Pandemic, ample hotel rooms prompt surge of visitors to BBNP

“They all want to hike the Lost Mine trail, where there’s 20 parking spots," a park spokesperson said of new visitors to Big Bend National Park. "They all go to the Cottonwood Store in Study Butte.”

BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK — 2020 may not have been a record-breaking year for visitors at Big Bend National Park. Around 334,000 people visited from January through November, with park officials still waiting on final December numbers. That’s lower than the total numbers for 2016 (around 388,000), 2017 (440,000) and 2019 (463,000).

But last year’s visitor numbers are still striking if “you read between the lines,” said park spokesperson Tom Vandenberg. The park closed for around three months due to coronavirus, including in the middle of a peak busy season in March. But the park had already seen around 60,000 visitors when it closed around the middle of the month — well over half its usual March total of around 80,000 visitors. “We were on track for a record March,” Vandenberg said.

Meanwhile, for at least five other months in 2020 — in February, June, September, October and November — the park broke its monthly records for visitors. The same could well be true for December, once the final tallies are in.

“It was epic,” Vandenberg said of the holiday rush this year, as tourists streamed in from across the state and country to spend Christmas and New Years among the remote Chisos Mountains. The park entrance at times was getting around 1000 cars today, compared to 600 cars a day in what would normally be “a big, big day,” he said. At one point around Christmas, park officials had to close the road to Chisos Basin to cope with the traffic. The road was inundated with cars, with nearly all parking spots gone before 9 a.m.

Big Bend National Park has seen a steady rise in visitors since 2016, as the National Park Service celebrated its 100th anniversary and put out public-service announcements intending to draw new people to national parks. After that, “Big Bend was discovered, I think, in a big way,” Vandenberg said. “Our numbers went up quite a bit.”

Visitors started pouring in from big Texas cities like Houston and Dallas — and in a change from previous visitation trends, the park started seeing “many, many first-time visitors.”

“That’s kind of new,” Vandenberg said with a laugh. “Big Bend is a park where most of our visitors had typically been here before — many times.” But lately, the park is seeing “a lot of people that frankly have never been anywhere this remote in their lives.” For some, it was their first time camping.

Last year — at least when the park was open — Big Bend experienced a “COVID bump” of around 25% more visitations. Vandenberg attributes those rising numbers to a couple factors.

As coronavirus ripped across the country last year, many Americans yearned for nature and wide-open spaces over cramped city living. The pandemic, Vandenberg said, “maybe spurred people to think, ‘We’ve just got to get out of the city.’” He noticed a particularly high number of visitors from Houston, a city with “big COVID impacts.”

For another, Vandenberg said, the growth of the local hotel and short-term rental industry is attracting people who might fancy a day hike in Big Bend over a rugged camping experience. Many new visitors, he said, were now staying at rooms in Terlingua rather than in the park itself.

“That was always kind of a limiting factor — places to stay,” Vandenberg said. But more people than ever are now “staying outside the park and coming in for the day,” and that has “changed our visitation patterns.”

Houstonians and Dallasites might imagine Big Bend National Park as a wide-open expanse with few other people. But as visitors streamed into the park throughout the pandemic, and park workers grappled at times with huge surges in car traffic, that wasn’t always the reality.

Asked whether visitors had gotten the pandemic experience they were looking for — was social distancing a real possibility at the national park in 2020? — Vandenberg was equivocal.

“That’s not realistic with most visitors,” particularly new ones, he said. “They all want to hike the Lost Mine trail, where there’s 20 parking spots. They all go to the Cottonwood Store in Study Butte.” On the other hand, longtime visitors to the park know where the crowded places are — and where to avoid. “They can have whole trails and whole sections of the park all to themselves.”