Big Bend, Texas on the map. National Park Big Bend (state Texas) on the map of US

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Big Bend, Texas on the map. National Park Big Bend (state Texas) on the map of US

Big Bend, Texas

Established: 1944   Acreage: 735,416


The Indians said that after making the Earth, the Great Spirit simply dumped all the remaining rocks on the Big Bend. Spanish explorers called it 'the uninhabitable land.' To the casual visitor this may seem true—Big Bend is a land of austere panoramas and open expanses of cactus and scrub brush broken by rugged mountains, towering pinnacles and deeply etched canyons.


The name Big Bend refers to the big U-turn the Rio Grande makes in southwest Texas. The Rio Grande borders the park for 118 miles, in which distance it has carved three major canyons that vary in depth from 1200 to 1500 feet. One of the most startling sights in the park is the teethmarks of beaver on Cottonwood or willow trees along the river. The desert heat forces the beavers to live in bank burrows. An oasis for species not adapted to the desert, the river adds to the park's rich biological complexity. The river flood plain is an area of unparalleled birdwatching. Here brightly colored summer tanagers, painted buntings, vermilion flycatchers and cardinals serve as accent colors to the green foliage. Along the river's gravel and sandbars, visitors can catch sight of birds typically not seen in the desert, such as the sandpiper and killdeer bob.


In 1975, Science Magazine reported the discovery of bones in Big Bend National Park of the largest flying creature ever known. According to Douglas Lawson, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, and Dr Wan Langston, director of the Paleontology Laboratory of Vertebrates at the University of Texas, the bones were those of a pterosaur, sometimes called a pterodactyl, a flying reptile with a wing span of 38 feet. This creature became extinct about 60 million years ago.


Big Bend National Park is 97 percent Chihuahuan Desert, one of the four warm North American deserts. This desert is young, about 8000 years old, and is fairly lush, receiving its rainfall during the summer. The desert is commonly perceived as a vast emptiness. On the contrary, the desert is a life zone full of plants and creatures perfectly suited to conditions. The primary plant is the lechuguilla, which appears as a clump of dagger blades protruding from the desert floor. Creosote bushes, for example, produce toxins that discourage other plants from intruding on their growing space, and their leaves are coated with a resin so that they lose little moisture to the air. The wildlife, too, has adapted to the climate. The kangaroo rat never needs to drink because it can metabolize water from the carbohydrates in the seeds it eats.


The Chiso Mountains interrupt the Big Bend country as a green island in a desert sea. During the Paleozoic Era, over 300 million years ago, Big Bend was a sea. The water-covered area, known as the Quachita Trough, extended into what is now Oklahoma and Arkansas. Toward the end of this era, movements buckled the earth's crust to form the mountains.


The mountains, like the river area, are home to animals and plants not found in a desert region. As the Great Ice Age drew to a close and the colder, moister climates retreated northward, many plants and animals became stranded in the cooler Chiso Mountains by the ever-increasing aridity of the surrounding lowlands.


Although it is a wild and untamed land, the region has been known for a long time. Spanish explores were surely among its early white visitors. Old Spanish guns, a sword, some stirrups and other items have been found in park areas.


Hiking is the best way to explore the park, but a river trip down the Rio Grande can be an unforgettable experience. It generally takes six or seven days for a river trip through the park.


Previous pages: The red, rocky cliffs of El Capitan in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

Above left: The mule deer, the most abundant deer in western North America.

A drive along winding Highway 170 (above right) is one way to experience the rolling, rugged terrain of Big Bend National Park. The more adventurous can try a horseback ride along Window Trail (right).

Facing page: The still waters of Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio Grande River.

Far right and below: The rare beauty of the plants unique to the desert contradicts the commonly held belief that the desert is a barren wasteland.

Big Bend, Texas on the map. National Park Big Bend (state Texas) on the map of US