Park ranger Rob Dean is almost ready to begin his twilight talk, conducted on the lodge’s balcony. About 40 people are gathered to listen to Dean — who has worked as a ranger here on and off since the 1980s — as he spills factoids about the park. Behind him, jagged mountains frame the view of the desert at sunset. The gap between the basin’s mountain peaks, where the sun is slowly sinking, is called the Window.
People have lived in the Chisos a long time. The mountains take their name after the Chizos Indians, as they are known — though they likely called themselves the Taquitatome —who lived in the area in the 16th century. The Chizos continued to live here through the 1700s, when they were displaced by Mescalero Apaches.
This land was more habitable the longer one goes back in history. There are signs of prehistoric settlement all over Big Bend, traces of the small Archaic-era bands who eked out a life despite the heat, aridness and hostile wildlife. Archaeologists have found their campsites all over the park and cave art still decorates canyon walls near the Rio Grande and in the mountains. “This is a landscape that is inhospitable,” Dean says. “It is a place that man, or I should say modern man, avoided for years.”
That changed in the 1800s when Mexicans and Americans tried to tame Big Bend, named after the crook in the Rio Grande where the park is located. “The common motive for people to move here? Profit,” says David Keller, senior project archaeologist at Sul Ross State University’s Center for Big Bend Studies in Alpine. “With cattle and quicksilver, it was a bonanza of an opportunity in the early days.”
Ranchers and storekeepers tried to lay roots here, then mercury (aka quicksilver) miners, cotton farmers and health gurus a short time later. “Once the railroad was established through and Indians were no longer a threat — both of these things occurred in the early 1880s — settlers came for the chance of a new life and economic prosperity,” says Andy Cloud, director of the Center for Big Bend Studies. “The land seemed immense and full of promise. Drought years followed, and that tempered things.”
Along with drought, the land was afflicted with cattle blights, banditry associated with the revolution in Mexico and decreased demand for mercury. By the 1940s, things were so dire that the government was able to close deals to buy land from 3,000 owners in just nine months, paying $2 an acre to each homesteader. (Today you can buy land just outside the park for about $250 an acre.) “I don’t think the National Park Service had any concerns about the local economy,” Keller says, “but certainly a lot of people who were instrumental in getting the park established did.”
Though Big Bend is the same size as Yosemite, it gets fewer than a tenth of the visitors, with 350,000 people visiting Big Bend in a typical year compared to Yosemite’s 4 million.
Indeed, the park is not much of a tourist draw: A three-hour drive south of the Midland International Airport, it is one of the least visited of the continental United States’ megaparks. Though Big Bend is the same size as Yosemite, it gets fewer than a tenth of the visitors, with 350,000 people visiting Big Bend in a typical year compared to Yosemite’s 4 million. “After the government bought the park, tourism was supposed to be the industry that brought people,” Dean says. “We’re still waiting.”