Terra Galleria Photography

Big Bend National Park: Rio Grande River

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Big Bend National Park, named after the prominent northward bend in the Rio Grande River, has three distinctive environments: the Chisos Mountains, the desert, and the river. During my previous visit, I spent most of my time in the Chisos Mountains, where the temperatures are much cooler than in the rest of the park. Since this time the desert wasn’t in great shape, I concentrated on the great river.

I returned to the Hot Springs, that I had visited a decade and half ago under overcast skies (this was all I got). Conditions were more promising. As the light of sunset was quickly fading, I scrambled to find a good perspective over the Rio Grande River. The view along the trail to the Hot Springs, at river level, was obscured by vegetation, but I found another steep trail which lead to above the cliffs.

The parking lot had signs warning of frequent car break-ins, due to the proximity of Mexico – just across the River. I nevertheless set up my camera for a timelapse sequence, then left it there all night, figuring out that nobody would come upon the bluff at that time.

In the morning, after photographing sunrise near the Chisos, I came back to retrieve my camera around 7am. The early morning backlight gave the scene a different character.

At the Boquillas Overlook, I saw how easy it is to cross the border between Mexico and the US, which is marked by the river. The Rio Grande is the fifth longest river in the US, but you would not know it is a great river from looking at it here, as it meanders placidly amongst willows. You had just to wade for about 50 yards with the water at less than waist level.

The border officially closed after the 9/11 attacks, nevertheless Mexican nationals from the Boquillas village frequently took quick trips to this side, possibly to maintain the self-service vending spots. Note that although the border itself is porous, all the highways leading from Big Bend National Park are interrupted by checkpoints.

Most trailheads had honor system stands with hand crafted wares sold (at a pretty uniform price) to benefit schoolchildren of Boquillas: bracelets, scorpions made of metal wire, sticks made of cactus wood, and stones.

I walked into the Boquillas Canyon. A man stood on the other side of the river, and would sing you a Mexican serenade for a tip collected by his acolyte using a small boat. I declined to be serenaded, but instead promised to buy some souvenirs for my kids. The temperature was well over 100 F. I drove to the Chisos mountains to cool down, then headed towards Santa Elena Canyon through the Ross Maxwell drive.

I had planned some night photography at the Santa Elena Canyon, but shortly after I arrived, a violent thunderstorm broke out. I waited it out in the car as thunder rumbled at 30 second intervals. By the time the storm was weakening, the road through which I came had become flooded. In the pitch dark night, I chose prudence by staying at the trailhead rather than attempting to drive to the official campground.

In the morning, I found out that Terlinga Creek was overflowing. Since the banks appeared to be full of quick sand and I was by myself with nobody around, I did not try to cross. Instead, I photographed the sunrise over Santa Elena Canyon across the creek. The seemingly modest river had carved a narrow gorge 1,500 feet deep into sheer cliffs.

As I was packing, a ranger drove by. He was surprised that I had made it there. After I told him that I had arrived before the storm, he informed me that the floodwaters were now quite high, and suggested that I abandon my vehicle and get a ride back in his truck. This wasn’t exactly my plan. Instead, I insisted on trying to get back by driving the rental car. I put my camera gear and electronics into his truck, in case the 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 the mud stuck to the car, then headed to El Paso airport and home.

More images of Big Bend National Park
More images of Rio Grande River

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One Comment

  1. Ah, that brings back some memories. This is a very interesting series of images with some great stories too. I can’t believe you just left your camera on the bluff overnight! I guess that’s what lots of good karma lets you do 🙂

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