Friday, October 2, 2015

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park at the Texas and Mexico border calls itself "splendid isolation" since it represents the largest roadless expanse of public lands in Texas. The national park explains itself in this way: "Big Bend National Park is a geological marvel evidenced in sea fossils and dinosaur bones to volcanic dikes that mar the desert landscape. It's a world of species diversity from the meandering river corridor that sidles across the desert floor to the sky island ridge tops that reach for the stars. It's a place where you can still hear the whispers of pioneers, ranchers, miners, and Native Americans. And it's a land of borders—a place where countries and cultures meet."

At 801,163 acres, Big Bend is the eight largest national park in the lower 48 states, and the 15th largest in the U.S. with annual visitation of 300,000 to 350,000.

The park's varied array of habitats support more than 1,200 species of plants (including some 60 cacti species), 11 species of amphibians, 56 species of reptiles, 40 species of fish, 75 species of mammals, 450 species of birds, and about 3,600 species of insects. Some species in the park, such as the Chisos oak are found nowhere else in the USA. The park boasts more types of birds, bats, and cacti than any other national park in the United States. The variety of life is due to the diverse ecology which includes fertile river valley, high hot desert, and tall cool mountains.

The park has artifacts estimated to be as old as 9,000 years. Historic buildings, artifacts of culture and daily life, and landscapes offer graphic illustration of life along the international border back in the 19th century.

The Rio Grande River forms the international boundary with Mexico, and Big Bend National Park administers approximately 118 miles along that boundary. The park was named after the twisting of the Rio Grande River in this area -- a large, 90 degree upward bend in the river that sends the river northward again.

Big Bend has a temperate climate with abundant sunshine. Summers are hot, especially in the lower desert elevations and along the river. Infrequent and brief periods of cloudy weather may occur during the winter months. While snow is rare and generally light, occasional cold fronts can bring temperatures well below freezing. Yearly rainfall averages around 5-10 inches in the desert and 15-20 inches in the mountains. The park exhibits dramatic contrasts and its climate may be characterized as one of extremes. Dry and hot days in late spring and summer often exceed 100°F in the lower elevations of 1800 feet along the river . Winters are normally mild, but sub-freezing temperatures occasionally occur at 7832 feet on Emory Peak in the Chisos Mountains.

Native peoples lived in or passed through this area for thousands of years. Their presence is evidenced by pictographs and archeological sites. In more recent history (the last 500 years) Texas has been claimed by six different nations. The Big Bend has been a home to people for many centuries. Spanish people crossed the Rio Grande in the 16th and 17th centuries searching for gold, silver, and fertile land. Comanche Indians crossed the river in the 19th century, traveling to and from Mexico with their raiding parties. Mexican settlers began farming on both banks of the river’s floodplain around 1900. Anglo-Americans joined in the farming after 1920, when boundary unrest ended. Cotton and food crops were grown around Castolon and what is now Rio Grande Village, even after the park was established.

Big Bend is famous for its natural resources and spectacular geology.

Big Bend National Park also marks the northernmost range of many plants and animals, such as the Mexican long-nosed bat. Ranges of typically eastern and typically western species of plants and animals come together or overlap here. Here, many species are at the extreme limits of their ranges. Latin American species, many from the tropics, range this far north, while northern-nesting species often travel this far south in winter. Contrasting elevations create additional, varied micro-climates that further enhance the diversity of plant and animal life and the park’s wealth of natural boundaries.

My favorite wildlife spotting was the roadrunners, a number of which were gladly posing for photos, and no, I didn't use a telephoto lens for this shot -- the bird was right alongside the trail on a rock exhibiting no fear of my approach. Obviously they are habituated to humans walking near them.

There are three NPS developed campgrounds in the park, the Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, and Cottonwood campgrounds. Sites in developed campgrounds are offered on a first come, first-served basis. I stayed in both Cottonwood and Rio Grande Village Campgrounds during my stay and was grateful for the shade of the trees during the heat of the day. Below is the Rio Grande Campground as seen from the hill. The trail I was hiking was where I spotted a number of Roadrunner.

While camping at Cottonwood Campground near the Castolon Visitor Center, I learned of the raft trips through San Elena Canyon, so I got up early the next morning and hurried out of the park but arrived at the raft company office 15 minutes after the bus had left for the day's trip. I did see a raft emerging at the park's end of the canyon while I was hiking later that day. You can see the raft in the photo below.

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