You wouldn’t believe it!
This spectacular National Park in Texas has been on my bucket list ever since I first saw a picture of the Rio Grande river winding through spectacular mountainous desert cliffs.
I HAVE to go here!
Finally, the time arrives. During week 6 of our one year USA road trip I arrive at Big Bend National Park and the President of the United States decides to have a Government shutdown that closes a few of the places within the park.
Part of life is learning how to dance in the rain and what a two-step we had.
We decided to take the risk and drive all the way across the most south western part of the US’s biggest state. There’s not much else around here so we had toes crossed as well.
Thankfully, next door sits the equally stately and beautiful Prince, Big Bend Ranch State Park. So we knew our trip to the Big Bend region would not be a total flop.
By the way, we just published a blog post about how to spend one day in Big Bend Ranch State Park.
But, Big Bend National Park was open, all but the popular and meant to be most beautiful Santa Elena Canyon and the scenic Old Maverick Road were closed!
Good news though, there are plenty of things to do in Big Bend National Park Texas and the crowds were less and we didn’t notice any pile up of rubbish or poop, or badly behaved humans.
A fate other US National Parks around the country were facing.
Right on the Texas Mexico border runs the Rio Grande River, the King of Texas – and a National Park encompassing more than 800,000 acres of towering river canyons, mountain cliffs, and expansive Chihuahuan Desert.
The Big Bend name refers to the great U-turn the Rio Grande makes in Southwest Texas.
Big Bend NP is one of the least visited parks in the federal system. We visited another one last year, the Channel Islands National Park in California.
We love experiencing places of exquisite beauty like this where not many people dare to wander.
It’s the only one of the National Parks in the USA to contain one entire mountain range – the Chisos – within its borders. Big Bend National Park has 450 species of birds and 1,200 species of plants. It’s known to have more species of birds, plants, butterflies, bats, reptiles, and ants, than any other national park.
For an arid environment, that’s pretty impressive.
And when visiting Big Bend National Park be prepared to see lots of different cactus, which Kalyra and Savannah were most enthralled by.
It’s also the place we lived out our Looney Tunes fantasy by seeing both a coyote and a road runner. Unfortunately, not at the same time chasing each other around with dynamite and rope.
It’s not all dry and baking hot here in Big Bend Texas.
Emory Peak is the highest point in the park at 7,825 feet, these mountains offer temperatures that can be 10 – 20 degrees cooler than on the desert floor down by the river that flows all the way from its source in Colorado and winds 118 miles through the Santa Elena, Boquillas and Mariscal Canyons of the park.
The adventurous can even join multi-day rafting/camping trips along the river (another thing to come back for).
Our trip to visit Big Bend was in January during the winter, which thankfully in this part of the USA meant a couple of days with temperatures in the high 70’s.
I can only imagine how scorching that sun must be when the gauge raises another 30 in the summer months – be safe with your explorations if you visit then!
There are three main sections to this National Park and along each you’ll find a wide range of hiking, horse riding trails and mountain biking trails.
Let’s look at each of those sections and all the various things to do in Big Bend National Park.
Things to Do in Chisos Basin Area
This Green Island of the desert is the most popular region in Big Bend NP to explore and with good reason.
Two of the best hikes in Big Bend are in the Chisos Basin region that take you deeper into the spectacular beauty of the mountains and valley floor.
The parks’ only hotel and restaurant are here as well. The Chisos Basin area is usually cooler than the surrounding desert.
Hike the Window Trail at Sunset
Our research gave us about four different lengths for the Big Bend Window trail. Confused, we set out thinking it was a three mile return hike – our best guess.
Since it took us an hour each way, and was a relatively easy walk, we knew this was way off!
A few days later, I discovered another measurement of 6-miles return, which to me made sense due to how long it took us.
This is important to know as the Window Big Bend hike is most spectacular at sunset. Had we known it was a 6-mile return we may not have done it as that would mean we’d be hiking back out in the dark!
