The name Big Bend refers to the great U-turn the Rio Grande River makes here in Southwest Texas. The river is an arcing linear oasis, a ribbon of green across the dry desert and cutting through its mountains.
Like all rivers that survive desert passages, the Rio Grande has its headwaters outside this desert. Today much of the water flowing through the park is supplied by the Rio Conchos River that flows out of Mexico, not by the Rio Grande. Much of the flow of the Rio Grande is diverted for irrigation or lost to evaporation before it reaches the park’s western boundary. The Rio Grande defines the park’s southern boundary for 118 miles. Garfish and some turtles are living fossils that help describe the area’s former life as a lush savannah and swamp 50 million years ago. Their ancestors swam in company with crocodiles and hippopotamus-like creatures.
If you wonder about the river’s carving power... did it really cut such colossal canyons? ... just paddle an aluminum canoe down the Rio Grande. The canoe will seem to hiss as thousands of abrasive particles bounce off its hull. The river is like a relentless, gravity-powered beltsander that has been running for millions of years.
Among the startling sights in this desert country may be the tooth marks of beaver on cottonwood or willow trees along the river. But don’t look for the beaver lodge—beavers here live in bank burrows.
The river is an oasis for species not adapted to the aridity of desert life, and so it adds to the park’s biological diversity.
The river’s floodplain provides areas for birdwatchers. Some birders say the birds in the floodplain are more colorful than elsewhere.
Summer tanagers, painted buntings, vermilion flycatchers, and cardinals lend their accent colors to the background greens of foliage. This ribbon-like floodplain verdancy appears as a green belt in the desert. It is a phenomenon seen elsewhere in the park along arroyos, or washes.
Birds and other animals make use of this interruption of more arid desert vegetation. On the river’s sand and gravel bars and cliffbanks are other creatures you would not expect in the Chihuahuan Desert. Sandpiper and killdeer sprint on the sandbars, and the cliff swallow flies to its adobe nest of river mud.
The floodplain has been a homeland to people for many centuries, but knowledge of the Rio Grande among non-Indians dates back less than 150 years.
Spanish people crossed the Rio Grande in the 16th and 17th centuries searching for gold, silver, and fertile land. The Presidio del Paso de San Vicente was established in 1774 at a major river crossing.
People did not float the river, as far as we know. Comanche Indians crossed the river in the 19th century, traveling to and from Mexico with their raiding parties.
In 1852 U.S. Army Major William H. Emory conducted a boundary survey. Emory’s party examined all three river canyons but elected to float only Mariscal.
An 1881 survey party led by a Texas Ranger floated Santa Elena Canyon. (He actually led the float party by horse from the canyon rim).
In 1889 a U.S. Geological Survey expedition was the first group known to run Boquillas Canyon.
Mexican settlers began farming on both banks of the river’s floodplain around 1900. Anglo-Americans joined in the farming after 1920, when boundary unrest ended. Cotton and food crops were grown around Castolon and what is now Rio Grande Village even after the park was established.
Read more about the park and regions: The Desert