The Parks Podcast
The Parks Podcast
Big Bend National Park (Episode 2)
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Big Bend National Park (Episode 2)

Big Bend National Park

Episode Guest

Tom Vandenberg, Chief Of Interpretation and Visitor Services
Big Bend National Park & Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River

Park Stats

Location: Big Bend, Texas in Brewster County

National Park Number: 27th

Park established: June 12, 1944

President in office: Franklin D. Roosevelt

Park size: 801,183 acres

Highest elevation: Emory Peak at 7,832 feet

Lowest elevation: Rio Grande River at 1,715 feet

Visitors: 516,000 in 2022

Fun fact:

    • 118 miles that form the border between the United States and Mexico
    • 200 miles of hiking trails
    • 1200 species of plants
    • 450+ species of birds
    • 56 species of reptiles
    • 75 species of mammals

Park Conversation

This is a great park.

That’s a lot of facts and figures. It’s pretty amazing.

As a follow up to some of those cool facts, you mentioned that the park was established in June of 1944. That’s true. We’re actually the only national park that was established during World War II, which is pretty awesome. The deed crossed the president’s desk on June 6th, 1944, which was the day of the D-Day invasion. So you can think back to crazy times of tumult and uncertainty long ago. President Roosevelt took a few minutes out of his crazy day and thought about this place. And, people knew even then that places like Big Bend were important and needed to be set aside for the future. We’re glad that so many forward thinking people supported that idea. 

Big Bend is sometimes referred to as Texas’ gift to the Nation. Land was obtained by the state of Texas for a specific donation to the federal government as a National Park. We’re the 14th largest National Park you mentioned over 800,000 acres. It’s about 1200 square miles, which is pretty amazing. And visitors are rising. It just shows how people are responding to the need, the desire to get away from things and to find a place of isolation and solitude and Big Bend provides that in abundance. We were a big destination during the pandemic. More and more people are finding this park as the years go by.

You mentioned some of the diversity of the species, the plants, the birds. It is one of the most diverse of all of our National Parks. More species of birds, more species of bats, butterflies, reptiles, cactus, even ants, of any National Park. So it’s pretty awesome.

You mentioned 200 miles of hiking trails. We also have something that’s kind of unique in National Parks. We have almost 150 miles of dirt roads that people could just get out and into the back country if they have the right type of vehicles. 

The backcountry concepts at Big Bend are prominent.

You know, there are wonderful paved roads to drive and explore, and most people will stay on those, but the park offers so many different kinds of opportunities. And so if you’re really looking to get away from it all and you just want to be by yourself and not see anyone for a few days, we have primitive campsites strewn out along some of these remote jeep roads in the backcountry. They provide the type of isolation and solitude that is just becoming almost impossible to find.

Most National Parks have a specific reason for its creation. It might be a historical event or maybe it’s preservation of a natural habitat or an animal species or something like that. Big Bend is fascinating to me because it contains a lot of characteristics that are worth preserving. Was there a specific tipping point that led to the country making it a National Park?.

Well, this whole place was really unknown. It was sparsely settled. It was very hard to get to until the late 1800s when a few families began settling and ranching out in this area. And even then, it was very much unknown. But there were a few proponents back in the day that really fell in love with this place.

One of them was a gentleman named Everett Townsend, who at one point was a Texas Ranger and a mounted customs officer and later a state representative. He was a Brewster County sheriff. He was kind of a who’s who back in the day of remote West Texas. He loved this place so much and devoted much of the latter years of his life to getting the word out about it because people didn’t even know this part of Texas existed. Who knew there were mountains in Texas.

Due to his efforts and some of his associates, the words slowly started getting out in the early 1930s that there was this special place. The state of Texas established a state park, encompassing much of what’s the current park, in the 1930s, but really wanted it to be a National Park at the time. You know, that was a big deal. Back in the 30s Shenandoah National Park was being established and the same sort of strategy where the states really wanted a National Park within their boundaries. It was a feather in their cap. It was also a way to ensure that this destination would be funded by the federal government. It was seen as a potential boon to tourism and economy in very remote places. 

