North America has four deserts: Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan.
The Chihuahuan extends deep into Mexico, and Big Bend National Park lies in its northern third. This desert is bordered on three sides by mountains that block the rains. Its other side abuts vast semiarid plains. The Chihuahuan Desert is young, perhaps not more than 8,000 years old. Green and somewhat lush, it receives most of its rainfall when most needed, in the summer.
Heat and seasonal winds contribute to the aridity. Ground temperatures may reach 180°F at mid-day in summer, or they can be freezing in winter when northern storms sweep through.
The good news: it is often a luxurious 80°F here while the Rocky Mountains are locked in deep snow.
Life here has adapted to minimize expending its energy and to maximize getting or even hoarding water—as the kangaroo rat illustrates. We should not be amazed that Big Bend animals are so well adapted to desert life. Such adaptations are what life is all about.
There are fairy shrimp, fastgrowing toads, and those jackrabbit ears. There are more mundane adaptations too: many animals beat the heat by coming out only at night. Most snakes do this because summer daytime temperatures on the desert floor would kill them in minutes. Another way to beat this heat is to climb above it.
Many human travelers pass through the summer desert quickly, headed for the higher and cooler Chisos Mountains. Some insects use the same strategy. They merely fly straight up in the air a short distance, where it is significantly cooler. One walking beetle seems to rise up on stilts periodically, again to achieve critical distance from the desert floor’s killing heat.
Although ancient cultures made homes here at least 10,000 years ago, perhaps earlier, little evidence of human occupation appears until the Archaic or Desert Culture of 8,000 years ago. Hundreds of Chihuahuan Desert plants were useful to these people as food and medicine.
Their diet included hearts of the sotol and lechuguilla plants; fruit and blossoms of yucca; fruit and young pads of pricklypear; mesquite and acacia beans; and other native plants. They made baskets and sandals from lechuguilla fiber and yucca leaves. They hunted with the atlatl, a throwing stick that propelled stone-tipped darts to kill deer, rabbits, and other game. Like us they needed food, water, and shelter. Desert springs were valuable sources of drinking water.
Today, living sites often include the remnants of rock shelters and hearths or fire rings.
Late in the Archaic period trade between the local people and those from the south and west introduced horticultural practices, bringing cultivated corn, beans, and squash to supplement their diets. By 1200 the La Junta people, an agricultural group related to the Puebloan people of the upper Rio Grande, occupied and farmed the river floodplain in areas west of today’s national park. In the 1500s Spaniards enslaved the Indians and substantially changed their culture. Pushed south by Comanches, Apaches moved into this area in the 1700s.
Apaches were capable of resisting the Spaniards, who began to release their tenuous hold on this area in the 1700s.
In the 19th century, Anglo- American homesteaders encroaching on hunting territories forced Comanches southward.
Mexican settlers occupied the Big Bend by the early 1800s, and their isolated communities became the targets of raids by nomadic Comanche warriors.
Gold discoveries in California in the mid- 1800s and the destruction of bison herds hastened the Comanches’ decline.
Military forts were built on the route that passed through this area to California goldfields.
Read more about the regions: The Mountain Region / Chisos Mountains