Top 10 Things to Know About Big Bend National Park: PHOTOS

by Jon D. B.

Often referred to as “Texas’ Gift to the Nation,” Big Bend National Park is a geological marvel that holds some of the most fascinating sites and facts of any U.S. destination.

From sea fossils and dinosaur bones to volcanic dikes that mar the desert landscape, Big Bend is, as the national park describes, “a world of diversity.”

Come for the towering river corridor that gives the park its name, and stay for the sky island ridge tops that reach for the stars to soak in Texas’ premiere Dark Skies location. It’s all here, amidst remaining whispers of American pioneers, ranchers, miners, and scientists that intertwine with the continuing legacy of Indigenous Americans.

Below, we’re breaking down our Top 10 Big Bend Facts from all of the above, a perspective-changing list that shows this Texas gem for what it is: an American icon.

10. ‘El Despoblado’: The Uninhabited Land

Dusk at Big Bend National Park. (Photo: Getty Images Archives)

For as long as people have lived in what is now Texas, most humans considered the Big Bend area as far too remote, let alone dangerous, to be put to use. The most powerful example of this comes from immigrating Spaniards, who named the area “El Despoblado.”

It means “The Uninhabited Land,” and for centuries, that’s exactly what Big Bend was. The desert’s harsh terrain, coupled with its vast remoteness, had countless Indigenous tribes and American settlers passing over Big Bend in search of, well, greener pastures. It wasn’t until the U.S. Military established outposts at Fort Stockton and Fort Davis in the mid 1800s that immigrants began to settle the area.

9. You Can Visit Mexico Directly From Big Bend National Park

Mexican village of Boquillas, seen across the Rio Grande River from Big Bend National Park. (Photo: Getty Images Archives)

Did you know Big Bend sits right on the U.S.-Mexico border? Visiting Mexico through the park’s Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry is an option for visitors, so long as they possess a valid passport. So why not visit two countries in one day via this glorious national park?

Down in Big Bend, the Rio Grande River serves both as the border of the national park as well as the international border between the U.S. and Mexico. It’s a big part of the park, too; its borders encompass 118 miles of the river. As a result of all the above, the park treats any access to the river as an international trip.

8. You Can Float the Rio Grande, Too

The Rio Grande, Cliff Walls and the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend National Park (Photo credit: Mark C Stevens, Getty Images Archives)

And there’s plenty of opportunities for these Rio Grande trips, too. In Big Bend, floating the Rio Grande River (especially within Santa Elena Canyon) is a popular visitor pastime. Again, however, kayaking or any floating of the river is treated as an international trip, so best to have a passport if you plan on Rio Grand exploration of any kind.

Family Enjoy Canoeing, Rio Grande River, Big Bend National Park. (Photo: Yenwen, Getty Images Archives)

Thankfully, the park makes it as easy as possible to enjoy this U.S.-Mexico experience. Thousands float the Rio Grand each year, making their Big Bend trip into multi-national excursions.

For river and park safety, see our Big Bend National Park Safety: Crucial Tips for a Safe, Successful Big Bend Adventure.

7. Texas’ Dark Sky Park

Vast Stars Over Big Bend National Park wilderness with rising sun and milky way

Back in 2012, Big Bend was named as an International Dark Sky Park. According to the park, their lands grant access to the darkest measured skies in the lower 48 states.

This means unparalleled views of the night sky (as seen above). From glimpses of the Milky Way to more stars than you’ll ever see anywhere else in the southern U.S., turning your Big Bend excursion into a Dark Sky experience couldn’t come more highly recommended by Outsider.

6. How Big Bend Got Its Name

The Rio Grande forms the U.S.-Mexico border while winding through the Santa Elena Canyon in the Big Bend region on August 1, 2017 near Lajitas, Texas. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

This one’s a quick one, but important nonetheless. Big Bend is a simple but unique name, and it comes from the large bend in the Rio Grande River along the park boundary.

This area is known as – you guessed it – Big Bend. And it’s the straightforward meaning behind the national park’s name. That’s really all there is to it!

5. Hot Springs Historic District

North America, USA, Texas, Big Bend National Park, Hot Springs, Post Office Building and General Store. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Hot springs may not be the first thing you think of when Texas comes to mind, but Big Bend’s Hot Springs Historic District preserves an incredible history of human occupation surrounding native hot springs.

