There are many archaeological excavation sites at Big Bend, where some interesting finds have already been made. Amongst others, several skeletons of pterosaurs from the Cretaceous period have been uncovered here, but also traces of human life, going back thousands of years. Of the excavation sites, only two are publicly accessible; those can be reached via the Hot Springs trail.
In fact, the presence of humans in the area can be traced back 10,000 years, all the way to the Paleoindian time period. Evidence documenting the presence of the nomadic Indian peoples of the Chisos and Jumano in the 16th century can be found. In the 18th and 19th century, the Mescalero Apaches and Comanches lived here at Rio Grande’s Big Bend at least for for a while. The first Europeans to explore the region were members of a Spanish expedition looking for natural resources from 1535 on, they were later followed by Franciscan missionaries. Settlers did not arrive until the mid-19th century in significant numbers, but many ranchers had to abandon their plot again soon, because the region’s desert climate made it very difficult to maintain successful livestock farming. The discovery of minerals in the soil caused a new influx of settlers and the founding of settlements such as Terlingua. In 1933, the state of Texas declared Big Bend a State Park and in 1944, the area became a National Park.
The Texan Big Bend area is still widely deserted, isolated and hard to reach. The latter is the reason for the comparatively low number of annual visitors to the National Park, while the former enables those who come to discover many points worth seeing and a natural scenery that’s in large parts remained untouched. The Park is open year-round and can only be reached by car, there are no bus, rail or air connections available. There are several visitor centers, of which the Panther Junction Visitor Center has the most extended opening hours, daily until 6 pm. The entrance fee is $20 per car and valid for seven days from purchase. Those wanting to stay overnight can make reservations for a spot on one of the two campgrounds or set up a tent outside of those, for which a permit must be obtained at the Visitor Center. In addition, there is a lodge with a small number of rooms at Casa Grande. In the same location, the only restaurant within the National Park can be found.
But also those staying for one day only will have a good opportunity to discover Big Bend’s nature. The visitor center organizes nature walks and hikes led by Park Rangers, but visitors may also elect to go for a hike on their own. There is a trail system covering more than 200 kilometers in total with varying lengths and degrees of difficulty. For example, the Emory Peak trail leads to the highest peak of the National Park over a length of nine miles, while the Window Trail offers excellent opportunities to discover flora and fauna on a length of five miles. There are more than 1200 plant and over 600 animal species living here, which is in part thanks to the versatility of the landscape. In terms of flora, the large number of cacti species is most impressive. In fauna, coyotes, golden eagles, roadrunners and black bears are worth mentioning as is a medium-sized mountain lion population and several species of venomous snakes. Birdwatching is among the most popular activities in the National Park, there have been 450 different species spotted in Big Bend. Almost equally nice on the eyes is the look towards the sky after sunset, as there is almost no light pollution here thanks to the remote location of the National Park, which is the prerequisite for especially rewarding stargazing.
Those who do not want to hike or climb the rocks can also explore the Big Bend by riding bikes on the National Park’s trails. However, biking outside of the trails is not permitted in order to conserve nature. In addition, there are a number of Scenic Drives available which will guide motorists to beautiful observation spots. One example is the 30-kilometer drive up from Panther Junction to Rio Grande Village, leading past canyons and historic places while traversing large differences in altitude.
Visitors with a taste for adventure might want to go straight down to the river, where several operators offer rafting trips. The most attractive section is probably the one in Santa Elena Canyon, where rafters will travel rather calm waters for a few miles, giving them the opportunity to admire the nature at the steep canyon walls, before the trip turns into a real wild water adventure. In sections where the Rio Grande presents itself less untamed, it is also possible to travel by canoe.
Further information on Big Bend National Park can be found on the National Park Service website.