The National Park Service didn’t know anything about this place either.  They sent a team down in the early 1930s, and they were blown away with what was here. In 1935 the National Park Service, Congress acted and approved legislation to establish Big Bend National Park. 

That was in 1935, but there was no money. There was no land. It was just like, “yeah, state of Texas, if you can obtain this land, we’d love to have a National Park in the Big Bend area.”

 And it took the state of Texas over seven years to raise the money and obtain the land that is now Big Bend. It cost about a million and a half dollars, which was a lot of money back in the day.

That was essentially the beginning of the park. The park was established in 1944. And it’s just been crazy ever since. The first year 1400 visitors came and, like you said, last year over half a million visitors came to the park.  It’s funny because back at the time when they were promoting this idea of having a National Park and this rural part of West Texas, the promoters were saying, “you know, one day we will attract over half a million people to South Brewster County.” Everyone thought “Oh yeah. Right. Sure.”  Well, it happened, it just happened like. Two years ago now.

I think the National Park Service does an amazing job telling the stories of the park, in particular, this park has a history dating back a thousand years…2000 years…and 10,000 years according to the archeological digs.
But one of the features that I loved was, and please correct my pronunciation, Chatasada, the restaurant in the Rio Grande Village. I’ll let you tell the story of it, but I try to imagine that time period and how desolate it was, yet there was this restaurant that was so popular.

Well, there were communities all up and down the river. There were many more people living here in the early 1900s than live here today. There were mining interests in what’s now the backcountry of the park. There was mercury mining and there were small family farms up and down the Rio Grande all the way from, the eastern side of what’s now the park to near Lake Terlingua.

There was a large mining district. There was candelilla harvesting for the wax, and there were little communities that built up all through some of the backcountry areas near springs where they processed that plant to obtain this high-quality wax.

So there were little communities and towns sprinkled throughout this area long before it was a National Park. Those people had a very strong connection to the land. They’d been here for generations and when the Park Service came along and the state of Texas began purchasing land, many of them sold willingly.

It was during the Depression, people weren’t very well off in some of these places financially. Others had been here for a couple of generations and already had really strong ties to this land and weren’t happy about selling. 

There are remains of settlements and homes and ranches and graveyards strewn throughout the backcountry of the park. Anywhere you go, history is there, whether it’s the remains of an early restaurant or a little village, or an old Model T truck out in the middle of the desert. All these things are for people to discover. It’s more than just geology and birds and desert plants and scenery. This place has been a home to people for thousands of years. You can find evidence of that almost anywhere you go.

I want to highlight a couple of these areas. You can give a little description of what they are and what there is to do. First, Chisos Basin.

The Chisos Basin is in the mountainous heart of the park.  It’s higher up than the rest of the park. You rise to  6,000 feet and then you drop into the basin. It’s kind of a misnomer because we say it’s the basin, but it’s actually high. It’s up high in the mountains. It’s a bowl surrounded by high volcanic peaks at about 5,500 feet in elevation. It is a year-round full-service destination area in the park. There’s a visitor center, a lodge there with motel rooms, a camper store, a restaurant, two campgrounds, and tremendous hiking trails heading off into all directions. 

It’s higher up than most of the rest of the park, so it’s cooler. Usually by 10 or often over 20 degrees cooler than most of the lower elevation parts of the park. For instance, we’re speaking today, it’s June, and as we speak it’s probably about 110 degrees along the Rio Grande in June. And at Park headquarters where I am, it’s about 106. Then up in the Chisos, it’s probably in the low nineties, so it makes a big difference.

That is a big difference. Panther Junction?

Panther Junction is the main part of the park. The park headquarters is there along with the main visitors center. The Visitor Center is full-service and open year round.  Panther Junction also has our administrative offices and the post office.

Park employees also live in Panther Junction. We all live here in the National Park. It’s a long way to get anywhere from here. It’s probably one of the remote, remote postings in the whole National Park Service, outside of some Alaska postings. We’re pretty self-sufficient here in this little community.