We did hike back out in the dark, which made for quite the excellent adventure.
I’m so glad we did the walk as the sunset reward through the window in the cliff face at the end is truly worth it.
There were a few other people on the trail as well which made us feel a little safer.
It was another example for me to feel awe at my girls and how well they handled a slightly frightening adventure.
This is Dark Sky Country so we’re talking dark! Lucky we had flashlights on our phones to help us get through the last section of the walk out – but probably best to bring a proper flashlight as your phone may run out of battery!
Savannah kept pace with me (I am a fast walker) the entire way holding my hand, clutching my body when we walked through dark tunnels of trees, and marveling at the stars and counting each new one as it appeared.
Both girls were scared, but as I always tell them,
“When you see Mommy is scared, that’s when you know you have to be.”
That kind of puts a lot of pressure on me to be brave and not show my fear, but it takes a lot to scare me anyway, and that’s my role as their mother, to hold them up to courage.
Kids need adventures like this so they can push their boundaries a little, learn how powerful they really are and feel safer about the environment around them.
Hike the Lost Mine Trail for Gorgeous Views
One of the most popular Big Bend hikes for it’s striking and rugged beauty, is the Lost Mine Trail.
Named so after the legend that says there was once a hidden mine up here. The workers were blindfolded on their way up there so they would knot know it’s location.
I don’t know about finding the lost mine, but we sure stumbled upon many precious and sparkling views.
I didn’t find the walk too strenuous. There are many switchbacks to ease the burden of hiking up the mountain. And the views quickly take away any pain, and also take whatever breath is left after you see the views.
The girls found it pretty exhausting though and weren’t shy in expressing their complaints. They both passed out in the car on the way home, which is not good for my evening quiet time as they were full of energy!
There are several signs warning you about mountain lions and bears on this hike. Americans are forever telling me how afraid they are to travel to Australia because of our deadly animals!!!
We’re wimps compared to your beasts!
We didn’t see any, and being a busy trail I’m sure all the humans had long scared them away. But if your solo hiking in the early hours or later afternoon be alert just in case.
Things to Do on the Ross Maxwell Drive
The most dramatic and famous scenic drive in Big Bend is the 30-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.
There are many stops along the way, but the best view is said to be the Sol Vista for its views of the desert terrain and Mule Ears, another iconic site in the park.
The road heads between Burro Mesa and Chisos Mountains. The entire route takes at least a half of a day but you should leave time for exploring.
Along the windy road are a number of turnouts where you can see volcanic outcroppings and stunning vistas.
Find Serenity at the Sam Nail Ranch
Sam Nail Ranch is one of the many homesteads that were once active in Big Bend Natural Park. This is a pretty and serene spot, and provides shelter and habitat for desert wildlife.
There is a short loop walk through the abandoned homestead property. There is a windmill that pumps water, making the area greener than the surroundings, and attracting wildlife.
Get dramatic at the Sotol Vista Overlook
One of the best viewing places in Big Bend National Park is the Sotol Vista overlook.
It gives you a dramatic 360 view over the western side of the Big Bend Park, including Goat Mountain, the Chisos Mountains, Burro Mesa, and Santa Elena Canyon in the distance.
Hike the Lower Burro Mesa Pour-off
Go to the end of the road into the Lower Burro Mesa area for the start of the Lower Burro Mesa Pour Off trail.
There is another trail just before it called the Lower Burro Spring Trail.
We weren’t paying attention and started on this trail. It was very beautiful, but we didn’t go too far before realizing we were on the wrong trail.
As this one was much longer than the Pour off we turned back as the girls were not up to another long hike after the Lost Mines Trail the day before.
Colorful cliffs guard the 0.5 mile trail into a hidden box canyon with a high, dry waterfall. The pour-off a point where the Burro Mesa “bowl” spills over, creating a waterfall during flash-flood conditions.
There is another longer trail that leads to the top of that pour-off.
