Big Bend National Park A Quick Guide To Photography

August 16, 2015 ·

QT Luong
Agaves on South Rim, morning. Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA.
Agaves on South Rim, morning. Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA.

Big Bend National Park one of the least visited National Parks because it’s so remote. The park lies 325 miles from El Paso, the closest major city and the three roads leading to the park do not pass through to another location.  The diverse topography, flora, and fauna surprise the visitor who makes the long trip. Three distinct environments are in the park: the canyons of the Rio Grande River, the desert, and the Chisos Mountains. Big Bend is one of the largest national parks (1,250 square miles). You are sure to find solitude there, except during Thanksgiving and Spring break. There is much to explore by car, but a high-clearance 4WD vehicle will allow you to drive a large network of unpaved roads. Most of the accommodations and park activities are in the Chisos Basin, which is cooler than the desert.

When To Go

Temperatures are most pleasant from late fall to early spring, with a dusting of snow possible in the winter on the high peaks. Late spring to early fall brings temperatures above 100 F to the desert, and frequent dramatic thunderstorms.  While something blooms in almost every season, annual wildflowers are most abundant in February and March, whereas cactus starts blooming in April, usually peaking in late May.

Hot Springs Canyon Trail

A narrow gravel road leads to the edge of the Rio Grande at Hot Springs.  You can see some petroglyphs along the 0.5 mile RT trail to the hot springs, but the view, at river level, is obscured by vegetation.  Although the bathhouse is long gone, the springs are still hot (105 degrees F) and flowing. Their position next to the river could lend to interesting photographs with people. However, the main draw of the area are the excellent views of the Rio Grande River from above. To find them, continue onto a trail that steeply ascends the bluff above the hot springs to join the Hot Springs Canyon Trail. At the trail junction, if you turn left, it will be less than a mile to the western trailhead. For more variety, you could turn right and follow the trail to Daniel’s Ranch (3 miles OW). About 0.5 miles from the eastern trailhead, you’ll find a good overlook over the Rio Grande. My favorite time is near sunset when the Sierra del Carmen catches the last light.

Cactus above Rio Grande River. Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA.
Cactus above Rio Grande River. Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA.

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon is the most impressive geological feature along the Rio Grande, a 1500-foot gash that runs for eight miles in the uplift that forms the Sierra Ponce Mountains. At places, as little as 150 feet separate the limestone walls.

From the overlook, the view of Santa Elena Canyon is quite distant. A 1.7 miles (RT) trail takes you into the canyon for closer views.  Depending on the season, you may have to wade through Terlingua Creek, which has its confluence with the Rio Grande near the mouth of the canyon. After crossing the flood plain, the trail becomes better marked. The climb is more than 100 feet, offering good views, before dropping to river level. From near the end of the trail, there are fine reflections of the inner canyon, with large stones in the river. Overcast light works, but the late afternoon could provide an added glow of reflected light in the inner canyon.

During a fall visit, Terlingua Creek was totally dry. By contrast, shortly after I arrived on a late May evening, a violent thunderstorm broke out. I waited it out in the car as thunder rumbled.  As the road flooded, I chose prudence by staying at the trailhead rather than attempting to drive to the campground in the pitch-dark night. Seen from afar, the tall cliffs of Santa Elena Canyon made for a striking sight when warm early morning light struck them. I would have preferred to come closer to them for reflections, but Terlingua Creek was overflowing. I did not try to cross the banks full of quicksand.

A ranger drove by, surprised that I had managed to get there. He informed me that the floodwaters were now high, and suggested that I abandon my vehicle and get a ride back in his truck. Instead, I insisted on trying to drive my rental car back. I stowed my camera gear and electronics into his truck, in case my car would get flooded. It didn’t, and I made it back to Castolon while the ranger closed the gates behind us. I found a hose near the Castolon historic store to get rid of all the mud stuck to the car.

Rio Grande and cliffs in Santa Elena Canyon. Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA.
Rio Grande and cliffs in Santa Elena Canyon. Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA.

