Mountain lions, kangaroo rats and lethal-looking cacti: Paul Morrison explores the great outdoors in Big Bend National Park
It was dusk in the desert. After another tinder-dry day, Susan was making her rounds of the campsites, checking that the supper barbecues had been extinguished and reminding the camper-van owners to shut off their generators by ten. With one site left to do, she decided to cut up along the hillside track rather than drive the long way around in her Park Service pick-up. The full moon was up and there was just enough light to find her way without using the torch... Though she couldn’t have seen what was lying ahead.
Susan hardly had time to react to the rustle in the bushes above her, and barely glimpsed the two yellow eyes that caught her own, before she was bowled off her feet and sent sprawling along the track. She jumped quickly to her feet, ignoring the sharp pain in her twisted knee, and gazed back along the trail. There, just five metres away, a young mountain lion lay crouched and attentive, his ears laid back and his tail swishing back and forth like a domestic cat stalking a bird.
She could see his features clearly in the moonlight, the clear eyes watching her every move. But Susan’s innate fear was overcome by the exhilaration of finally seeing the elusive big cat, after two years working in Big Bend National Park.
So she stood there, grinning, while the mountain lion began to relax. His ears came forward and he stretched his neck out to catch her scent. The cat’s alarm had given way to curiosity – it seems he was as surprised as Susan by the encounter.
Presently, satisfied that she was neither threat nor prey, the cougar bobbed his head, turned around and sauntered off into the night, waving his tail in the air. Susan was left to hobble back to her jeep. As she did so, she could hear the cougar following in the bushes, his curiosity unsated. But her escort never reappeared and Susan presently made it back to the Ranger Station to file an accident report.
“They’re never going to believe this in Washington,” laughed her colleague, George, typing out the form for head office. “Injury: Sprained knee. Cause: Hit by mountain lion.”
The story is strange but true, though no more unusual than many that come out of this extraordinary frontier park on the southern edge of the USA. Big Bend National Park, in the south-west of Texas, is indeed an extra-ordinary place.
Most of the Park is a northern extension of the Chihuahuan Desert, but the remaining three percent provides two features that emphasise the harshness of the surrounding landscape. In the centre of the park a great lump of greenery rises out of the desert like a swollen oasis. Though more like hills in scale, the Chisos Mountains support a range of wildlife that are effectively imprisoned by the desert around them. Creatures like the white-tail deer, a favourite food of mountain lions.
Then, to the south, is the feature that gives the region its name and both the park and the nation a southern border. Here the Rio Grande, the ‘big river’, makes a broad U-bend southwards in its eastward flow towards the Gulf of Mexico. The contrast of habitat that this corridor of greenery provides, allows turtle and beaver to live within sight of roadrunner and kangaroo rats.
The river's course varies from a gentle flow through open desert, to spectacular canyons, where the rock rises a mile straight up from the water's edge. These are most dramatic when viewed from the river itself, and raft trips starting outside the park will allow just that. Alternatively, two of the three canyons have easy hiking trails to viewpoints at the canyon entrances, where the walls converge on the river.
In Big Bend, whilst the river and the mountains provide a refreshing retreat, it is the desert that captures the imagination and entices the traveller. Deserts can be very misleading, their seemingly barren landscape hiding a wealth of wildlife. Here you can get up at dawn, scan the horizon for signs of life and see nothing for ages. But after a while you get this strange impression that there are plenty of eyes watching you.
Way above, soaring on the thermals thrown up from the warming land, the turkey vulture gazes down in search of breakfast. At ground level the kangaroo rat is hiding from the rising heat and other creatures that would make a breakfast of him. And higher up, amongst the rocky outcrops and mahogany bushes of the Chisos, the mountain lion looks down across the open desert plains.
The cougar, mountain lion or panther (as they call it in these parts) will have seen a lot of strange people pass through Big Bend over the centuries. After the Spanish began to enslave the indigenous people – the Chisos – who had survived for thousands of years as hunter-gatherers, a succession of cultures tried to settle in the region. The Spaniards were then driven back across the Rio Grande by Apaches, who were fleeing Comanches further north.
