Exploring Big Bend Country and its Geological Connection to the Appalachian Mountains

We nervously negotiated the famous “Rock Slide” rapid using a photo on my phone I’d snapped of a guidebook page depicting the run.

Golden grasses shimmer in the light breeze as I crunch along the gravel trail through scraggly woods of piñon pine and juniper. And then, after 6 miles of steady, sweaty uphill effort, I break out of the trees onto the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains. An extraordinary panorama of Big Bend country stretches out before me, sweeping over the precipice wall and across the West Texas desert to the great river that defines the Mexican frontier.

The hike began hours ago and far below in the Chisos Basin, beneath the shadowy walls of Casa Grande, one of most iconic natural features of Big Bend National Park. And now, here at 7,400 feet, my gaze is fixed on the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon—another famous face of the park—20 miles away over the Chihuahuan Desert foothills and flats, where the Rio Grande River emerges from between 1,500-foot limestone walls on its sinuous journey to the Gulf of Mexico.

Although I only imagine the Rio Grande glinting in the sunlight, I can still trace the river’s course, its international line separating the US from Mexico, from Mesa de Anguilla to the Sierra del Carmen, which rise to nearly 9,000 feet at the obvious thumb-like summit of El Pico. Nearer the rim, the Elephant Tusk, an eroded black volcanic plug, rises prominently out of the folded terrain, while the sliver of Fresno Creek shines silver, a welcome sign of a wet winter.

Stepping closer, a scuffed pebble skitters to the edge and over, into the void below, accentuating the wild feel of this airy stance with its grandstand view. One of those true on-top-of-the-world, I-can-see-almost-forever vistas, akin to Clouds Rest in Yosemite, Death Valley’s Telescope Peak, along the Tonto Platform in the Grand Canyon, or Katahdin in the North Maine Woods, this long-awaited place is every bit as awe-inspiring as I had imagined.

More than just a scenic view, physical evidence of the great natural forces that have shaped the Big Bend landscape over more than 500 millennia is on full display from this remote spot. Standing there with my backpack still on, leaning on trekking poles, I look, playing amateur geologist, trying to make sense of the mountain building periods of thrusting and folding, the advance and retreat of inland seas, the volcanic eruptions and vertical faulting, the erosion.

Somewhere in the park information tucked in my pack, this place is described as both a geologist’s paradise and nightmare. The complexities of the discipline beyond this hiker’s pay grade, I can certainly appreciate that there’s a lot here visually to digest. For now, though, the immense beauty is enough, and I meander on to find my designated campsite, a cozy affair nestled in the brush just a stone’s throw from the rim.

That evening, cup of tea in hand and feet over the lip as I watch the sun sink, I am innocent of a particularly astounding fact of natural history invisible to the naked eye here, something I won’t discover until later in my relationship with the Big Bend: Far beneath me, deep in the Earth’s crust, lies an ancient geological connection to the Appalachian Mountains, my home state of Maine, the provinces of Atlantic Canada and across the Atlantic Ocean to parts of Western Europe and North Africa.

A Bird’s Eye View of Big Bend Country

First protected in 1933 as Texas Canyons State Park, it would take nearly a decade of land acquisitions, fundraising campaigns and political wrangling before Big Bend National Park, the first national park in Texas, would be officially established and opened to the public in 1944. Today, the park, the 15th largest in the US, protects 801,000 acres of biologically diverse terrain in the region along the great namesake U-turn of the Rio Grande River.

The famous “Big Bend” is home to nearly 1,300 different types of plant life, 75 species of mammals and over 450 species of birds, plus thousands of insect species, and more than 100 species of amphibians, reptiles and fish. And each year, some 450,000 human visitors, about half of them from Texas, call the park home for at least a short while.

The Chisos Mountains are the centerpiece of the park, a cool green island in the sky oasis that tops out at 7,832 feet on Emory Peak, the highest among a dozen or so named mountaintops ringing the Chisos Basin, a large topographical depression at the range’s heart. The southernmost extension of the Rocky Mountains, the Chisos is the only mountain range in the US located entirely within the confines of a single national park.

Surrounding the Chisos and hemmed in by moisture-blocking mountains on three sides and high plains on the fourth is a vast expanse of Chihuahuan Desert, which accounts for the lion’s share of the park’s acreage. The largest and most representative example of this arid ecotype in the US, the Chihuahuan Desert is one of four major desert systems in the country, along with the Mojave, Sonoran and Great Basin deserts.

