Like Indiana Jones, the lure of adventure gnawed at Dad. Big Bend National Park’s desolate, rough terrain dotted with cacti, stunning mountain peaks and a peaceful winding river lured him out of Dallas. Dad had seen some spectacular photographs of the park in a book and wasted no time. The next thing we knew, Mom, Dad and I had hightailed it southwest to Big Bend for some exploration.
We weren’t disappointed, especially Dad. Big Bend National Park’s sweeping vistas and meandering river gave him plenty of Western and landscape photos over the next 20 years.
Big Bend sits on the border of Texas and Mexico in far southwest Texas. It really is in the middle of nowhere. The park stretches for 801,163 acres that appear devoid of any type of life. But a closer look reveals a Chihuahuan Desert teaming with plants, animals and insects, some of which you want to avoid and others that are fascinating to capture in a photo. And nothing can beat the intense reds, oranges and yellows that burst across the Chisos Mountains at sunset in Big Bend.
In fact, one of Dad’s earliest adventures produced the image “Roper at Sunset”. He and the model hiked about six miles climbing with photo and camping gear to the 2,000-foot South Rim. Dad knew he wanted the roping cowboy to be a silhouette in front of a gorgeous, layered mountain sunset. He was certain the South Rim was the right spot. Sure enough everything came together that evening when the rich colors burst over the mountains. Dad had his photo and enjoyed a nice evening camping on the mountain.
Dad thought everything came together nicely. When he returned to Dallas, it was clear not everything was working in the photo. He didn’t like the way the rope hung in the air and the cowboy’s movements. A novel type of software gave Dad some exciting new options photographers would come to love. He removed the original roper from the photo and replaced him with the current cowboy using Photoshop. The software also allowed him to add more layers of mountains in the background. It was a brave new world in photography. His success with “Roper at Sunset” would spur Dad to use Photoshop to produce other images from Big Bend.
The next time Dad returned to the park, he managed to capture another sunset over the Rio Grande. It was an opportunistic moment. While doing a photo shoot with two models on the South Rim, Dad noticed a storm building up over the distant mountain range and quickly switched modes to take a landscape picture. It would become his image called “Rio Grande”.
Back at the studio, Dad decided the river needed a focal point. Always one to study great artists, he remembered a painting with a fur trapper on the river in a canoe. He decided “Rio Grande” needed a canoe to give the photo a little punch. Without further ado, Dad shot a floating canoe in Dallas and then used to Photoshop to add it to the Big Bend image.
Perhaps his most challenging Western image was “Big Bend Country”. Dad had shot the cowboys and cattle at the Goemmer Ranch in Colorado. But he needed a dramatic background. He remembered a desolate area near the Cottonwood Campgrounds at Big Bend that would be perfect. He hit the road and photographed the mountain peaks. Then he threw in a bit of dust for good measure.
The trick to blending this photo with the Colorado cowboys was the dirt. Some of the dust coming off the horses and cattles’ hooves was part of the cowboys’ photo. But Dad also needed some dust from Big Bend to make the scene believable.
He got the dust by creating a special hoof-shaped tool that his assistant used to hit the ground, stirring up the dust. The tool was encased in blue screen, a fabric that is used in the movies. Special software detects the blue color and efficiently cuts it out as if it had never been there. So when you look at Dad’s photo all you see is the dust, not the tool. And, yes, there were two colors of dirt naturally occurring in the Big Bend half of the photo.
“Big Bend Country” was one of Dad’s earlier creations using Photoshop. It was, at that point, one of the most complicated images he’d produced. It made him pretty happy because it was a major effort.
As you can see Big Bend National Park played a major role in Dad’s early Western and landscape photos.
“It was really a neat experience going there,” he said. “It was like an adventure movie because you might find caves or Indian artifacts or a mountain lion. You just never knew what kind of photos you’d take home after spending time in the park.”
Big Bend has a lot to offer Western, wildlife and landscape photographers. You can choose your own adventure. We definitely recommend a trip if you’re looking for inspiration and some outstanding images.
If You Go
Because of its extremely remote location, there are a number of things to consider before visiting Big Bend.
Weather: In the summer it’s broiling. May and June are the hottest months with temperatures in the high 90s to 100s. Hats, long sleeve shirts and sunscreen are a must. At any time during the rainy season of mid-June to October heavy rainstorms can crop up with lighting and flash floods. Winters aren’t too bad, but you should dress in layers and be ready for anything. Keep in mind that at the higher elevations, like the Chisos Mountains, there can be a significantly cooler temperature than down by the river.
Wildlife: The Park teams with birds, reptiles and mammals, which is great if you’re looking for wildlife photos. However, be aware that black bears, mountain lions, javelinas, coyotes and four types of rattlesnakes roam the land. While any of these critters can be a problem if cornered, we recommend being especially vigilant while hiking. Rattlesnakes are a dime a dozen while the other animals are less likely to be encountered. Creepy, crawlies also abound. Check shoes before putting them on and sleeping bags before settling down. Scorpions, spiders and centipedes love these cozy spots.
Roads: We can’t stress enough how remote the park really is. Therefore it’s a great idea to be prepared. Fill up your tank at the Rio Grande Village or Panther Junction before heading out. Take an extra tire or two in case you blow out on a dirt road while hunting the perfect photo location.
If you plan to explore the primitive dirt roads, two vehicles are better than one. These roads should be tackled only if you have 4WD. They can be very rocky or sandy depending on the area.
Make sure you bring lots of bottled water, snacks and a first aid kit in case you’re stuck in the desert during a heavy rainstorm or other situation. Ultimately you should take a survival kit with you.
Cell Phones: They may or may not work because of the isolated location. If you plan to do a lot of long hikes or visit the farthest reaches of the park, a satellite phone is a great idea. It can even save your life if something goes wrong.
Border Issues: Big Bend has its fair share of turmoil with criminals crossing into the US. If at all possible, avoid these folks and contact the local Border Patrol agent. Don’t pick up hitchhikers. Don’t make yourself a target. Travel with another person and make sure you don’t leave valuables in your vehicle or campsite. It’s also a great idea to check with park rangers at headquarters to learn about the latest risky or questionable areas within the park.
Despite these drawbacks, Big Bend National Park is a worthy adventure for any photographer. You just never know what kind of photographic treasure you’ll bring home.