The Big Bend
With over 801,000 acres to explore covering terrain from river canyons, to desert, to mountains. The entire Chisos Mountain range is surrounded by Chihuahuan Desert. The Rio Grande carves canyons through limestone cliffs. Remnants of old farmsteads, a hotspring bathhouse, and pictographs paint a picture of the past.
This is the largest State Park in Texas with over 311,000 acres. There are miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. If you want to get remote and rugged, there is plenty of 4X4 touring, backpacking loops, and the Colorado Canyon of the Rio Grande to float through. Now deserted, cinnabar ore mining camps were among some of the first primary settlements in the area.
Tucked between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park, this 27,000 acre resort town has an Old West feel. There is a golf course, shooting range, equestrian center, and charter jet service.
General guide for tourism. Including lodging, restaurants, and weather.
Terlingua Nights: 432-239-0007
Longhorn Ranch: 432-371-2541
Big Bend National Park
From 500 to 300 million years ago (mya), the Big Bend area was part of a deep-ocean trough that extended from present-day Arkansas to West Texas. Accumulating sediments became beds of sandstone and shale. About 300 mya, pressure from continental movement forced these beds upward forming the Appalachian and Ouachita Mountains, the western roots of which are near Persimmon Gap, in the Big Bend National Park.
Around 135 mya, during the Cretaceous Period, a warm shallow sea covered the Big Bend- part of the Western Interior Seaway that divided North America. Tiny calcium-rich organisms were abundant, eventually settling to the ocean floor and becoming the bands of limestone we see today.
One hundred mya the sea began to retreat to its present location, and dinosaur-filled forests dominated this region. Near the end of the Cretaceous Period, a massive west-to-east compression of North America built the Rocky Mountains, the second mountain building period in the Big Bend area. Mariscal Mountains, in Big Bend National Park, is the southernmost extension of the Rocky Mountains in the United States.
The end of the Cretaceous Period, 65 mya, marks the most famous extinction on our planet. By the end of the Cretaceous, the dinosaurs had disappeared, but flowering plants, mollusks, amphibians, lizards, snakes, insects, and mammals all survived the extinction event known as the Cretaceous/ Paleogene (or Tertiary) boundary. The following Paleogene era is called the Age of Mammals, as these furry animals flourished during this time. The only strata marking this extinction on public land in North America is in Big Bend.
As early mammals, including horses, rhinoceroses, camels, and various rodents roamed the Big Bend area, the age of volcanism began. From 43 to 32 mya, volcanic eruptions formed the Chisos Mountains, Sierra Quemada, Castolon area ash deposits, and the numerous dikes, sills, and laccoliths found around Big Bend National Park. Later, around 26 mya, massive fracture zones created faults that sunk the central part of Big Bend National Park, exposing the cliff faces of the Sierra de Carmens and Mesa de Anguilla.
Big Bend’s geologic history continues today. The past 10 million years have been dominated by erosion and sculpting. The Rio Grande, formed nearly 2 million years ago, continues to carve the vast canyons as the landscape of Big Bend continues to be subject to the sculpting forces of the elements.
The Guadalupe Mountains trace their origin to the ancient Capitan Reef, which built up along the fringe of a shallow ocean. The reef formed during the Permian Period 250 mya, before mammals and flowering plants appeared on Earth. The limy skeletons of algae, sponges, and other aquatic organisms were cemented together by the billions to form the reef structure. The process took millions of years. As time passed, the shallow waters dried up and layers of sediment buried the reef. Then 10- 12 mya, earth forces uplifted the region. Overlying sediments eroded away, exposing the limestone mountain that was once a living reef. Today the Capitan Reef stands before you as a classic example of a fossil reef.
