Sunday, April 5, 2009


In a remote corner of southwest Texas, where the Rio Grande River makes a great arching sweep on its way to the Gulf of Mexico, lies Big Bend National Park. The one million acres of public land with dramatic mountains and desert landscapes is located entirely within the Chihuahuan Desert. Because it is so far from any urban area it is one of the least visited of the National Parks. We are indeed fortunate that it is only 500 miles from our home! Along with friends from DC we spent 3 wonderful days camping in the park this week. The weather was perfect and the hiking outstanding. Even with the lack of rainfall that the area has experienced this year there were plenty of interesting flowers to photograph. The ocotillo, shown above, can be relied upon to bloom even without rainfall but will only produce leaves after rain has fallen.

  Blind Pricklypear (Opuntia rufida)
Many of the pricklypear were in flower. Some orange some yellow and some were getting ready to put on a splendid show in the days to come.

Our first hike was on the Hot Springs trail where we witnessed some of the destruction caused by tropical storm Lowell last September. So much rain fell on the watershed of the Rio Conchos (Mexico) which drains into the Rio Grande, that the dams spilt over sending tons of mud and silt down into the park. The park rangers considered the deluge of water a good event as it also cleared out tons of trees that were blocking the river upstream and preventing the normal flood cycles. However, it left behind several inches of mud which has now dried hard and cracked.

The earlier part of this 6 mile round trip hike winds up the side of a limestone cliff to the top of the bluffs overlooking  the Hot Springs Canyon. Along the way we saw several cactus in flower.

Claret cup cactus (Echinocereus coccineus)

Strawberry cactus ( Echinocereus enneacanthus)

Texas rainbow cactus ( Echinocereus dasyacanthus)

We spotted this fossil ammonite in the trail.
When we came down to river level we saw cascades of the Yellow Rocknettle, Eucnide bartonioides. 

Down at river level we enjoyed a soak in the hot springs. You can see the Rio Grande behind the pool.

Our second hike was to Cattail Falls at the end of Oak Creek Canyon. Crossing the desert floor before entering the canyon we passed through a forest of sotol. 

I am familiar with this plant as I used to have one in my front garden. It very quickly outgrew the space and was very difficult to garden around as you can see from the dangerous teeth on the leaves. It was removed and is now growing where it has plenty of room.

Once in the canyon the vegetation became more lush with maidenhair ferns, columbines and this delicate orchid which we have yet to identify.

For the first time I was able to identify poison oak. Very similar to poison ivy.

On the way out we spotted this the brown flowered cactus among the dead sotol leaves. It is one of the earliest cactuses to bloom.

Brown-flowered cactus ( echinocereus chloranthus)

Later a short hike took us across Terlingua Creek into the Santa Elena Canyon. As with the rest of the park the other side of the river is Mexico and the walls are sheer on the Mexican side. The US side affords just enough room to hike some distance into the canyon until the canyon wall meets the river. 

Although the trail was not our favorite the hike down to the window was by far the most spectacular. There was a strong wind blowing through the gap towards us otherwise there would have been no way we could have stood on the edge. Even so you can see my knees are a little bent.

We saw many Mexican Buckeye and Flame acanthus along the trail as well as numerous unidentified bushes and trees.

One of the highlights of the trip was the frequent sighting of the Vermillion flycatcher around the campground. I believe this is the extent of this flycatchers range into the USA. As you can see it was difficult to get a shot.

As was the photo of the Javelina- taken from the car.

It was a great trip and I have no doubt we will be out there again in the not too distant future.


  1. Never been there. But I've heard the birds are spectacular. You must be really tired now!

  2. What a wonderful "travelogue". It looks like a fascinating place, with something to see at every turn. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

  3. Wow, now I really want to take that 1,000 mile round trip too, Jenny. Your pictures make it seem like an otherworldly place, with beautiful birds, jewel-like cactus flowers, and hundred-mile views. Must. Get. Out. There.

    Hey, was that the guy from ZZ Top behind you in the hot spring?

  4. Oh I just LOVE Big Bend and the whole area around there, especially the Davis Mountains. Last night I was looking at a book about B.B. that we bought back in the early 80's when we first started going there. I have a couple of blogs about the Davis Mtns from this past December. One thing I mentioned is that I never seem to see ocotillo in bloom or even with leaves. You are lucky! Spring is the best time to be down there with everything blooming. Sounds like you all had a grand time.

  5. Hi RR.
    Sounds like you had a great trip. I have always wanted to get out there, but never as yet made it.
    That fossil ammonite was amazing! And the picture of you on the cliff edge is funny, I would have been crawling around on the ground, heights not my strongest point. Heights and wind...forget it.
    Great scenery, and I bet great music fromm ZZ Top aound the camp fire? V Funny Pam!


