Even many Texans aren’t sure where Big Bend National Park is located. Down in the southwest corner of Texas, right along the border of Mexico, Big Bend seems too far of a drive in a state where driving from Dallas to El Paso can take two days. With the closest large airport 204 miles away in Midland, the Park feels far away. And, when you arrive at the Park, that feeling of isolation stays with you. With only 600,000 visitors a year and 800,100 acres, you can easily get away from others and lose yourself in the beauty and timeliness of Big Bend.
They might say everything is big in Texas and Big Bend is no exception, though it only ranks as the15th largest National Park. However, it boasts several special qualities. It is the only U.S. national park with an entire mountain range inside its borders, the Chisos Mountains. Considered sky islands, these mountains offer a respite, often being 10 – 20 degrees cooler than the Chihuahuan Desert below. The Chihuahuan Desert, (think about the chihuahua dog, drop that last “wah” and add a n), is the largest desert in North America. It touches three US states and has multiple National Parks within it (Big Bend, Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe and White Sand) and still 90% is in Mexico. The largest US portion falls within the protection of Big Bend which works to preserve this unique ecosystem.
Named for the decidedly sharp bend in the Rio Grande River which changes from a southeastern to northeastern flow, Big Bend became a National Park in June 12, 1944, a week after D-Day. Considered an act of optimism during the uncertainty of World War II, Big Bend has indeed provided a lasting look at our natural history for generations. Now, it attracts visitors to its dark skies, rated the darkest of any NP in the lower 48, the 150 miles of desert and mountain trails, and the amazing biodiversity.
When to Go
Over the past few years, Big Bend has become more popular with an increasing numbers of visitors. The majority of those visit between October and April when temperatures are more moderate. In winter months, it can often be a lovely 70 degrees, though the desert will often get to freezing overnight. Many fans of the Park visit during the holidays when lodging can book up, but the hiking is so comfortable. March is also popular as Texas spring breaks provide families time to make the trek.
Summer months tend to get very hot, often getting over 100 degrees. That said, the Chisos Mountain area can be much cooler and if you plan well and take precautions, you can likely still enjoy yourself.
If you are interested in rafting the Rio Grande, the best months are October and April based on water levels. It is still possible to canoe and sometimes, raft at other times but do check in with one of the many outfitters for options. Early April also provides excellent bird watching with the many varieties in migration stopping over in the area.
Top Two Things to Do
Big Bend has three distinct areas: the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive region, Chisos Basin, and the Rio Grande Village. Most of the things to do fall within these regions, with a few outliers here and there. With Big Bend so far away from the rest of Texas, it takes a commitment to get there. And once there, it requires a lot of driving to see the Park, especially if you are staying inside the Park itself. Since you traveled so far, plan to stay a while and see it and the surrounding area! However, time can still be limited so here are the top places to visit:
#1- Chisos Mountain area
Your first destination is the Chisos Mountain Basin. Emory Peak at 7825 feet is the tallest point of this range, classified as sky islands, which provide a completely different habitat for flora and fauna than the surrounding desert below. With a hike and meal, this area will take you nearly a full day. If you only do the Window View Trail and visit the area with stops along the way to take pictures, you can easily do this area in half a day.
There is a campground in this area, but note that the road in is not appropriate for RVs longer than 24 feet or trailers longer than 20 feet. You will also find a lodge, an exhibit area, shop and restaurant as well as a number of trails coming off the parking lot. A thousand feet above the desert floor, this area offers amazing vistas of the mountain peaks and the erosion-formed basin area.
- Window View Trail – This is a short 1/3rd mile walk offering educational signage and a look at the famous window. It also has benches and is a great sunset spot.
- Window Trail – This trail which starts off the parking lot of the lodge area is considered a moderate hike due to the elevation gain. This 5.5 mile hike starts at the lot and you descend 900 foot into Oak Creek Canyon. Of course, that also means you have to go up 900 feet at the end of your hike. That said, with plenty of stops to catch my breath, I was able to do it. The trail is well groomed with wide s-curve turns that give you time to stop. Interestingly there is a the campground below the parking lot area with restroom facilities. If you start here, you avoid the steepest and least interesting portion of the hike.
- Along the way to the Window, you will be walking through a meadow area and might have to cross a small creek. It was dry when we did the hike. The Canyon is filled with birds and offers great views. One portion of the hike puts you in a wind tunnel which was so refreshing as the breeze was much needed by that time. This shaded oasis has a large flat rock area which is ideal for a rest or even picnic lunch.
- After this wind tunnel, you will have to do some scrambling over rocks. I just sat down and was able to manage the rocks. There is also a small set of stairs right before you get to the Window. At the Window area, the rocks are very polished and slick. However the view is amazing as you look through the water pouroff to the halved mountain beyond it and the desert below.
- Please note – Absolutely do this hike in the morning as a large portion of the trail is unshaded. And carry plenty of water!