On the horizon in the Western Escarpment of the Guadalupe Mountains is one of the best exposed geologic cross sections in the world. All of the formations exposed in the escarpment are marine carbonates (limestone) and siliciclastics (sandstones, siltstones, and shales) representing depositional and erosional events that occurred from 262 to 252 mya, They tell a story of the formation of an ancient reef, which today is considered one of the best examples of a fossil reef anywhere. Water, now extremely scarce, once covered this land as an inland sea during the Middle Permian Period. Sediments, which now make up different rock formations, were deposited on a shallow marine shelf out to a deeper marine basin. Water depth and sea level fluctuations, likely linked to Permian glacial events, caused the vertical and lateral changes in the rock types and formation. The siliciclastics were deposited during periods of low sea level when the sands were transported across the shelf to the basin. The carbonates were deposited during periods of high sea level; both deep marine and shallower water shelf, reef and forereef deposits. The sheer cliffs of the Western Escarpment were formed in the last 6 million years as the long buried Permain rocks were uplifted along a fault zone that forms the eastern boundary of the Salt Basin.
Carlsbad Cavern is one of over 300 limestone caves in a fossil reef laid down by an inland sea 250 to 280 million years ago during the Permian period. A rich diversity of ancient marine life inhabited this sea. A reef grew along the coastline by the buildup of the remains of mostly algae and sponges. By the end of the Permian, the sea had dried and the reef was eventually buried. The reef was much later uplifted and sculpted by erosion, thus creating the Guadalupe Mountains. The Permian reef deposits are now the rock formation called the Capitan Limestone, which is about 750 feet thick. The bulk of Carlsbad Caverns is found within this soluble limestone.
Caves of the Guadalupe Mountains are extraordinary in that a very aggressive “sulfuric acid bath” is shown to have played a major role in cave development by dissolving limestone from the bottom upward through the water table. In comparison most of the world’s caves are formed by the dissolution of limestone by weak carbonic acid. Carbonic acid is formed by rain and snowmelt combining with carbon dioxide in the air and soil as it seeps downward.
The Permian Basin of western Texas and southeastern New Mexico contains some of the country’s most prolific oil fields. During the late Tertiary period (perhaps as late as 12 mya), hydrogen sulfide began migrating upward from these petroleum reservoirs deep under the Capitan Limestone. When the upwelling hydrogen sulfide rich water met with groundwater, it combined with oxygen in the water table to form sulfuric acid.
Highly aggressive dissolution of limestone thus occurred at the water table. As the Guadalupe Mountains were uplifted the water table was lowered leaving the dissolved caves to drain, thus new caves then began to form at the new level of the water table. Therefore, the chambers closest to the surface are the oldest and the deepest chambers are the youngest. Isotope dating of cave minerals affirm that the Big Room dissolved out about 4 mya, making it one of the youngest chambers in the Guadalupe Mountains.
The impressive decorations, or speleothems, found in Carlsbad Caverns did not begin to form until a cave chamber was drained of the “acid bath”. The natural entrance allowed air from the surface to circulate through the cave. As rainwater and snowmelt percolates downward, it picks up carbon dioxide from the air and soil to form a mild carbonic acid. The mild acidity of the surface water allows it to dissolve some of the limestone it encounters on its way down. When the mineral-laden water reaches the open void of a cave, it forms a drop on the ceiling. The carbon dioxide in the water is released, making the water saturated with respect to the dissolved calcite (limestone). In order to reach equilibrium with the cave air, the water must unload the mineral. When the water evaporates or drops off the ceiling, a small mineral deposit is left behind. Drip by drip, these deposits will form a stalactite on the ceiling. The water that falls to the floor may also carry minerals which are deposited on the floor, eventually creating blunt stalagmites.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park. (2017) History and Culture [brochure]. Retrieved from:
Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Cave Geology [brochure]. Retrieved from:
Carlsbad Caverns National Park. (2017) Native Plants of the Chihuahuan Desert [brochure]. Retrieved from: https://www.nps.gov/cave/learn/upload/Native-Plants-of-the-Chihuahuan-Desert_small.pdf
Gray, J.E., Page, W.R. (2008). Geological, Geochemical, and Geophysical Studies by the U.S. Geological Survey in Big Bend National Park, Texas: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1327, 93p.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park. (2015) People [brochure]. Retrieved from: https://www.nps.gov/gumo/learn/historyculture/people.htm
Guadalupe Mountains National Park. (2015) Geologic formations [brochure]. Retrieved from: https://www.nps.gov/gumo/learn/nature/geologicformations.htm
National Park Maps were retrieved from: http://npmaps.com/
The Center for Planetary Science. (2017). Star Chart [image] retrieved from:
Tyler, Ron. (2010). The Big Bend: A History of the Last Texas Frontier. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.
