Big Bend National Park

National Parks Image Gallery The Chisos Mountains are a complex geological wonderland. See more pictures of national parks.
©2006 National Park Services

Big Bend National Park

PO Box 129

Big Bend National Park, TX 79834



Big Bend National Park, located in Texas about 240 miles southwest of the Midland/Odessa airport, protects more than 800,000 acres of desert lowlands and mountains, all nestled in a bend of the Rio Grande. A visit to the park assures unique sights as well as solitude. Big Bend is an untouched pocket of stunning beauty, averaging just 300,000 visitors annually. Hiking the Chisos Mountains and rafting or fishing in the Rio Grande are popular activities for tourists.

Entrance fees: $15/vehicle for seven days or $5/individual for seven days

Visitor centers: Chisos Basin Visitor Center and Persimmon Gap Visitor Center are open daily year-round. Panther Junction Visitor Center is open daily, except December 25. Castolon Visitor Center and Rio Grande Village Visitor Center are open November through April.

Other services: Park lodge, three campgrounds, a trailer park, and backcountry campsites


  • Camping: Open year-round. Reservations are sometimes available. 877-444-6777.
  • Chisos Mountains Lodge: Open year-round. 432-477-2291.
Vector illustration of cartographic map.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

Visiting Big Bend National Park

It is fitting that one of the largest national parks east of the Rocky Mountains should be located in Texas, the second-largest state. Big Bend National Park encompasses an immense expanse of dry mountains, canyons, and desert wilderness just across the Rio Grande from Mexico. Here the river winds south, then suddenly veers north in a great horseshoe curve before turning southward again. The region within the great triangle -- an area as large as Massachusetts and Connecticut combined -- is known as Big Bend country.

Chisos Mountains, a spectacular self-contained massif, serve as a natural geographic anchor for Big Bend National Park. The centrally located mountains are a complicated geological wonderland of volcanic plugs, igneous crags, forested buttes, jagged outcrops, wild dry pastures, and bone-dry streams. Old horse paths and game trails crisscross the range, and on some of those trails you may see bear tracks.

Forming the southern border of the park, the Rio Grande has sliced a deep chasm, called Santa Elena Canyon, through red and orange rock. The canyon is so deep and narrow in places that the sun barely penetrates it. Like the Santa Elena Canyon, the limestone walls of the great Mariscal and Boquillas Canyons rise over 1,200 feet.

Not only is Big Bend National Park a great vacation spot, but it is also a one of the best sandboarding destinations in Texas. Check out the sandboarding article, video and images at Discovery’s Fearless Planet to learn more.

Big Bend National Park offers panoramic views, hundreds of species of wildlife, and an array of activites for visitors. On the next page, you'll find recreation tips to help you make a trip to Big Bend both fun and educational.


Sightseeing at Big Bend National Park

Beautiful pink flower blossom on plant.
©2006 National Park Services The park features dozens of cacti species.

The Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park are mountains of legend. Look closely at Pulliam Bluff in Chisos Basin, and you might see the profile of a reclining man's face. According to legend, this is Alsate, a mighty Apache chief whose ghost still roams the higher mountains. His campfire can still be seen at night, it is said.

The mountains are ideal for hiking, and many of the choicest outings begin from the trailhead in Chisos Basin. From the visitors center there, you can hike the Window View Trail to see The Window, where water drains out of the basin, or head down a trail towards the picturesque South Rim. On the South Rim, you will find a fine oasis of bigtooth maple, Douglas fir, and Arizona pine. This is the yellow Colima warbler's only home in the United States.


The other splendid part of the park is the region around the Rio Grande, which forms the southern border of Big Bend National Park for 118 miles. Canyon walls in this area range from 1,200 to 1,600 feet. Down along the river the thick subtropical vegetation forms a veritable jungle. Three great canyons can be found along the Rio Grande: Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas. It is always possible, along these junglelike stretches, for visitors to see some of the rarest wild felines in the United States -- the ocelot, the jaguarundi, and the jaguar.

The fauna and flora of Big Bend attract many nature lovers to the park, as the remarkable topographic variety provides a habitat for a surprising diversity of life. Here are over 1,200 plant species, many found nowhere else on earth, and more than 400 species of birds, which is many more than you will find in any other national park.

Desert vegetation covers most of the park's terrain; bunchgrasses, cactus, creosote bushes, and yuccas grow in vast profusion. Also abundant are sotols, bright green plants with sawtooth edges on their leaves that the Apaches roasted and ate. Fermenting the plant yields an alcoholic drink.

