Big Bend National Park maintains the distinction of being the largest tract of public land in the state of Texas. Encompassing 1,200 square miles of terrain in the untamed Chihuahuan Desert, one might expect Big Bend to be a drab, interminable wasteland, but it is actually a region of contrasts. Rancherías Canyon in nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park exemplifies the diversity of the area quite well.
Hikers passing through Rancherías Canyon will experience a one way hike along a 4.8 mile trail through the rough-hewn canyon. Expect to spend the better part of a day finishing your hike. A loop trail is also available that affords hikers a 10 mile adventure. Chiseled from the Bofecillos Mountains, Rancherías Canyon cuts through lava flows born long ago. At trail's end, hikers arrive at a dazzling pour-off to the base of Rancherías Falls. Long expanses of igneous rock are not the only sights to be seen in the canyon, however. This is a land of contrasts, and the logs of fallen cottonwood trees can be seen high above in the canyon walls. They are a testament to the unpredictability of nature, the result of flash floods and water levels that can rise at an alarming rate.
Normally, though, water is found in a stream that trickles by in the lower section of Rancherías Canyon, a reflection of nature's calmer moments. After all, those thick, sturdy cottonwoods weren't felled on their own. That is why it is important to stay apprised of any storms in the area with potentially heavy rainfall. The stream water passes out of the surrounding volcanic rock and is available for drinking, as long as it has been identified as pure by local experts at Fort Leaton. Many hikers simply carry along enough water for a day long hike to avoid the purification process.
Because of the relatively steady water supply found in Rancherías Canyon, local fauna finds a stable home there. Hikers to the area must be careful not to disturb the animals that call the canyon home, both for the health and safety of the wildlife as well as for their own. This isn't to say that hikers should fear for their lives, but some animals become quite territorial and dangerous when they feel that they have no other option but to defend their domicile. Keep a special eye out for the javelina, a hoofed mammal that resembles a wild boar. They are certainly a sight to see, but do not cause them to feel threatened. Just let them go about their business without interference. Keep your eyes peeled for the aoudad as well, a type of mountain sheep unique to the area. Treat them with respect as well, because they are not completely content letting someone roam freely through their territory.
It is important to tread lightly around the numerous saplings growing in Rancherías Canyon as well. They represent the region's struggle to recover from the damage done subsequent to the discovery of mercury there. Miners needed lodging and heat, and the area needed to be cleared for smelting and mining. As the land was developed, the mighty cottonwoods were removed, and the vegetation is only now on the rebound. It is therefore vitally important to the survival of the flora and fauna of the canyon that the re-growth continues unimpeded.
The lava beds that house the Rancherías Canyon trail arose from the mouths of at least three volcanoes. As these mountains repeatedly erupted about 27 million years ago, the deposits rose higher and higher, creating an elevated land. The surrounding Bofecillos Mountains shed off excess water that gradually wore away at the lava flows, forming a canyon that provides an inside view of ancient geological history. For hikers seeking an even greater sense of history, a lava flow that is roughly 34 million years old is found in the canyon as well.
As the canyon comes to its end, the trail ascends a pour-off that places hikers smack dab at the bottom of Rancherías Falls. This spectacular cataract rises 80 feet into the air, one of the highest in the state of Texas. It is the payoff to a day-long hike that experiences a boulder scramble just before the arrival at the foot of the falls. It should be noted that the awe the waterfall induces is dependent on recent rainfall. The area can experience periods of little to no rain, and that greatly reduces the amount of water that pours over the falls. Though the waterfall's resulting pool is tempting to hikers after a long, sweaty haul, it is strictly off limits. Skin oils and bacteria would contaminate the water, disrupting the delicate balance of life therein.
Upon reaching the end of the trail, hikers are advised to return by the same path, as hooking up to the loop from that point is dangerous due to unsteady rock and a precipitous terrain. No hiker should mind, however, because a return trip is just as breathtaking as the first.
There are some views you just can't take in all at once. Like a dazzling sunset or breathtaking field of wildflowers—you just can't appreciate such beauty in the moment, a moment that is often over before you realize it, the forms and colors of that marvelous vista already fading in your memory. Perhaps it was with the goal of preserving such scenes that the first camera was invented, a goal that you may still share when you visit a place as beautiful as Big Bend and the surrounding area. Why not take a look through our new and improved photo galleries to see what amazing sights have been preserved by astounded visitors and appreciative locals? When you see the mountains, plains, flora, and fauna displayed in those images, you'll be glad the gallery contributors took their camera along.
Among the many activities available in Big Bend National Park that highlight the region's diversity of wildlife, birding can be enjoyable and promising. Big Bend engulfs a vast area, bounded by the the rushing Rio Grande valley to the south, containing high peaks in the Chisos Mountains, and boasting both desert and forest climates between the two. It embodies the very diversity that makes America great, providing countless opportunities to spot more than 450 birds in one area.
What are your new year's resolutions for 2012? Did you keep your resolutions for 2011? While the top resolutions each year include losing weight, learning something new, traveling, or getting out of debt, here's a new challenge you can take on this year: spot all the bird species in Big Bend National Park.
Big Bend has some of the most spectacular scenery in Texas, if not the entire US. Our big sky country rivals any other state and our night skies are as dark as anywhere for excellent star gazing. The beautiful light and great scenery make for a photographer’s paradise.
There are many things you may love to do in Big Bend National Park in the heat of summer, but running or jogging is probably not one of them. With 90+ degree temperatures, there simply is no such thing as a nice July run in West Texas. With the dry weather we've had this year, you have truly hostile workout conditions. That all changes this time of year, though, as temperatures drop and the sun gives us a break for a few months. What a great time to get out on some trails in Big Bend!