Spot the Mule Ears
Mule Ears is another famous viewpoint of the Mule Ears Peaks, a double-peaked mountain that tops out at 3,881 feet (1193 meters).
There is a 2-mile trail that leads to a desert spring. It’s one I want to come back for, you can see the mule ears from several places along the Ross Maxwell Drive.
Visit the Castolon Historic District
Castolon is a former cavalry camp. Frontier trading post is still open and antique equipment is on display.
A visitor center and camper store is also located here and the Cottonwood Campground is nearby. All of these were closed due to the shutdown.
Marvel at Tuff Canyon
Tuff Canyon was carved out of soft volcanic tuff, which is compressed ash. It’s a deep and narrow white walled canyon which can be viewed from above or on a hike through the gorge.
I loved the area just ahead of this, dominated by, Cerro Castellan, 3,293 feet of multi-hued layers of lava and ash.
Surrounding it were small white rolling hills, which are just piles of volcanic ash.
So cool to see this up close and for my girls to have a real experience of how land is formed by volcanoes and something like ash!!
Hike into the Santa Elena Canyon
The Santa Elena Canyon is an iconic place to visit in Big Bend National Park.
It features dramatic 15,000 foot canyon walls created by master sculpture, the Rio Grande. A trail follows the river upstream then drops down to the canyon floor – it’s meant to be a fun place to float along the river.
Sadly, we can’t report anything on it as the 8-mile section of the road leading to it was closed from Cottonwood campground. So we couldn’t even get to the Santa Elena Overlook.
It also meant we could not access the Old Maverick Road which is also meant to be scenic.
You could leave the park via this way rather than going back along the Ross Maxwell Drive, although I found it more beautiful going back.
Things to Do in the Rio Grande Village
We didn’t explore this region too deeply. Another excuse to come back!
Soak in the Hot Springs Historic District
Wow! This was a great find recommended to me by a friend.
You have to go down a gravel road, which gets a bit narrow and hairy at one point, but it’s worth the short drive in to the Big Bend National Park hot springs.
On the banks of the Rio Grande sits the remnants of an early 1900’s bathhouse, 105 degree natural hot spring.
And it was hot, especially with the intense sun baking down upon us.
I could imagine watching a sunset behind the mountains here on the Rio Grande would be pretty special. I’m not sure about the drive out in the dark though. Be careful.
It was just what our bodies needed after the Lost Mine Trail. I could feel all the muscle tightness melt away. My body had a healthy zing after it of serenity.
We dipped our toes into the rushing Rio Grande, it was freezing, but a refreshing contrast.
I could imagine in the warmer months alternating between a swim or a tube float down the river and then break in the hot springs. I’m not sure if that is allowed or safe, by the way, but in my mind it sounds great fun.
From the car park, it’s a 0.25 mile easy walk to the springs. Look out for the rock art on the limestone cliffs along the path.
There are other walking trails in the area as well.
There is a gorgeous huge fern type tree at the top of the trail in with picnic tables. Perfect spot for lunch OR you could always eat around the hot springs, but there isn’t a lot of sitting room there.
Admire the Boquillas Overlook
Boquillas Canyon is the longest and deepest canyon in Big Bend National Park.
The vertical relief from nearby Pico del Carmen, to river level is over 7,000 feet, somewhat deeper than the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River.
There is a 1.4-mile round trip hike that takes visitors to water’s edge at the spectacular entrance to the canyon. It’s another hike to come back for as the area it passes through looks stunning.
We ran out of time and the girls out of energy, so settled for the views from Boquillas Overlook instead.
Boquillas Canyon is so narrow that from the Scenic Overlook the entrance is almost invisible. The information signs will help you find the entrance in the distance.
The opposite view looks over the Rio Grande River and the town of Boquillas in Mexico.
We enjoyed hearing the Mexican music playing there. There must have been some kind of party happening! It really had us wanting to travel to Mexico
The Rio Grande River
You’ll have plenty of places within the park to experience the Rio Grande Big Bend, from far above to up close.
