You will note I entitled this article “The Big Bend Area of Texas” and not the Big Bend National Park. Peruse a map of the great state of Texas, you will immediately discern that the Park only takes up about half of the Big Bend area. And while it’s a dandy, Big Bend Park only contains half the story of this geologic and historical master piece.
If you read this column regularly you know I have a deep affection for my favorite national park in the USA, Big Bend National Park.
Yep, and it’s called Big Bend (of the Rio Del Norte-Rio Grande) for a very good reason. Just look a the map where the Rio Grande River makes a big bend or horn over our southern border. Of course the international boundary here is the middle of the Rio Grande River.
The area was first known as Texas Canyons State Park in 1933. In 1944 the huge park consisting of 1.5 million acres (but not really funded for almost a decade later) was founded under President Franklin Roosevelt. At first glance it looks and feels like a whole lot of empty space. In fact the local lore is that after God created Earth, he spread whatever rocks he had left over, and sprinkled the mountains, hills and valleys of Big Bend with them in a hodge-podge manner.
However, if you scratch the surface of Big Bend, you will discover fascinating pieces of history, geology, zoology, and botany. There are abandoned cinnabar (quick silver- mercury) mines everywhere, as well as abandoned cattle ranches. At one time, unfortunately, Big Bend grasslands somehow supported around 100,000 head of livestock.
In fact Big Bend includes an area over twice the size of the very large Big Bend Nat’l Park. You can travel upriver 35 miles to near Presidio, Texas where the beautiful Rio Cochos enters with fresh green water flowing out of the mountains of the Sierra Madre in Chihuahua, Mexico. Nearby is the old walled farmer trading post of Fort Leaton now a state historic park. Right below here on both sides of the river, can be found large irrigated fields of peppers, onions, and tomatoes.
Of course, the lengthy Rio Grande is a storied river that begins in south central Colorado at the continental divide as a small, swift clear-water stream. It quickly gains speed until it develops a couple of class IV and V daredevil whitewater box canyons at the New Mexico border.
The river is tamed and drained at a massive reservoir in southern New Mexico, Elephant Butte Reservoir, located upstream from yes, believe it or not, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Then the river is subjected to more agricultural usage until it reaches El Paso, Texas where it gets further diminished.
When the river exits the megalopolis of E Paso and its sister city across the border, Cuidad Juarez, for the next 180 miles, it consists of a deep muddy ditch, normally knee deep and 20-30 foot wide. Too thin to plow and too thick to drink!
There are numerous ranches in this desolate area where ranchers run livestock on both sides of the river without complaint. And I am sure there is a fair amount of drug smuggling that occurs in this area.
For most of the area however, there are no existing highways or roads that come near the river on either side, only goat trails. In fact, a few years ago the Texas sheriff of one of these vast empty lands was indicted in Federal Court for conspiracy in a large scale drug smuggling operation.
Once the pitiful, muddy Rio Grande “ditch” reaches Presidio, Texas, it is infused over 50% with relatively clean, clear green water coming out of the Sierra Madre in Mexico via the beautiful Rio Conchos River.
If you cross the border and visit Chihuahua (pop. 550,000), the capital of the State of Chihuahua, the Black Canyon of the Conchos or the scenic upper canyons of the Conchos located in Baranca del Cobre Nat’l Park, consider taking the train out of Ojinaga (pop. 30,000) across the river from Presidio, Texas (pop. 4700). The train trip is safe; auto traffic is no longer considered safe in this part of Mexico especially at night, unfortunately.
If you enjoy the upper Rio Grande River above Big Bend Nat’l Park, it is even more preserved now since almost all of this area lies within the massive Big Bend Ranch State Park.
Below Big Bend Nat’l Park, lies another 120 miles of river canyons down to Langtry, Texas. This is the famous location of “the Law West of the Pecos,” the home, saloon, museum and gardens of Judge Roy Bean. These glorious lower canyons totaling 120 miles are under the protection of the Nat’l Forest Service since the river and its side canyons are now designated part of the National Wild and Scenic River Act.
Note: When to visit? Any time other than June through August when the valley floor temps commonly reach over 110 degrees.
Even though this is my favorite Nat’l Park to visit (my second is the mammoth Wrangel St. Elias Nat’l Park in eastern Alaska), one must travel in a prepared and cautious state.
The Big Bend lands, including the areas above and below the park, for the most part are lonely and desolate territories. Few people are encountered, and unfortunately, even on the Texas side, everyone deserves a second look.
There are remote river-crossings, bustling with outdoor thrill seekers, ranchers, and outlaws. There is the small village of Santa Elena, Mexico near the exit of the first major canyon, Santa Elena Canyon. There is a booming village across from the tourist town of Lajitas Texas just upriver from the Park and Santa Elena Canyon.
Then there is San Vicente, Mexico near the beginning of the second great canyon, Mariscal Canyon. There is a low-water ford crossing here if you desire to drive into Mexico – NOT RECOMMENDED. Near the outlet of the Mariscal Canyon near Solis are the wonderful Langford Hot Springs on the Texas side just above Rio Grande Village; a mammoth RV camp.
And then located near the entrance to the third great canyon Boquillas Canyon, lies the Mexican village of Boquillas. Here there are a couple of bistros that serve food. Women are discouraged as the Mexican culture disapproves of women in bars.
Finally, at the exit of Boquillas Canyon, lies the small Mexican village of La Linda. There is a one-lane bridge the last time I checked in 1999, it was closed due to local stealing and violence in the area. There is a Federales post on the Mexican side, and a beautiful whitewashed Mexican Mission church located about 3/4 mile distant.
Before venturing across the river, be sure and check in with the local lodge and campground on the Texas side. The Texas side of La Linda includes the original beautiful mine manager’s home and stables for the large Dow chemical mine which is now closed across the river in Mexico.
In 1999, I once enjoyed one of the best meals of my life here after floating 27 miles and 5 days down the Rio Grande through beautiful Boquillas Canyon. The outdoor cafe was served by a beautiful dark-haired Mexican woman who prepared fresh chicken and pork tamales and freshly made guacamole, all served with ice cold Dos Sequis beer.
Caution: Yes there are rattlesnakes, bears and mountain lions, but be much more careful of the upright mammals that walk on two legs. Check local gun laws; I always carried a short-barrelled Colt .38 cal. with me.
And finally, you can never leave your vehicle overnight, or even for long periods of daytime on the Texas side of the river without a care taker. Sorry but this was and probably is the state of things along the beautiful Rio Grande.
And one other item here – From Redford, Texas, 14 miles below Presidio, Texas, all the way to Langtry, Texas, some 330 miles distant, you will discover an important fact. No matter what your politics, you will soon realize that no wall will be necessary in Big Bend due to the numerous canyons, sheer walls, 10,000-ft. high mountains in the Scerra Del Carmen of Mexico, various whitewater chutes, and of course, every living or dying plant is covered with thorns or needles.
On the Mexican side of the river across from Big Bend Park is the International Park of the Rio Bravo, located in the State of Coahuila. However you may still encounter Mexican cowboys goat herders, candelilla wax workers, and the occasional “questionable hombre.”
Further upriver in the State of Chihuahua, politics and poverty have prevented Mexico from having a true international park located along the river as originally envisioned in the sixties.
Now, get up and go enjoy our beautiful Ozarks outdoors!