OverviewEstablished in 1944 by Franklin Roosevelt, Big Bend National Park encompasses more than 800,000 acres. Despite its great size and amazing sights, Big Bend is one of the nation’s least visited National Parks. Although a new record was set in 2005 with 500,000 visitors coming to the park, isolation is never hard to find in this vast swath of the Chihuahuan Desert. Elevations within the park range from 1,800 feet near the Rio Grande on the eastern edge of the park to over 7,800 feet high in the Chisos Mountains. Such great disparity in elevation brings about a wide variety of ecosystems, from dry scrublands to cool mountain pine forests and meadows. The Rio Grande forms not only the park boundary, but also the international border on its 188 mile course through the park. Along the way, the Rio Grande cuts three massive limestone canyons, the Boquillas, Mariscal, and Santa Elena Canyons. Each of these canyons are more than 1,500 feet deep, and more than 5 miles long, providing numerous exhilarating white water opportunities, providing water levels cooperate. Sixty-nine miles of these waters have been designated a Scenic and Wild River. The majesty of the area doesn’t stop with the breathtaking canyons; a violent volcanic past shaped the central area of the park, forming majestic peaks, deep canyons, and rocky spires. Diversity of the geologic kind is dwarfed by the amazing diversity of life. The park is home to more than 1200 species of plants (including approximately 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 3600 species of insects. Big Bend National Park boasts more types of birds, bats, and cacti than any other national park in the United States. Words can not describe what Big Bend really is, only a trip out here will do that for you.
The earliest known event that affected the Big Bend region was the deposition of marine sediments nearly 500 million years ago. These sediments accumulated into layers which can be seen today north of the park towards Marathon and in the Persimmon Gap area in the northern part of Big Bend NP. Around 280 million years ago, these depositions were stopped by the movement of tectonic plates. Texas and the rest of the United States was part of a large continent known as Laurasia. From the south, the super continent of Gondwana moved northward and collided with Laurasia. This collision formed two things, the landmass known as Pangea and a massive belt of mountains. These mountains were known as the Ouachita Mountains. Evidence of these Himalaya-sized mountains are only seen in 3 places in the United States today; the rock in the Persimmon Gap area, the massive linear folds clearly visible in between Marathon and the north entrance to the park, and in the Ouachita Mountains in Oklahoma.
145 million years later, another body of water was covering the Big Bend region. During this time, the limestone in the massive walls of Santa Elena, Boquillas, and Mariscal Canyons was deposited. This marine environment only last for 35 million years. Around 100 million years ago, this sea retreated to its present location near the Gulf of Mexico. During this time of retreat, many of the marine fossils that can be found in the park were deposited.
In the late Cretaceous, roughly 70 million years ago, another collision of tectonic plates began to shape Big Bend. The Farallon Plate began subducting under the western edge of the North American plate. A long and complicated explanation made short is that the Fallon plate dragged along the underside of the North American plate, causing folding, faulting, and mountain building to begin in Canada and work its way down through Mexico. These processes are what formed the Rocky Mountains. In Big Bend itself, folding created Mariscal Mountain, the southern most occurrence of the Rockies in the United States. This is highly debated as to where the southern limit actually is. Some say the White Mountains in New Mexico are the farthest south, while others say the Franklin Mountains in El Paso. Mariscal Mountain was formed by the same processes that created the Rockies and is the southern most of any major mountain in the United States, much less one of late Cretaceous origin.
All was relatively quiet geologically until 42 million years ago, when the first of a series of volcanic eruptions and other igneous activity dramatically shaped Big Bend. This resurgence of activity was caused by faults formed by stretching of the continental crust. As the countless tons of sediment were eroded from the Ouachita Mountains, they spread out over the coastal plains region of Texas, Louisiana, and Mexico. This deposition resulted in innumerable tons of debris to weigh down on the crust, and to counter the weight, the continental crust sank into the upper mantle. This caused the crust to be stressed elsewhere, specifically opening the faults in the Big Bend region. The first igneous activity was the intrusion of magma along the northwestern boundary of the park. This upwelling of magma lifted the ground up forming the Christmas Mountains. Massive amounts of lava poured over the region, blanketing everything in its path.
