Visiting national, state, and local parks rates high on my wish list when it comes to vacations. Every park is distinct and memorable!
Rio Grande River
The Rio Grande River forms a boundary between parts of New Mexico and Texas in the United States and the country of Mexico ever since 1848 after border disputes were resolved.
In West Texas about halfway between Laredo and El Paso the river makes a deep bend in a southern direction into Mexico. Perhaps that is where the name Big Bend originates. What is now a national park has a fascinating history dating back to the earliest of times.
Back in the 1980s my husband and I decided to spend a vacation in Big Bend National Park and many pictures will be shared in this post about that experience.
The Rio Grande River literally means "Big River" in Spanish. The river has its origins in Colorado. It flows southward to ultimately turn in a southeastern direction and ends up spilling into the Gulf of Mexico between Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico. Much of it is utilized by both countries for irrigation purposes and actual water flow at times and in places sometimes negates the meaning of "big river" particularly in the Rio Grande Valley where much agriculture takes place.
We Begin Our Vacation
Starting from our home in Houston my husband and I had left our pets in San Antonio with family. We then started driving westward the next day on Interstate 10 to our vacation destination of Big Bend.
As indicated in the post written about Fort Davis distances are vast in Texas and seemingly even more so in West Texas. We had our car stocked with snacks and plenty of water since much of this trip was to be in desert country.
Passing through Fort Stockton we stopped to take a picture of Paisano Pete. It is a giant sculpture of a roadrunner bird that one sees in the wild in these parts. These birds can fly somewhat but navigate primarily on the ground with running speeds of 26 mph (42 km/h). The sculpture is 11 feet tall and 22 feet long so it certainly is an attention grabber!
Fort Stockton like Fort Davis was a frontier military post protecting westward travelers from Indian raiders who regularly followed one of the Comanche Trails in this part of the country going down into Mexico. It was primarily manned by the famed Buffalo Soldiers who were black when military units were still segregated.
We had made reservations to stay within the national park. One definitely needs to make reservations well in advance because lodging within the park is limited and surrounding towns with available rooms to rent are sparsely located near Big Bend in West Texas.
The town of Fort Stockton is located 135 miles north of Big Bend, Alpine is 105 miles northwest and Presidio is 100 miles west. We wished to spend as much time in the park instead of spending part of each day driving to and from the national park.
Our room reservations within the Big Bend National Park were up the Basin part of the Chisos Mountains.
The highest portions of the Chisos Mountains soar to elevations of around 7,800 feet, the highest one being Emory Peak at 7,825 ft (2,385 m) above sea level. The Basin is a depression within the mountains some 1,500 to 2,000 feet lower than the highest peaks and about three miles in diameter.
The CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) workmen started building the first road back in the 1930s as well as some camp structures in the Basin of the Chisos Mountains as a part of the New Deal when people were trying to recover from the Great Depression.
Today most of the amenities are found within the Basin and my husband and I were to spend three nights there exploring what we could see of the National Park in that time frame. In hindsight, we wish that we had planned more days there as it is such an effort to get there and there were many more trails that we might have wished to explore had we had the benefit of additional time.
The road going up into the basin certainly tests one's vehicle! An under powered vehicle would have a hard time making that assent. There are pullovers provided to let one's vehicle motor rest and cool down if necessary. Good brakes and the proper use of gears is a necessity!
After locating our room we wandered around the Basin taking some pictures, had dinner in the restaurant and watched our first beautiful sunset before settling in for the evening and planning the days ahead.
Chisos Mountains Basin photos
Geology of Big Bend
It is not surprising to learn that over the course of millenia the area comprising Big Bend National Park was once under the sea. Fossils of shells dating back to the Cambrian period of the Paleozoic Era (some 600 million years ago) are embedded in some of the oldest rocks found in Big Bend.
The uplift of much of the North American continent and development of mountains due to tectonic plate movements deep within the earth (also affecting the Big Bend area) occurred during the Mesozoic era some 230 to 135 million years ago. Plants, birds and dinosaurs occurred by the end of this era and those fossils can be found within Big Bend.
