The site of the park Visitor Center, a gas station, and convenience store, Panther Junction is at the intersection of the three major paved roads in the park. To the east is Rio Grande Village. To the west are the Chisos Basin, and backroads leading to Santa Eléna Canyon. The main park road running west exits near Maverick Junction. To the north of the junction is the road leading to Persimmon Pass, and on to the town of Marathon. Panther Junction is the place to orient yourself to the park features, and to obtain trail maps and several useful booklets, including a guide to park trails and two handy books on paved and backroad drives in the park..
In front of park headquarters is Panther Path, a short nature trail that provides a view of some of the wildflowers that grow in the park, including the Big Bend bluebonnet (lupine), desert marigold, mustard, paperflower, and desert marigold. The gas station and store beside the main park road offers basic car and tire repairs.
Lying at about 5,400 feet, the bottom of this spectacular bowl offers striking views of the surrounding peaks, as well as comfortable accommodations. Located at the end of the seven-mile Basin Road, the basin provides a strong contrast to the rest of the park, with its pinion pine and juniper woodland, interspersed with oaks. Higher up in the Chisos mountains, where the climate is much cooler, you'll see ponderosa pines, Douglas-fir, Arizona cypress, and bigtooth maple. This green ecosystem can be reached by hiking trails leading from the basin.
Back in the bottom of the mountain valley, the park concessionaire offers overnight accommodation in the Chisos Mountain Lodge, plus camping for tents and trailers. The lodge includes a restaurant and gift shop.
A sign along Basin Road reads "Bear and Mountain Lion Country." The mountains harbor wildlife quite different from that found in the dryer, hotter desert. Thus, the need to be forewarned about lions and bears. Campers should use the food lockers provided in the basin campground, to secure their food from bears. Fifteen to twenty black bears live in the Chisos Mountains, and mountain lions have been sighted during the past decade, with a very few physical encounters. Visitors to this area are advised not to be on trails at dawn or dusk, and not to hike alone. Most trails can be walked on easy one-day hikes, and backcountry trails offer camp sites along the way.
Rio Grande Village
At the southeastern side of the park, Rio Grande Village sits just north of Boquillas Canyon, and across the river from the Mexican village of Boquillas. Picnic sites, a large developed campground, and RV park are available here, in addition to a campers' store with hot showers and a service station. A nature trail leads from the campground, past a beaver pond, to a high point with good views up and down the river. Evening talks and nature walks are scheduled from late fall through early summer.
As you come along the park road toward Rio Grande Village, you'll see a turnoff to the left, just below the tunnel. This road runs four miles to the Boquillas Canyon parking area. The road cuts through huge limestone cliffs. This is the same geological formation as found in the Sierra del Carmen, the range to the east. A short trail is found at the end of the road, off the parking lot. The trail takes you over a ridge, and descends to the river, where you'll find Indian grinding holes along the river, at the water's edge. These holes were used to grind mesquite beans and other food. Then the trail enters the canyon, beside a large sand slide, formed by winds blowing riverside sand up the slope.
A dirt road leads down to the river. It is found off the canyon road, beyond the junction with Rio Grande Village Road. Here, you'll find the international crossing to the village of Boquillas, reached by taking a short trail upstream until rowboats are seen on the Mexican side. One of the villagers will row over and ferry you to the other side. The village is three quarters of a mile from the ferry crossing. You may choose to ride a burro, or walk to the primitive town.
Located near Rio Grande Village, this is the remains of an early pioneer homestead and a small resort community. The current attraction is what enticed J.O. Langford to settle along the river in 1906. A spring pours hot water from the rocks beside the river, into a bathtub-style depression carved out of the rock by Indians in the past, enlarging a crack in the rock face. Langford built a house and hired a stonemason to construct a bathhouse of limestone blocks over the hot springs. In 19133, with news of the Mexican Revolution reaching the Langfords, and with fear of border raids, the family left their home to re-settle in Marathon and finally in El Paso. They returned in 1927 to find ranching had come to the area, and set about to create a modest resort, including a limestone motel and post office.
The desert tranquillity of the resort was short-lived, with devastating floods in 1932 and 1938 engulfing and partially destroying the bathhouse. The property was sold to the state for donation to the national park, and the hot springs and post office were operated as a concession, until 1952. The remains of the motel and post office may be seen near the hot springs parking lot. A short trail leads along the river to the springs. The bathhouse has disappeared -- a victim to more recent floods. Visitors soak in the open rock tub, just as the native Indians did before Langford arrived. The water temperature is 105û F, year round. Even though the volume of water pouring out of the spring has decreased since the 1930s, at least 200,000 gallons a day of hot water flows from the spring to the river.
