Big Bend National Park is a beautiful area that offers different landscapes from the northern national parks. This massive park lies on the border of Texas and Mexico, with the mighty Rio Grande River as part of the border as the river separates the countries for approximately 1,000 miles. “Big Bend” refers to a large bend in the river, where the park got its name from. The park has 118 miles of international boundary that touches Mexico. The park protects and preserves over 800,000 acres of prime Chihuahuan desert animals, ecosystems, vegetation and dramatic climate changes. Summer temperatures can reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and winters can have occasional freezing temperatures. The park has achieved the international dark-sky status by the International Dark-Sky Association and is one of only ten places to in the world to acquire this title. See the starry night skies and the beauty of Big Bend National Park.
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Visitor Centers Big Bend National Park
Big Bend has an impressive five visitor centers available. The centers at Persimmon Gap, Rio Grande Village, and Castolon are open seasonally from November through April. Chisos Basin Visitor Center and Panther Junction visitor center are open all year long. Here, you can watch a short video about the park, see the amazing exhibits and displays, shop the bookstore and use the facilities provided. Nature trails are close by for a nice, short hike to get you familiar with the desert vegetation and scenery.
Castolon Historic District
Castolon is located on the west side of the park and is an excellent opportunity to learn about the past people of Big Bend. Castolon is a typical stop for many visitors on their way to see the beautiful Santa Elena Canyon. Castolon is perhaps the most intact area of the park to see old dwellings and learn about the history of its settlers. Camp Santa Elena was established in 1916 to protect the U.S. border while Mexico fought in its revolution. Buildings such as barracks, officer’s quarters, a latrine and a tack shed were all constructed. The LA Harmonia Company Store moved into the barracks building after the soldiers departed and lasted for 80 years as a trading post. The Alvin House, the store, numerous other ruins and two cemeteries can be seen in the Castolon area.
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
Many of the national parks have scenic drives, which present a fantastic way to see the park, especially in very warm or very cold temperatures. The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive leads from the Castolon area to the scenic Santa Elena Canyon. Along the drive, you can stop to see some exciting stops, overlooks, and attractions. The Sam Nail Ranch was once a homestead in the park and can be seen along the drive. From the Sotol Vista overlook along the ride, visitors can see the entire western side of the park. Mule Ears viewpoint can be seen in the distance with curved mountain peaks separated just enough to appear like mule ears. There are a parking lot and a 2-mile trail here that leads to a desert spring. Tuff Canyon has an ashy appearance, probably because the narrow canyon was carved out of volcanic tuff (ash). The famous Santa Elena Canyon was cut by the Rio Grande River, and the depth of the canyon is over 1500 feet. The left wall of the canyon is in Mexico, and the right wall of the canyon is in Texas. This is a favorite scenic spot to visit. There is a great trail as well as canyon float trips down the river for visitors to experience.
The scenic basin is one of the park focal points. Many different trails start in the basin and the towering rock walls that surround it make for some great photo opportunities. The Window View trail is a fantastic place to watch the sunset. There is a lodge, campground, and restaurant located in the basin. Listen to an evening program in the nearby amphitheater to learn more about this lovely area.
Persimmon Gap is one of the entrances to the park. It is a lovely mountain pass visitors enter the park through on the northern side of the park. Here you can find a picnic area as well as many wayside exhibits as you travel down the road to Persimmon Gap. There is a 14-mile auto trail called Dagger Flat Auto Trail to drive for some great views of the landscape and park. There are some lovely hiking opportunities here as well. Try the primitive trail leading up the Gap towards Persimmon Peak, or paths leading to Dog Canyon and Devil’s Den.
Rio Grande Village
The Rio Grande Village area is the hub of activity for Big Bend National Park. Visitors can find full visitor amenities here as well as a store and a campground. Hike the Rio Grande Nature Trail which gives visitors those scenic views they’ve been looking for and maybe even some pictures of wildlife. This trial is great for birders and is relatively easy to walk. Daniel’s Ranch Picnic Area is another great place for bird watching and the trailhead for Hot Springs Canyon trail is close by.
Things to Do in Big Bend
Big Bend presents the highlights of the Chihuahuan Desert to visitors. Few national parks have international boundaries such as this park, and there are many things to do during your visit. Bird watching is a favorite, as desert or migrating species are thrilling to see. Day hikes and backpacking will let visitors explore the scenic basin and mountains and even the river that divides Mexico and Texas. River trips, as well as horseback riding excursions, are available from local companies. Raft down the Rio Grande or discover the park on horseback for a unique experience. Take one of the scenic drives if you need a break from hiking or walking and be sure to catch ranger-led programs, which are both interesting and informative. Also, don’t forget to set some time aside to gaze at the night sky. This park is 1 of 10 places in the world to achieve international dark-sky status. The starry nights will be unbelievable if you are staying the night or camping in Big Bend National Park.