The park’s entire southern boundary is defined by the Rio Grande River, the youngest major river system in the US. The 118-mile riparian corridor, shared with neighboring Mexico, features three impressive canyons, Santa Elena, Mariscal and Boquillas, in that order from Lajitas eastward. A land of extremes, the low point of the park on the eastern boundary and quite often the hottest is at Rio Grande Village at 1,850 feet.

Complementing Big Bend National Park is its rugged neighbor immediately to the west, the 300,000-acre Big Bend Ranch State Park. Once one of the 15 largest private ranches in the US at about half the size of the state of Rhode Island, the ranch was purchased by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department in 1988 and fully opened to the public in 2007. This largest state park in Texas protects a great swath of Chihuahuan Desert across the Bofecillos Mountains, including the striking collapsed volcanic dome known as the Solitario, as well as a long stretch of the Rio Grande River between Lajitas and Presidio.

Big Bend National Park hosts some 200 miles of trails, more than 200 frontcountry campsites and 116 backcountry campsites, while Big Bend Ranch State Park features 230 miles of multi-use trails and over 50 remote and backcountry campsites, all a veritable treasure trove of outstanding opportunities for hikers, backpackers and campers alike looking to enjoy some of the most stunning wilderness anywhere in the world.

A Personal Connection to the Big Bend

My connection to West Texas dates to the summer of 1979. Just two months before I was to enter my freshman year at the University of Maine, my parents announced that they were transitioning into semi-retirement and moving to El Paso, Texas, where my father had conducted business over the years. Cool, I thought. Most kids leave home and go away to college, but I would have just the opposite experience.

The move worked out famously for my folks, and I enjoyed visiting sunny far West Texas every semester break and for years after, extensively wandering about the local Franklin Mountains, the Guadalupe Mountains and the Organ Mountains just over the state line in New Mexico. Big Bend, however, eluded me, always just out of reach, even from El Paso.

Decades later, in April 2010, my wife, Fran, and I flew from Portland, Maine, to Dallas with two duffle bags loaded with hiking, camping and paddling gear. We grabbed a rental car, visited my mother (who now lived in Fort Worth), rummaged through her garage for camp chairs, coolers and a propane stove and barreled through the hill country and high plains of Central Texas, bound for Big Bend 500 miles distant.

Fran had guided summer whitewater rafting trips for an outfitter in Tennessee back in the early 90s, and for several winters traveled to Big Bend to work on the Rio Grande River. Falling in love with the place, she bought 20 dusty acres in the old ghost town of Terlingua just west of the national park. Now here I was, about to get my own personally guided tour of this grand landscape, an action-packed week-long adventure made that much more exciting by the wild weather that swept down the spine of the Rockies to engulf the Big Bend in a series of storms.

We paddled the Rio Grande River in low flatwater punctuated by exciting 90-degree wall shots requiring some fancy maneuvering. Camp that evening was on a sandbar in the river’s middle, maybe in the US, maybe not. The next day we entered the depths of Santa Elena Canyon, the foreboding river now swollen and boiling with rainwater from the waves of violent overnight thunderstorms.

Our river map suddenly AWOL, we nervously negotiated the famous “Rock Slide” rapid using a photo on my phone I’d snapped of a guidebook page depicting the run, which I just happened to capture in the outfitter’s store where we rented the boat. Go figure. With a quick series of pry and draw strokes, we shot through the Texan Gate to safety and were soon floating happy and free through the tilted limestone blocks, reaching the sunlight at the mouth of Terlingua Creek in midafternoon, and soon after, the takeout.

Tenting in the Chisos Basin, the place lived up to its name when a torrential 5 inches of rain—nearly half a year’s worth for this region—fell in just two hours and flooded our campsite. After drying out the next morning, we climbed into the Chisos over Pinnacles Pass, scampered up Emory Peak, sauntered through Boot Canyon and pitched camp on the Southwest Rim, only to have another monster storm blow through and flatten our little tent.

A reprieve of several sunny days followed, and we enjoyed a series of great day hikes, down to the Window and up Lost Mine Trail, into Cattail Falls and out to the Mule Ears, and to the upper and lower pouroffs on Burro Mesa. Time was finally up for this trip, but now irrevocably hooked on this fascinating place, my time at Big Bend was only just beginning.

I have since returned five times to the Big Bend, for months and not weeks, exploring more than 200 miles of trails in the national park and the state park, the latter a new favorite since I discovered the Contrabando system of trails and old wagon paths and the Rancherias backcountry loop. And, no surprise, there’s much more to see and do.

A Geological Connection

For many years, as far as this Mainer was concerned, the Appalachian Mountains extended geographically from Georgia to Maine. When I first thru-hiked the 2,100-mile length of the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain to Katahdin in 1977, I figured I had covered the 14 states of the great range from end to end, and with that, I didn’t give the matter much more thought.