Between 38 and 35 million years ago, an unknown number of eruptions rocked the region. Volcanic vents have been located in the Sierra Quemada below the South Rim, Burro Mesa, Pine Canyon, and the Castolon area. More eruptions are likely, only erosion has removed most evidence and further study will be necessary to locate additional vents. The erupted material from these vents formed the bulk of the Chisos Mountains, including Lost Mine Peak, all the layers of Casa Grande, Emory Peak, the South Rim, Burro Mesa, Goat Mountain, and Cerro Castellan. Ash from these eruptions can also be found spread throughout the region, even miles outside the park. After the initial series of extrusive igneous activity, magma continued to rise through fractures to the upper regions of the crust. When the magma failed to reach the surface, it spread out into existing rock layers, deforming and fracturing the surface. This magma cooled underground into solid masses, and when exposed, is resistant to weathering. Vernon Bailey Peak, Pulliam Peak, and Ward Mountain are all connected to one large underground pluton, or pocket of magma, known as the Chisos Pluton. This pocket of magma is responsible for uplifting the Chisos Mountains, giving them their lofty heights and dominating appearance over the desert floor below. Other, smaller bodies of magma include Elephant Tusk, the McKinney Hills, the Rosillos Mountains, the Grapevine Hills, and Nugent Mountain.
Roughly 26 million years ago, more tensional forces along the west coast of North America resulted in the development of major faults throughout the region. These faults caused a massive block to form. This block extends 40 miles across, from the Sierra del Carmen in the east to the Mesa de Aguilla in the west, and from south in Mexico to well north of the park. As this block slides down, the land on either side moves upward. Seismic activity in the region shows us this action is still going on. To this point in time, the block has sunk nearly 2,000 feet, and the land has been raised nearly 1,500 feet on either end, for a total displacement of over 3,000 feet! If this fault-block system had not formed, perhaps the Chisos would have 10,000 foot peaks. Only erosion has been shaping the park and all its features for the last 25 million years, but who knows what the future holds for this region
Park DescriptionBecause of Big Bend National Park’s massive size and incredible diversity of terrain, dividing the park up into sections can be a difficult task. To best organize all this information, the park is divided into 3 main categories: major mountains, minor mountains, and hills. What separates major and minor mountains is the overall land area covered, not necessarily the height.
The Chisos Mountains have many unique qualities. They are the only mountains to be entirely contained in a National Park. They are home to the southernmost and easternmost 7,000 foot peaks in the United States. They are the highest peaks in the park. All of these superlatives are put in the back of your mind when you see just how beautiful and rugged these remote peaks are. The Chisos can be divided into two sections; the higher elevations that were uplifted by the Chisos Mountain Pluton, and the lower elevations south of the main peaks known as the Sierra Quemada. Each section has its own personality and provides a unique experience.
The High Chisos Mountains are a haven for hikers, backpackers, and peakbaggers in Texas. With over 40 miles of established trails and many, many more opportunities awaiting those adventurous enough to leave the trail, there is always something to do in the Chisos. The eastern three-quarters of the mountains, roughly from the basin eastward, are covered in a cool pine forest. The other quarter are lower, and do not get as much moisture as their neighbors, which leads to scrubbier vegetation covering what habitable soil it can find. This should not discourage you from venturing off trail, because the solitude you will experience is unrivaled in the Chisos. There are a few springs in the canyons in this area but they are never reliable and should be left for the wildlife.
Emory Peak - 7,825 ft
Lost Mine Peak - 7,550 ft
Toll Mountain - 7,415 ft
The South Rim - 7,403 ft
Casa Grande - 7,325 ft
Crown Mountain - 7,105 ft
Ward Mountain - 6,925 ft
Pulliam Peak - 6,905 ft
Vernon Bailey Peak - 6,670 ft
Pummel Peak - 6,620 ft
Panther Peak - 6,409 ft
Wright Mountain - 6,041 ft
Carter Peak - 5,688 ft
The Basin Rock - 5,515 ft
Canyons of the High Chisos
The most rugged way to gain access to the High Chisos is a long, steep climb up one of these breathtaking canyons. For access to the South Rim, Juniper Canyon and Boot Canyon are your closest access points. The Blue Canyon trail leads up to Laguna Meadows from the Homer Wilson Ranch and the Dodson Loop. This trail leads through many brightly colored layers of ash and lava, with odd formations and interesting minerals under your feet as you trudge up into the High Chisos.
