I didn’t find Big Bend National Park – it found me. Just when another northern Rockies winter was beginning to feel eternal, my husband was offered a chance to spend the month of March on a work detail on the Mexican border. Like healing balm on a wound, Big Bend, with its blooming wildflowers, sunshine, and warmth cured our winter blues. If you’re looking to trade snow drifts for bluebonnets, snowsuits for shorts, and winter for summer, then take a close look at this gem, described best on the park’s website:
“There is a place in Far West Texas where night skies are dark as coal and rivers carve temple-like canyons in ancient limestone. Here, at the end of the road, hundreds of bird species take refuge in a solitary mountain range surrounded by weather-beaten desert. Tenacious cactus bloom in sublime southwestern sun, and diversity of species is the best in the country. This magical place is Big Bend.”
When you think of Texas, mountains probably aren’t the first image to come to mind, but that’s exactly why this small park, tucked in the mountains on the rugged banks of the Rio Grande River, is such a great surprise! It’s a half day drive from the nearest airport or town of any size, so it delivers both solitude and adventure. It’s filled with quiet, reverent places, not to mention so many different habitats that you can tailor your outdoor pursuits to your favorites!
You have the Rio Grande, with lush vegetation and dramatic canyons. Then there are the desert lands piled with boulders and rocks heaped into tall mountains, a geologists dream. And finally the unexpected Chisos Mountains offer pine trees, cooler temperatures, and long range vistas from peaks over 7,000 feet high. With the kids keeping eyes out for bands of wild javalinas (a desert southwest animal that looks like a pig), reptiles, and over 450 species of birds, you’ll easy fill your sunny days outside here.
You can find wonderful hiking in any of the park’s districts, but here are a few of my personal favorites:
• Santa Elena Canyon Trail (Castolon) – The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive ends at the mouth of this Big Bend favorite. Wander into the Santa Elena Canyon, whose walls tower over 1000 feet above you, on this mostly level 2-mile hike. Planning a lazy day? This would make a beautiful spot to park it with no agenda other than to let the kids hang out and explore on the boulders along the trail.
• Window View Trail (Chisos Basin) – This trail isn’t long, less than ½ mile, but it gives you views of The Window, the spot where all water in the mountains drains into the desert below. For a longer trail, take the four mile Window Trail to see this iconic rock up close (Heads up: there’s a slippery drop to the valley below at the end so keep an eye on the kiddos!).
• Pine Canyon Trail (Chisos Basin) – I love this trail! In just 2 miles (4 round trip) you leave all signs of the Chihuahuan desert behind as you climb from flower filled mountain meadows with peaks overhead, through a stretch of woodlands, to a secluded canyon with a cool pouroff.
• Boquillas Canyon Trail (Rio Grande Village) – Bookend your trip with two canyon trails – Santa Elena on the west, and Boquillas Canyon on the east. Relatively flat, and less than 2 miles long, more stunning canyon scenery awaits.
• Looking for trails for really little legs? Then check out the Panther Junction Nature Trail and Rio Grande Village Nature Trail, both less than 1 mile roundtrip.
Big Bend is rated the best national park in the lower 48 for star gazing, which means your trip wouldn’t be complete without some time outside after dark. With clear, dry skies and almost no light pollution, you’re sure to see stars, galaxies, and constellations you’ve never seen before.
Big Bend is celebrating the National Park Service’s Centennial in 2016 with a hiking challenge! Hike the three Challenge Trails this year (one is Emory Peak, the highest point in the park), and you can earn three unique hiking patches. Planning to visit this month? Then be sure to check out the Big Bend Centennial Showcase, a celebration at Rio Grande Village on March 26th, 2016. From horse patrol and trail work demonstrations to hands-on birding activities this will give you a real glimpse into the work of park rangers.
Since you’re traveling with the whole family, and this is a pretty remote park, be sure to stop at the last major town and fill the cooler with plenty of snacks and lots of water. Do make reservations if possible during spring break season, and don’t forget the sunscreen!
Sometimes, a park finds you, and it leaves a lasting impression. Big Bend is one of those places. Ready to learn more? Check out the park’s official website at www.nps.gov/bibe.
Alana Dimmick is the branch lead for Hike It Baby Eatonville. She is wife to a park ranger, and full time mom to Eli (6), Riley (4), and Isaac (3 months). Alana currently lives in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.