The Rugged Beauty of Big Bend National Park

The namesake bend in the Rio Grande isn’t the only enormous thing around here—the colossal Big Bend National Park encompasses more than 800,000 acres of spectacular canyons, mesmerizing Chihuahuan Desert, awe-inspiring Chisos Mountains, and unexpectedly temperate woodlands. It’s the kind of place that words can’t quite describe, and photos can’t even do it justice. Phrases like “majestic peaks” and “rugged beauty” barely begin to illustrate the Big Bend experience, but they at least offer a glimpse into this ultimate “must be seen to be believed” destination.

Big Bend, Texas. Photo 123rf.
Chisos Mountains from Sotol Vista Overlook on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive at sunrise, Big Bend National Park, Texas. Photo © Steve Lagreca/123rf.

Big Bend is the kind of place where you feel compelled to pull your car over every half a mile to snap a photo of the endless succession of stunning scenes. Avoid the temptation—you can return to the spots later once you’ve processed their context—and just soak up the natural beauty through your own eyes rather than a viewfinder. Play some appropriate West Texas soundtrack music (Willie Nelson complements the scenery quite nicely) and marvel at the jagged peaks, desert cacti, and sweeping vistas. Just be sure to occasionally keep your eye on the road—the switchbacks on the way to Chisos Mountains Lodge are dramatic hairpin turns with a 10 mph speed limit.

Speaking of speed, other parts of the park are much more open, and it’s easy to find yourself cruising at 70 mph en route to the hot springs or the dramatic Santa Elena Canyon. It’s okay to slow down. One of the best things about being in Big Bend is leaving the city and daily routine behind you. If the old couple in front of you is plugging along at 40 mph, resist the temptation to pass them and pay attention instead to the javelina lurking in the desert brush or the volcanic rock formations. Unfortunately, just when you’ve tempered your commute-minded driving habits, you’ll be headed back home to rush hour traffic.

It may also be tempting to set an itinerary with goals of hikes or destinations to accomplish within a certain amount of time, but try not to get too caught up with an agenda. Some of the best experiences you’ll have will be just sitting on a mountainside or relaxing at your campground. The absence of power lines, utility poles, billboard ads, and litter is cathartic, and the cleansing effect on your mind is equally therapeutic.

Sometimes it’s necessary to get in touch with civilization (keeping up with your favorite blog, sports team, or office gossip doesn’t count), and there are a few places in the park where this is possible. Wi-Fi service is often accessible on the porch of the Chisos Mountains Lodge, and mobile phone service is slightly more reliable—just not in low-lying areas or around mountain peaks.

Aside from missing your email or favorite TV show, the only negative thing associated with Big Bend is its remote location—a blessing and a curse, since it’s inconvenient to get to but wonderfully isolated and peaceful. Once you’ve experienced its many unique charms, you’ll be able to justify the long drive for many future visits to this unrivaled natural masterpiece.

Casa Grande rising above the Chisos Lodge in Big Bend National Park.
Casa Grande rising above the Chisos Lodge in Big Bend National Park. Photo © Yinan Chen [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Landscapes and Climate

Several lengthy books are dedicated to the dynamic geography and climate of Big Bend, so summarizing the myriad scientific descriptions of this vast property is somewhat challenging. Geologists have referred to the diverse terrain as a paradise and a nightmare due to its complex collection of stratified rock, volcanic formations, and windblown sand dunes.

The park’s topographical features run the gamut from mountains to canyons to the Rio Grande. However, it’s the desert climate that dominates the landscape, with 98 percent of Big Bend classified as part of the Chihuahuan Desert. The key word associated with deserts is contrast, as in 50-degree daily temperature extremes, old and new natural erosion from water and wind, and dry stretches punctuated by violent flash flooding.

Though water and deserts aren’t typically associated with each other, Big Bend is unique in its access to the Rio Grande and seasonal rains. Water affects all aspects of plant and animal life in the park, and the cycle of wet and dry periods makes Big Bend the fascinating natural landscape it’s become, supporting intriguing and unfamiliar species ranging from cacti and agave plants to javelina and lizards.

The most obvious contrast in the park is elevation—the Chisos Mountains rise nearly 8,000 feet tall while the banks of the Rio Grande sit approximately 1,000 feet above sea level. An interesting fact: Air temperature changes by five degrees for every 1,000 feet of elevation, so temperatures in the upper reaches of the Chisos can be more than 20 degrees cooler than they are along the Rio Grande.

On paper, this variation in elevation and temperature makes Big Bend appear to be an ideal year-round park, but in reality, it’s only comfortable about seven months a year (October-April). Summertime is ridiculously hot—this is the Chihuahuan Desert, after all—and despite the increased elevation and low humidity, triple-digit temperatures are still brutal. May and June are considered the hottest months since periodic rainstorms later in the summer help ease the intensity (and pain) of the heat. In fact, the park experiences a “rainy” season—typically less than a foot of moisture in the summer months. Because of the complete lack of water from the previous season, there’s a mini growth spurt in early fall when colorful blossoms and grasses emerge among the dry landscape.

Some hearty souls aren’t deterred by the park’s harsh summer conditions, delighting in brisk morning hikes and nippy overnights in the mountains. Big Bend’s rainy season even brings occasional heavy thunderstorms and flash flooding. Winter is the most volatile season in Big Bend, with generally mild temperatures, though extremes are possible, from 85°F scorchers to periods of light snow.

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