There’s about 200 people that live here in Panther Junction. It’s park employees and their families. There are a  few border patrol families that live here and some of the concession employees. We even have a school at Panther Junction, for the kids that that grow up in Big Bend National Park.

What a great spot to grow up.  So Rio Grande Village?

Rio Grande Village is down along the river and on the east side of the park as far as you can drive eastward in the park, and it’s our largest campground.

It’s also where we have an RV park. People that like to camp with their big RVs and like to have full hookups, that would be a good destination for folks that seek out that experience. It’s near the river, so there are boat ramp there for river trips.

There’s a visitor center that’s open in the winter months. There’s some wonderful trails. Boquillas Canyon and the Hot Springs area is near there. And we also have a port of entry there. Big Bend borders Mexico for over a hundred miles and whatever direction you point, as long as it’s not straight north, you’re facing Mexico in Big Bend National Park.

And one of our little, border communities is a village called Boquillas. It’s right across the Rio Grande from Rio Grande Village. We have a port of entry so visitors like to cross over and spend the day in Mexico, go to a little restaurant and practice their Spanish, and have a taco experience for the day.

It’s a magical experience. Very unique among National Parks.

Castolon?

Castolon is on the west side of the park and was one of those centers of activity in the early agricultural days. There are old buildings in Castolon. The oldest standing adobe structure in the park, the Alvino House, is over a hundred years old. There’s a Visitor Center, a store, a little ranger station, and a wonderful campground nearby. In Castolon and the surrounding area are amazing historic sites, old buildings, graveyards, and the remains of little Mexican settlers’ villages.

The Rio Grande flows by and in the distance is Santa Elena Canyon, which is one of the park’s big attractions. It’s a big 1500-foot vertical chasm carved by the Rio through solid limestone. It’s a wonderful place to visit, whether you’re just walking around the entrance and exploring the river banks or maybe taking a couple of days to float through the canyon.

The parks often talk about “Leave No Trace”, which is about things like picking up your trash, but I think in sites like this, it’s also important not to go and disturb these relics that are throughout the park so that we can all enjoy them for generations.

Yeah, that’s important to remember as you’re enjoying the park and hiking around and maybe finding evidence of people that lived there long before. Whether it’s a stone flake on the ground that had been chipped or a grinding stone or some rock art or a horseshoe or part of an old fence line or a rock house. Enjoy them and take pictures of them and look at them all you want. Feel the thrill of discovery, but then leave it there for others to enjoy as well. All artifacts in all National Parks are protected. And they’re part of our national heritage. In National Parks, we do all we can to take care of them and allow people to enjoy them but want to provide future generations with that same experience.

And the peak season for Big Bend is October to April?

Yeah, that’s important as well. You know, we are open year round, but our main season is October through the end of April.

It’s a winter park. There are winter parks and there are some parks that are primarily summer parks. So just like you may not want to visit the Gates of the Arctic, in the middle of winter, they slow down a lot. Big Bend slows down and we don’t have full services in the middle of the summer because of the heat.

In the wintertime it is amazing here. If you were to come during those months, it is the nicest weather in the country. We look at the weather reports and all the snow and the blizzards up north. We laugh because it’s 70 degrees here every day in Big Bend. It’s nice and sunny and cool at night.  Perfect for hiking, camping and exploring.

People are coming during the busiest times of the year. Those times I mentioned, it might be good to be flexible. If the one trail you really wanted to go to is full, this park is too big and it has too many great places to go to. It’s kind of heartbreaking to see someone sitting in line to try to get to one trail while half a mile down the road there’s another one that’s just as awesome. Be flexible and have a couple of options and backup plans if the one or two things you really wanted to see are busy.

It’s important that people know that they’re gonna have to disconnect when they get here. We don’t have a lot of cell service. It’s kind of spotty. You may not have all the services that you’re accustomed to. 

 That’s what makes Big Bend so special. 

A lot of people travel with their pets. Can you bring your dog to Big Bend National Park?

