How big is Big Bend National Park?
Big Bend is over 300,000 square miles. It fills in the bottom Southwest portion of Texas, bordering the Rio Grande River and the country of Mexico. A single ribbon of highway stretches down from the North to meet it, with only a handful of small towns surrounding it for hundreds of miles. Visit Big Bend and quickly discover how appealing solitude and isolation can be.
I was there in the middle of July when temperatures were soaring into the 100's. July being the offseason, I passed no more than a few cars along the vast, stretching roads. During midday, the bottom of the canyons can reach 110. But up in the mountains you’ll be comfortable enough, even in the height of Summer. The nights are cool and perfect, the skies inked with nothing but blackness and blazing stars. It is an astounding place full of rugged, Texas beauty.
Here is a picture of a midday stop at the bottom of Boquillas Canyon. It was so hot my camera was burning my hands! But it was a beautiful view of the Rio, (one of my favorite Rivers) and of Mexico, which begins just on the other side of the river:
If you’re going to visit in the Summer, the canyon bottoms are best explored in the early hours of the day. But if you go in the Winter, make sure to check out the Hot Springs in Boquillas Canyon.
Driving around the park was slow going. Every few yards we were stopping for a Jackrabbit as they hopped out all over the road. I probably saw over a hundred, but they moved so fast I didn’t get a picture of a single one.
When you’re in the desert in the middle of Summer, you have to make the most of certain parts of the day. Mornings are the coolest and the easiest for hiking. The sand and rocks haven’t heated up yet, and there is still a chill in the air. The sun rises sweetly, its rays aren’t yet a blight. But by 10 or 11, you’re thinking about taking cover.
I chose to spend my one morning taking in the glorious Rim Drive in the dawn light, watching the Chisos Mountains appear as shadows in the lavender sky. As the sun came up over the mountains we pulled over and walked to the edge of a shallow canyon.
This Ocotillo plant caught my eye as the first light shone through it:
Before the day got too hot and the light too harsh, we made our way out to Santa Elena Canyon. This is easily one of the most stunning experiences you can have in Big Bend. Many people choose to take a boat on the River here, but I was happy staying on the sandy beach and watching the reflections.
A mysterious ribbon of Rio slices between two sheer cliff walls in Santa Elena Canyon:
In Big Bend you’ll get to inspect some of the very finest plants the desert has to offer. These are Agave; their height rivals those of certain trees, and they were all over the place.
We chose to camp in Chisos Basin. It lies at an elevation of 5,400 feet and its temperatures made for a perfect night of camping. The grounds weren’t full as it was the offseason, which was lucky considering they don’t allow reservations. So we had our pick of some prime sites.
As the light started to slant in the sky and turn the world golden, I admired the Western facing sides of the Chisos Mountains.
I spent the better part of my day and evening at the Window. The Window is where the Chisos Mountains split open like an ethereal portal to some other world. It just so happens that the sun sets perfectly inside of this window.
A lovely sunset sky, the path, and grasses illuminated like spun gold:
Sprawling cacti and the window in the distance, the last rays of light fading fast:
If you’ve read any of my other posts about the Southwest, you’ll already know that I am in love with the desert. Painters and Photographers have been drawn to the American Southwest for centuries. Though it offers a zen like silence, an array of enticing colors not found anywhere else, and rocky formations that span descriptions from breathtaking to bizarre, I believe there is one aspect that truly casts a spell over all the artists who can’t stop making these desert pilgrimages. It’s the light.
Sand and rocks are conductors of light, each hour of the day chaperoning the sun’s rays into endless combinations of beauty. In the desert, all the elements are stripped bare and you realize how intricate the circle of life is. Earth in exposed rock, Air in the perpetual sky, Water in the shape of everything you set eyes upon, Fire in the daylight and more stars than you’ll ever see in your life.
The Window at dusk, the land sprawling on continually and turning into a parfait of shadows.
The Window View was only a short walk from our Chisos Basin campsite. We siddled back in the twilight and found a giant rock, still warm from the desert sun, and lied on our backs and watched the blue bowl of the sky come down on us as night fell.
Don’t think for a moment you’ll be bored after the sun goes down in Big Bend. If anything, the sky here is worth the trip in itself. We were lucky enough to be there on a moonless night with not many clouds: the perfect conditions for Milky Way gazing. Once total darkness hit, there was nothing but stars. Big Bend is an International Dark Sky Park, which means the sky is almost as pure and perfect as it was hundreds of years ago before the Industrial Revolution.
I feel like I say this too much: I didn’t get enough time in this park. Is there ever enough time to experience a National Park? I would love to explore that question more thoroughly one day, but my suspicion is- No. There is never enough time.
But I am so grateful for my chance to see Big Bend, even if it was for just a day.