Day Trips

Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park comes alive with wildlife during the winter months, but is enjoyable all year long

Leave the driving to us.
Leave the driving to us. (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, outside of Mission, explodes with activity during the winter months. Not only does the number of human visitors increase, but the wildlife population rises, too. It is no wonder that the World Birding Center is headquartered in the park on the banks of the Rio Grande.

"The weather, birds, and butterflies are our main attractions during the winter," says James Booker, park naturalist. "This is definitely our busy season." With daytime temperatures generally hovering around 70 degrees, the area attracts snow birds in recreational vehicles and migratory birds on the wing escaping Arctic blasts. Even birds from the mountains in Mexico will visit the park to take advantage of the tropical climate.

The 760-acre park is a wonderful place to visit any time of the year; it's just that during the fall and spring migrations and the months in between, the area hosts more species of birds than any other place in the U.S. The thick forest along the river seems to be teeming with birds and butterflies.

More than 300 bird species have been sighted in the brush along the river. Add to that hundreds of butterfly species, some of them extremely rare. A year ago, a Thick-Tipped Greta butterfly was spotted in the park, the first sighting in 100 years according to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists. Already this year volunteers have spotted the first U.S. sightings on record of four kinds of butterflies.

You don't have to be a birdwatcher or butterflier to enjoy the park. The fertile river valley and tropical weather combine to create an ecosystem found nowhere else in the U.S. Palm trees tower over desert cacti draped with Spanish moss. Without the near five miles of hiking trails, the forest would be almost impenetrable.

Booker says that the winter is a great time to see mammals in the park because they are more active during the daytime. Armadillos will change from being nocturnal during the cooler weather. The park also has several bobcat, coyote, and javalina – which have generally lost their bad tempers toward hikers, but not their shyness.

To get around the natural area, the park provides a tram that circles the area every 30 minutes during the day. Visitors can rent bicycles or bring their own to travel the paved roads. There are canoes for rent to explore or fish the resaca, an old cut-off river channel that has been refilled with water. The park staff also offers nature programs daily.

To learn the interesting story of birds on the North American continent, take a little time to explore the museum at the headquarters. The excellent displays in English and Spanish provide a simple education in ornithology and in the ecology of the Rio Grande Valley.

At one time, most of the Lower Rio Grande Valley looked like the lush woodlands of Bentsen State Park. Farming, industry, and urbanization destroyed much of the native ecosystem. Public and private efforts have preserved more than 1,700 acres of natural habitat along 120 miles of the river.

Bentsen State Park is the headquarters and only one part of a string of nine pearls of refuge land stretching from Roma to Brownsville and the Gulf Coast. Each offers its own unique wilderness experience and attractions. If you can only make it to one other site besides Bentsen State Park, Booker recommends not missing the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands. The 40-acre site has six acres of nature gardens that attract wildlife, especially in the evenings when a large number of birds come to roost at the park. "I would call it the 'cathedral' of the birding center," Booker says.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park is on the west side of Mission off of U.S. 83 at the end of Bentsen Palm Drive. No motorized vehicles, other than park vehicles, are allowed in the park. Visitors are welcome between 7am and 10pm for $5 per person. This is one of the few state parks that have an espresso machine in their snack bar. For more information, call 956/585-1107 or go to www.worldbirdingcenter.org or www.tpwd.state.tx.us. For information on the area, point your browser to www.missionchamber.com or www.rgvparks.com.


758th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, World Birding Center, James Booker, Thick-tipped Greta, Edinburg Scenic Wetlands

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