours away.  The nearest sizable airport, in El Paso, is 4 1/2 hours away.  San Antonio is roughly six hours distant.  And unlike some other relatively remote national parks in the continental U.S.–Yellowstone, for instance, or Glacier–there are no large “feeder towns,” filled with accommodations and other services, nearby.  No, Big Bend is remote.  And during the period of time that I was based exclusively in the Midwest, the logistics of making a trip to the park seemed too onerous to seriously consider.  So, I didn’t.

Desert Dawn, Big Bend National Park, Texas

But when the Indianapolis area hub was replaced by Houston last year, the thought of a making a journey to Big Bend became, if not easy, at least viable.  Houston is not close to Big Bend.  Hardly.  But it is within a day’s drive…a long day’s drive (roughly 650 miles), but a day’s drive nonetheless.  So, last December, I began to seriously ponder driving out to Big Bend–for no more than a week, including two full days for the round trip drive–in the first half of February, before the west Texas heat begins to become oppressive.

Rio Grande Valley, Hot Springs Loop Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

It was a good thing I went when I did.  The coronavirus pandemic hadn’t impacted the area at all during my trip (I was on the ground at the park for five full days), but within a month of my return to the Houston area on February 14, the park was closed to the public and remains so, as of this writing.

Desert Sunset, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park, Texas

To say that my experience at the park wasn’t a disappointment would be a massive understatement.  Though set in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, a vast variety of different ecosystems, with their own distinct looks and feels, exist within the park boundaries.

Located in the eponymous Big Bend region of the Rio Grande (which serves as the park’s southern border), access to towering river canyon walls can be obtained in multiple locations.

Rio Grand Black & Whte, Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park, Texas

The Basin high country of the Chisos Mountains provides an interesting–and on a warm day, welcome–contrast to the desert floor.

Casa Grande, Basin Loop Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

The Hot Springs area provides a fine entree to the Rio Grande Valley.

Hot Springs Post Office Black & White, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Dagger Flat takes the visitor right into a cactus-strewn section of desert.

Dagger Flat, Big Bend National Park, Texas

The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is almost a park inside a park.

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive from Sotol Vista, Big Bend National Park, Texas

The Grapevine Hills area is worth the ride on an iffy road.

Grapevine Hills Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

And the nearly limitless opportunities to hike are not to be missed.

Window Drop-Off Black & White, Windows Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Interesting wildlife abounds.

Greater Roadrunner, The Basin, Big Bend National Park, Texas

And the photo opportunities endlessly ebb and flow with the changing light.

Mule Ears Sunrise, Mule Ears Viewpoint, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park, Texas

And the remoteness of the park, the catalyst to some of its challenges, also presents a huge positive:  the park almost always feels relatively empty.

Sunset, Sotol Vista, Big Bend National Park, Texas

In the coming weeks I’ll detail my February experience at Big Bend.  I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

Windmill Sunrise, Dug Out Wells, Big Bend National Park, Texas


Responses

  1. Welcome to Texas.

    • Thanks, Steve. I’ve been sequestered in the Chicago area since late February, but I’ll make it back down there again one of these days…

  2. Kerry, perfect timing! My brother in law (near Dallas) has been wishing to visit Big Bend, and I’ve been thinking about a trip with him. I’ll look forward to reading about your experience.

    • Hi Steve. I’ll provide a fairly detailed overview (with the caveat that this trip is the only one I’ve made to Big Bend) in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I will say, a visit to the park is highly recommended, but I’d strongly advise not doing so during the summer months. 🙂

  3. Thanks for sharing Kerryl 🙂 these beautiful photos made me think that Big Bend nat park is perfect for sunrises and sunsets 🙂 what wonderful skies 🙂 stay safe and greetings from Portugal, PedroL

    • Thanks very much, PedroL. Stay healthy!

      • You’re welcome 🙂 PedroL

  4. Beautiful place and amazing pictures!!!

  5. I love these photos. Next time I drive out to Texas on my way to see my daughter in Corpus Christi, I will have to drive through this area.

    • Thanks very much!

      I don’t know where your starting point is for the drive to CC, but you’re going to have to make a detour to check out Big Bend. It’s not really on the way to anywhere else (which is part of the reason why it’s generally uncrowded). If you’re coming from the west and your route is I-10, it’s roughly a two-hour drive from Ft. Stockton to Panther Junction, inside the park.