In Spanish, Sierra Quemada means “The Burned Mountains”, and one glance can lead to understanding why this name was given to this rugged area. Because these peaks lack the elevation found in the High Chisos, none of the forestation is present. What can be found is mile after mile of scrub brush, cactus, and solitude. The only trail to traverse this area is the Dodson Trail and is 11 miles long. When combined with the Laguna Meadow, Blue Canyon, Juniper/Boot Canyon, and Pinnacles trails, the route jumps to 30 miles. If this loop doesn’t suite you, Elephant Tusk trail and the Mule Ears spring trail connect with the Dodson. The only other established trail is in the far south, the Dominquez Spring trail, which leads to an old rock structure and several unreliable springs. Mule Ears in the southwestern region of the Sierra Quemada offers some of the best rock climbing in the park. These two individual peaks were first scaled in 1948 and offer routes in the 5.5-5.7 range. The two main creeks in the area are the Fresno and Blue Creeks. Fresno Creek contains semi-reliable springs near its source, and blue creek is normally dry.
Peaks of the Sierra Quemada
Elephant Tusk - 5,249 ft
Dominguez Mountain - 5,155 ft
Punta de la Sierra - 4,885 ft
Backbone Ridge - 4,758 ft
Tortuga Mountain - 4,747 ft
Goat Mountain - 4,625 ft
Burro Mesa - 4,396 ft
Trap Mountain - 4,125 ft
Chilicotal Mountain - 4,108 ft
Mule Ears Peaks - 3,881 ft
Kit Mountain - 3,825 ft
Talley Mountain - 3,765 ft
Cerro Castellan - 3,293 ft
Sierra del Carmen
The Sierra del Carmen is the northern most extension of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental. From Boquillas canyon in the south to Dagger Flat in the north, the del Carmens are over 30 miles long. Also known as the Sierra del Caballo Muerto, this range is the most remote and rugged mountain range in Big Bend NP. Because the range consists of parallel NW running ridges, distinct peaks can not be seen like in the Chisos Mountains. The highpoints of the ridges are towards the middle, where the highest elevation reached is 5,854 feet at Sue Peak. Elevations vary from 3,000 feet at the northern end and 3,000 feet in the south above the 1,200 foot deep Boquillas Canyon. Access to the del Carmens is easiest along the Old Ore Road, a very rough 26 mile road paralleling the ridge, with primitive sites along its length. Hiking is limited to two strenuous trails, the Strawhouse and Telephone Canyon. Both require water caching or carrying at least a gallon per day. Many historically significant sites are located in this area of the park, including the ore tramway, La Noria, and McKinney Springs. Many washes, basins, and valleys run in these mountains, leading to many interesting features such as the Ernst Tinaja and the Carlota Tinaja.
Peaks of the Sierra del Carmen
El Pico (located in Coahuila, Mexico)
Canyons of the Sierra del Carmen
Sierra de Ponce
The Sierra Ponce are the mountains in the southwestern corner of the park that form the massive limestone cliffs of Santa Elena Canyon. The area on the American side of the mountains is known as Mesa de Anguilla. Because of difficult terrain and distance required to travel, the mesa is the least visited place in the park. There are two means to gain access to the upper reaches of the mesa. The first, and easiest is from outside the park near Lajitas. The actual trailhead is behind the golf course’s golf cart building, and is hard to find and almost indistinguishable. The other route is not recommended for even an intermediate level climber. This access is from the Terlingua Abaja campsite. Follow the cairns in a general direction towards the large notch in the limestone bluffs. Once you get here, it is a challenging climb up the steep cliffed out canyon onto the mesa. After you gain the top of the mesa by either means, access to the upper reaches of Santa Elena Canyon and the top of the canyon rim is possible. Water supplies are non existent to very unreliable on the mesa, so plan to carry a gallon per person, per day.
