The History and Hidden Treasures of Big Bend National Park

The state’s biggest national park still has some secrets to explore.

By Laura RiceApril 21, 2016 10:40 am,

This year marks the National Parks Service’s centennial year. The first, and biggest national park in Texas is one of our crown jewels: Big Bend in West Texas.

The park is the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert in the nation, and one of the more diverse parks in the state. There are thousands of species of plants and animals. There are rivers, canyons, mountains and desert all waiting for visitors to explore.

It’s hard to imagine, but once upon a time this majestic national treasure was just someone’s backyard.

Neel Baumgardner, professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, says the area was populated with Texas ranchers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Texas legislature established the Texas Canyons State Park in the area and later that year it was renamed as Big Bend State Park. In 1935, the U.S. Congress passed legislation to acquire the land for a national park.

The legislature started acquiring more land from ranchers in 1941, allocating $1.5 million to buy up parcels that were then deeded to the federal government. During the forming of the park, Texas was in a drought and the nation was in the midst of the depression. Land was going for $1 to $2 per acre.

The park as we know it today opened in June of 1944, Baumgardner says.

Brandi Harrison/PBS Texas National Parks project

This graphic features elements from several of the state’s national park sites in a single image — a baby turtle from Padre Island National Seashore, the Chisos Mountains from Big Bend, a mission from San Antonio and trees and water from the Big Thicket National Preserve.

“It has a bit of everything,” he says. “You have traditional mountainscapes – that you probably are more familiar with in other parks – three majestic canyons at the Rio Grande and Rio Bravo cut through, and the Chihuahuan Desert all pieced together to create a variety of experiences for visitors.”

It’s hard to imagine that a park full of quiet spaces and monumental scenery was once crowded with cattle, goats and sheep, Baumgardner says.

“I’d encourage everybody to pull off … on the side of the road and go wandering through the Chihuahuan Desert,” he says. “You’ll be amazed what you can find.”

Baumgardner and his family have done a lot of wandering, he says. They’ve found Calumet baking powder cans and rusted out hulks of cars. He’s also come across petroglyphs and pictographs from Native Americans – artifacts that have gone untouched for thousands of years.

These parts of human history aren’t something the park service publicizes, for fear of having significant visitation that would impact some of those archeological resources. But Baumgardner says there are places in the park where there are hundreds of petroglyphs, and they’re worth checking out.

“We’ve spent days in the park wandering around stone to stone, looking at and trying to discern what were these things,” he says.

This post prepared for web by Beth Cortez-Neavel.