      • I live in Minnesota

        • Major detour then, as there’s no practical route from Minnesota to east Texas that would take you anywhere near Big Bend. I don’t mean to discourage you–it’s well worth the trip–but do be aware of just how big a state Texas is.

      • I see Big Bend on my map. I would probably head that way on my way back, maybe go through Del Rio and west along the Rio Grand if there is a road there.

        • Looks like our posts crossed.

          Yes, you can head to Big Bend from east Texas through Del Rio. The best route from Corpus Christi is probably TX-44 to US-83 to US-277 to US-90, then pick up US-385 in Marathon. That will take you straight to the park’s northern entrance.

          That’s a very long trip. It would probably be faster to take US-37 and hook up with US-90 via TX-85.

        • Thanks. I see it on my Road Atlas. I will be looking for the most scenic route. Is there a road along the Rio Grand River? And what is it like there?

        • In the park there’s an unpaved road that parallels the river for quite a distance. 4WD/high clearance is required. I’m not sure what the story is outside the park.

          The area right along the Rio Grande is very interesting…it’s a riparian environment, very different than the surrounding desert. On either end (i.e. east/west) of the park, the river runs through narrow canyons with towering walls (I’ll be posting some images which will give some sense of this in future installments). These parts of the river’s course can only be accessed by boat.

        • Thanks, I think I have seen some pictures. I may not be going that way for about a years time, but it would be fun.

  6. I’ve really been looking forward to this series – and what a nice set of photos to start off with. My very first exposure to the desert was driving through West Texas on a family road trip from Florida to Montana. What I remember most vividly was the subtle change in landscape as we drove ever westward, especially as we passed through San Antonio. The convenience of flying is nice, but a road trip can’t be beaten if time is not a factor.

    • Thanks!

      If you went through west Texas on a trip from Florida to Montana, you definitely took the scenic route. 🙂

      The drive from Houston–first time I’ve been west of the Houston area–was very interesting, as I finally got my first look at a bit of the Hill Country, west of San Antonio, and then the full blown west Texas desert beyond that. The Chihuahuan Desert–which covers Big Bend–is very interesting, and quite different from the other desert locales I’ve previously visited in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and California.

  7. Oh boy…can’t wait for the Big Bend journey! The photos in this post are just a taste.

    • Thanks, Ellen!

      Lots more to come.

  8. Delicious appetizers, Kerry–I’m eager for the coming courses!

  9. It looks like there is a stunning vista aound every corner. Beautiful country and perfect timing!

  10. I visited Big Bend National Park 4 different times when I lived inTexas : twice I drove 12 hours from my then-home south of Houston, and the other two times, I flew to Midland then rented a car and drove 3 hours there, one time getting a flat tire about 10 miles outside of Marathon. It’s not a place you want to have any car problems. Springtime is the loveliest, IMO, because of the amazing cactus blooms in saturated colors of magenta, orange, yellow, and red. The starry night sky is pretty cool, as well. Glad you had a photographically wonderful time there. It is, indeed, an amazing place.

    • Thanks very much for weighing in and sharing some of your experiences at Big Bend. (Agreed, you absolutely don’t want to run into any vehicle difficulties anywhere in the general vicinity of the park, and definitely not in the “suburbs” of Marathon.) The next time I go there, assuming there is a next time, I hope to go during the spring cactus/wildflower bloom. We’ll see if that comes to fruition.

  11. Thanks for sharing! Beautiful photos. I’d love to visit Big Bend. I live near Dallas, and it’s about an 8 hour drive from here. You have to love Texas — drive 8 hours and you’re still in the same state!

    • Thanks very much!

      Re the size of Texas…try driving from Beaumont to El Paso.

      Estimate drive time: 12 hours and change.

      State borders crossed: zero.

      Heck, the drive from Terlingua, just west of the western entrance to Big Bend, back to the Houston area was close to ten hours…

  12. Lovely images. A park that will be on my bucket list for sure. What an amazing and diverse landscape.

    • Thanks very much!

  13. […] I mentioned during my introductory post a couple of weeks ago, I first became familiar with Big Bend several decades ago but had never even […]

  14. Beautiful adventure


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