Exploring The Parks: Big Bend National Park In December
Editor's note: Rebecca Latson generally frequents these pages with her wonderful tips and instructions on taking the best national park photos possible, but during a recent trip to Big Bend National Park she spent a little time focused on enjoying the landscape without having to look through a viewfinder.
Happy Holidays, everybody! It’s almost the end of the year and after digging up some extra vacation days from beneath the couch cushions, I decided to take a mid-December road trip to Big Bend National Park. My home base there was the Chisos Mountains Lodge, where I spent four days and five nights.
The last real road trip I took was 16 years ago when I moved from Montana to Texas. I’d forgotten what a liberating feeling it is to drive in one’s own vehicle versus sitting sardine-like inside an airplane. Not only did I not have to pay a fee for checked luggage, but I was able to pack into my little Honda Fit (among other things) my coffee maker and coffee, a cooler full of food and beverages, and the photographic equivalent of the kitchen sink.
When I travel, I like to be as prepared as possible regarding not only my photography but also my method of travel, what the weather might be like at that time, what to pack and what I might expect upon arrival. I’ve never been to Big Bend before, so the Traveler kindly sent me this neat little book titled Photographing Big Bend National Park, by Kathy Adams Clark. This publication provides suggestions for where and what to photograph within Big Bend, as well as easy, intermediate, and advanced tips on how to capture an image at a particular location.
In addition to the photography book, I read Hiking Big Bend National Park by Laurence Parent (second edition). And of course I created a packing list that I printed and stuck to my fridge door.
Texas is a very large state (ok, not as large as Alaska, but within the “lower 48,” it’s pretty darned big). With the exception of Padre Island National Seashore, it’s generally a day’s drive from where I live in southeast Texas to get to any other nearby national park; according to Google Maps, it’s seven hours to get to Hot Springs in Arkansas and nine hours to travel to Big Bend. For that reason, I chose to start my road trip during the pre-dawn hours; the sooner I arrived, the sooner I could start exploring the park. The reality was that it took me 13 hours to drive to the park – this included restroom breaks and car gas ups. You fooled me, Google Maps!
Driving up to and through Houston and onto Interstate 10 West, I zipped through San Antonio to Fort Stockton. Turning south, I headed toward the park’s Persimmon Gap entrance via Hwy 385. I chose that route for several reasons: Interstate 10 has 2-to-6 breezy lanes in both directions, I knew Hwy 385 would probably allow me to get some nice “leading line” shots as I headed toward the park, and I figured if I had any car problems, it might be easier for help to arrive via the interstate rather than another route.
About the Park
While Big Bend hosts several campgrounds scattered throughout the park, the Chisos Mountains Lodge is the only “brick & mortar” lodging within park boundaries. A number of trails begin right at the lodge’s parking lot, including the famous Window Trail.
￼December temperatures in the park average between 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 30-40 degrees Fahrenheit at night. I packed clothing (and camera protection) to account for any type of weather I might encounter. During my entire stay, it was dry as a bone and in the upper 50s-low 60s; I was actually overdressed for my forays and found myself sweating.
Big Bend was named for its location on the bend of the Rio Grande. There are three different entrances to the park (Persimmon Gap, Rio Grande Village, Maverick Junction) and five visitor centers (Persimmon Gap, Rio Grande Village, Panther Junction, Chisos Basin and Castolon). The Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry, near Rio Grande Village, is the official entry between Mexico and the U.S. (many of the expansive views within Big Bend look over and into the mountains of Mexico).
Created from the violence of volcanic eruptions and ensuing erosion, Big Bend encompasses more than 801,000 acres with about 200 miles of trails (easy, moderate and strenuous), a diverse ecosystem (think: Chisos Mountains and Chihuahuan Desert), 450 species of birds, 75 species of mammals (including black bears, mountain lions, and javelinas) and more than 1,000 species of plants. As such, the photo ops abound, from wide-angle and telephoto landscapes to macro photography to wildlife photography.
Big Bend is also a designated Gold Tier Dark Sky Park. According to the International Dark Sky Association, a “gold tier” designation means, “The full array of visible sky phenomena can be viewed—e.g. aurora, airglow, Milky Way, zodiacal light, and faint meteors.”
I spent my days with cameras in tow, driving from one end of the park to the other, stopping at view areas, overlooks, and anywhere I saw a photo op. I managed to also sandwich in a couple of hikes: the Window Trail (5 miles roundtrip) and the Santa Elena Canyon trail (approx. 2 miles roundtrip).
Arguably my favorite overlook is Sotol Vista, where one can enjoy panoramic views from all points of the compass, including south into the mountainous state of Chihuahua, Mexico. My stay was far too short for me to see everything I wanted, and with the exception of a couple of roadrunners, a number of tarantulas, mule deer and various unidentified songbirds, I didn’t see too much in the way of wildlife.
If you decide you’d like to see Big Bend for yourself (I saw license plates from Mississippi, California, Michigan, New Mexico, Washington State and Arizona), the park’s high season is November through April, when temperatures are most ambient. I have been told visitation gets heavy during this time of year precisely because of the more comfortable weather (summer in the Chihuahuan Desert = hot hot hot), but during my mid-December stay in the park I saw more Park Service and Border Patrol personnel than I did tourists like me – until the weekend, however, when I noticed the lodge’s parking lot fill up. I must have timed things just right, though, because I had the roads and trails to myself for the most part.
I can’t believe it has taken me 16 years to discover this national park right where I live. I’m glad I made the long road trip to see this place for myself. You can now count me as an official fan of Big Bend National Park!