We’ve recently left Big Bend National Park after a ten day stay. Ten days is by far the longest we have stayed at any one place since leaving Florida, but Big Bend is so large that it hardly counts as ‘one place’. We stayed at four different campsites, exploring the different regions of the park accessible without a four-wheel drive. I will break up the post about our experience at Big Bend into five parts so you are not faced with one monster post too long to read. Over the next four days (or more if we lose internet coverage) you will see a post covering each section of the park where we stayed.
Big Bend National Park is huge, a whopping 801,200 acres (1,252 sq. mi). By the park’s own declaration it is the eighth largest national park in the lower 48 states, though my own research pins it at the seventh largest. Maybe someone got confused and counted New York State’s Adirondack Park as the largest national park in the lower 48? Or, more likely, whoever did the research for Wikipedia missed something (but I am not inclined to repeat the research; the National Park service has a great website, and information is easy to access, but the UI does not allow for a query by park size).* Several ecosystems comprise the park: the Rio Grande creates a riparian zone on its banks, which rise quickly into dry sandy desert; the Chisos Mountains rise “like an island from a desert sea” in the middle of the park. Being cooler and wetter, the plants and animals on this desert island differ substantially from those in the surrounding desert sea.
Many parts of the park are best accessible via four-wheel drive. There are many roadside backcountry campsites available, but many of the roads are rough and require a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle. Hiking will only get you so far, as the water sources are not reliable so you must carry all the water you will need for the entire trip with you, recommended one gallon a day per person (though in the cooler winter you can get away with a bit less). In the entire 801,200 acre (1,252 sq. mi.) park, there are only about 200 miles of hiking trails. Harriman State Park in New York, where I often took the train for an easy-to-get-to day hike from New York City, offers 200 miles of hiking trails in an area 95% smaller at 46,6000 acres (73 sq. mi.) Off-trail hiking is allowed, and outside of the popular mountain basin, backpacking sites are not designated and permits are issued for a zone of the park. Thirty-six zones are open to backpack camping permits; the zones range greatly in size, but average around 30 square miles. One can camp anywhere within that 30 square mile zone, subject to a few restrictions about being a certain distance from roads, trails and water sources. I can tell you with confidence that I am not ready for off-trail long distance hiking in the desert. Low and sparse plants make for great visibility, but the sheer scale, danger of all living things including the plants, and lack of water availability make zone backpacking a daunting prospect.
In 2012, Big Bend was certified as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association. With long nights to enjoy the star gazing and mild weather, winter is a great time to visit this park. The only downside of the timing is that there are limited flowers. Desert plants, like most plants, bloom primarily in spring and summer. Summer months bring monsoon season, so water availably may be greater, but ground temperatures can get up to 180 degrees Fahrenheit, and that is just too hot. In fact, most of the park amenities are closed from April 15-November 15, though the park remains open for the hardy.
Our first stop upon arrival was the Panther Junction visitor center, where we arrived with no idea of where we wanted to go in the park. Our internet access was limited after we left Austin, s0 we didn’t have a chance to research what to do and where to camp in the park. All we knew is that we wanted to stay for 10 days altogether, mostly in roadside backcountry sites, but also do a little backpacking. The ranger issuing permits was very patient and helpful, and we got a great itinerary covering four different regions of the park. Backcountry camping permits, which cover both roadside and tent camping, can be issued for up to 14 days and cost $10. With our America the Beautiful pass covering our entrance fees, this means that our camping fees average out to $1/day. That is a good deal!
Coincidentally, while at Panther Junction we ran into our friends Helen and Ralph, who had been at the park for a couple days and stopped by the Post Office located next to the visitors’ center. They were staying at the Rio Grande Village, a campground on the eastern edge of the park and the only campground in the park with RV hookups.
*From Wikipedia’s list of the top 20 largest national parks, with eight in Alaska removed: 1) Death Valley (CA/NV), 2) Yellowstone (WY, MT, ID), 3) Everglades (FL), 4) Grand Canyon (AZ), 5) Glacier (MO), 6) Olympic (WA), 7) Big Bend (TX), 8) Joshua Tree (CA), 9) Yosemite (CA), 10) Isle Royale (MI), 11) Great Smoky Mountains (NC, TN), 12) North Cascades (WA).