By the nineteenth century, the Comanches were passing through on a regular basis on their "war trail" to raid the settlements in Mexico. Eventually it was the advancing Anglo-Americans from the east whose settlers and armies put an end to the native people’s presence.
However, the farmers and ranchers found this a harsh land to settle in, even after the departure of the native people. Ruins of their homesteads can be seen in the park, symbols of a land that could not be tamed. These days the armies come in camper vans, mostly Texans taking a winter break, when the desert is at its most comfortable. By the time high summer arrives, with ground temperatures reaching 82 degrees centigrade, the desert is left mostly to the wildlife.
The best time to visit has to be Spring, after the tourist peak and before the unbearable summer heat. In April the desert plants are in full flower, and it’s always a strange sensation to see something you consider domesticated wild and thriving in its natural habitat. All those sad little specimens of cactus that we nurture in terracotta pots are suddenly huge, healthy and in bloom. Prickly pears and rainbow cactus are in flower everywhere. And most impressive of all, a forest of yuccas standing over three metres tall and sporting huge heads of white blossoms.
Most visitors choose to camp, and there are sites throughout the park, but only three with running water. The most comfortable is the popular Basin campground, located in a valley up in the mountains, where the climate is easier. The park's only hotel, the Chisos Mountains Lodge, is nearby, but many prefer to sleep a little closer to the wilderness.
The wilder residents sometimes come down for a closer look; it’s not uncommon to find a family of wild pigs – javelina – snuffling around your tent, though being a favourite food of the mountain lion, they maybe feel more relaxed in the safety of the campgrounds that in the hillsides around.
Given the beauty and attractions of Big Bend, it’s perhaps surprising to find that few travellers, even those from the USA, have even heard of it. It seems like the Texans have kept it to themselves, and many of the visitors are “local” people who have been coming for years. Not that Big Bend can be called local to many people – it’s inaccessibility is part of its appeal.
To those with a specialised interest the park offers the kind of experience found nowhere else in the States. Botanists come to study its desert plants, ornithologists relish the prospect of encountering birds otherwise only found in Central America, to the historian there are the well-preserved ruins of old homesteads and the paleontologist has dinosaur bones to marvel at.
To the generalist a sample of all of these make for a fascinating time, but above all the attraction is the scenery. Its colours, shapes and open space create a strange beauty that is hard to capture on film, just as impressive sunsets never seems as good on a six by four print. Probably the best way to enjoy it is a quiet stroll along a desert track, pausing to sit on a rock and take in the surroundings.
Not that you will be alone. Deserts are rarely deserted. There is plenty of wildlife around, and it is not hanging on by a thread, as you might think, but perfectly adapted to the habitat. The kangaroo rat never has to drink, being able to extract all the moisture it needs from the seeds it eats, whilst the local jackrabbits have evolved huge ears to radiate excess body heat.
For humans it is a different story, and walking through the desert brings home just how vulnerable we are. An air-conditioned car can feel like a link to a safer world, like astronauts exploring the lunar surface. And you have to wonder what was it that made those ranchers try to settle in such an unforgiving land?
Most sensible visitors confine their excursions to early morning and late afternoon, though even then the beauty of the desert not only conceals a world of wildlife, but also a myriad of hazards. Hazards that eventually drove the settlers away and are still present to threaten the foolhardy traveller.
Chief of these is water, and not just in its absence. Walking along the dried-out river beds, carrying your recommended litre per person per hour, you are warned in the trail guides that even the most harmless looking gully can turn into “raging torrents” in minutes during the summer rains. Flash floods in summer seemed paradoxical, but Big Bend gets most of its rain in sharp bursts during the hottest time of the year.
Of the other dangers, there are the usual array of rattle-snakes and scorpions, but by simply resisting the temptation to turn over rocks and put hands into dark crevices, these are rarely encountered. Noisy walking is also a good idea, so giving curled up rattlesnakes and snoozing tarantulas plenty of time to get out of the way.
