Big Bend National Park: A Study in Contrasts

Camping Safety in Big Bend National Park
The dig on paleontology digs in the United States: The Children's Museum of Indianapolis

This past weekend, my go-to camping buddy over at Ardent Camper and I decided to kick off National Parks Week with a visit to one of the least frequented parks in the United States: Big Bend National Park.

We've arrived! The main entrance to Big Bend National Park
Me and Marie from Ardent Camper at the entrance to the park!

Named for the bend in the Rio Grande, this giant swath of West Texas is surprisingly varied, offering up a wide array of landscapes that fall into three primary sections: desert, mountain and river.  In addition, if you’re a fan of archeology or geology there’s no lack of opportunity to explore!

Climate #1: Desert

Big Bend National Park is located in the Chihuahuan desert. Naturally, this means a lot of sand, a lot of cacti, and a lot of big, blue skies. The rock formations are especially breathtaking, and a veritable playground for geology enthusiasts, the layers of the Earth exposed and laid bare.

Our campsite, surrounded by cacti and tumbleweeds.
Our campsite, surrounded by cacti and tumbleweeds.
Sand dunes behind Cerro Castolon
Sand dunes behind Cerro Castolon
Cerro Castolon
Cerro Castolon

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Cerro Castolon
Cerro Castolon
A storm brews over the desert
A storm brews over the desert

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Cacti blooming in spring
Cacti blooming in spring
Layers of shale near the Rio Grande
Layers of shale near the Rio Grande

 

Climate #2: River

Bordered by the Rio Grande to the south, the river provides for a strikingly different landscape. Sand is still plentiful, but so are bamboo reeds and cattails.

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Santa Elena Pass
Santa Elena Pass

Climate #3: Mountains

By far the most impressive sights in the park were those of the Mountains. The Chisos Basin may be one of my new all-time favorite places, and introduced me to the concept of Mountain Islands. These are areas within the desert which contain completely different ecosystems, remnants of a time when the area was much cooler. The higher altitude has allowed for the survival of plants and animals that cannot survive in the desert.

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'The Window' at sunset.
‘The Window’ at sunset.

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 Unforgiving, but not Uninhabited

I don’t think I ever truly understood the word ‘Big’ until I went to Big Bend. Everything is huge there, from the mountains to the electrical storms. It is a place where nature reigns, unrestrained by humans. Despite this, people have made the Big Bend area their home for thousands of years. From prehistoric petroglyphs to 20th century resorts, evidence of humans attempting to make the region home abound.

Remnants of a resort that was built in the early 1900s
Remnants of a resort that was built in the early 1900s
Remnants of a resort that was built in the early 1900s
Remnants of a resort that was built in the early 1900s
Remnants of a resort that was built in the early 1900s
Remnants of a resort that was built in the early 1900s
Remnants of a resort that was built in the early 1900s
Remnants of a resort that was built in the early 1900s
A hot spring has been turned into a spa for visitors.
A hot spring has been turned into a spa for visitors.
Petroglyphs line the canyon walls along the Rio Grande
Petroglyphs line the canyon walls along the Rio Grande

As National Parks go, Big Bend definitely left me overwhelmed and inspired. I’ve only grazed the surface of what this remote place has to offer, and a return visit is definitely in order. In the meantime, Big Bend definitely taught me a few things, which I intend to explore in future posts. Hint: Just because it’s a desert, that doesn’t mean it won’t rain!

What parks, national or otherwise, have you been to that have inspired and awed you?

Camping Safety in Big Bend National Park
The dig on paleontology digs in the United States: The Children's Museum of Indianapolis
  • Big Bend is a beautiful park and one I haven’t visited or been on my radar. I love the diverse landscape and plants. I like that you have the sand dunes but also the Rio Grande nearby. This really does look like a hidden gem in the park system.

    • It had never been on my radar either, but when I moved to Houston it became the closest National Park around. I had no idea what to expect going there — but was definitely pleasantly surprised! If you ever end up near West Texas I definitely recommend a visit. Thanks for the comment!

  • You captured our trip so beautifully! Can’t wait until we can both return.