You know, you can bring your pet to Big Bend National Park, that’s fine. It does kind of limit you because we don’t allow dogs on trails and that’s really one of the top things that people come to do.

So your dog is allowed anywhere vehicles can go. You can walk it around along the roads or up and down the dirt roads, but they’re not allowed in the backcountry or on trails. And often it’s too hot to leave them unattended in a car. So if you do bring your pets, there are a lot of activities that your pet won’t be able to do.

So things to do. You’ve talked about the scenic drive, we’ve talked about some of the hiking trails, also great river trips. If you’re going to book the river trips, you use a facility outside of the park, correct?

Yeah. You know, river trips are a great thing to do here in the winter months.

It’s cooler and water levels are usually a little higher than they are in the middle of the summer. And it is an incredible experience. If you have all your own gear, you can just come, and we can help you plan a river trip. Again, you should go on the park website to make sure you have all the required equipment.

 But if you’re not ready to plan in that detail and you don’t really know exactly where you wanna go, there’s a number of great outfitters that are all approved, partner businesses with the National Park. There are commercial outfitters, and they’re located just outside the west entrance to the park.

They do trips every day, in different sections of the river in the park. Tell them when you’ll be here and they’ll have half-day, full day, overnight trips. They also have gear and river experts.

Big Bend is famous for three huge canyons. We have over a hundred miles of riverfront property. It makes the southern boundary of the park, and along that a hundred miles, there are three huge canyons, and that’s where people really like to float. The Santa Elena Canyon is about a 20 mile long canyon. Mariscal Canyon is about 10 miles long, and then Boquillas Canyon is about a 30 mile long canyon. They are all big, deep limestone canyons.

They’re about 1500 feet deep. It’s not a super challenging river trip. Usually it’s pretty calm water, more of a gentle, relaxing, chill out and enjoy the amazing scenery and the sense of time that you can feel as you travel through these ancient rocks.

That sounds incredible. With all of the bird species, I have to think bird watching is also another popular activity.

A super popular activity here. More and more so every year. Big Bend, as I mentioned at the beginning, has the highest number of bird species in any National Park.

We have over 450 species of birds and some of them are real specialties. For people that travel throughout the year following the migrations of birds and like to see as many species as they can, Big Bend kind of looms large on their target, on their bucket list.

We have a couple of species that are really hard, if not impossible, to find anywhere else in the United States. There’s a little warbler called the Colima Warbler that nests in the Chisos Mountains. Just like in one canyon in the Chisos Mountains. They’re easy to find, but you just have to be in that one area in the spring and summer.

We have over 12 species of hummingbirds here. A type of jay that you rarely find in the United States. Lots of weird things show up because we’re surrounded by Mexico and we’re about 29 degrees latitude so there are lots of different habitats in the park.

Do the ranger programs incorporate bird watching at all?

Yeah. During the winter months, we have a full schedule of ranger-guided activities. Night Sky programs, we do guided hikes, we do ranger talks, and one of our most popular types of activities are bird walks.

We do guided bird walks, and we do evening programs about the birds of Big Bend as well. The birds are one of my favorite aspects of the park. It’s just so amazing, such colorful birds, and they bring so much life to the desert. They just really add to anybody’s experience.

Speed Round

What is your earliest park memory?

 I think it was when I was a little boy at Crater Lake National Park. I remember being there when I was really little with my grandparents. We had old family photo albums of it. And then it was exciting that I would later be a ranger at Crater Lake National Park. It was pretty cool.

What made you love the parks?

Just the same thing. That’s what my family did when I was young. We got in our old beat-up motorhome, probably one of the first types of motorhomes available, an old Winnebago, and we just hit the road and went to national parks. That’s what we did, and I became a junior ranger at every little park we went to and we’d spend a week or so at each National Park and just did big road trips every summer.

And so it just was just kind of part of my upbringing.

What is your favorite thing to do at Big Bend National Park?

Well, number one would probably be bird-watching. I’m a huge bird watcher and that really has attracted me to Big Bend. I’ve worked here actually twice in my career.

