The Stars at Night are Big and Bright in Big Bend National Park
In early 2012, the National Park Foundation Board of Directors held a meeting in Big Bend National Park. At over 801,000 acres, Big Bend is one of the largest parks, but it is also one of the least visited. Lanie Lamb provides a glimpse into this gorgeously unique place and perhaps inspire a few more to experience this exceptional national park!
Admittedly, my first impression of the park was that it was remote, barren and all one color. There were different geological formations, but everything was brown – not surprising since, last year Texas experienced one of the worst droughts in its history. It wasn’t until I got off the paved road and onto the hiking trails that I realized the true beauty of Big Bend. The plant and animal life is so diverse, and plants bloomed along the desert trails, which led to hidden springs and magnificent views. One of my favorite hikes was along the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains. We wound up through the juniper and pinyon pine trees, arriving after a mile at a saddle offering stunning views of Casa Grande Peak and Juniper Canyon.
Big Bend is not just home to desert and mountainous landscapes, though. The Rio Grande River flows along the southern border of the park for 118 miles, sweeping through canyons, open floodplains, and even rapids (when there’s not a drought)! After lunch one day, we paired up in canoes and went on a three-mile river trip starting at Hot Springs and ending at Daniel’s Ranch. As we navigated the waterway, experiencing extreme quiet and solitude, limestone surrounded us and in the distance, the sun painted the Sierra del Carmen Mountains of Mexico a rosy hue. It was truly breathtaking.
The Rio Grande River serves as the southern boundary of Big Bend National Park, but it is also a natural border between the United States and Mexico. Before the attacks on September 11, 2001, an informal border crossing to the Mexicantown of Boquillas del Carmen was located in the park. Visitors would pay a dollar for a boat ride across the river, where they would take a burro into town for a taste of Mexican culture. The villagers relied on the park visitors as a source of income, but they also used the crossing to purchase goods from the park stores. After the 9/11 events, the crossing closed, shutting off a way of life for the families of this Mexican village. The National Park Service and Department of Homeland Security have since worked together with Mexican representatives to develop a plan to reopen the crossing in an official capacity. The crossing is scheduled to open sometime this spring, but we were able to tour the passport control facility, which was still under construction.
The land boundaries of Big Bend offer a plethora of daytime activities exploring various habitats, history, and culture, but the vertical boundary offers one of the greatest nightscapes in the world. In fact, Big Bend National Park was recently designated as one of ten International Dark Sky Parks, meaning the skies are virtually free from light pollution. Thousands of stars, a few planets, and even “shooting stars” can be seen by the naked eye, but we were fortunate enough to have an astronomer (and telescope) from the nearby McDonald Observatory who guided us through the views. Although the stargazing activity was unplanned, it may have been the most popular since most of us live in urban areas with skies clouded by city lights.
Needless to say, my first impression was far off. Though the park is certainly remote, it is a colorful home to thousands of plant and animal species. The lack of noise and light pollution gives visitors an experience of the uniquely untouched, magical and wild environment that is Big Bend National Park.