You can get a river float permit (required for all boat use) at park headquarters or ranger stations. There are no equipment rentals in the park.
Check river levels before starting a float trip, be well equipped and stay up to date with conditions. It can run pretty fast.
Swimming is not advised due to strong currents, submerged snags and drop offs.
Anywhere within the park would be great for stargazing. The nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park is also meant to be an exceptional place for stargazing.
Sample Itineraries for 1, 2 & 3 days in Big Bend NP
One day in Big Bend NP
- Early morning Lost Mines Hike
- Ross Maxwell Drive
- Santa Elena Canyon hike
- Window Trail Hike for sunset
Two Days in Big Bend
- Lost Mine Trail Hike
- Hot Springs
- Window Trail Hike for sunset
- Ross Maxwell Drive
- Lower Burros Mesa Hike
- Santa Elena Canyon Hike
- OLd Maverick Road
- Sunset Terlingua Ghost town
Three Days in Big Bend
As above and on the third day you could explore more of the road going down to Rio Grande River and include the following:
- Boquillas overlook
- Boquillas canyon trail
- Sunset from Terlingua Ghost town
I would also move the Hot Springs visit to this day as it’s on the road headed to Rio Grande village.
And I would maybe add in the Lower Burros Spring Trail, or Mule Ears hike on the Ross Maxwell Drive.
Bonus Big Bend National Park Video
Planning Your Trip to Big Bend National Park
- $30 for a 7-day vehicle pass
- $25 per motorcycle
- $15 for a 7-day pass
- $55 for an annual pass
We have an annual National Parks Pass which cost $80 for the year and allows entry to all National Parks. It’s the best value if you intend to road trip the US like we are.
Below are some things to remember when visiting Big Bend National Park:
- Rattlesnakes live in Big Bend. We didn’t see any but be careful where you put your hands and feet.
- Mountain lions and bears are also in the park. Again,we didn’t see any. There are plenty of signs telling you what to do should you see one. i.e. face the animal, make noise, pick up small children, appear as large as possible and back away slowly. If attacked, fight back. He who wins lives. Again, I find myself ASTOUNDED that the number 1 reasons Americans tell me they won’t travel to Australia is that we have too many things that can kill you. Oh please. I’ve never been told to be prepared to fight a wild animal. Not in Australia!
- Visitor Centers are located at Panther Junction, Chisos Basin, Castolon, Persimmon Gap, and Rio Grande Village. Don’t forget to pick up your Big Bend National Park map.
- Convenience stores are available and open year-round at Rio Grande Village, the Chisos Basin, and in the historic La Harmonia store at Castolon.
- You’re in the desert – it’s hot and dry. Protect yourself from sunburn and carry PLENTY of water. Do your strenuous activities in the early or later part of the day.
- Cell phone service is spotty. Don’t rely on it or care!
- There are plenty of places to enjoy a picnic. Pack plenty of food and enjoy the lunchtime views. We found a shaded spot amongst the trees at Dugout Wells. No real views, but relief from a stinging sun.
- Be sure you have a full tank of gas. There is a gas station within Big Bend National Park at Panther Junction and Rio Grande Village. Otherwise at Terlingua and Lajitas.
- Pets are not allowed on trails, off roads, or on the river. Your pet can only go where your car can go and must be on a leash no longer than six feet in length or in a cage at all times. Pet etiquette and park regulations require that you always clean up after your pet and dispose of waste in trash receptacles.
How to Get to Big Bend National Park
So where is Big Bend National Park and how do you get there?
From El Paso, you can go through Marfa (popular for the random Prada store in the middle of nowhere and art installations, Alpine (it was covered in snow when we drove through), or Marathon.
Or for a scenic route, go through Presidio along the River Road through the Big Bend Ranch State Park. This road has lots of curves and steep grades but has incredible scenery.
To go from San Antonio to Big Bend National Park (or from Austin), you’d take the I-10 West through to either Marathon or Alpine.
