Explore America's park logoThere are national parks bigger than Big Bend National Park in Texas. The better part of 1 million acres, Big Bend still doesn’t place in the top 10. But few places put bigness on display like Big Bend National Park — a place where you can drive around an entire mountain range.


Big Bend National Park contains the largest protected area of Chihuahuan Desert in the United States — but it is more than a desert park. It’s also a river park with 118 river miles of the Rio Grande serving as the southern park boundary. It’s also a mountain park encompassing the whole of the Chisos Mountains, with several peaks higher than 7,000 feet.



The state of Texas established Texas Canyons State Park in 1933 with 160,000 acres and expanded the preserve by, in part, adding parcels forfeited for non-payment of taxes. A name change and more than a decade later, Big Bend National Park was established with more than 700,000 acres on June 12, 1944. The park was expanded in 2001.


Things to do

It’s a good idea to put an extra pair of socks in your pack when day hiking here. And when you hike Santa Elena Canyon Trail (pictured below) in Big Bend National Park, it’s a good idea to bring an extra pair of shoes — shoes that can get wet and muddy. The trail is short — less than two miles roundtrip — and spectacular, offering views of the Rio Grande River and limestone canyon walls 1,500 feet high. Try chunking a rock across the river into Mexico.


Santa Elena Canyon Big BendAn easy, relaxing after-dinner stroll is the Window View Trail, a paved, wheelchair-accessible trail that begins within sight of the Chisos Mountains Lodge, the only motel in the park. The trail offers great sunset views of the Chisos Basin and beyond. At dusk you’re likely to see deer and javelina.


Why you’ll want to come back

A raft trip down the Rio Grande through Santa Elena Canyon is a fine way to get an otter’s-eye view of the diversity of life where desert meets river. There are outfitters in nearby Terlingua


Flora and fauna

The wide range of habitat — desert, mountain, river corridor — means there is a wide variety of wildlife found in Big Bend National Park. There are 75 species of mammals, 450 species of birds and more than 50 species of reptiles.


Black bear sightings are common — there were more than 40 reported in June. Visitors also report seeing mountain lions fairly regularly. But you’re more likely to observe whitetail deer, mule deer and javelina. At dusk you may also spot one of 20 different species of bat, including the endangered Mexican long-nosed bat found nowhere else in the United States.


And while you may not want to spot a rattlesnake — there are four varieties within the park — you will enjoy spotting the red racer, or western coachwhip, a long, graceful reddish-pink snake often seen lying across the road.


By the numbers:

  • Website: Big Bend National Park
  • Park size: 801,163 acres or 1,252 square miles
  • 2010 visitation: 374,640
  • Busiest month: March, 66,353 visitors
  • Slowest month: June, 13,758 visitors
  • Funky fact: Big Bend National Park is the setting for “Borderline,” the 2009 book by Nevada Barr, whose series of best-sellers features National Park Service ranger Anna Pigeon.
This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States. We'll be adding new parks all summer, so check back for more.


Inset photo from Santa Elena Canyon: longhorndave/Flickr