Any sharp pain you do receive is likely to come from a much more sedate piece of wildlife, and a plant at that. Cacti, for one, are sharper than they look, and good shoes are essential. The most lethal, however, is the characteristic plant of the region – the lechuguilla, with is large, dagger-shaped blades. Though not much of a danger to the hiker, there are well documented cases of ranchers being thrown from their horses and being impaled on these vicious-looking leaves. Ouch!
If after a couple of days of walking along hot dusty trails, you fancied using someone else’s feet, there are riding stables in the Basin. Horseback is a good way to see wildlife, particularly the white-tailed deer, who show little fear to humans on horses. An early morning or late afternoon trek out to ‘The Window’ has to be recommended, with the possibility of catching sight of black bear along the way.
What is more certain is the sight at the turning point of the trek: ‘The Window’ is a gap in the mountains that allows a panoramic view of the desert right across the Rio Grande into Mexico. From the Chisos Mountains the land on the far side seemed no different. It would be hard to explain the concept of nations to a mountain lion. But different they are, and if you feel the urge to look on the other side, then you can do just that.
The border towns adjoining Big Bend are no Tijuana with its brazen commercialisation. Here you don’t even have to bother with passports. Just take the ferry, well, more like a canoe, across the shallows of the ‘big river’, and you’ll probably be met by the local transport company to take you on into the town. You could walk it quicker, but somehow arriving unceremoniously on the back of a scruffy little burro seems wholly appropriate.
The town of Boquillas is just a couple of dozen houses, two churches and a bar at either end of the single street. Inside each the choice is simple - any one of a dozen or more brands of tequila, or the same brand of beer that is now the fashionable tipple in trendy bars across London, though here the beer is almost as warm as the chili bean tacos that you can order with it.
The border towns are poor, despite the trickle of tourist dollars. Quite how the people are able to make a living in this inhospitable landscape is a mystery. In a sense, it’s just another dimension of the contrasts that give Big Bend its character, but the issue of Mexico is key, and much more than a sideshow to the main attractions in the park.
Ecologically, Big Bend is just one part of a larger habitat, most of which is outside the protection of a park service. South of the Rio Grande, cattle take what little grazing exists, and the wildlife that remains is threatened by hunters. There is talk of creating a joint national park that spans the border, just as they have done in the north where the Glacier National Park adjoins Canada’s Waterton Park.
But the realities of one of the world’s richest nations bordering one of the poorest make this much more difficult. Conflicts of land use are not so easy to resolve in a land where survival is the prime concern. It is an issue that could ultimately determine the fate of both wildlife and humans on the border.
Down by the river, from the side where the people sleep under canvas by choice, the world seems fine. Beneath the cottonwood trees of the Castolon campground, you can watch turtles in the Rio Grande whilst a roadrunner chases lizards past your tent.
Castolon is quieter than the Basin, thanks to its absence of electrical hookups for the camper vans, and a fine place to reflect on the harsh truths of life on the border. After a few days in Big Bend, you come to realise that the key to survival is to adapt to the landscape. This is a wilderness that cannot and should not be tamed. The Native Americans understood that, and the Europeans that sought to change it to their demands did not last long.
It’s a matter of taking lessons from the wildlife – and there’s no better teacher than the mountain lion, who leaves the desert to the hardier creatures, and spends his time hunting javelinas in the cooler, lusher Chisos. Plus the occasional brush with a stranger in the night.
When to go: Temperatures vary with elevation. Summers are uncomfortable except in the mountains. Winter is nippy in the mountains but ideal in the lowlands. Overall the best times to visit are autumn and spring. The busiest times are the Thanksgiving weekend, the week after Christmas, and around Easter.
Further information: The main visitors centre and park headquarters is at Panther Junction, which stocks a good selection of maps, trail guides and field guides. As well as the excellent interpretative displays, a program of free talks, walks and film shows are on offer. Panther Junction is a good place to spend the hottest hours of the day. There are several other smaller centres in the park.