Where Can I get Gas?
Gas stations and water sources are few and far between. Stock up on supplies before arriving to the area. Closest towns are Marathon or Alpine.
In Terlingua and Lajitas you’ll find gas stations that sell diesel as well as propane gas. There is also fuel at Panther Junction and Rio Grande Village in the Big Bend National Park
RV Rentals from San Antonio and Austin
If you want the Big Bend RV experience, but don’t have an RV, you can rent one through Outdoorsy.
Outdoorsy is the largest and most trusted RV rental marketplace. They have a diverse selection of unique RVs to suit your style and budget and come with an industry first $1 million liability insurance.
Or, if you have an RV sitting around collecting dust, you may want to list it for rent on Outdoorsy. Click here to learn more about that.
Car Rental for Big Bend
Audio Tour with Just Ahead
There is a free app you can download that offers complimentary guided audio tours of the park with your smartphone or synced with your Bluetooth.
It kept crashing on me which was really annoying, but is handy if you can get it to work. See more here.
Want to head into Mexico?
Pack your passport and jump in the rowboat. There’s a unique border crossing at Boquillas, Mexico.
There is a US passport check point when you come back out of Big Bend on the road to Alpine. Have your passports ready.
Where to Stay at Big Bend National Park
We would have loved to camp at one of the Big Bend National Park campgrounds, but the Rio Grande Village was full and our 37 foot travel trailer couldn’t fit in any of the other campgrounds.
They’re made for 24 ft. and under. But, it didn’t matter anyway as the campgrounds (except for the RV park) was closed thanks to the Government shut down.
There are three developed campgrounds in the park:
All come with water, restrooms and primitive shelters.
Most of the campsites operate on a first-come-first-served basis and fill up quickly in March, April and the holiday season.
The nightly fee for camping in the developed front country campgrounds is $14
Lodges & Cabins
Looking for Big Bend National Park cabins or lodges?
As the sole lodging choice in Big Bend NP, the Chisos Mountains Lodge offers a variety of comfortable overnight accommodations that provide stunning views high in the scenic Chisos Mountains.
Choose from hotel units, motel rooms, or the popular Roosevelt Stone Cottages.
They allow advance reservations from Nov 15 – April 15.
The Rio Grande Village has the only RV camping inside Big Bend NP with full hookups.
Public showers and laundry facilities are also available here at the Rio Grande Village store. They allow a limited number of sites by advanced reservation from Nov 15 – April 15.
We attempted to reserve an RV space here during the holiday period and it was full. We drove past the RV campsite while in the park, and weren’t impressed.
There are a small number of sites available, and it is basically just a parking lot, with the RV’s squashed together. It’s not what I had imagined a campsite within the national park to look like.
There wasn’t even any great views from here!
This campground is also quite a drive from the Chisos Basin and the Ross Maxwell Drive, which I consider to be the most spectacular area of the park.
This is another advantage for staying just outside the park instead of camping here. I just didn’t like the vibe of it to be honest.
I’d prefer to stay at RV parks near Big Bend National Park and drive in, rather than stay here.
We loved where we stayed (see below in Lajitas. If I was to return to Big Bend, and couldn’t stay in the Chisos Basin or Cottonwood Campground then I’d definitely stay in the Maverick Ranch RV Park again.
Big Bend camping permits for backcountry campsites are $12 which can only be acquired at one of the park’s visitor centers in person.
Where to Stay in Lajitas
About 15-minutes further west is the even smaller town of Lajitas and is comprised of a town hall, general store, Lajitas Golf Resort and golf course and a goat for a mayor!
It’s at the entrance to the Big Bend Ranch State Park and we loved staying here for its rugged beauty, serenity and remoteness.
Maverick Ranch RV Park
Of all the RV camping near Big Bend National Park we saw in the surrounding area, ours at Maverick Ranch RV Park was by far the best!