Here, park visitors can study rock art left behind on the limestone cliffs by Indigenous Americans, or “imagine what it would have been like to meet at the Hot Springs Post Office in the early 1900s to collect your mail each Monday,” as the park cites.

Cynta de Narvaez soaks in the Big Bend National Park hot springs on a Far Flung Adventures canoe trip down the Rio Grande River in Big Bend National Park. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Once upon a time, this area’s Rio Grande floodplain featured farms of corn, squash, and beans, and was a thriving community. The craggy remains of park advocate and founder J.O. Langford’s impressive, historic bathhouse still surround the hot spring itself, which is open to visitors for a natural sauna experience (above).

4. Reptiles Rule Big Bend National Park

Greater earless lizard (Cophosaurus texanus) is a species of earless lizard endemic to the Southwest, a resident of Big Bend. (Photo: Banu R., Getty Images)

While the majority of U.S. national parks focus on their magnificent mammalian megafauna, Big Bend is ruled by a much more ancient animal kingdom: reptiles.

In total, the large range of elevations in the park contribute to its biological diversity, but it’s reptiles who have managed to make the best of the arid ecosystems.

Today, there are a whopping 56 species of reptiles in the park. 22 of those are lizards, alongside 6 species of turtles.It’s the 31 species of snakes in the park, however, that easily take the reptile crown.

For an in-depth breakdown of Big Bend’s wildlife, and which of these snakes you need to watch out for, see our Big Bend National Park Wildlife: Animals You’ll Spot, Including Venomous Species, in Incredibly Diverse Park.

3. Big Bend is a Wonderland of Fossils

Visitors exploring the Marine Environment portion of the Fossil Discovery Exhibit. Big Bend National Park. (Photo credit: NPS, Casey Dunn)

That reptilian dynasty reaches back far into history, too. So much so, in fact, that the fossil record in Big Bend is one of the most impressive in the world.

This is on full display at the park’s Fossil Discovery Exhibit, too. Here, “Wisitors can experience the changes to Big Bend’s plants and animals, and the world they lived in, through 130 million years of geologic time,” the park cites.

Within the museum, countless specimens from Big Bend’s remarkable fossil record illustrate the fascinating story of Big Bend’s ancient life alongside vivid artwork. Visitors can also take a short trail that leads to a panoramic view of nearby geologic points of interest alongside sediments that protect Big Bend’s fossil legacy.

2. Big Bend Holds Bountiful, Brilliant Human History

When it comes to Big Bend, several Indigenous American Tribes lived in and passed through this area for thousands of years. Today, we see this in the pictographs and archeological sites they left behind.

More recently, Texas has been claimed by six different nations in the last 500 years. It’s been a turbulent time for these lands, to say the least. Spanish immigrants crossed the Rio Grand throughout the 1500s to 1600s in search of precious metals like gold and silver. Indigenous Comanche crossed to Mexico and back via raiding parties. And Mexican settlers were farming both sides of the river at the turn of the 20th century.

Historical western town at Rio Grande river valley, Big Bend National Park, Texas

Visiting Big Bend in the 21st century allows trekkers to drive along portions of the Comanche Trail, the same route Comanche warriors once use for raids into Mexico. Visitors can also take to the site of La Harmonia Store at Castolon, where locals (and park visitors) have shopped for over 80 years.

1. ‘Texas’ Gift to the Nation’: Big Bend’s Founding

Circa 1940: Dr Barnum Brown excavating an incomplete Ceratopsian dinosaur fossil from the Aguaja Cretaceous formation at Tornillo Creek in the Big Bend area of the Rio Grand, Texas. (Photo by Roland T. Bird/Keystone/Getty Images)

All of the above leads us to the park’s founding. The Big Bend area originally became a park in the 1930s as Texas Canyons State Park, but wouldn’t be declared a U.S. National Park until June of 1944 when Congress made it so.

In the decade prior, the Big Bend of the Rio Grande, Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas, had all made an impression on American conservationists. So, too, did the land’s diversity of biological species, fossil record, and incredible geologic formations.

Conservation was at the heart of Big Bend’s founding as a national park. Especially where park advocates and founders  J. O. Langford, E. E. Townsend and newspaperman Amon Carter were concerned. And to make it so, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) of his WWII New Deal, provided an ideal work force. Through their incredible craftsmanship, America received “Texas’ Gift to the Nation’: Big Bend National Park.

For more on the park before your excursion, see our Big Bend National Park Must-Sees: Hikes, Views, and Landmarks, from Santa Elena Canyon to Balanced Rock next.