Big Bend National Park, the first national park in Texas, comprises more than 1,250 square miles (about the size of Rhode Island) in the Big Bend of the Rio Grande along more than 100 miles of the Texas-Chihuahua-Coahuila border southeast of El Paso in Brewster County. It has been described as a land of "killing heat and freezing cold; deadly drought and flash flood; arid lowland and moist mountain woodland; and a living river winding its way across the desert." The Rio Grande flows for 107 miles on the park's southern boundary, through Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas canyons, the deepest gorges on the river. In 1978 the United States Congress designated a 191-mile section of the Rio Grande a Wild and Scenic River, sixty-nine miles of which lie on the park boundary. Most Big Bend acreage is arid alluvial plains, the most representative example of the Chihuahuan Desert in North America. The Chisos Mountains, the southernmost range in the continental United States and completely enclosed in the park, rise over 7,800 feet above sea level. They support relict forests from the late Pleistocene era of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, Arizona cypress, quaking aspen, and bigtooth maple. The popular Basin, a topographic depression in the Chisos range, offers visitors a cool respite from the desert heat and spectacular panoramic vistas. Annual precipitation in the arid to semiarid climate ranges from five inches in the desert to twenty inches in the mountains. The National Park Service considers Big Bend "one of the outstanding geological laboratories and classrooms of the world." Geological processes readily visible at the park are sedimentation, deformation, and volcanism. Recovered fossil forms of ancient plants and animals include a bivalve three feet wide and four feet long, the largest known pterosaur (a flying dinosaur), and the skull of a chamosaurus, a horned dinosaur, all of which help make Big Bend an invaluable resource for paleontological research and preservation.
The topographical and climatic extremes provide habitats for a varied flora and fauna, including over 1,000 species of plants, 78 mammals, 56 reptiles, 10 amphibians, 35 fish, and 434 birds (more than any other United States park and more than half the species of birds in North America). Endangered species found at Big Bend are the peregrine falcon, black-capped vireo, Mexican long-nosed bat, and Big Bend gambusia (a tiny fish found only in the park). There are several species in the United States that can only be found in Big Bend: Del Carmen white-tail deer, colima warbler, Mexican drooping juniper. The Chisos agave lives nowhere else in the world. In 1976 the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization designated Big Bend a "Man and the Biosphere" international reserve, one of only twenty-eight in the United States. Cooperative research and educational programs subsequently began with Mexico. Although human beings came late, the park contains archeological and historical sites representing more than 10,000 years of inhabitants, including Jornado Mogollón, Jumanos, Chisos, Mescalero Apache, and Comanche Indians; Spanish explorers and missionaries; and farming, ranching, mining, and military activities of the last two centuries. Nine National Register archeological and historic sites or districts document the Indian and Anglo-Mexican presence at Castolon Historic District (trading post), Hot Springs Historic District (recreational and therapeutic springs), Mariscal Mining District, Homer Wilson Ranch Site, Rancho Estelle, Luna's Jacal (a Mexican goatherd's abode), Burro Mesa Archaeological Site, and two additional archeological sites. There are also exhibits in the visitor centers as well as recreational opportunities, including hiking, river rafting, horseback riding, birding, and back-country camping. Park Service staff schedule interpretive programs throughout the year.
The legislative history of the park began in 1933, when the Texas legislature inaugurated Texas Canyons State Park on fifteen sections of land in the vicinity of Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas canyons on the Rio Grande in southern Brewster County. Later that year the name was changed to Big Bend State Park and the Chisos Mountains were added to the park acreage. The National Park Service investigated the site in January 1934 and recommended establishment of both a Civilian Conservation Corps camp and a national park. The NPS regarded Big Bend as "decidedly the outstanding scenic area of Texas." President Franklin D. Roosevelt took a personal interest in Big Bend because of a proposed international, or companion, park in Mexico (still being discussed decades later). The United States Congress passed the enabling legislation on June 20, 1935, stipulating that acquisition of the park acreage "shall be secured...only by public and private donations." By 1942 most of the land was purchased with a $1.5 million appropriation from the Forty-seventh Texas Legislature. Although several thousand acres remained in private hands, the park opened to the public in 1944. In 1972 the Congress appropriated $300,375 for the last 8,561.75 acres, finally placing the entire original park area of 708,118.40 acres in federal ownership. Subsequent additions have increased the park acreage to 801,163.02 acres, of which 776,693.22 acres are federal land.
In 1944 the park had a staff of five and received a modest appropriation of $15,000. That first year only 1,409 people visited Big Bend. Visitors averaged more than 230,000 annually from 1981 to 1990; in 1976, a record 456,201 visited Big Bend. The appropriation likewise has increased. In the 1990s it exceeded $2.5 million annually. The park has more than 100 full-time staff positions supplemented by temporary employees, interns, and volunteers. Development of the isolated desert park has evolved slowly. Mission 66, a decade-long project begun in the 1950s to upgrade a neglected national-park system that had suffered through inadequate funding during World War II and the Cold War, pumped $14 million into Big Bend for roads, bridges, trails, campsites, and a lodge, restaurant, and cabins in the Chisos Basin. The NPS, however, has never advocated extensive improvements. The vast majority of the park acreage is managed as natural zones to "remain largely unaltered by human activity."