It was a 20-minute drive to the entrance gates of Big Bend NP, but it was picturesque so I didn’t mind.
I loved the serenity of our campground and the cute and quiet very small Lajitas village. You also get access to the Lajitas Golf Resort amenities which owns the RV Park.
Lajitas Golf Resort
Looking for Big Bend hotels?
Lajitas Golf Resort is just outside the entrance to Big Bend Ranch State Park. You don’t have to be a golf lover to stay here, although if you are, you might love this unique golf course in the desert.
There is also horse riding and zipline adventures available.
Free Wi-Fi access, a full-service spa and a variety of dining options featuring gourmet West Texas cuisine are among the distinct amenities provided at this Texas resort.
The views from the bar and restaurant while you’re having a drink by the fire are just superb.
Where to Stay in Terlingua
Terlingua is the main town just outside the park entrance, just near Study Butte. It’s unique and small, but you’ll find a few restaurants, amenities and places to stay here.
- Big Resort & Adventures RV Park is in the middle of Terlingua and looked okay from our drive by.
- BJ RV Park is just outside Terlingua Ghost town.
What about a unique and quirky Airbnb property?
Terlingua would be a place to find a quirky Airbnb rental. Take your pic from tipi’s to ghost town ruins to bubbles and tiny homes! I love it. Check out the coolness here!
Terlingua Ranch Lodge
This is a 425 acre resort located 34 miles from Big Bend National Park. It’s a bit far out, but if serenity is what you are after, this may suit.
It has cabin guestrooms, RV sites and private campgrounds and has a outdoor pool and free WIFI.
El Dorado Hotel
This budget hotel is located 7.5 miles from the Big Bend National Park in Terlingua Ghost Town. Rooms are traditionally decorated and have free Wi-Fi and an on-site restaurant. Read reviews and book your stay here.
Terlingua Ghost Town
Terlingua was once a prosperous mercury mining town, which went broke during the Great Depression and Terlingua turned into a ghost town as everyone left.
Buildings began to crumble and reclaimed by Mother Earth. And then it was revived again.
The Starlight Theater was the main communal gathering place and that tradition remains today.
You can walk around Terlingua ghost town to see some of the old remains of the mining town.
Sitting on the porch of the Starlight Theater is the thing to do at sunset in Terlingua.
Doors open at 5 pm and there will be a line of eager locals and tourists waiting to grab a pint of local brew and a bowl of their famous chili, wild boar strips, or Famous Diego burger (if you’re really hungry!)
Every year, a chili cook-off happens, which they call the world’s biggest and best chili! It was pretty good.
I enjoyed watching the setting sun light up the Chisos Mountains in the Big Bend National Park. There were a few locals jamming on the porch which made it a better experience.
It reminded me a lot of an Australian Outback pub filled with characters and yarns to tell, from Vagabonds to drifters, artists, miners and salt of the earth kinda folk.
Stargazing in Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park is noted for having the darkest measured skies of any National Park in the lower 48 states.
Stargazing programs to note:
The National Park offers two regularly scheduled interpretive programs about the night skies.
- A park ranger’s guide to the glazy – a great orientation of beginner stargazers and kids
- Some Endangered Evening offers perspective on the negative impact of artificial lighting and how individuals can help keep their own skies dark
Stay tuned on the website as full moon hikes and night time astronomy programs are in the plans.
On January 21, 2019, Big Bend will be in the path of a lunar eclipse. Could be fun!
More Texas Travel Tips
Looking for more tips on things to do in Texas? We’ll be creating more blog posts, but start with these:
- You might want to spend time in Texas Hill Country as you drive through to Big Bend. Be sure to check out our list of things to do in Texas Hill Country in three days.
- The highlight of things to do in San Antonio for us are The Alamo and the San Antonio River Walk.
- Hiking Enchanted Rock near Fredericksburg
- In Dallas, we visited the JFK Museum.
- And one of our favorites – a day with Chip and Jo in Waco, Texas