Early Occupation of the Big Bend
9500 BC- Early Paleoindian Period (Clovis Culture) Small bands of nomads hunted terminal Ice Age animals such as mammoths and giant bison, in addition to small animals, and harvested wild plants. Primary weapons were spears, used at times with spear throwers (atlatls). Although they lived throughout this region, there is very little evidence of Clovis people in this region.
8900 BC- Early Paleoindian Period (Folsom Culture) Small bands of nomads gathered wild plant foods and hunted giant bison and other animals. Primary weapons were spears, used at times with atlatls.
8200 BC- Late Paleoindian Period- A variety of distinct spear point styles and other innovative stone tools suggest several different mobile hunter- gatherer groups were present across this region. Drier environmental conditions and changing plants and animal communities led to cultural adaptation. Primary weapons were spears, used at times with atlatls.
6500 BC- Early Archaic Period- Small bands of hunter- gatherers occupied this region and it is believed that they had more restricted geographical ranges that in earlier times. With the appearance of groundstone artifacts (such as manos and metates) used to process plant foods, there appears to have been an increased reliance on plant gathering in addition to small game hunting. Primary weapons were spears and atlatls.
5000 BC- Altithermal Period Begins- High temperatures and droughts begins.
2500 BC- Middle Archaic Period- Plains bison hunters began entering the area even as existing nomadic hunting gathering lifeways continued. Increases in the variety and number of spear points and their distribution across the landscape suggest a higher population. Trade networks developed with groups in surrounding areas. Primary weaponary consisted of spears and atlatls.
1000- 300 BC- Wet climate interval- Modern bison enter Big Bend from the High Plains
AD 700- Transitional Late Archaic to Late Prehistoric- Traditional nomadic hunting and gathering lifeways continued, with intensified use of earth ovens and possibly limited experimentation with agriculture. By around AD 750 a distinctive nomadic hunting- gathering group (Livemore culture) practicing mountaintop ritualism appeared in the region. The bow and arrow were introduced at this time, although the spear and spear thrower and wooden throwing (rabbit) sticks were also used.
AD 1000- Late Prehistoric Period- The first regional Native American villages utilizing pithouse dwellings, ceramics, and agriculture appeared at La Junta around AD 1200, while elsewhere in the Big Bend nomadic hunting and gathering lifeways persisted. Both nomads and villagers continued to use earth ovens to process wild plant foods. Extensive trade networks developed between farmers and nomads, and between farmers and other cultural groups in the American Southwest. A distinctive nomadic group (Cielo complex) using stone based wickiups (hide or brush covered dwellings) appeared by around AD 1250. Bows and stone tipped arrows were the primary weapons, and use of throwing (rabbit) sticks continued.
AD 1535- Historic Period- The first Spaniards entered the Big Bend beginning with Cabeza de Vaca. Spanish entradas in the late 1500s and 1600s led to the establishment of missions (churches) around the junction of the Rio Grande and Rio Conchos (La Junta) by the 1680s. Spanish presidios (forts) were established on the south bank of the Rio Grande in the late 1700s. Primary weapons change from bows and stone tipped arrows to bows and iron tipped arrows, and then to guns. Cultural change and conflict intensified as mounted Apaches and Comanches entered the region from the Southern Plains and harassed local Native Americans, Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo American settlers.
