Big Bend National Park is surely the easiest park to locate on a map of the US. First, find Texas and then follow the border with Mexico west from the Gulf of Mexico until you find a horn of land that dips southward, pointing into Mexico. Find the lowest point of that horn, and there it is.
This 800,000 acre park is bordered on the south by a 118 mile stretch of the Rio Grande, which is also the border between Mexico and the US. On the west side of the park, the river flows southeast, but at about half the way, it makes a sharp turn towards the northeast, forming the big bend in the river for which the park was named.
The ecology of the park comprises three strikingly different systems, the flood plain of the Rio Grande, the Chisos Mountain Range, and the desert. The features of these ecosystems, and the contrasts among them, give Big Bend a unique draw.
Most of the park is rugged desert that may not appeal to most tourists and vacationers, who might be content to simply view it for a while from the window of an air-conditioned vehicle. It is a vast flatness filled with rocks, sand and cactus that are surrounded in all directions by more rocks, sand and cactus. For desert hikers and campers, on the other hand, it's a paradise that holds many delights. The area is rich in history, archeology and paleontology, as well as desert flora and fauna, all of which can be seen raw by backcountry hikers. The isolation and wilderness setting of the settler ruins, graves, or other artifacts and the fossil beds that you might encounter lend to a strong feeling of discovery and easily conjure up images of the tough men and women who first peopled the area and the settlers that later moved through this country on their ways further west. The backcountry is accessible to hikers, ordinary vehicles to a very limited extent, and to off-road vehicles to a greater extent.
The most-used of the park's hiking trails, however, are in the Chisos Mountains. The mountains get more rain than the rest of the park, and so offer a greater variety of plant and animal life, as well as more interesting vistas for the hiker. The highest peak reaches 7800 feet into the Texas sky. These trails are well maintained and offer difficulty ranging from very easy to very strenuous. Rock climbers may be disappointed, though, as the rock throughout the park is fairly unstable.
The flood plain of the Rio Grande (Rio Bravo del Norte by its Spanish name) offers some very interesting and refreshing experiences that shouldn't be missed. After hot and dry desert and mountain hiking (or driving), the greenery along the Rio Grande will seem lush and the sight of large amounts of cool water flowing by will be very welcome. There are good hiking trails and floating down the river is also very popular. The Rio Grande cuts many deep canyons along its way, and there are long stretches of quiet water for leisurely floats as well. A sight not to be missed is the entrance to the Santa Elena Canyon, a magnificent crevice in rock cliffs that are over a thousand feet high. A unique attraction for the adventurous visitor is to visit one of the two rural Mexican villages just across the river. You can swim across for a 'wetback' experience or ride a rowboat ferry. These are not official points of entry, so no passport check, and you might enjoy a bit of thrill at your brief incursion as an illegal alien.
Unlike many other large national parks, Big Bend National Park does not attract so many out-of-state visitors, with 10% visiting from other countries (half of those from Germany) and over 60% from within Texas. It's pretty much in the middle of nowhere and pretty much on the way to nowhere, and is possibly the least known-about park of its size. Nevertheless, it has much to offer, and like many of the other incredible parks in the US, it brings back the original, undiluted meanings of over-used adjectives like 'awesome'.
Santa Elena Canyon
National Park Service Site