A Visitor’s Guide to Big Bend: Part 1

While working here in Big Bend National Park, trying to establish the paleontology sites monitoring program, I haven’t really had a good chance to visit some of the iconic views and places that the park is known for, that is until this week. I finally got a chance to visit a lot of the great places that makes Big Bend special, and I wanted to compile them all together into a comprehensive guide for people visiting the park, with a bit of commentary that I gathered from visiting and talking with some of the staff here.

In this guide, I will be going to five major points at Big Bend that are considered a must-see in the park, but I will not cover everything in the park. Big Bend invites visitors to explore the vast expanse of the desert landscape, and one can not just enjoy the splendor in a short drive through, or even in as long as the 10 weeks that I will be staying here! But I will do my best to summarize some viewing points, highlights and staples of the park.

Starting from the north entrance of Persimmon Gap, along Route 11 which goes down to the central hub of Panther Junction, you will find the recently created Fossil Discovery Exhibit.

The Fossil Discovery Exhibit is a fairly new exhibit that highlights the various fossils found in Big Bend, and paints a picture of the ancient landscapes of Big Bend.  These include the early Cretaceous marine environment, the mid Cretaceous coastal floodplain environment, the gallery of giants where it highlights the large Big Bend fossils such as Quetzalcoatlus, Deinosuchus, and T. rex, the inland floodplain where the K-Pg extinction event happened (the exhibit also shows where you can see where you can see the K-Pg boundary) and creatures like Alamosaurus and Bravoceratops, and finally the volcanic highlands where the age of mammals started and when Big Bend was inhabited by large volcanoes and large mammals. The exhibit also establishes why Big Bend is so special, and other geologic features. It’s a must stop when visiting Big Bend.

The next stop (after a stop at the Panther Junction Visitor Center) will be the Chisos Basin and the Chisos Mountains. It takes a while to get up there, along a long winding road (and while watching out for some bears as well), then you get to a wonderful mountain lodge or campsite, and one of the most beautiful views of the park, the famous Window Trail.

These ancient lava chambers surround you and feature the highest peak in the Park, Emory Peak, and another peak, Lost Mines Peak, which have trails going up to the top of both of them. It’s a spectacular point to stay in the park, and another must stop in the park.

After a rest in the basin, it’s time to take another drive down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, where there is a stop which transports you to back in human time. The Castolon Historic District hasn’t changed much since the early 1900s, and the store still runs and has great provisions for when you stop at the next stop.

The next stop will be the Santa Elena Canyon, an amazing feature of Big Bend.  It is a large canyon carved from the Rio Grande and the start of the “Big Bend” of the river, which is caused by the Terlingua fault zone. These dramatic cliffs on both sides of Mexico and the United States are often visited and sometimes trekked by adventure-goers, when the water is low. If you want information on going up the river, check out this website.

The last stop I will suggest is actually further down the river, on the opposite side of the park. The Boquillas Canyon is the longest and deepest canyon in Big Bend, and offers a nice spot to cool off in the Rio Grande. Visitors often float down the river on canoes, and some will spend the afternoon swimming and enjoying the cool river after a hot day of hiking. It’s a special place where the border doesn’t seem to exist and both countries have a sense of peace and harmony.These spots are just a few that Big Bend has to offer. The park is very large and a lot of the more beautiful places aren’t on the map. Like any other park, it takes sometimes multiple visits to understand and see the grand scheme of things, and every time you visit you can notice something new. Hopefully, this will help you plan a visit to Big Bend, and to see these views firsthand and appreciate the park as much as I do.

 

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