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The National Parks at 100: A First Big Adventure in Big Bend National Park

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They are our nation’s greatest natural treasure. Celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service with a look at some of the Southwest’s best, from Arches and Big Bend to Zion. Stephanie Pearson recounts her trek to Texas’ Big Bend National Park
Big Bend's Santa Elena Canyon at sunset. Photo by Witold Skrypczak/Getty.
Big Bend’s Santa Elena Canyon at sunset. Photo by Witold Skrypczak/Getty.

Until I was 18, I hadn’t given much thought to Big Bend National Park, that yawning mass of Chihuahuan Desert that sprawls 800,000 arid acres across southwest Texas. I grew up in Minnesota, where “wild” meant freshwater lakes and pine forests so thick they blocked out the sun. Having so much beauty out our back door, my parents weren’t inspired to take their five kids on a National Lampoonesque National Park tour.
My interest in Big Bend grew exponentially the year I was a broke college freshman who would do whatever it took to get away from the March freeze-thaw cycle in Minnesota. When my geology professor announced a spring break road trip to Big Bend for an all-inclusive grand total of $150, I signed up without giving a second thought to the 2,746-mile, round-trip van ride it would require.
Almost immediately after the van turned south on I-35, the two seniors in the back row started discreetly mixing lemonade, beer and vodka, and passed it around the van in water bottles. As for food, our diet was largely corn tortilla chips and Pace Picante salsa, an exotic combo for a kid like me who grew up on cod and baked potatoes.
By the time we arrived in Big Bend, 24 sleepless hours later, everything felt exotic: I was staring at a vast expanse of geologic wonders straight out of a John Wayne Western. The landscape was sparse, hot and intimidating, yet alive with crimson hedgehog cactus flowers, and soaring peregrine falcons. We hiked the 14-mile South Rim loop with views deep into Mexico; studied 300 million-year-old sandstone layers; and paddled lazily down the Rio Grande River into Santa Elena Canyon, which shot 1,500 feet straight up from the river.
I remember my geology professor, a bearded, recovering hippie, pointing to the rock layer on the canyon rim and referring to it as an “Oreo Cookie Layer.” I didn’t understand his analogy and hazily recall that I didn’t do very well on the post-trip geology test, either. Maybe that’s why, shortly after spring break, I switched my major from geology to philosophy. The rock formations’ names and ages may not have stuck with me, but my heady first visit to a national park, with its democratic promise of wild beauty for all, did.

>>More National Parks: Trek through one of the Seven National Wonders of the World at Grand Canyon National Park

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