High water in the Rio Grande, during short periods of the year, makes bathing at the springs impossible, with the river height above that of the tub. It is advisable for fall and winter visitors to check with park rangers about the river level.
Castolon and Santa Elena Canyon
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (see below) leads to the historic Castelon townsite, and ends at Santa Elena Canyon. This trip is a must for park visitors staying for more than a day or two. This little village has been here since the early settlement of the region, serving as a crossing point to and from Mexico. Today, the park operates a campground, with the country store and trading post reflecting the earlier era. Mexicans still cross the river to shop here, from their homes in Santa Elena, Chihuahua. The settlement was founded in 1901 to take advantage of the fertile floodplain between the river and Castelon. Settlers cleared small fields, and in 1914, irrigation made substantial cotton farming possible. A 1974 flood destroyed what remained of the original cotton gin. A quarter-mile walk takes you though the historic Castelon Compound. Most buildings here were built as part of a cavalry camp during the days when the U.S. had to be protected against Pancho Villa's border raids.
Santa Elena Canyon Trail begins at the end of Ross Maxwell Drive, beyond Castelon. The 1.7-mile round-trip walk leads across Terlingua Creek, and climbs a series of concrete steps before descending into the canyon. The trail continues into the canyon, ending where the wall meets the river, at one of the narrowest parts of the seven-mile canyon. A canyon overlook is located along Ross Maxwell Drive. A popular put-in point for rafts and canoes is found beside the road, before reaching the canyon overlook.
Big Bend is not only a paradise for those who appreciate the open desert -- with a multitude of desert plants and animals -- but the park also offers wildflowers at unusual times of the year. Late summer and early fall is a fairly rainy season in the Chihuahuan Desert, and visitors see many plants in bloom, including goldeneye, creosote bush, ceniza (covered with pink and purple blooms), sage, scarlet bouvardia, and ocotillo in the southeastern part of the park. Even in dryer seasons, you'll spot flowering plants in lower areas, along drainages, and in canyons leading into the Chisos range. The higher elevations in the mountains offer wildflower viewing throughout the year.
Migration seasons are prime times for birding, but some birds do live in the park year-round, including gray hawks, Colima warblers, and varied buntings. Birds which are seen more frequently in Mexico often stray over the border, particularly in late summer after the nesting period. While the spring migration brings many more species, the fall season is not without migrants, as late as into December. An updated checklist of Big Bend birds is available in the visitor centers.
While the open desert is the place to see jackrabbits, roadrunners, and dessert amphibians, the Chisos Mountains offer many opportunities to view other kinds of wildlife. Here, especially if your camping in the basin, you'll have a good chance to see javelinas (collared peccaries), raccoons, the unique Carmen Mountains white-tailed deer, and coyotes, as well as many varieties of birds including the golden eagle.
The park borders the Rio Grande River for 118 miles. The Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River extends downstream, east of the park boundary, for another 127 miles. Both sections of the river provide thrilling rafting experiences. Three local companies offer float trips and guide services, but visitor are permitted to use their own equipment with free permits available from the park visitor centers. A self-permitting center for the Wild and Scenic River is located at Stillwell Store, five miles south of Persimmon Gap, on Farm Road 2627, on the way to La Linda, Mexico. Another self-permitting located is the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center, at Lajitas. Only permits for Santa Elena Canyon are available here. It pays to obtain river permits at park visitor centers, because of the rangers' knowledge of current river conditions, and the availability of river guide booklets. These booklets may also be purchased in advance, by calling the Big Bend Natural History Association at (915) 477-2236.
Companies offering guided float trips:
Big Bend River Tours, Lajitas, (915) 424-3219 or 800-545-4240
Far Flung Adventures, Terlingua, (915) 371-2489 or 800-359-4138
Texas River Expeditions, Terlingua, (915) 371-2633 or 800-839-7238
Ivey Enterprises (rafts), Terlingua, (915) 371-2424
Scott Shuttle Service (canoes), Marathon (915) 386-4574
Reserve a hotel room
and vacation packages around the world
in the U.S. and Canada
in the US and Canada
Traveling with Kids
© 1997 - 2009
Onroute Communications LLC
Travel with Onroute.com