If you visit Big Bend in the spring, you may have the chance to observe the desert's transformation after a heavy spring rain. Normally dry creek beds rage with water, and dormant seeds create short-lived fields of wildflowers. Elsewhere in the park, the Rio Grande, with its deep canyons and floodplains, creates an ecosystem all its own, as do the cool Chisos Mountains, which harbor forests of pine and oak that provide a habitat for deer, mountain lions, and other animals.

Big Bend National Park Photo Opportunities

There are many sights to behold, with all the diverse wildlife and stark desert scenes framed by mountains. Here are a few of the views you'll want to capture with a camera:

  • The Window: A short stroll up Window View Trail reveals a photogenic formation called the Window, a deep V-shaped opening through which water drains from the basin. This spot is especially lovely at sunset, when vivid colors streak the sky and long shadows add mystery to the landforms.
  • Casa Grande: Visitors can also walk to the Window for a spectacular view of a mountain called Casa Grande, or "Big House." Dawn and dusk add to the spectacle of this especially stunning vista.
  • The South Rim: The panoramic view from the south rim of the Chisos Mountains, looking out over thousands of square miles in northern Mexico, is one of the finest in the national park system.
  • Santa Elena Canyon: From the vantage of the Rio Grande, the massive red and orange limestone walls tower overhead. The contrast against a cloudless blue sky is striking.
Men exploring nature outdoors while traveling.
©2006 National Park ServicesVisitors can hike from the Chisos Basin trailhead along the Window View Trail for some spectacular sights.

Big Bend offers more than 800,000 acres of wilderness for exploration, making it a perfect destination for nature lovers. The stunning canyons, mountains, and desert are the result of volcanic activity and shifting land. Learn how these wonders were formed on the next page.


History: How Big Bend Was Formed

Outdoors, nature bathed in cloud-filled sky.
©2006 National Park Services Molten rock from volcanic activity 35 million years ago makes up the Chisos Mountains.

Hundreds of millions of years ago, first one and then another great inland sea flowed through the Big Bend National Park region, depositing thick layers of limestone and fossil-bearing shale. About 60 million years ago, mountains began thrusting up through the earth. At about the same time, a 40-mile-wide plain began sinking along fault lines. This left the awesome cliffs of Santa Elena Canyon to the west and the Sierra del Carmen mountains to the east.

Then, about 35 million years ago, volcanic activity began spewing vast amounts of ash and dust into the air and squeezing out magma, or molten rock, to form the Chisos Mountains. Some of the magma that cooled and hardened underground was later exposed by erosion.


Today, Big Bend remains a special place; it is at once desolate, haunting, and fascinating. Within the park are archaeological treasures, petrified trees, vestiges of prehistoric cultures, and unusual forms of plant and animal life. Geologically, the park encompasses some of the most fascinating and complex landforms on earth.

Exploring nature's outdoors on sandy travels.
©2006 National Park Services There are more than 1,200 plant species in Big Bend National Park.

The History of Big Bend: Explorers and Inhabitants

Southwestern Texas is a wild land with a wild history. People arrived in Big Bend country about 10,000 years ago. They were probably nomadic tribes whose ancestors had crossed the Bering land bridge from Asia. The first farmers began cultivating the rich bottomland near the river in the thirteenth century A.D. These people may have wandered into the valley from Pueblo cities to the north.

According to legend, when Spanish soldiers and settlers arrived in the sixteenth century, they discovered a rich lode of silver at the top of a jagged mountain near a bend in the river where it had cut a spectacularly deep canyon. The Spanish soldiers enslaved the native people to work the mine, but eventually the miners rebelled, killed their Spanish overlords, and sealed the entrance to the mine so they would never have to work there again. Soon, more warlike tribes, such as the Mescalero Apaches, moved in from the north, launching lightning attacks on the Spanish settlements.

Later the Comanches made their way into the region, driven by encroaching white settlers from the Comancheria, their prairie homeland in northwest Texas. Skilled horse fighters, the Comanche warriors victimized both Spanish ranchers and Apaches, killing, taking slaves to sell in Mexico, and destroying livestock and crops. They eventually drove the Spanish settlers from the region. In 1821, Big Bend country became part of Mexico and, 15 years later, part of the Republic of Texas.

Despite a tumultuous history, Big Bend country today is a peaceful, if desolate, region. The unusual geology and diverse wildlife fascinate visitors who venture to this Texan outpost of natural wonder.

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