  6. I think the batteries on my wireless keypad need changed!

  7. Brenda- We did see some different birds but didn't manage to identify most of them. We saw a grey hawk in the trees above our camp. 5 years ago we met birders visiting the park. they had come all the way from England to see the Texas coast bird migrations.

  8. Carol- Thanks for joining the trip!
    Pam- Keep your calendar open next April. You may eben see our bearded friend at the springs. He was quite a character. Full time RVer from Maine who spends the winters down near BB. Viet. Vet. who had his share of problems in the past. Harleys for both he and his wife.
    Jean- We haven't been to the Davis mountains but we met campers who had come from Big Bend Ranch State park and they said it was wonderful. I'll check in with your Davis Mountain posts.
    ESP- Good job the wind was blowing away from the window. Even so I found the rocks rather slippery. I, too, get that weak at the knee feelings with heights so it was a good job D held on to me.

  9. Oh, Jenny, you make me want to go back! I have seen ocotillo many times but NEVER seen it bloom. Very pretty. We were there over New Years and didn't even think about tossing a swimsuit into the car - what a mistake. I wanted so bad to soak in the hot spring! Love the orchid, too!

  10. Big Bend is one of my favorite destinations. The Vermillion Flycatcher does get into Central Texas. I have seen one many times on our Llano County ranch. The birding there is spectacular. The cactus species are amazing as well. The Basin is a beautiful place to stay anytime; it only gets to the mid to upper 80s in the summer due to the elevation. Great pictures!!!!

  11. What a great outing. Your photos are outstanding. I'm surprised to see so many things blooming there, but then, I guess it's probably in the same USDA Zone as we are (9b). My claret cup cacti are not even close to putting out buds, and I'm now starting to get worried.

  12. Your photos are beautiful and the trip looks amazing! I planted an ocotillo in my backyard in November and I have my first bloom! They are so magical:)

  13. How incredibly exotic. All those cacti and the lovely orchid.
    Only 500 miles, she says.
    You certainly have gotten used to great distances. And you must be so fit. How many miles per day did you do on your treks?
    Reading this lovely post felt like a mini holdiday.

  14. Mary beth- I'm with you. I plan to keep an eye on the how much rain they get there over the winter. I would like to see Big Bend in its big bloom. We have been twice in April and the Ocotillo were in flower both times. The hot springs were fun even when the temps were in the 90s.
    Brent Henry- I'm glad you set me straight on the Vermillion. Our bird book showed only the Big Bend area. Do you have a blog?
    Aiyana- I hope you claret cups do bloom but if they don't I know you will have plenty more to fill their shoes.
    Conscious Gardener- here in Austin! Wow- and flowering too. They only grow in certain areas of the park. Below 5000'
    Jo- I know . We Texans have to travel huge distances just out get out of the state. It is a pretty straight shot to Big Bend. Hiking we usually put in about 6 miles but sometimes that takes all day as it can be pretty rugged with lots of stops for looking at plants- and we always pack a lunch.

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  16. I don't have a blog; perhaps someday. I do have a Masters in Wildlife Biology and a longtime birder. I also love the cactus species found there; and have several that are found there in my Austin home. BTW, there ARE Mountain Lions in the Basin. I have seen several there. I have yet to see any Black Bear.

  17. I was glad we didn't see any mountain lions. The one in the visitor is enough for me. No back bears either although they say there are as many as 15-20. We did see a male and female deer on the window trail. He had a pretty nice rack.
    I went to the cactus show looking for a claret cup but they were rather expensive. I came away with another cold hardy Echinocereus.

  18. I wasn't so lucky. I spent over $150 in cacti at the show. Paul's Desert had a lot of nice plants that I couldn't resist.

  19. Oh lucky you. But see what I post later today as my lace cactus was in flower. It is gorgeous.

  20. We've gone to Big Bend once in the fall and I'd love to return in the spring when it is in flower. I read that Big Bend has more species of plants and animals than any other national park. It is incredibly diverse.

    Thanks for sharing all the photos. I have a similar one of The Window but I was not as brave as you to stand so close to the drop-off.

    The Rio Grande was flooding when we were there and we were unable to get either to St Elena Canyon or to the hot springs (which I really wanted to try).

    Seeing your photos makes me think that I should convince AJM to go again next spring.

  21. Oh, you're braver than I am standing that close to the edge of a cliff! Great picture, though. ;)

    It's amazing to think that such a different landscape is still in Texas! I'm used to a much more homogenous state!