As the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, nature enthusiasts are hitting the trails in the 58 different national parks located in the United States. While many travelers opt for the popular sights of the Grand Canyon or Rocky Mountains, Outward Bound students will get to experience something a little different in Big Bend National Park, one of the U.S.’s least visited national parks.
Picture this: Three fully-loaded hiking backpacks fly through the hot, desert air, zooming towards the canyon floor. Suspended by a rope, the backpacks reach the bottom safely, landing in a pile. While the packs fly down on one rope, a separate rope bears the weight of a 15-year-old boy, rappelling down the canyon wall. Just a few days ago, this boy learned how to set up a tent for the first time. Now he’s able to keep his composure while descending into a desert canyon.
While inner transformation through outdoor adventure is a hallmark of all Outward Bound programs, the courses offered in Big Bend National Park give students an opportunity to learn in a completely unique landscape. Located near the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, far from large urban centers, Big Bend offers vistas unlike those found in any other national park. Dazzling sunsets over the wide-open desert sky; streaked, spectral canyons that rise dramatically over the Rio Grande; spiny cacti and scrub brush rolling out endlessly across the rocky dunescape. All of this, as well as more than 1,200 species of plants and over 500 animal species – can be found in Big Bend’s 1,200 square miles of desert wilderness.
Beautiful as it is, part of what makes Big Bend distinct are its elements of extremity. It is one of only ten locations in the world certified for dark-sky stargazing, and in fact has the darkest measured skies in the lower 48 states. Vegetation in the park includes resilient plants that have developed sophisticated tactics to survive extreme temperatures. The Mesquite tree, yucca and agave plants all have roots that can grow up to 160 feet long to reach water that lies well below the surface. Depending on the season, the daily temperature in Big Bend can fluctuate between freezing at night to over 100°F during the day.
This extreme environment may sound like an unlikely setting for an outdoor education program intended to teach students to successfully navigate through the wilderness while building inner character, but they flourish here. Outward Bound offers a variety of wilderness courses in Big Bend for 14 to 30 year-olds. This includes a 72-day semester course, a 30-day Pathfinder course, and the Intercept program, a life-changing 28-day wilderness expedition for struggling teens.
Wade Strauss, a former Outward Bound Instructor in Texas, notes that the remote, intense climate forces students to become self-aware and recognize how they’re moving through the world; balancing being in the present while also focusing on the bigger picture. According to Strauss, Big Bend is an ideal environment for following through with our mission to change lives through challenge and discovery.
You’re going into an unknown place [the desert] and also travelling inwardly into an unexpected experience that no picture or story or movie could demonstrate.
Our expeditions in Texas not only feature the unique setting of Big Bend National Park, they are also some of the only domestic Outward Bound courses that are so closely intertwined with another culture. The base camp for the Outward Bound Texas program is in a town called Redford, Texas, located less than a mile from the Rio Grande and U.S.-Mexico border. This tiny town of less than 100 people is a gateway to learning about Mexican and Mexican-American culture and has a profound effect on students who experience it through intercultural activities and service projects. Instructor Calvin Croll says one of his favorite memories working with Outward Bound was over dinner with a local family in Redford.
They were so welcoming, just happy to meet new people and share a meal. The kids ran around the outside kitchen while the adults shared stories of the desert that stretched out for miles around… It was a unique feeling I haven’t encountered before or since.
The national park system offers many options for venturing off the beaten path, but the largely untapped wilderness of Big Bend National Park provides something you won’t find in other places. As former Outward Bound Instructor Jessie Kushner puts it,
When you travel through Big Bend, you get the sense you’re walking through time.
This fall and winter, students will travel through Big Bend, discovering themselves in the process; constantly reminded of the words of founder Kurt Hahn: “There is more in us than we know.” Join us for any one of these desert adventures. Visit HERE for more details on course dates and activities.
To learn more about Outward Bound, visit www.outwardbound.org or call 866.467.7651 to speak to an admissions advisor today. With a rich selection of expeditions, a wide variety of age groups, stunning locations across the country, and courses that run throughout the year, there’s an Outward Bound expedition for everyone.
Sign-up for our newsletter to keep up on course options, resources, and special offers.