Bluebonnets in Big Bend National Park don’t come around very often. In the last 15 years of my visiting the park in search of this west Texas version of the state wildflower, I haven’t seen too many blooms. I’m not an old-timer just yet, though I am approaching that status more quickly than I’d like. But in my time visiting this destination park, I’ve never seen a bloom that could equal the 2019 bluebonnet spring. I visited with locals, park rangers, and a few photographers I met on location and we all agreed this was potentially a once-in-a-lifetime bloom.
Big Bend has its own unique species of bluebonnet,Lupinus havardii, and it is slightly different than the more familiar blue flower known in the Hill Country and central Texas. It can grow up to three feet in height and is a bit sturdier, as well. In the past years when bluebonnets were present, I’ve found these blooms along the roadsides and occassionally in a few of the washes just off the main roads. They usually appear in mid-February in the lower desert elevations. In good years, a few weeks later the blooms often appear along the roads skirting the Chisos Mountains, higher in elevation, and sometimes linger until early March.
I was fortunate to spend several days in Big Bend during the third week of February, 2019, free to explore, scout, and photograph whatever I came across. The reports of the desert bloom appeared to be pretty positive, and when I arrived, I was really at a loss to describe the patterns of blue that stretched up the washes and tumbled down the slopes on the east and west sides of the park. Many miles down East River Road, small hillsides were full of bluebonnets. On the west side near Tuff Canyon, bluebonnets held to the edges of the canyon. Further below the iconic Cerro Castellon, desert waves of blue stretched a mile to the south.
After spending one full day scouting for sunrise and sunset locations, trekking across the desert and climbing plateaus that offered amazing views (and logging 10+ miles of off-trail hiking and exploring), opportunities for unique vantage points became apparent, and in this particular spring, bluebonnets at the peak of their bloom anchored the foreground.
My nemesis in the golden hours of my trip became the wind. In the soft light, the bluebonnet stems and petals waved gently in the breeze, but in longer exposures appeared blurry. I’ll avoid getting technical here, but the constant breeze forced me to take several layers of each image with different focal points, moving from immediate foreground to distant peaks. Sometimes, I’d shoot 6 or 7 different images in an attempt to have the entire photograph sharp from front to back. While this works, it is a long and tedious process. Still, a few beautiful sunrises and sunsets made the process worthwhile, and I’m pleased with the results. Of course, I’m always left wanting a few more days.
The bluebonnet bloom in February of 2019 in Big Bend National Park was spectacular, and I imagine (hopefully) that one day I will be an old-timer reminiscing about the waves of blue that covered the desert. I don’t know if I’ll see another spring like it in the Chihuahuan Desert surrounding the Chisos, but I can hope. And that, along with some photographs and memories, is good enough for me.