TravelInsider's Guide

A Park Ranger's Guide to Big Bend

Crowned with a sky so wide that it threatens to define infinity, the Big Bend region of West Texas remains one of the last true frontiers in the Lower 48, a landscape unique in the world.

Keene Haywood—on Twitter @keeneh—has been a frequent visitor to Big Bend National Park, named for a curve in the Rio Grande River, for the past 20 years, having formerly worked for The Nature Conservancy in the nearby Davis Mountain Preserve, Texas’s largest. Big Bend itself is monumental in size, containing more acreage than the state of Rhode Island.

Keene currently directs a master’s program in exploration science at the University of Miami in Florida, but his previous work has involved documentary filmmaking, conservation science, and using geospatial and multimedia technologies to help discover and document the world. He’s also a frequent expert with National Geographic Expeditions. Here’s his insider guide to this geological wonder.

Big Bend Is My Park 

Spring and winter are the best times to visit my park because desert wildflowers bloom in spring, and cooler temperatures in the winter are enjoyable with the off chance of snow in the Chisos Mountains, which is quite beautiful in contrast with the lower-elevation desert.

My park’s biggest attraction is the high country of the Chisos Basin area and the incredible canyons along the Rio Grande (best seen by rafting through them), but a visit isn’t complete without seeing The Window. It is a short hike down to this spot from the Chisos Basin Campground area, the view from which is tremendous and unique.

If I could offer one practical tip for optimizing your visit, it would be to hydrate and then hydrate some more. You are in a very dry place and you’ll lose water faster than you realize.

My favorite “park secret” is off the road leading up to the Chisos Basin. Park on the wide shoulder and wander off into the desert to view a collection of small springs that feed a multitude of life. I’ve seen mountain lion tracks in these areas, as the cats tend to circle the base of the higher Chisos Mountains. Be sure to walk carefully while you’re off-trail.

Watch out for black bears in the Chisos Basin (but in a good way) and be sure to bring good sun protection when you come to the park.

Head to the Chisos Basin area if you want to see wildlife. If you’re really lucky, you’ll spot a black bear (maybe with a cub if you are lucky).

For the best view, head to the summit of Emory Peak or the South Rim trail.

The South Rim is the best trail in the park.

If you’re up for an adventure/physical challenge, try hiking Emory Peak or to the South Rim.

To experience the park’s cultural side, hang out in the ghost town of Lajitas or to Terlingua for a taste of local flavor in this remote corner of West Texas.

The Chisos Basin Lodge is the best place to stay while you’re visiting and Terlingua’s Starlight Theatre is the best place to eat.

If you only have one day to spend in the park, make sure to hit the Chisos Basin, mouth of Santa Elena Canyon, and a short hike on Lost Mine Trail to experience the mountains. All of this is doable in a day, albeit a long day!

If you’re interested in a guided tour, I recommend Desert Sports for biking or river trips or Far Flung Outdoor Center.

The most peaceful place in the park has to be overlooking Mexico and the southern portion of the park from the South Rim. Just incredible! You feel like an eagle perched on the cliff’s edge with the world sweeping away underneath you, and not a road in sight.

The late David Alloway is an “unsung hero” of my park because he truly learned how to live and survive in this beautiful yet challenging environment.

Seeing a Colima warbler could only happen in my park.

If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss roaming around the Chisos Basin area. It is very beautiful, and usually has good wildlife.

Just outside park boundaries, you can visit Terlingua on the west side of the park.

If my park had a mascot it would be a mountain lion or a Colima warbler.

The biggest threat to this park’s future is air quality and lack of water (and water quality) in the Rio Grande.

In 140 characters or less, the world should heart my park because it is truly “where rainbows wait for rain.”

Before you visit (or when you arrive), make sure to check out these great resources (books, films, websites, apps, etc.):

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