Big Bend, TX

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Inside the Park

Rabbit Ears Rock in Boquillas
Canyon, copyright National
Park Service

From 500-million-year-old rocks at Persimmon Gap to modern-day sand dunes at Boquillas Canyon, geological formations illustrate the amazingly diverse actions that shaped this region. Ocean sedimentation, volcanic activity, periods of geological uplift and erosion have all been at work here.

Chisos Mountains, copyright
M. Littlejohn

  • The mountains. The magnificent Chisos Mountains rise from the center of the park, with their highest point, Emory Peak, topping out at 7,825 feet. Park highlands are usually cooler and a bit wetter than the surrounding desert, accounting for the Douglas fir, drooping juniper, Texas madrona trees, mountain lion, and a rare breed of white-tailed deer.

    Here, you'll find the park's only lodging (other than campgrounds), a visitor center and several easy to moderate hiking trails. The altitude and remote location means spectacular daytime views and night-time stargazing.
  • The river. Don't come expecting to find a big river; the Rio Grande is only a few yards across in most places. Even so, don't let kids in the water. The river's sandy banks and seemingly calm surface are deceptive. Treacherous currents and underwater tree branches can quickly snag a youngster.

    A safer option: Hike on well-marked trails along the river's banks. Even better, book a float trip. This is the most popular way to explore the Rio Grande and its canyons, some measuring up to 1,500 feet deep. Several commercial operators run trips ranging from a half day to 10 days in 6- to 8-seat inflatable rafts.

    Portions of the river, however, may be unsuitable for kids because of white-water rapids; ask the operator about its experience with children before making a reservation. More-experienced water rats can rent small rafts, canoes, and kayaks.
  • The desert. The Chihuahuan Desert covers most of the park. Though seemingly dry and dusty, it bursts into colorful bloom after a wet spring. Most visitors spend little time in Big Bend's desert. But several short trails teach kids about the desert and its unique ecosystem -- temperatures permitting, of course.
  • Drive and hike. Locals advise not missing the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and Santa Elena Canyon, both easy day trips from the Chisos Visitor Center. The scenic drive gives everyone a taste of the Chihuahuan Desert and leads to the Rio Grande. Along the way, stop at these scenic overlooks: Sotol Vista, Mule Ears Viewpoint and Tuff Canyon. Short walks to Sam Nail and Homer Wilson ranches, as well as a visit to the Castolon Historic District, offer a glimpse into Big Bend's Wild West past.
  • Highlight of the day: the short (1.7-mile roundtrip) and moderately difficult walk into Santa Elena Canyon, one of Big Bend's most scenic spots overlooking a stretch of Rio Grande popular with rafters.
  • Programs for kids. Pick up a Junior Ranger Activity Booklet at any visitor center, complete the easy, kid-friendly activities and return the booklet to a center to receive a Junior Ranger badge or patch, a park sticker, a wildlife bookmark and a certificate. The park service offers a daily variety of ranger-led nature walks and slide programs; most are held at the Chisos Visitor Center.
  • Camping. There are three developed campgrounds in the park, adjacent to the Rio Grande at Rio Grande Village and Castolon and in the mountains near Chisos Visitor Center. Electrical, sewer and water hook-ups for RVs are found only at Rio Grande Village. All campsites are first come, first served.

    You can find lots of primitive campsites (no services or facilities) along the park's secondary, unpaved roads. Many require a high-clearance vehicle. A backcountry permit is required for these sites and can be obtained for free at any visitor center.
  • Visiting Mexico. Although there are no official ports of entry into Mexico from the park, it is relatively easy to visit the tiny Mexican villages of Boquillas and Santa Elena. In both cases, leave the car on the U.S. side and take a small ferry the few yards across. There's at least one small restaurant in each town and many gift shops selling Mexican crafts.

Continued on page 3:  Outside the Park


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