Teeth and scull fossils of mammals many of them now extinct are found in Big Bend from the Cenozoic era some 63 to 1 million years ago. This was also a time of much volcanic activity.
All of these many different rocks and minerals with fossilized remains tell a geologic story of how this area has evolved over time. Of course the forces of erosion have also served to sculpt Big Bend into the fascinating place that can be viewed and enjoyed today.
Big Bend in addition to having an interesting geologic history also has had an interesting history of people who have resided or passed through here. These people include nomads, Comanche and Apache Indians, Spanish and Mexican settlers, Anglo-Saxon settlers, soldiers, outlaws, ranchers, farmers and perhaps even miners. Some people are still searching for reputed lost mines in Big Bend hoping for riches.
The names of some of the areas within Big Bend National Park tell a story all their own as to what was found there or who lived there at one time or another naming these places. These include (but are not limited to) the following:
- Bee Mountain
- Rattlesnake Mountain
- Wild Horse Mountain
- Dogie Mountain
- Government Spring
- Panther Peak
- Lost Mine Peak
- Elephant Tusk Mountain
- Mule Ear Peaks
- Cow Heaven Anticline
- Burro Mesa
- Goat Mountain
- Maverick Mountain
- Adobe Walls Mountain
- Grapevine Hills
- Government Spring
- Dog Canyon
- Devils Den
- Dagger Mountain
- Lone Mountain
All of these people have left evidence of their passage whether it be holes in the rocks used as mortars by Indian tribes, remnants left in caves by bandits evading the law, crumbling and abandoned adobe and other structures used as homes by settlers or even trading posts that once existed.
Living or working in the Big Bend area would not have been easy. Water sources in addition to the Rio Grande River were scarce and most of the springs were to be found in the hillsides and mountains...not the surrounding desert. Over time most people moved away to less harsh environments.
In the next two days of our vacation we drove in and out of the Basin of the Chisos Mountains to view more of the park. It was much cooler up in the mountains than out on the surrounding desert floor.
Santa Elena Canyon
One of the most spectacular of features and one that should not be missed viewing is the trail taking one to Santa Elena Canyon. Vertical cliffs approximately 1500 feet high meet the Rio Grande River in this section of the U.S. - Mexican border. In places the river is only about 30 feet across while at other locations in the canyon it can be over 500 feet from one country to another.
The 1.7 mile round trip trail takes one right down to the Rio Grande River and these magnificent cliffs. We seemed to be the only people traversing the trail that day in the spring of the year 1983. The sun was brightly shining overhead and the day was warm. Suntan lotion, sunglasses, hats and taking enough water with one on these sojourns into desert country is much advised!
My husband and I tiptoed out into the Rio Grande River on some exposed rocks, took pictures and soaked up the atmosphere. The power of nature as well as the beauty and solitude of this place became distinctly imprinted upon our senses.
The Rio Grande River had sparkling glints of sunshine hitting the surface as it churned its way towards the Gulf of Mexico. Reed-like vegetation near the banks of the river swayed in the hot breezes. In addition to the sounds of the moving river occasional bird chirps and the buzzing of insects could be heard. Santa Elena Canyon seemed to be solely ours for that moment in time.
Of course time stands still for no man much less any mountain. The Rio Grande River and other forces will continue to make changes in this landscape as long as our planet Earth exists.
Candelilla Wax Industry in Big Bend
Many old vats and abandoned steam boilers can be seen in Big Bend National Park when the candelilla wax plant was commonly being harvested in the early part of the 20th century.
This fleshy reed-like plant with few visible leaves grows in Big Bend, in Mexico and other desert areas. It has a waxy outer coating which when rendered in a boiling solution of water and sulfuric acid forms a waxy substance utilized in many different ways.
Some examples of uses included the following:
- Waterproofing munitions during past World Wars
- Floor and shoe polishes
- Sealing wax
- Making candles
- Thatching roofs
- Cosmetic industry
- Chewing gum