I left to go to Alaska and then returned because I love living and working here and sharing this place with people. So probably bird watching, hiking, and spending time on the river are my three top activities.

What park have you yet to visit but is on your bucket list and why?

You know, I haven’t spent much time back east at all the historic parks back east and the American Revolution Parks. That is just kind of a big hole in my experience. I’ve spent most of my life out west and I would love to take a big road trip and visit, visit some of those parks, and there are too many to count, but that would be something that I would love to do.

What are three must-haves you pack for a park visit?

Well, visiting Big Ben, three must-haves are, you know, it’s a desert park so water, a really good hat,  and sunscreen would be the top three things to bring when you visit Big Bend National Park.

What are three things a family can do when visiting the park?

I would say Big Bend has really cool things that I know families love to do. One of them is to visit the Fossil exhibit. We have a brand new exhibit in Big Bend that highlights 130 million years of geologic time and all the life, the fossils that are preserved in those outcroppings. And so all Big Bend is just world famous for fossils.

And we have an area set aside that highlights all of the dinosaurs, all the strange creatures that have been discovered in Big Bend. This whole exhibit was designed primarily for kids. And so that exhibit is a super cool destination for families with kids. 

Another really great highlight for families would be to spend some time on the river, whether you’re floating the river in a canoe or just hanging out on the banks of the river, enjoying the views off into Mexico. That’s a really cool thing to do. 

I think the last thing I would say is that it’s a chance for families to be by themselves in Big Bend. Even at the busiest times of the year, if you’re not at the main visitor center or you’re not at, you know, one or two super popular trail destinations. You basically have the park to yourself. You just can’t find those types of experiences in many of our other large National Parks nowadays. And people are finding that that is still an opportunity here at Big Bend. So getting it away from it all and spending time with your, your family and loved ones, that’s, that’s just really what this place is all about.

What is your favorite campfire activity?

I think just sitting around and recapping the day’s adventures. I’ve had some amazing times with my family and friends just doing that. I look forward to those times. 

Tent or cabin?

 I don’t have a lot of experience staying in cabins, so a lot more experience with tents, a lot more tent time, so I would say tent.

Hiking with or without trekking poles?

My wife loves trekking poles. I hate trekking poles because then I can’t use my hands. I like to touch things. I like to use my binoculars a lot as I’m hiking along. And anytime I have trekking poles, I always kind of seem like they’re in the way.

And what is your favorite trail snack?

Triscuits, are kind of salty crackers. Those are really good here.

What is the best animal sighting that you’ve had?

I’ve worked in lots of parks and lots of ecosystems from Alaska to Florida, and I have had amazing experiences in all the parks I’ve lived in.

I’d say at Big Bend, one of my most memorable experiences is one time hiking along in the desert of the park through kind of a yucca, forested yucca forest. I heard crunching sounds and I came around the corner and there was a black bear. And you know, that’s pretty amazing to see a bear in the desert ever.

This black bear was just standing on his hind legs just ripping into the heart of a Tori Yucca. About as tall as the bear was on its hind legs and just there were chunks of yucca flying in all directions. There was spit flying everywhere. The bear was drooling and digging down into the heart of that yucca and just feeding on the pulpy insides and just the sounds that bear was making, you could tell it was just enjoying that.

That moisture and that food source and just the feeling of wildness, seeing that animal that I had not expected out in the middle of a habitat like a yucca forest. Pretty amazing.

What is your favorite sound in the parks?

Oh, my favorite sound here is the sound of the Scot’s Orioles singing in the summer.

It’s one of our neotropical migrant birds. They’re not here in the wintertime, but we know spring is here when you hear this amazing flute-like sound of the Scot’s Oriole, which is bright yellow and black. They show up and showcase their songs and their looks on top of some of the high vegetation and the cacti in the desert.

And I was just listening to it last night, here in Panther Junction. It’s just an amazing kind of sorrowful but beautiful calming sound. It reminds me that even in the harshest of deserts at the harshest times of the year, like middle of the summer, beautiful, colorful life is all around.