- Lost Mine – This hike is one of the most popular hikes, especially for those of us who do not want to do overnights or the difficult hikes. The trailhead is along the road into the Chisos and has a very small parking lot that fills quickly. This means you need to plan accordingly and get there first thing in morning. I am serious about first thing, like arrive before sunrise. The parking lot has maybe 14 spots and the next closest parking area is small and requires you to hike at least a quarter mile up in elevation along the road before you even start Lost Mine.
- Lost Mine is worth the sunrise start. You can see the sun rise over the valley and color the Chisos into beautiful shades of orange. The full hike is 2.4 miles (4.8 miles round-trip) with an elevation gain of 1,100 feet. The good news on this hike is that the steepest part is as you leave the parking lot so you do the hard gain at the beginning when you are barely awake. It continues on a steady but very doable uphill with views across the mountain range. Be sure to turn to look behind you for more beauty!
- If you go the full 2.4 miles to the top, the views really open up. Your reward is a panoramic view over the mountains and valleys of Big Bend National Park. While I only went about halfway up to the saddleback, I still felt like I was rewarded with stunning vistas, a cool rock formation, and lovely place to sit to enjoy the view. It was fascinating to watch the sun rise up the mountain and color the whole area in light.
Due to the popularity of the Chisos Bain, if you are in Big Bend during a time of higher visitors, you will need to do this first thing in the morning. When the parking lots fill, they begin to hold cars before the turnoff and allow one in for every one leaving.
#2 Ross Maxwell Drive to Santa Elena Canyon
This scenic drive is roughly 30 miles long and takes you through a variety of desert vistas from the main road into Big Bend to Santa Elena Canyon. Depending on how much you stop, it can take 4 – 6 hours to do the one way portion of this drive. You can then return via the same paved road or, if open, Old Maverick Road which is unpaved and can be a rough road depending on road conditions. They say you need 4WD, but we saw plenty of cars doing it while it as very dry and hard.
As you head down Ross Maxwell Drive, there several places to stop with a variety of ecosystems:
- Sam Neill Ranch will come up first and is a great spot for bird watchers. This stops offers shade and one of your best opportunities to see javelinas. It also allows a gorgeous view of the Chisos Mountain range.
- Sotal Vista Overlook which is named for the cactus found abundantly in the area, is a must stop on the drive. Giving you a panoramic view of the park, you can see the Maxwell Drive ribbon across the desert. You can also get your first look at the Santa Elena Canyon. This is a great spot to watch sunset and the desert come alive in the evening.
- Stop at the next three points of interest for at least a short stop or longer as your time allows:
- Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff requires a drive along a 1.5 mile side road to see the colorful cliffs of Burro Mesa. You can take a short trail into a box canyon with a variety of plants and cool geological formations.
- Mule Ears are two rock formations rising from the desert. You can easily see them from the overlook and just walk a short distance to see the vegetation around the area. If you have time, you can take a four mile hike to get closer to the Ears.
- Tuffs Canyon is made from soft volcanic tuff (compressed ash). You can get closer or see these unique formations from the road. Crazy to think that once upon a time, a volcano erupted to form parts of this landscape!
- Castolon Historic District is a must stop if at least for a quick refreshment. The area includes the former home of the cook for La Harmonia Company which houses a great exhibit on the lives of those brave settlers who farmed this rough area. You will learn the history of this special place that once served as a Cavalry outpost during the Mexican Revolution and became headquarters of the La Harmonia Company, which offered a peaceful spot among the tense rivalries of Texas and Mexico. Sadly a fire in 2019 burned most of the buildings. As the NPS work to restore these, they still operate a small concession store which offers cold beverages, small snacks, and a few souvenirs.
- Santa Elena Overlook for your first up close view of the beautiful canyon. The signage will give you basic information about the canyon and topography. But don’t stop here, drive the short distance to the parking lot for the Santa Elena Canyon hike.
- Santa Elena Canyon has an easy and pretty hike that takes you right to the water edge of the Rio Grande River. From there, depending on the flow of water in Terlingua Creek which feeds into the River, you can cross over to the canyon area. While we were there in March, the creek was running very high and we had not planned on a wet crossing so we went down the creek bed to cross a dry area and go up a very steep path on the cliff. The NPS does not advise using this path as it is not cared after and includes a steep and rocky climb. However, we were able to climb up it and then across a rocky area to the trail that leads to concrete steps to an amazing view of the Canyon. The full hike is about 2 miles one-way. Here, the Rio Grande created a 1,500-foot vertical chasm out of limestone. As you stand on the Cliff, you are looking down at the Canyon with the river flowing between the left wall that is Mexico and the right wall which is Texas. If possible when you visit, a river float in this canyon would be spectacular. We were there near sunset and had a spectacular view as the sun lit the Canyon and the Chisos Mountains.