Mariscal Mountain is unique in the fact that it is the southernmost extension of the Rocky Mountains in the United States. The other main draw of this north-south running ridge is the grand Mariscal Canyon. 1,400 feet deep and six miles long, this is a popular day long float. Also, a 6.6 mile (roundtrip) hike from the Talley backcountry site will guide you to the canyon rim. At the northern end of Mariscal Mountain sits the Mariscal Mine, a cinnabar (mercury ore) mine that was in operation until the 1940’s. Mariscal Mountain itself is accessible via the canyon rim trail, and the final elevation is 3,932 feet. The only way to get to the Mariscal Mountain area is via the backcountry dirt roads. Along the River Road from the west, it is around an hour and a half. From the east on River Road it is almost exactly an hour. From Glenn Springs Road it is almost 2 hours. 4wd / high clearance is required.
The Rosillos Mountains are located in the northern section of Big Bend NP. Though not entirely on government land, the highest peaks of the range are within public boundaries. The closest road only comes within 5 miles of the range, so hiking in is unavoidable. Donated to the park service in 1987, the 67,000 Harte Ranch was home to thousands of sheep until it was sold in 1985 with the hopes of it being added to the park. For almost two decades, the main visitors to this area are of the researching variety. Even though this land is now open to the public, the amount of people to venture into this area per year could be very easily counted on a single hand. The mountains themselves consist of intrusive igneous hills, with many valleys, gulls, and cliffs to explore. The rock type of the area would support rock climbing, but caves and other interesting places will be almost non existent. Rosillos Peak, the highest point of the range, is 5,445 feet, with an escarpment of over 2,000 feet from the surrounding desert.
Though only in the park for 4 of its 32 mile length, the Santiago Mountains are worth mentioning. Persimmon Gap, the park’s northern boundary, cuts through this range. Geologists speculate this gap was the canyon of an ancient river whose course was eventually altered, leaving a half carved canyon. In more recent history, this gap was where the Comanche trail entered the Big Bend and escaped the cavalry. In the early to mid 1900’s, the Cooper family operated a store and service station where the visitor’s center can be found today. Averaging little more than a mile wide over the length of the range, few hiking opportunities exist in this seldom visited area. A hiking trail near the visitor’s center leads up into a small canyon, with nice views of the badlands to the north and the Rosillos Mountains and the Chisos far to the south. Dog Canyon near the southern terminus of the range is an exciting hike and almost guaranteed to be devoid of other people. The Devil’s Den is another canyon that is visited very infrequently, most rangers believe by less than 5 people a year. Smooth limestone water slides into deep cool pools await the competent climber in Devil’s Den. Access to both of these hikes is the Nine Points Draw campsite. NO shade exists until inside the canyons, and the approach to both is over 3 miles, so prepare accordingly. An impressive peak worth mentioning is Santiago Peak. At 6,524 feet, it is one of the tallest peaks between the Davis Mountains and the Chisos. This peak is clearly visible on the right when heading south from Marathon. Despite its appearance, this peak was never a volcano. The peak lies on private land, and permission must be gained to climb. Traveling north from Study Butte will mean closer access than north from Persimmon Gap.
Though not entirely within the National Park boundaries, the Christmas Mountains may soon be added, if all goes well for us Benders. The range is located within a 9,269 tract of land deeded to the state in 1991 by the non-profit Conservation Fund and is selling for $370,000, merely $40 and acre! Stipulations of the deed say the Conservation Fund’s authority is needed to sell the land to any party other than the Texas Parks & Wildlife or the National Parks Service. Hopefully everything will come together and Texas will get more public land. The Christmas Mountains were the first site of volcanic activity in Big Bend, and many interesting and impressive features remain to this day. Little information exists on peaks, routes, and other general knowledge of the area. Because the mountains are still on private land, access is not guaranteed. The range’s highpoint, at 5,728 feet, is one of 5 peaks in Brewster County with more than 2,000 feet of prominence. Emory, Rosillos, Sue Peaks, and Santiago Peak are the other title holders.