The International Appalachian Trail was conceived in 1993 by Dick Anderson, the former commissioner of Maine’s Department of Conservation. With the help of conservation advocates Don Hudson, Chloe Chunn and Dick Davies, the plan took shape, and was announced to the public in 1994 by Joe Brennan, the former Maine governor. That’s when I learned that the Appalachian Mountains didn’t really end in Maine, but extended well into Canada.

In 1997, John Brinda became the first person to thru-hike the new IAT, from the eastern slope of Katahdin through northern Maine to Mars Hill, across northern New Brunswick, then along the high peaks of the Chic-Choc Mountains to Cap Gaspé in Quebec. By 2003, the IAT was extended to the tip of Newfoundland at Crow Head, the natural northern terminus of the Appalachian Mountains in North America.

It wasn’t enough for the dreamers among the IAT group to stop at an 1,800-mile trail through Maine and three Canadian provinces, however. By 2009, plans were under way to extend the IAT even further, this time across the Atlantic Ocean.

Somewhere among the geography lessons you and I sat through in grade school, we learned about the supercontinent of Pangea, formed some 250 million years ago when the Earth’s continental plates collided to form a continuous land mass. The Appalachian Mountains were created from this great collision, making them the oldest mountains on the planet.

When Pangea began to split apart 230 million years ago, mountain building ceased as the North American continent drifted northward and the six other continents settled into their respective positions on the globe. This event left remnants of the Appalachian Mountains not only along the Eastern Seaboard of the US and Canada, but in parts of Western Europe and North Africa as well.

It’s little wonder then that the concept of the IAT as not only an international but an intercontinental trail has been actively pursued over the past decade. Incredibly, today there are now new sections of the IAT not only in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, Canada, but in Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, England, France, Spain, Portugal and Morocco, all locations of the ancient Appalachians.

Which brings this story back to Texas.

In December 2015, two months after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for a second time, I traveled back to Big Bend National Park, about 2,400 road miles from Maine and, as the crow flies, 1,200 miles west of the southern section of the Appalachians. Poking around the visitor center at Panther Junction, I gravitated from the books, maps and souvenirs to the natural history exhibits. And there I made an astonishing discovery, at least to me.

With great interest, I read that a natural extension of the Appalachian Mountains once towered above the Big Bend region, created by the same continental forces that formed Pangea. Known as the Ouachita Mountains, they snaked through what is now Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and into Mexico. The only exposed remains of this range today are found in Arkansas, Oklahoma and the Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas, in the Marathon Basin near the north end of Big Bend National Park and at the Solitario in Big Bend State Park.

That’s amazing, I muttered to myself, wondering if the IAT folks knew about this.

With the breakup of Pangea, 100 million years of erosion followed, reducing the Ouachita Mountains to a broad plain of rubble. The Cretaceous Sea covered the region, then disappeared, and the Big Bend became a region of brackish lagoons and fertile lowlands that supported animal life, including several dinosaur species.

With the collision of an undersea plate and North America, thrusting and faulting occurred next, which caused numerous mountain ranges to form, including the Rocky Mountains. Subduction, the edge of one crustal plate descending below the edge of another, ushered in eons of volcanic activity, followed by basin and range faulting, which created parallel blocks of mountains and valleys. Finally, over the last 100 million years, weathering and erosion have transformed the geologic face of Big Bend country into what is visible today.

The exhibits—a lot to process—had me a bit dazed. I stepped outside into the warm sunlight, looked out over the great expanse of Chihuahuan Desert before me, and armed with my newfound knowledge of what lay below the surface, considered the possibilities.

One day, I thought, perhaps the IAT folks might look to expand westerly along this southern extension of the old Appalachians, perhaps linking existing paths like the Pinhoti Trail in Alabama, the Ozark Highlands Trail in Arkansas and the Lone Star Trail in East Texas with the Big Bend. Big trail visionaries—think Benton MacKaye, Myron Avery, Dick Anderson, to name just a few—have a knack for turning such dreams into reality on the ground, making the notion of a super-continental hiking trail route connecting the mountains—and people—from Morocco to Maine to the Big Bend maybe not so far-fetched at all.

With that pleasant thought, I sauntered off to watch the sun set on another fine winter’s day and ponder the next glorious hike in the Big Bend. With every future footstep through this wild desert country, I understood now that I was physically connected, and perhaps on an even deeper level, spiritually linked too, to my beloved Appalachians, a bond I suspected would only grow stronger with time.

Photo: David Anderson