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Big Bend National Park - Naturally

by Arthur Kuehne

The Dallas Sierra Club has been organizing bus trips to Big Bend National Park over the Thanksgiving holiday every year for 30 years. Dallas Sierra Club trip leaders are often asked why they go back so often. For many, it is the spectacular scenery, the challenging hiking, or the solitude.

For me, it’s all those things, plus one other: Big Bend has an amazing diversity of plants and animals found nowhere else in the United States. As just one example, Big Bend has more species of ferns than do the forests of East Texas. With 450 species of birds - more than any other national park - Big Bend is one of the premier birding destinations in the country. Birders eagerly search for species found nowhere else in the U.S., such as the Mexican duck, the Lucifer hummingbird, the Mexican jay, and the Colima warbler. Because of Big Bend’s unique location, birding is always interesting. In the spring and fall, migrating birds pass through in large numbers. In the winter, northern birds can be found enjoying the warm weather that Big Bend offers. And in the summer, you are likely to find birds from south of the U.S. visiting Big Bend to nest.

If you want something more down to earth, Big Bend has just what you are looking for. With 60 species of cacti – again, more than any other national park – and more than 1,100 other plant species, you can spend a lifetime exploring this park’s flora. Almost 6,000 feet of elevation separates the park’s highest peak from its lowest valley, so elevation plays a major part in promoting the park’s plant diversity. The high elevations of the mountains support a remnant forest population of ponderosa pine, douglas fir, quaking aspen, and maples. As you descend, forest gives way to the more familiar Chihuahuan Desert plants such as agaves, yucca, sotol, ocotillo, mesquite, creosote bush, and, of course, cactus. If that’s not enough, visit the Rio Grande River. This rich riparian habitat supports cottonwood, mesquite, huisache, willows, and unfortunately, the non-native invasive pest tamarisk or saltcedar.

Visit Big Bend in the spring after a wet fall and winter and you will be treated to a display of wildflowers that will rival any the Texas Hill Country has to offer. Even in dry years, flowering cacti and yucca paint the desert with vivid colors. Big Bend Bluebonnets, a large cousin of our state flower, start the show in mid-January. The peak of the bloom is in March and April, but you will find something in bloom every day of the year.

I encourage everyone to backpack Big Bend National Park. Our bus trip is an excellent way to go. I also encourage everyone to take a week or two and camp out in the desert. Spend some time getting to know the plants and animals around you. Perhaps you’ll spot some of the park’s more elusive residents, like mountain lion, bear, javelina, fox, bobcat, and deer. Visit Big Bend a few times and I’m sure you will put it at the top of your “best places I’ve ever been” list, just as I have.

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