Things to Do in Texas: Big Bend National Park
Because we all need to be able to experience sheer wonder at the beauty of the natural world, places like Big Bend National Park are vital to our wellbeing. As a community and as a world! Big Bend is an enormous piece of ground – measuring over 800,000 acres – in the far west corner of Texas.
It’s a place of mystery and deeply ancient history, where, if you listen carefully, you can still hear the whispers of ghosts in the sea fossils and dinosaur bones. It’s a place where night time is charcoal black, unbroken by technology and where the rivers meander around stone, giving it the aura of ancient architecture. Photo: dfikar/Fotolia
Big Bend’s history has been documented all the way back to around 9,000 BC and it is understood by researchers that this vast piece of terrain, which may look hostile to the inexperienced, has been inhabited by nomadic peoples since at least 8,500 BC. These people, known by anthropologists as Palaeo-Indians are recognized as part of a hunter-gatherer society. What this means is that the men were hunters of large animals such as bison, and the women focused on making the home, and gathering seeds, fruit and vegetables. But because the people were nomadic, it meant that they would feed off the land and live where it was hospitable to them – in caves, for instance – but that they would move with their source of food.
The period between the 1500s and the 1800s saw many different Indian communities inhabiting the land and challenging others for territorial reasons. It was a period distinguished by war and bloodshed over land ownership. It was also a time when Spanish colonialists first began exploring the area. By and large, these people were looking for gold and silver, land that could be farmed and people who they could enslave, roughly in that order. Things to Do in Texas: Big Bend National Park - Photo: Zack Frank/Fotolia
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The fight for territorialism increased from the 1800s until the early 20th century, where Mexican communities began settling in the area. By 1930, however, the value of Big Bend was respected by incipient conservators who recognized the importance of keeping the wildness of this part of the country wild. In 1935, the American Federal Government named this park the Texas Canyons State Park and ratified it as protected land.
It was renamed Big Bend in 1944, after the large bend in the 1,000 mile-long Rio Grande River which defines the border between America and Mexico. This bend embraces the park. Today, still home to more than 1,200 species of plant life, 450 types of birds, 56 types of reptiles and 75 types of mammals, Big Bend is also arguably one of the world’s largest repositories of ancient ruins which are preserved – thus providing invaluable access to America’s anthropological roots. Things to Do in Texas: Big Bend National Park - Photo: Rex Wholster/Fotolia
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The best way to begin your visit to Big Bend is at the Panther Junction Visitor Center, located at the headquarters of the park. This visitor center offers you everything you need for your trip, from permits to groceries, diesel and gas to a post office and theater, as well as advice from experienced professionals, who can tell you all you need to know about hiking and cycling trails. But Panther Junction is not the only visitor center to this enormous piece of unspoiled land. The Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, Persimmon Gap and Castolon visitor centers are all fully operational and well equipped to give you all the support you need. Some of them are open on every day of the year, while others are open only seasonally, so you need to plan your routes with care.
Firmly supporting the principles which protect the natural environment, Big Bend is curiously one of the least visited of natural parks in America, clocking in some 300,000 visitors a year. This has to do with the park’s remoteness but also the fact that the preservation of the land comes before conventional creature comforts. You won’t get satellite television or Wi-Fi access here. Rather you will get the magic of God-given nature. So don’t bring your radio. You will have more than enough bird calls, and sheer silences to enjoy. Things to Do in Texas: Big Bend National Park - Photo: Ronald /Fotolia
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So, you’re not here to be entertained in a passive way. You need to be fairly robust, fit and curious to discover new things. There are options of ranger-led tours, as well as hiking trails, cycling trails and some 42 designated campsites which will cater to your physical necessities but come with strict rules for protecting the park itself.
Big Bend is celebrated as one of the premium cycling destinations in the world. It promises the most extraordinarily outstanding views on more than 100 miles of paved roads, and 160 miles of dirt roads suitable for experienced off-road cyclists. There are, however, very clear rules that prevent cyclists from riding on walking trails, for safety reasons – and these must be respected. There are shuttle facilities which can take you and your bicycle to the start of numerous trails ranging from easy to difficult. In the interests of your own safety, it is important that you adhere to the rules and don’t overtax yourself, particularly if this is your first visit to the park.
Similarly, if you wish to bring your own horse to the park, you are welcome to ride it, in specially designated areas. There are not, unfortunately, facilities to house horses or offer them for rent. If you are bringing your own horse, it must have vaccination documentation to prove that it is healthy and you must adhere to the park’s regulations with regard to where it can feed. Things to Do in Texas: Big Bend National Park - Photo: dfikar/Fotolia
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But if you’re keen to visit the park for what you can see in terms of birdlife, rather than on how far you can travel by foot, bicycle, or on horseback, Big Bend is also a place for you. If the scaled quail is something you’ve been yearning to see in its natural habitat, or the elf owl – or perhaps the Lucifer hummingbird or the black-tailed gnatcatcher, know that of the myriads of birds you will encounter in Big Bend, most are indigenous to the area and do not migrate through it. Bird-watching is a particular popular and really fruitful activity in Big Bend.
Another popular activity is day hikes, and because of the vastness of the terrain, you can opt for desert, mountain or river hikes. Either way, there is more than 150 miles of hike able terrain waiting for you, within a range of difficulty challenges and time frames. You need to equip yourself to handle elevations ranging from 1,800 feet to over 7,800 feet, and to expect to weather temperature differences of about 20°F as you walk between elevations.
Fishing from the Rio Grande is freely permissible, and represents a digression from the difficulty of navigating the terrains, which can be quite taxing and harsh. While you need to obtain a permit to fish in the Big Bend, that permit is free of charge. Things to Do in Texas: Big Bend National Park - Photo: Teressa/Fotolia
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All the entrances to the Big Bend National Park are open 24/7 but you can only gain access when you have paid your entrance fees. Entrance fee stations all close in the evenings, so you need to plan your time carefully. Every person entering the park is required to pay for a recreational use pass. Costing $12, per individual, this fee is designed to keep the park functional to a tourist industry, and percentages of this money goes toward supporting the facilities which you can access free of charge. In addition, you pay a nominal fee for your vehicle -- $25 for a non-commercial car, and $20 for a motorcycle. There are educational fee waivers if you are bringing a study group and various other fee structures depending on how regularly you wish to visit the park or whether you’re coming for commercial reasons.
The park features three front country camp grounds – which mean they are more built up for your comfort as a tourist – and a number of back country camp sites, which are considerably more rustic. Each requires a permit and each specifies that a limited number of people can camp in the given area at any given time. Forward planning is very important in expeditions of this nature. If camping is not your thing, the Chisos Mountain Lodge is the only lodge in the confines of the park. It is located at an elevation of 5,400 feet and has most modern conveniences and amenities, including a gift shop and restaurant.
In preparing for a trip to Big Bend, remember that you are up against raw nature in its most breathtaking and magnificent possibilities, but also its unrelenting extremities. You need to take every precaution you can in readying yourself for the trip: from your own physical fitness, to shoes that are hardy and comfortable enough to take a respectable pummeling; sun block and clothing to protect you from the sun, which can be quite relentless, depending on the time of year you choose to visit.
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Address: Big Bend National Park, TX 79834, Phone: 432-477-2251 Things to Do in Texas: Big Bend National Park - Photo: RbbrDckyBK/Fotolia
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Things to Do in Texas: Big Bend National Park
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