Except for the occasional shriek of a raven or the muffled voices of hikers passing on the rocky trail, Santa Elena Canyon was silent. The canyon’s high walls shielded us from the hot Texas sun, which beat down with a vengeance even in November, when I visited Big Bend National Park with family.
Our guides, Royce and Royann Brockett, told us that more people visit the Grand Canyon during a single week than visit Big Bend during the course of a whole year. (Only 300,000 to 350,000 people enter Big Bend a year, while 5 million see the Grand Canyon.)
At 801,163 acres (1,252 square miles or 3,242 square kilometers), Big Bend is larger than the state of Rhode Island, and it is one of the most remote, least visited parks in the lower 48.
Big Bend is located in western Texas, where it hugs the border with Mexico. The dividing line is the Rio Grande river (known as the Rio Bravo south of the border), which winds through 244 miles (393 km) of the massive park.
Through conversations with the Brocketts and several Park Service rangers, we came to see how the river is a dominant feature of the park. The water it brings is critical to much of the area’s wildlife, which includes more than 1,200 species of plants, 450 species of birds, 56 species of reptiles, and 75 species of mammals. The park is the largest piece of protected Chihuahuan Desert in the U.S., a unique ecosystem that stretches across a swath of northern Mexico.
The Rio Grande once roared through the park, where it cut impressive canyons like Santa Elena, with walls that soar hundreds of feet. But through much of the area, the “grande” river is now merely a “poco” trickle, often only ankle deep.
At a visitor center in the park, a display showed some before and after pictures of the river over the decades. Much like the Colorado River, the Rio Grande has been over-allocated and drained along its 1,896 miles (3,051 km), so only 20% of its original flow makes it to the Gulf of Mexico. At some places, like in Presidio, Texas, the Rio Grande is often completely dry.
As with the Colorado, agriculture is the biggest culprit, thanks to heavy irrigation. Ranchers, cities, and industries make withdrawals too, from the Rio Grande’s watershed, which totals an estimated 182,200 square miles (472,000 square kilometers).
There are also a number of dams along the Rio Grande, notably Cochiti Dam, Elephant Butte Dam, Caballo Dam, Amistad Dam, Falcon Dam, Anzalduas Dam, and Retamal Dam.
Despite its loss of flow, the Rio Grande continues to support an impressive array of wildlife. In Big Bend National Park, I saw a glimpse of a bobcat padding along a rock cliff. Collared peccaries (known locally as javelinas) are common sites, and coyotes can often be heard howling in the night.
Just steps away from the Rio Grande Village campsite, a lush wetland teamed with life, thanks to the conscientious chewing of an industrious beaver family. After waiting on the floating dock for about a half hour, I was rewarded with an inquisitive stare from below. When I lifted my camera, the beaver quickly dipped under the cool, green water.
Before Big Bend became a national park in 1944, it was another dusty corner of the Wild West, home to scrappy homesteaders, weather-worn cowboys, sneaky cattle rustlers, and Native Americans. There were several small towns in what is now the sprawling park, as well as mines. Broken-down towers and a few rusty mine carts are all that remain of what was once a major operation.
The National Park Service has left many of these artifacts in place, allowing observant visitors to gain a glimpse of how life used to be in this rough-and-tumble landscape.
In the desert, life is largely hidden during the day, except for the sparse plant life. The closer one goes to the river, the denser and greener the vegetation gets, and the more birds one sees.
But in the mornings and evenings, more desert dwellers show themselves. Desert rodents can be seen scurrying in the underbrush. If you’re lucky, you may see a scorpion or tarantula.
Or a larger animal that feeds on those creepy crawlies, like a roadrunner.
Animals, of course, don’t feel the need to respect international borders. But when it comes to people, the debate can get complicated. Several people I met in Big Bend said times have been very hard on the Mexican side the past few years, after the U.S. government closed the park’s legal crossing in 2002 out of security concerns.
But terrorism seems very distant in this dusty landscape, where park visitors used to spend the afternoon in Mexico, shopping for souvenirs and refreshing themselves with tacos and cold drinks in Boquillas del Carmen, a quaint traditional village. But since the closing of the border, the town has withered. Many families have fled, and some of the few that hang on risk the wrath of the law by setting out trinkets along trails in the U.S. park, hoping hikers will leave a few coins.
In early 2011, the Park Service announced plans to reopen the international crossing in the near future, and locals seem hopeful. Longer term, boosters see Boquillas as a hub for an international peace park that links Big Bend with Mexico’s Maderas del Carmen, but locals say that effort has long stalled.
Although the Rio Grande is robbed of much of its water by the time it reaches Big Bend, it still supports a rich and unique ecosystem, as well as a unique way of life.
Special thanks to Royce and Royann Brockett for showing me around Big Bend.
Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science, TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVAC, Green Lighting, Build Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.