Spaniards, The Republic of Texas, and the 28th State
Spain became the first European nation to claim what is now Texas, beginning in 1519. This was more than 100 years before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock. Cabeza de Vaca in 1535 was the first Spaniard to reach La Junta (Presidio, TX), but colonization came slowly. In 1681 the first settlement in Texas that could be called a town was Ysleta, which is present-day El Paso. Gradually expanding from Mexico, other Spanish missions, forts, and civil settlements followed for nearly a century and-a-half until Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821.
Pioneers from the Hispanic south and the Anglo north flowed into Texas. Land grants were offered to settlers, and empresarios brought groups to take advantage of the generous grants. Best known were the 300 families brought by Stephen F. Austin. It was a frontier region. Anglo Texans became Mexican citizens. Settlers came in droves, and soon friction between the settlers and Mexico grew into rebellion. Colonists petitioned Mexico for civil rights. Austin took the demands to Mexico City and was imprisoned for 2 years on a charge of treason. Meanwhile, Sam Houston had come to Texas and became the leader of the restless settlers, who now outnumbered the Mexican nationals in Texas by four to one. The first shots of the Texas Revolution were fired September 1, 1835. On October 2nd, the battle of Gonzales commenced when the Mexican troops wanted the return of a canon they had loaned the settlers. Their reply of “Come and Take It” became a rallying cry. The settlers overtook Goliad and San Antonio. On March 6, 1836, Santa Anna and his troops attack the Alamo. A few weeks later, the Texians triumphed in the Battle of San Jacinto, which won independence for Texas.
Although the Republic of Texas was an independent nation from 1836-1845, most of its citizens favored statehood. The U.S. Congress too reluctant to admit another “slave” state delayed acceptance of Texas, but a compromise was reached on December 29, 1845. Unrest about the actual international boundary sparked yet another war with Mexico. On February 2, 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed establishing the Rio Grande as the International Boundary.
Ranching and Cinnabar Ore Mining
The cessation of hostilities between Mexico and the United States saw a marked increase in the number of Americans moving into the Big Bend region establishing large ranches and farms, and facilitating the on-going trade through the area. In 1854, Fort Davis was established to protect settlers, traders, and travelers passing through the area from the Apache and Comanches. In 1884 cinnabar ore was discovered and the first mercury mines were opened. Ranching and farming in the region prospered to help support the growing mining communities. By the 1930s, the boom and bust era of these industries had seen its heyday.
Parks and Tourism
Big Bend National Park
By 1930, many people who had enjoyed the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties found themselves in soup lines and tattered clothes. In the early 1930s, Texas Canyonlands State Park was established in what is now Big Bend National Park. The park got its first set of CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) boys who built the road into the Chisos Mountains Basin. Hoping to increase tourism the state park was donated as “Texas’s gift to the nation”. On June 6, 1944 Amon Carter presents the paperwork to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to become a national park. Six days later the name was changed to Big Bend National Park. The parks got a second set of CCC boys to build the adobe brick and stone cottages in the Chisos Basin. Tourism has been the main industry ever since.
