Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is located in the United States in the state of Texas. This park was first established in 1933 as a Texas State Park known as Texas Canyons State Park, but was later renamed Big Bend State Park. The park attained National status in 1935 when the U.S. Congress passed legislature to acquire the park. The park was completed and opened in 1944.

The history of human presence in the Big Bend area dates back to prehistoric times, when several Indian tribes inhabited the area. One of these groups was the Chisos people, a group of nomadic hunters that did not live in strict relation to each other. There is not much known about these people, but it is thought that they may have practiced a small amount of seasonal agricultural. The language of this people was similar to the Conchos people from northwestern Coahuila and northern Chihuahua.

Another nomadic group that inhabited the Big Bend area was the Jumano people, who moved throughout western areas of Texas and southeastern areas of New Mexico to trade. Some records show that the Jumano people were enemies of the Chisos people, who were displaced from their lands by the Mescalero Apaches in the early 18th century. One of the last tribes to inhabit that Big Bend area were the Comanches, who frequented the Great Comanche Trail in order to raid people inhabiting the interior of Mexico until the mid-19th century.

Europeans began settling in the Big Bend area around 1535 A.D., beginning with the Spanish explorations of  Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who passed by the Big Bend area before any other explorers. Many of these voyages were conducted in pursuit of farmlands, gold, and silver, while other voyages were conducted by Franciscan missionaries for evangelization of native peoples. The Spanish explores established a line of forts, known as presidios, along the Rio Grande in order to protect New Spain from native invasions. Many of the presidios, which were placed in an area that is now Mexico, were quickly abandoned due to a lack in funding that was needed to maintain them. The citizens and soldiers living in these presidios moved to areas where defense of the new Spanish empire could be better executed.

There is not much information about Spanish settlement of the Big Bend area after the abandonment of the presidios. One area located thirty miles from the Rio Grande, known as Altares, became independent from Spain in 1821, when Mexico separated from the country. The area was inhabited by Mexican citizens when Anglo explorers began moving into Texas in the late 19th century. After the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, American military members began surveying the Big Bend area. Outposts and forts were established throughout Trans Pecos Texas area to protect citizens from native attacks. Many of the soldiers posted at these forts were African Americans, which Native Americans dubbed “buffalo soldiers.” The firsts American settlers to move into the Big Bend area were farmers that established homes in the 1880’s. By the 1900’s, the landscape was covered with grazing lands for sheep, goats, and cattle, but this caused the natural vegetation to quickly diminish.

In late 19th century and early 20th century, mineral deposits were discovered in the Big Bend area, bringing in even more settlers. Many job opportunities occurred because of the discovery in the mining, timber, and farming industries. Small communities, separate from the farming groups found on the Rio Grande flood plains, were formed around the mining operations including Terlingua and Boquillas, Texas.

Big Bend National Park holds two distinct climates. The first climate is extremely hot and arid and occurs in the late spring and summer months, while the second climate is typically mildly cold throughout the winter, although sub-freezing temperatures have been recorded. The moisture levels in the park can vary depending upon the area due to the range in altitude that occurs throughout it. Altitudes can range from 1,800 feet to 7,832 feet at Emory Peak in the Chisos Mountains. This range allows for a wide range of plant and animal species that thrive in different areas of the park.

There are 118 miles of river from the southern boundary of Big Bend National Park. This river runs through many areas including the canyons of Boquillas, Santa Elena, and Mariscal. The Rio Grande also runs through 69 miles of the park, creating a deep canyon with almost vertical walls, as well as a viable riparian zone that supports many species of plants and animals along its banks. The creeks and streams that run off the river also produce this effect. It is thought that the Rio Grande moved into the park around two million years ago.

Although Big Bend National Park is located in an extreme climate, it holds an abundance of wildlife. The park is home to nearly 1,200 plant species, of which 600 are cacti, 3,600 insect species, and 600 species of vertebrates. The environment is able to support all of these species due to the varying ecology throughout the area. Most of the animal species in the park are active at night, because the temperatures are cooler during that time. These species include kangaroo rats, black-tailed jackrabbits, collared peccaries, greater roadrunners, golden eagles, coyotes, and cougars. There are typically around 150 sightings of cougars each year, although there are only two dozen individuals within the entire park. Cacti species in the park include Echinocereus coccineus and E. enneacanthus. During the spring months, colorful wild flowers like blue bonnets, desert marigolds, rock nettles, and yucca flowers bloom. The first record of a Central American bird, the northern tufted flycatcher, in America occurred in Big Bend National Park in 1991. The park is also home to the only breeding area for the Colima warbler in the United States and holds nearly 450 species of bird depending upon the season.

Big Bend National Park is one of the least visited national parks in the United States, with only 300,000 to 350,000 visitors each year. The park has five paved roads including the 21 miles road from Panther Junction to Rio Grande Village and the 30 mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Popular attractions that visitors can enjoy include bird watching, hiking trails, and water activities in 245 miles of the Rio Grande River. Tourists can stop at one of many river stores that conduct tours or use a personal boat, although a river float permit is required. The tour of this river once took visitors into Mexico to visit Boquillas, but the Department of Homeland Security closed the border to Mexico in June of 2002, ending that leg of the tour until June of 2009, when the borders were opened to tourists with proper identification, like a passport.

The biggest attraction in Big Bend National Park is hiking and backpacking among the parks many trails. Popular trails include Marufo Vega trail, which leads to and away from the Rio Grande, Chimneys Trail, which holds beautiful views, and Outer Mountain Loop trail, which extends from the Chisos Basin through mountainous and desert regions to Dodson Trail and returns to the Chisos Basin. The International Dark-Sky Association recognized Big Bend National Park as an “International Dark Sky Park” in 2012. The park is one of ten locations in the world where dark sky stargazing can be accomplished and has the darkest night skies in the lower 48 states. Tourists and astronomers can view stars, planets, and even the Milky Way on moonless nights.

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Image Caption: View of Casa Grande from Emory Peak’s summit, the highest point in Big Bend National Park. Credit: Eleutherosmartin/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)