The Big Bend of the Rio Grande ; a guide to the rocks, landscape, geologic history, and settlers of the area of Big Bend National Park

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Maxwell, Ross A.

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University of Texas at Austin. Bureau of Economic Geology


The scene is set. According to Indian legend, when the Great Creator made the earth and had finished placing the stars in the sky, the birds in the air, and the fish in the sea, there was a large pile of rejected stony materials left over. Finished with His job, He threw this into one heap and made the Big Bend. The rocks are strangely mixed up; most of the strata are lopsided or standing on end, and some of the mountains are turned upside down and piled where they do not appear to fit. Along the Rio Grande are deep, yawning canyons, and above them are mountain peaks that rise above the flats like giant sentinels. The Chisos Mountains, with their ghost-like peaks, guard the northern approach to the river, and the Sierra del Carmen range, overlooking the southern bank, rises as a sheer wall to heights that dwarf the Palisades of the Hudson. Mexicans and Anglo-Saxons both have taken part in settling the area. In the early days, large herds of cattle moved about on a free range, dependent upon the location of grass and water; herds were driven in both directions across the Rio Grande without regulations imposed by either government. The big adventures in the settling of this vast frontier area are over, but history here is only yesterday and is close enough to intrigue both tourists and local inhabitants. It was the idea of preserving the area with its unique traditions that led to the proposal in 1935 to set aside as a National Park the southern portion of the Big Bend country, which was purchased by the State of Texas and deeded to the Federal government. Because of the immensity of the area and the inaccessibility of parts of it, tourists cannot hope to explore the Big Bend completely. But the adventuresome and scenery-loving traveler will be captured by the spell of the place on just a short excursion into the area. The name Big Bend is somewhat loosely applied to the area surrounded on three sides by the Rio Grande, where this great river swings deeply southward into Mexico approximately halfway in its course between El Paso and Laredo. The Rio Grande also marks the boundary between the United States of Mexico and the United States of America. All of the area in Brewster and Presidio counties south of the Southern Pacific Railway is commonly considered as the Big Bend country. Big Bend National Park lies within the southernmost tip of the area and is only a portion of the Big Bend country (fig. 1). The Park includes both lowland and mountain environments; it was selected for a National Park because of scenery, geologic features, and the display of southwestern plant and animal communities. Big Bend National Park includes 708,281 acres of federally-owned land; it is not completely developed. There are no railroads, and only recently has it been served by paved highways. It is a harsh land. Although there are many canyons, broad stream valleys, and great cobble-choked arroyos, only a few are permanently occupied by running water. Most of them are mainly the result of past erosion in a wetter time. The present terrain gives the impression that when Mother Nature had finished cutting the canyons and carving the many topographic features, she turned off the water supply.


To obtain a print version of this publication visit: and search for: GB0007. Panoramic photograph, diagram of geologic cross section, and 3 maps in pocket

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