- Rio Grande Village is the other main section of Big Bend and is located in the far southeast section. It includes several popular sites including the only RV campground with hookups. One of the most popular hikes is the 1.5 mile Ernie Tinaja which takes you through a slot canyon and past a series of waterholes, once used as swimming holes. The hardest part of this excursion is the drive on Old Ore Road. It is a rough gravel road and may require high clearance 4WD at times. This is also where you can find the crossing into Mexico (with your passport) to the rural village, Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico. Or enjoy a soak in a hot spring at a constant 105 degrees.
- Panther Ridge Junction Visitor Center offers you the most variety of souvenirs as well as a short and informative film on the area. You can stop for your passport stamp and nearby is the only gas station in the Park. This is also the spot where permits for backcountry camping are given.
- Fossil Discover Exhibit was a surprising stop as we traveled along Highway 385 towards Dagger Flats. We were not aware of this educational exhibit which explains the paleontological and geological past starting 130 million years ago. This fascinating display includes bones of dinosaurs found in Big Bend and great illustrations to explain the ancient ages of Big Bend. For me, who is not a dinosaur or paleontology interested person, it was so informative and really made me appreciate the timelessness of this Park.
- Dagger Flats was a disappointing excursion for me. Being there near the peak yucca bloom time, we headed to Dagger Flat as we heard it was an astonishing display of this white headed cactus. When in bloom, they resemble lighted candles across the desert. After driving a long way down a very rutted road, we were disappointed that the display was not as dramatic as advertised. We had seen a beautiful yucca display near our campground. So, for us, this would be a skip.
- Balanced Rock Hike is another popular and relatively easy hike. It is about 2.2 miles to an interesting rock formation of a large rock balanced on two large boulders. There is a brief section of rock scrambling and little to no shade so plan accordingly.
Outside the National Park
The two closest towns to the Park are Study Butte and Terlingua. Study Butte is where you can find a small grocery store, gas station, and the closest RV campgrounds to the entrance. Terlingua became a ghost town in 1940s after the Chisos Mining Company which mined cinnabar and quicksilver closed its doors. In the 1960s, people started to return and in 1969 held the first Terlingua Chili Cookoff which has become one of the most well-known in the country.
There is still a section around the old cemetery considered ghost town. Spend time wandering around town, especially around the Starlight Theatre Restaurant where you can get a good meal, cold beer, and entertainment if you go inside. You can also sit out on the patio and enjoy dinner with a spectacular sunset. While waiting for your table, head over to the Ghost Town Gift Shop. This historical store has an eclectic array of items and interesting displays. Plus, the host at the restaurant will come get you there when your table is ready.
Close to Starlight are two more favorites.
- The Earth and Fire Imports is a small artsy store with handmade crafts and artwork. You can get a special souvenir or gifts here.
- The Espresso Y Poco Mas is a great stop for coffee and snacks
- Big Bend Ranch State Park is the largest state park in Texas, 300,000 acres. Much less crowded than the National Park, BBRSP offers hiking trails, slot canyons, and another gorgeous scenic drive. The trails tend to be less groomed but horseback riding is allowed and several options for camping and launch areas for canoe trips along the Rio Grande.
- Rafting the Rio Grande is possible through one of the many outfitters in the area. Several are located in Terlingua and offer overnight or half day floats via raft or canoes.
- If you use the Just Ahead app, the Big Bend guide is free and gives great information on the Park if you download before you enter.
- There is very poor cell service overall. In a few of the higher spots, you can get a couple of bars.
- Dogs and pets are not allowed on any of the trails in Big Bend National Park.
- Future note – Constructed in 1964, the main Chisos Mountains Lodge’s foundation is eroding so plans to rebuild it are underway. Starting in 2024, if all goes well, significant disruptions to visitor services are expected.
- Gas up whenever possible
- Take up and fill your water bottles whenever possible. Even in winter, it can be warm and is always dry so you will need more water than you think.
- Campgrounds in the NP are available six months in advance and fill quickly. Several campgrounds are available in Study Butte. We stayed at the Tin Valley Retro Resort which is a full 60 minutes north of the Big Bend entrance. We enjoyed the solitude, quirkiness and beauty of Tin Valley but the drive got tiring.
All in all, I so appreciated Big Bend and highly recommend taking the time to make this long trek. Travel Lemming recently ranked it as the 7th Best National Park in terms of affordability, biodiversity, lack of crowds and weather. For bird watchers, it can be a great destination especially in early summer when the Colima Warbler, nests in the higher elevations of the Chisos Mountains. For hikers, you can go enjoy a variety of trails whether you are a hard-core remote trail hiker or like easy forays through a variety of landscapes. And for those who enjoy water, raft and canoe trips on the Rio Grande offer a different view of the canyons and cliffs between Mexico and Texas.
Leave a comment below on your ideas and favorites from Big Bend. And for more information and pictures from Big Bend, here is our YouTube show:
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