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is the most varied of the roads in the park. If you see something of interest, just pull over on the side of the road and experience the freedom of wandering in the desert.  The first part of the road has some great distant views.  The distinctive Mule Ears can be photographed from a road pullout. A 3.7 miles RT leads to Mule Ears Spring, closer to their base. In the late afternoon, the view is better from the first mile of the trail with a telephoto. Near Tuff Canyon, white mounds of compacted volcanic ash called “tuff” contrast with dark red boulders and ocotillo.

Lightning thunderstorm. Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA.
Lightning thunderstorm. Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA.

Grapevine Mountains and Balanced Rock

Follow the Grapevine Hills Road; it’s rough but passable with a passenger vehicle despite the “high clearance vehicles” sign. The 2.2 miles (RT) trail takes you through a narrow valley filled with an interesting jumble of boulders. After about a mile, the trail climbs over a pass, offering better views, before arriving in front of the Balanced Rock, which is out of the sight for most of the hike. Although the formation can be photographed from both sides, the view from the backside (with a vertical rock on the left) is more striking. That side is facing northeast, so it is best illuminated by early morning light, preferably in summer. It is backlit the rest of the time.

Balanced rock in Grapevine mountains. Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA.
Balanced rock in Grapevine mountains. Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA.

Chisos Mountains Viewpoints

The Chisos Mountains cover a small area; they are the only mountain range fully contained within the boundary of a national park. It is easy to drive around them to find scenic backgrounds for photos with desert vegetation. Good distant views from the west can be had from the Sotol Vista Overlook to the Castolon/Santa Elena Junction. Less than a one-hour drive away, the stretch of road from Panther Junction to Dugout Wells provides distant views from the east. Along the beginning of the road to Chisos Basin, you’ll find more agaves than at lower elevation.

Colorful prickly pear cactus in bloom and Chisos Mountains. Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA.
Colorful prickly pear cactus in bloom and Chisos Mountains. Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA.

South Rim

The South Rim of the Chisos Mountains offers by far the most spectacular panoramic views in the park. From there, the desert below stretches as far as the eye can see into Mexico.  The South Rim Trail is 13 miles RT, with an elevation gain of 2000 feet. As the light is often quite flat mid-day, I recommend camping overnight on the top of the rim to catch both the early morning and late evening light. There are some flat spots close to the rim. Agaves and cactus on the rim can form interesting foregrounds, but they are not everywhere!

The Chisos are much cooler than the surrounding desert, yet during the summer the temperatures are still too high to enjoy such a long hike, and thunderstorms may present a hazard on the ridge. When I visited in mid-November, the temperatures were perfect. Winter can bring sub-freezing temperatures to the mountains. From February to July the southern part of the trail is usually closed for peregrine falcon breeding season, which would limit your explorations.

For a half-day hike from the Chisos Basin with panoramic views, the Lost Mine Trail would be the best choice. The entire trail is 4.5 miles RT, 1,200 feet elevation gain, but just at the first mile, you’ll find a good overlook over the East Rim. Start early, as light is better in the morning.

Agaves on South Rim overlooking desert mountains. Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA.
Agaves on South Rim overlooking desert mountains. Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA.

See more Images of Big Bend National Park

QT Luong’s website

QT Luong is a full-time photographer from California, known for being the first to photograph all 59 US National Parks – in large format.  Ken Burns featured him in “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” (2009).  His photographs, published in dozens of countries around the world, have been the subject of the two large-format books “Beautiful North America” and “Spectacular Yosemite”, several magazine profiles, and solo gallery and museum exhibits.

 

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QT Luong is a full-time photographer from California, known for being the first to photograph all 59 US National Parks - in large format. Ken Burns featured him in "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" (2009). His photographs, published in dozens of countries around the world, have been the subject several magazine profiles, solo gallery and museum exhibits. He the author and photographer of "Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey through America's National Parks" (treasuredlandsbook.com), a large format book where photographs of the 59 US National Parks are augmented with detailed photography locations notes from which this series of articles is drawn.

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