Big Bend National Park, United States

Content Cover Image

Casa Grande from Emory Peak's summit, the highest point in Big Bend National Park Source E.Martin .

Big Bend National Park is one of the two National Parks located in the state of Texas, in the USA. Big Bend National Park is located in the Big Bend region along the border of Texas and Mexico where the Rio Grande bends toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Because the park contains a variety of habitat types including mountains, deserts, and riparian habitats, the park is home to a diverse flora and fauna. Visitors arrive at Big Bend National Park to hike, camp, watch wildlife, and experience the river by rafting or canoeing.

Geographical information 

caption Map of Big Bend National Park. Source: U.S. Geological Survey

Big Bend National Park is located in the big bend of the Rio Grande along more than 161 kilomters (100 miles) of the Texas-Chihuahua-Coahuila border southeast of El Paso, Texas in Brewster County, Texas. It includes a large portion of the Chihuahuan Desert as well as the Chisos Mountains on the Texas side of the Rio Grande’s expansive steep canyons.

Date and history of establishment

In 1933, the state of Texas created Texas Canyons State Park along the Rio Grande River, including Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas Canyons. Later the same year, the Chisos Mountains were added to the park and the name was changed to Big Bend State Park. The very next year the U.S. National Park Service recommended the establishment of a national park; President Franklin D. Roosevelt took interest in the park because of the idea of a companion park on the Mexico side, which is to this day being discussed.

Congress authorized the creation of a Big Bend National Park on June 20, 1935, stipulating that the land be secured only by public and private donations. By 1942, most of the acreage was purchased and the national park was officially opened to the public on June 12, 1944. Congress, in 1972, gave the money for parks lands making 2866 square kilometers (708,118 acres) of the original park under federal ownership. Gradual additions have increased the park to 83,242 square kilometers (801,163 acres), of which 3,143 square kilomters (776,693 acres) are federal lands.


Big Bend National Park contains more than 3242 square kilometers (801,000 acres) located in southwest Texas. Thus this national park is approximately the size of the state of Rhode Island.


The altitude in Big Bend National Park ranges from approximately 550 meters (1800 feet) along the river to 2400 meters (8000 feet) in the Chisos Mountains.

Physical features 

caption Chisos Mountains, Big Bend National Park. Source: NPS

The Park contains deserts, mountains, and a river within its borders. The Chisos Mountains are the southernmost range in the continental United States and the portion within U.S. borders is completely enclosed in the park. The highest peak in the range is Emory Peak, with an elevation of 2386 meters (7,825 feet).   It is the highest peak in the county and the tenth highest in Texas. The Rio Grande forms most of the border between Texas and Mexico. In 1978, Congress designated a 308 kilometer (191 mile) section of the Rio Grande as a Wild and Scenic River, sixty-nine miles of which lie on the park boundary. The Rio Grande flows through Santa Elena, Mariscal and Boquillas Canyons, which are the deepest gorges on the river. The park has the largest protected portion of the Chihuahuan Desert in the Unites States, in part because majority of this desert is in Mexico.


The variety of physical features in the park creates a variety of temperatures and moisture microclimates. There is regularly a relative low humidity in this desert. The rainy season occurs from June to October. During periods of peak precipitation high water levels can create flash floods, but the water level usually subsides quickly. Summers are hot, but there is a considerable temperature gradient across varying elevations. Winters are temperate with periods of cold weather sometimes including snow. The interim seasons of fall and spring are warm and pleasant.


caption This view shows the riparian shrub forest (mostly tamarask or salt cedar), barren mudflats, and a channel gravel bar along the Rio Grande. The Sierra De Santa Elena is in the distance. This view is from a stream terrace near the Cottonwood Campground in western Big Bend National Park. (Source: U.S. Geological Survey)

The Park contains 200 species of plants, including approximately 60 cacti species. Chisos Mountains support relict forests from the late Pleistocene era of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, Arizona cypress, quaking aspen, and bigtooth maple. The most familiar plants found in the desert are lechuguilla, sotol, numerous species of cactus, mesquite and yuccas. On the banks of the Rio Grande many native species of plants can be found that are throughout the region. However, there are also some species along the Rio Grande banks that are invasive non-native species including cane and tamarix.


