Big Bend National Park has national significance as the largest protected area of Chihuahuan Desert topography and ecology in the United States. The park covers . Few areas exceed the park's value for the protection and study of geologic and paleontologic resources. Cretaceous and Tertiary fossil organisms exist in variety and abundance. Archeologists have discovered artifacts estimated to be 9,000 years old, and historic buildings and landscapes offer graphic illustration of life along the international border in the 1800s.
Because the Rio Grande serves as an international boundary, the park faces unusual constraints when administering and enforcing park rules, regulations, and policies. In accordance with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the park has jurisdiction only to the center of the deepest river channel as the river flowed in 1848. The rest of the land south of that channel, and the river, lies within Mexican territory.
The park exhibits dramatic contrasts; its climate may be characterized as one of extremes. Dry and hot late spring and summer days often exceed in the lower elevations. Winters are normally mild throughout the park, but sub-freezing temperatures occasionally occur. Because of the range in altitude from approximately along the river to in the Chisos Mountains, a wide variation in available moisture and in temperature exists throughout the park. These variations contribute to an exceptional diversity in plant and animal habitats. Some species in the park, such as the Chisos Oak, are found nowhere else in the United States. The highest point in the Chisos Mountains is Emory Peak (elevation ).
The of river that form the southern park boundary include the spectacular canyons of Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas. The Rio Grande, meandering through this portion of the Chihuahuan Desert, has cut deep canyons with nearly vertical walls through three uplifts comprised primarily of limestone. Throughout the open desert areas, the highly productive Rio Grande riparian zone includes numerous plant and animal species and significant cultural resources. The vegetative belt extends into the desert along creeks and arroyos.
Throughout the prehistoric period, humans found shelter and maintained open campsites throughout the park. The archeological record reveals an Archaic-period desert culture, whose inhabitants developed a nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle that remained virtually unchanged for several thousand years.
The historic cultural landscape centers upon various subsistence or commercial land uses. The riparian and tributary environments were used for subsistence and irrigation farming. Transportation networks, irrigation structures, simple domestic residences and outbuildings, and planed and terraced farm land lining the stream banks characterize these landscapes.
The Jumano was a nomadic group that travelled and traded throughout west Texas and southeastern New Mexico, but some historic records indicate that they were enemies of the Chisos. Around the beginning of the 18th century, the Mescalero Apaches began to invade the Big Bend region and displaced the Chisos Indians. One of the last Native American groups to use the Big Bend was the Comanches, who passed through the park along the Great Comanche Trail on their way to and from periodic raids into the Mexican interior. These raids continued until the mid 19th century. The last of the great military leaders of the native peoples of the region was an Apache of Spanish ancestry named Alzate, who was active as late as the late 1860s.
The European presence in the region begins circa 1535 A.D. with the first Spanish explorations into this portion of North America. The expedition of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca passed near the Big Bend and was followed by other expeditions. Some of these expeditions were searching for gold and silver, and farm and ranch land. Others, such as those by the Franciscan missionaries, were intended to establish centers in which the natives could be evangelized. In an attempt to protect the northern frontier of the New Spain, from which emerged present day Mexico, a line of presidios, or forts, was established along the Rio Grande in the late 1700s. The Presidio de San Vicente was built near present-day San Vicente, Coahuila, and the Presidio de San Carlos was built near present-day Manuel Benavides, Chihuahua. Some of these presidios were soon abandoned, because of financial difficulties and because they could not effectively stop Indian intrusions into Mexico. The soldiers and settlers of these presidios moved to other, newer, presidios in the vicinity of the region, from where the interests of the Spanish Empire were more defensible. Such was the case of Santa Rosa Maria del Sacramento, now Muzquiz, Coahuila.
Very little study has been made of the Spanish occupation of the Big Bend following the abandonment of the Presidios. In 1805, the Spanish settlement called Altares existed south of the Rio Grande. The region became a part of Mexico when this republic consummated its independence from Spain in 1821. Mexican families lived in the area when Anglo settlers began moving in following the secession of Texas during the latter half of the 19th century.
