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Essential Friends: Friends of Big Bend National Park, Looking Forward While Preserving The Past

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Big Bend has some of the darkest night skies in the country, thanks in part to efforts by Friends of Big Bend to improve outdoor lighting systems. Tyler Nordgren photo.

Editor's note: Throughout the summer we're featuring national park friends groups from around the country to highlight the value they bring to the National Park System. Friends of Big Bend National Park constantly is involved with its namesake park, whether landing funds to improve interpretive exhibits or to help maintain trails. This is their story.

The foremost mission of the National Park Service is to preserve the units of the park system, but providing for public enjoyment and education through interpretation is never overlooked. Helping drive both those missions at Big Bend is Friends of Big Bend National Park, a group that one day could be sponsoring a road or trail run and the next day spending the proceeds from that race on maintaining trails in the park.

“With the ever-increasing squeeze on park budgets, we have been talking about long-term planning,” says Courtney Lyons-Garcia, executive director of the friends group. “We hope to grow this Trails Fund into an endowment that will eventually pay the park’s annual trail maintenance costs. We have just started it, but we feel confident that we can put $10,000 a year into this fund from the Ultra Run, which was just named Best Trail Run in a national park by Runner’s World magazine.”

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Big Bend’s prehistoric past comes to the surface under the careful work of permitted paleontologists / NPS.

Enhancing interpretation and the visitor’s experience of Big Bend is a primary goal of the friends group, which is bootstrapping a $1.1 million campaign for a Fossil Discovery Trail. This initiative is the most significant addition to Big Bend’s interpretive facilities in decades.

It will create an interpretive timeline that will traverse the various ancient environments— volcanic savannah, inland floodplain, coastal floodplain, and marine environment—that gripped this landscape down through the ages. Visitors will learn about these geologic periods and the park’s fossilized past as they stop at pavilions along the loop trail proposed for Tornillo Creek.

Through a combination of fossil replicas, interpretive text, artwork, geologic diagrams and viewing scopes set up in the pavilions, visitors will be able to make the connection between the fossilized remains from four eras and the geologic formations that exist in Big Bend today.


In the past, Friends of Big Bend also has provided more than $200,000 for an interpretive video at the park’s Panther Junction Visitor Center, and used income from sales of the friends group’s custom state license plates to fund wetlands restoration, and teacher education programs.

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Balanced Rocks, in Grapevine Mountains. Photo by QT Luong,

The non-profit organization also played a major role in protecting Big Bend’s night skies by helping to underwrite improved lighting systems at Panther Junction and in the Chisos Basin.

Representative of the crossboundary wonders Big Bend National Park shares with Mexico, the friends group also supports efforts to increase cross-border cooperation for the protection of the Chihuahuan Desert. In line with that, the friends group recently helped fund signage and staffing of the new Boquillas Border Crossing Station.

Through it all—running races, orientation films, fossil trails—Friends of Big Bend thrives on the passion of its supporters.


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Grapevine Mountains scenery, photo by QT Luong,

“The best thing about the Friends of Big Bend is that so many members are sincerely dedicated to the park,” says Ms. Lyons-Garcia. “In addition to funds, they provide donated images, in-kind services, and countless volunteer hours. The enthusiasm of those volunteers and contributors is what makes our events and publications a success and permits us to provide funds and services to the park.”

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Coming Sunday on the Traveler: Insider tips from Friends of Big Bend for exploring Big Bend National Park.

Coming next Wednesday: The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, Preserving The Parkway Down The Road

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BBNP is far from urban centers and those who venture out to it do so with a reverential awe. To me it is a spiritual place, nature's cathedral. There is no graffitti, no litter and no roaming hordes; hikers tread lightly and speak softly. The peace is palpable. If you need to escape the ever quickening pace and din of the modern world come to Big Bend.

Wow, what an eloquent testimonial Dennis. I have never been to BB, but you really made me want to go!

Nicely put, Dennis. I remember an extended period of perfect quiet in Santa Elena Canyon -- a major destination, but no one was there -- interrupted only by the wind rubbing two stalks of grass together about ten feet behind me. The night sky is amazing, too.

I'm impressed that the cooperative association for a remote park can raise so much money! Does anyone know how they do it?

When is the Boquillas crossing suppose to open?

It looks like a wonderful place the big bend park. I like your photos as well. Its time to explore this place!

Thanks for sharing.

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