The Park contains 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 within its boundaries. Chihuahuan Desert species such as javelinas, roadrunners, jackrabbits, millipedes, and mule deer are common throughout the park. Visitors in the Rio Grande canyons can observe wild horses and burros in addition to other riparian species. Bats and other nocturnal species are active at night.

Cultural heritage

The Big Bend region has played host to a variety of cultures including Native Americans, the colonizing Spanish and U.S. citizens. The Spanish crossed the Rio Grande  in search of gold, silver, and fertile land to the north. The Comanche Indians crossed the river to raid into Mexico in the 19th century. Mexican and Texan settlers farmed the floodplain. The park even has archaeological sites that date back 10,000 years. Old ranches and mining operations from the early 20th century are also found within the park. The region is deeply connected in both Texan and Mexican history. Until the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848, the area within the park was an element of Mexico.

Local human population

There were 9048 U.S. citizens permanently residing in Brewster County in 2006 according to the census bureau.

Visitors and visitor facilities 

caption Campgrounds at Big Bend National Park. (Source: NPS)

The Park is open year-around to visitors. Park guest enjoy driving through the park, camping, hiking, bicycling, floating down the river, birding, and climbing. With many trails in different areas the views are endless. In the year 1944, only 1409 people visited Big Bend National Park. Between 1981 to 1990, there averaged more than 230,000 visitors annually. Even with the expansive funding in the 1950s that built roads, bridges, trails, campsites, and a lodge, restaurant, and cabins in the Chisos Basin, the majority of the park acreage is managed as natural zones, and remain largely unaltered by human activity.

Conservation value

Big Bend National Park has a mission of protecting natural and cultural resources of the Rio Grande, Chisos Mountains, and Chihuahuan Desert for future generations. Park management encourages visitors to "be a steward of the land, do everything you can to minimize your impact on the desert landscape". The park is a believer in “leave no trace”, an ideology that is meant to minimize human impacts on the environment, to respect wildlife, and be considerate to future human visitors.

Unauthorized use by foreign nationals

The U.S. Government has recently issued warnings to park visitors regarding the increased usage of certain park areas by drug traffickers and other illegal immigrants crossing into the USA from Mexico. The National Park Service acknowledges that in the last several years the Big Bend National Park has seen the establishment of rather well defined routes for drug smuggling into the USA through this national park, and issued safety warnings to citizens of the USA who visit the park.

Conservation management

There are four federally endangered species known to inhabit Big Bend National Park. The Mexican long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris nivalis), the black-capped vireo (Vireo atricapilla), the silvery minnow (Hybognathus amarus) and the Big Bend mosquitofish (Gambusia gaigei). Other species, such as the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) have been delisted federally due to recovery, but are listed as endangered in the state by the Texas Parks and Wildlife. The water flowing through the Rio Grande is an important natural resource, being used for agriculture from Colorado, the source of the river, to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico where its banks are shared by the United States and Mexico.

References and further reading

  • Texas State Historical Association. The Handbook of Texas Online: Big Bend National Park.
  • Gray, J.E.; Page, W.R., eds (2008). Geological, geochemical, and geophysical studies by the U.S. Geological Survey in Big Bend National Park, Texas. Circular 1327. U.S. Geological Survey. ISBN 978-141132280-6.
  • Lehman, Thomas M.; Wheeler, Elisabeth A. (2001). "A Fossil Dicotyledonous Woodland/Forest From The Upper Cretaceous of Big Bend National Park, Texas". PALAIOS 16 (1): 102–108.
  • U.S. National Park Service. 2011. Big Bend National Park.
  • Wheeler, Elisabeth A.; Lehman, Thomas M. (2005). "Upper Cretaceous-Paleocene conifer woods from Big Bend National Park, Texas". Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 226 (3-4): 233–258




This article was partially researched by a student at Texas Tech University participating in the Encyclopedia of Earth's Student Science Communication Project. The project encourages students in undergraduate and graduate programs to write about scientific issues under close faculty guidance. All articles have been reviewed by internal EoE editors, and by independent experts on each topic.



Freitag, A. (2014). Big Bend National Park, United States. Retrieved from


To add a comment, please Log In.