Following the Mexican-American War, which ended in 1848, military surveys were made of the uncharted land of the Big Bend. Military forts and outposts were established across Trans Pecos Texas to protect migrating settlers from the Indians. A significant proportion of these soldiers were of African American ancestry and came to be known as the "buffalo soldiers," a name apparently given to them by the Native Americans of the region. Lieutenant Henry Flipper, the first American of African ancestry to graduate from West Point, served in Shafter, Texas toward the late 19th century. Shafter is just west of the Big Bend along the highway that goes from Presidio to Marfa. Around 1880, ranchers began to migrate into the Big Bend, and by 1900, sheep, goat, and cattle ranches occupied a majority of the landscape. The delicate desert environment, however, was soon overgrazed.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the discovery of valuable mineral deposits brought more settlers who worked in the mines or supported the mines by farming or by cutting timber for use in the mines and smelters. Communities sprang up around the mines; development of Boquillas and Terlingua directly resulted from mining operations. During this period, the Rio Grande flood plain was settled by farmers. Settlements developed with names like Terlingua Abajo, San Vicente, La Coyota and Castolon. These were often no more than clusters of families living and farming in the same area, and they were successful only to the degree that the land was able to support them.
In the 1930s, many people who loved the Big Bend country saw that it was a land of unique contrast and beauty that was worth preserving for future generations. In 1933, the Texas Legislature passed legislation to establish Texas Canyons State Park. Later that year, the park was redesignated Big Bend State Park. In 1935, the United States Congress passed legislation that would enable the acquisition of the land for a national park. The State of Texas deeded the land that it had acquired to the Federal government of the United States, and on June 12, 1944, Big Bend National Park became a reality. The park opened to visitors on July 1, 1944.
Given its harsh environment, Big Bend has an amazing variety and number of plant and animal species. It has more than 1200 species of plants (including 60 different cacti species), more than 600 animal species, and about 3600 insect species. The diversity of life is largely due to the diverse ecology and changes in elevation, ranging from the dry, hot desert to the cool mountains to the fertile river valley.
Most of the animals are not visible in the day, particularly in the desert. The park comes alive at night, with many of the animals foraging for food. About 150 mountain lion sightings are reported per year, despite the fact that there are only a total of two dozen mountain lions. Other species that inhabit the park include jackrabbit, kangaroo rat, roadrunner, Golden Eagle, and coyote. Black bears are also present in the mountain areas.
The variety of cactus and other plant life add color to the Big Bend region. Cactus species in the park include prickly pear, claret cup and pitaya. In the spring, the wildflowers are in full bloom and the yucca flowers display bright colors. Bluebonnets are prevalent in Big Bend, and white and pink bluebonnets are sometimes visible by the road. Other flowering plants such as the desert marigold, desert willow, ocotillo, rock nettle and lechuguilla abound in Big Bend.
The first U.S. record of the Tufted Flycatcher, a Central American species, was from this site in November 1991. Birders also flock to the park as it is home to the only area in the United States within the breeding range of the Colima Warbler.
Big Bend's primary attraction is its hiking and backpacking trails. Particularly notable among these are the Chimneys Trail, which visits a rock formation in the desert, the Marufo Vega trail, a loop trail that passes through scenic canyons on the way to and from the Rio Grande, and the Outer Mountain Loop trail in the Chisos, which begins in the Chisos Basin, climbs into the high mountains, descends into the desert along the Dodson Trail, and then returns to the Chisos Basin, completing a thirty mile loop. Other notable locations include Santa Elena Canyon and the Mule Ears, two imposing rock towers in the middle of the desert.
The park administers 245 miles of the Rio Grande for recreational use. There are professional river outfitters that provide tours of the river. Use of a personal boat is permitted but a free river float permit is required. Until 2002 visitors often crossed the Rio Grande to visit the Mexican village of Boquillas, but the Department of Homeland Security has now closed the border crossing.
There are five paved roads in Big Bend. Persimmon Gap to Panther Junction is a road from the north entrance of the park to park headquarters at Panther Junction. Panther Junction to Rio Grande Village is a road that descends from the park headquarters at Panther Junction to the Rio Grande River. Maverick Entrance Station to Panther Junction is a route from the western entrance of the park to the park headquarters. Chisos Basin Road is 6 miles (10 km) long and climbs to above sea level at Panther Pass before descending into the Chisos Basin. The thirty-mile (48 km) Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive leads to the Castolon Historic District and Santa Elena Canyon.