Little Christmas Mountain
Hen Egg Mountain
Indian Head Mountain
This small igneous intrusion is best known for the picturesque and colorful rock formations that can be found on the cover of the Big Bend NP brochure. Though not much a peak bagging destination, the many large boulders left exposed by erosion can provide many hours of bouldering fun.
Paint Gap Hills
The Paint Gap Hills are another small igneous intrusion, just west of the Grapevine Hills. Views of the Chisos and Christmas Mountains are unparalleled. Croton Peak is the most notable elevation of this area at 4,601 feet. Though not the hardest of climbs, spending a day in the rough hills can provide a great time and interesting perspective on the rest of the park.
Located off the Old Ore Road at the foot of the Sierra del Carmen, this small igneous intrusion is home to a few small peaks. Roy’s Peak is the largest, rising to 3,945 feet. These hills got their name for their proximity to the McKinney homestead a few miles to the north.
When traveling to any of the areas mentioned, remember to check with rangers about the current conditions before you leave.
CampingThere are many camping options in Big Bend National Park, from fully developed sites with bathrooms and electricity to zone camping, where not even trails exist.
The 3 developed sites are Rio Grande Village, The Basin, and Cottonwood. Rio Grande Village has 100 sites available, with an additional 20 RV spots. A store, gas station, showers, dump station, and picnic area are located nearby. The Chisos Basin campground consists of 60 sites, as well as 2 group sites. Restrooms are located within the campground. Nearby, the Chisos Mountain Lodge offers a restaurant, gift shop, hotel rooms, and a general store. It should be noted that RV’s over 24 feet in length are not recommended in the Basin. Cottonwood, the least developed of the major campgrounds, has no electricity and only has composting toilets. RV’s are not allowed, nor are generators. Roughly 30 sites occupy the Cottonwood campground.
Primitive roadside sites exist all along the park’s rough backcountry roads. Because the majority of the sites lie along rough gravel roads, a high clearance vehicle is a must for nearly all sites. Check with rangers about specific sites and whether a high clearance vehicle is necessary. Take caution when camping along the river as Mexicans have been known to cross over and take unattended items. Personal safety is not a problem, they only want your stuff.
For those to whom backpacking is an option, 41 primitive sites lie scattered around the High Chisos. A free backcountry use permit is required for all camping, and may only be acquired up to 24 hours in advance at the Panther Junction Visitor Center. Like all other primitive sites in Big Bend NP, fires are prohibited, and even smoking is banned many times of the year due to extreme fire danger. For those willing to carry gear in 5-6 miles some of the best views in the park await you along the South Rim, with many nearby sites in Juniper Canyon, Blue Canyon, and Laguna Meadow.
Big Bend National Park Camping
High Chisos Backcountry Sites Map
When to CampAs with any desert camping, winter is ideal. In Big Bend, spring and fall may also be nice, but avoid holiday weekends and spring break to avoid massive throngs of people that crowd every corner of the park. Trips in the summer are not unbearable, but hikes in the low desert in the heat of the day are not recommended. Temperatures can vary up to 15 degrees from the Chisos to the lowlands near the river.
Click below for an up to date weather forcast from the NPS, as well as a profile of average temperatures throughout the year.
Red TapeA $20 fee is required for entry into Big Bend NP, and it is good for 1 week. An annual pass is available for $40 that gurantees free admission for a year. A $10 permit is required for all backcountry camping, but other than that, no permits are required.
From February 1 through May 31, certain areas are closed to hiking/camping due to Peregrine Falcon nesting.
• The Southeast Rim Trail and a portion of the Northeast Rim Trail from the Boot Canyon/Southeast Rim junction to a point just north of Campsite NE-4.
• All Southeast Rim campsites as well as Northeast (NE) campsites 4 and 5 are closed during this period.
Technical rock climbing on rock faces within a quarter mile of known peregrine eyries, as posted, will not be allowed between February 1st and July 15th.
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