In 1892 the White family moves to Lone Tree, New Mexico. In 1898, the 16-year-old, Texas-born cowhand Jim White enters the caverns, probably for the first time. The first to find the entrance remains disputed. From 1915-1918 the first photographs in the cavern’s Scenic Rooms and Big Room was taken by Ray V. Davis. His photographs stimulate interest in the cavern. Davis’ photos appear in the New York Times in 1923. From April- May 1923, Robert Holley of the General Land Office, surveys and maps the cavern, guided by Jim White and photographed by Ray V. Davis. Robert Holley recommends establishment as a national monument. On October 25, 1923 Carlsbad Cave National Monument was established. The first trails were built by the NPS in 1926 with an entrance fee of $2.00. On May 14, 1930, Congress designates Carlsbad Caverns National Park. In 1931 and 1932 a 750’ elevator shaft is drilled and blasted from both ends- the surface and the cavern. Two larger elevators and another shaft are added in the middle 1950s. In 1938 a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp is established at Rattlesnake Springs and is in operation until April 1942. In 1995 it is declared a World Heritage Site.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Prior to the mid 1800’s, the Guadalupes remained an unchallenged sanctuary for the Mescalero Apaches. But newly established transportation routes, and the end of the Civil War, encouraged droves of pioneers, homesteaders, miners, and numerous others to head west. In the 1840’s and 1850’s, explorers were commissioned to look for possible emigrant routes to the west, and the proposed transcontinental railroad expected to follow one of these. Although these surveying expeditions would never lead to a railroad through Guadalupe Pass, they did provide the first extensive studies of the Guadalupe region. In 1858, the Pinery (a horse-changing station), was constructed near Pine Springs for the Butterfield Overland Mail. To protect their investments, the stage line and settlers in the area demanded protection from the military. Several cavalry troops, including the Buffalo Soldiers, were intermittently ordered in and out of the area to halt Indian raids and secure settlements along the stage route. In the winter of 1869, troops lead by Lt. H.B. Cushing penetrated the Guadalupes and destroyed two primary Apache camps. These aggressive actions were devastating to the Mescaleros who were already facing food shortages within their increasingly limited land base. They were eventually driven out of the Guadalupes, and by the late 1800’s, nearly all of the surviving Mescalero Apaches in the U.S. were living on reservations.
Permanent settlements in the Guadalupes were not common though, even after the final displacement of the Mescaleros. The Butterfield stage route through the Guadalupes was abandoned in less than a year for a more favorable course along a string of army forts to the south. Most settlers found the range (and its limited water sources) too rugged and inhospitable. Historical evidence shows that one of the first settlers who stayed was Felix McKittrick who worked cattle in the area in the 1870’s. McKittrick Canyon is thought to be named after him. The first permanent ranch house was constructed in 1876 by the Rader brothers. Now called Frijole Ranch, it served as residence for several families through the years. As the only major building complex in the region (for several decades), it served as a community center and regional post office from 1916-1942. Today, the Frijole Ranch House has been restored and operates as a cultural museum. In 1908 another ranch site was built in the Guadalupes below the western escarpment. Later, it became known as Williams Ranch after one of its inhabitants, James Adolphus Williams. During the 1920’s and 1930’s Judge J.C. Hunter from Van Horn, Texas consolidated most of the smaller ranches in the area into a large-scale operation called the Guadalupe Mountain Ranch. In order to sustain livestock, primarily sheep and goats, Hunter established a complex pumping system to send water into the highcountry. Concerned for the preservation of fragile habitats, such as the riparian canyons, he concentrated grazing in the northern part of his ranch. He also introduced elk into these mountains.
Although the establishment of the park was proposed as early as 1923, the idea did not become reality until Wallace Pratt became involved. A geologist for the then tiny Humble Oil and Refining Company (now Exxon); Pratt was one of the early explorers of oil in the Permian Basin. In 1921, he was captivated by the geology and beauty of McKittrick Canyon and shortly after began buying land in the canyon. He built two separate homes in the canyon, the Pratt Cabin, located at the confluence of north and south McKittrick canyons, and Ship-On-The-Desert located on higher ground near the mouth of the canyon. Both of these locales were used as summer homes by Pratt and his family up until 1960. Shortly after, his generous contribution of nearly 6,000 acres of McKittrick Canyon, it became the nucleus for Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Another 80,000 acres, owned by J.C. Hunter Jr., was purchased by the government to complete the parcel. Congress passed the necessary legislation in 1966, and by 1970 the land transfer was complete. In September, 1972, Guadalupe Mountains National Park was dedicated and formally opened to the public.