The Ultimate Big Bend National Park Travel Guide
An entire mountain range to itself, dramatic stretches of the Rio Grande, and 118 miles of shared border with Mexico are just a few reasons why this 801,163-acre range in southwest Texas is worth a visit
As the world comes to a standstill as we try to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, we encourage all of you to hunker down right now, too. In the meantime, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to get back out there.
Big Bend National Park is dangerous as hell. Seriously. We’re talking about more than 800,000 acres of desert and mountains, where most of the flora you see is sharp and spiny, and the animals you encounter are likely venomous. It’s a place where the sun is hot enough to kill you. Where sandstorms are an occasional concern. Where it doesn’t just rain, it pours, and to such a degree that you have to worry about flash floods. You have to be a special kind of resilient to thrive here. Like Wile E. Coyote resilient.
This sense of peril only adds to Big Bend’s charisma. The park protects a particularly gorgeous swath of the Chihuahuan Desert, full of deep canyons, yucca plants, and the occasional oasis, plus all of the Chisos Mountains, which have peaks of up to 8,000 feet. These landscapes are all hemmed in by the lush Rio Grande, carving a green stripe through the desert as it makes a dramatic bend to the northeast on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Forget the physical address—Big Bend National Park is not in Texas. It’s in “far west Texas,” which is so isolated and so completely different from the rest of the region in both personality and terrain that it might as well be its own state. The whole scene has an edge-of-the-world quality to it, from the mountains that seem to rise out of nowhere, like some geographical mistake on the horizon, to the sandy terrain that shimmers in the midday sun. The juxtaposition of these vistas and the subtlety of life that thrives within it is fascinating, too. The park is home to nearly 1,300 different species of plants, 450 species of birds, and 75 different mammals. It’s a land of mountain lions, barberry sheep, tarantulas, rattlesnakes, coyotes, roadrunners, and javelinas. Rise early and you’ll see the desert come alive.
Then you’ve got the history of Big Bend. The only people who ever really thrived here were the Chisos and then the Comanches, who used the canyons, mountains, and desert as a staging ground for raids into Mexico. The Spanish claimed the area for more than 300 years and occasionally explored it for gold but never settled there. Neither did Mexico, which owned the land for 50 years until the 1930s. Both countries called the area el despoblado, which translates to “the uninhabited land.” The name sticks today; very few people call Big Bend National Park home. A few dusty communities have sprung up along the park’s edges, like settlers on the sandy Star Wars planet of Tatooine, but the nearest city, Midland, is 200 miles north.
This is all to say that if you put a premium on solitude, a pristine night sky, and 150 miles of empty trails that lead to magnificent vistas, Big Bend can’t be beat. The Rio Grande carves deep canyons on the southern border of the park and makes for excellent paddling, while the Chisos Mountains offer high-alpine terrain and lonely summits for challenging hikes. In between, the desert has some of the best overlanding and backcountry camping in the lower 48. Less than half a million people a year make it to Big Bend, and the majority of those visitors show up in March, during spring break. The park is wild, beautiful, and, more often than not, all yours.
What You Need to Know Before Visiting
It’s not always hot and sunny. OK, most of the time it is, but there are some fluctuations. Intermittent heavy thunderstorms hit in late summer, when dry creek beds and canyons become channels for flash floods. You’ll have to occasionally run from sandstorms, which are rare but worth keeping an eye out for: I was soaking in the Rio Grande one afternoon after a long bike ride and watched a wall of tan take over the ridges on the horizon and slowly make its way toward me. Fortunately, I spotted it early and moved quickly. By the time the storm reached me an hour later, I was drinking a cold beer at a bar in Terlingua, a small outpost town eight miles from the park. Bring goggles and find shelter behind a boulder if you don’t have enough time to outrun a storm. And plan your day around the heat, especially in the summer. Arrive in the morning to spend time in the low-elevation desert, find a slice of the river to rest in during the height of the day, drive into the mountains during the afternoon, where you can hike the higher elevations in milder temperatures, and catch the sunset from a lonely peak. In the winter, plan for nighttime temperatures to drop to below freezing.
Plan for starry nights. According to the park service, Big Bend has the least amount of light pollution of any national park unit in the lower 48, and management has even gone so far as to provide shields for the few lights that can be found inside the park. The result is stunning—the sheer volume of stars in the sky can be shocking. On a clear night, which is most nights, the Milky Way absolutely glows overhead. The general lack of tree cover means an unobstructed view is guaranteed regardless of your location. If you want an easy spot for viewing from your car, go to the Sotol Vista Overlook, off Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. For the full experience, head there during sunset, bring your headlamp, and hike a half-mile to Langford Hot Springs, on the edge of the Rio Grande, to soak in the 105-degree water as the sky lights up overhead.
Prepare to fulfill your Instagram overlanding fantasies. Unpaved roads far outnumber the paved roads inside the park, so bring a high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle and you’ll be able to go deep into the Chihuahuan Desert, where the park has dozens of designated roadside campsites.
Bring your passport. Big Bend shares a border with Mexico for 118 miles. Before the events of 9/11, there was a legitimate cross-cultural scene in the Big Bend area, as people from both countries mixed and explored their neighbor’s terrain. After closing in 2011, the border opened two years later with access limited to an official port of entry. Go through the red tape, and take a rowboat ferry across the Rio Grande before walking a half-mile into the small Mexican village of Boquillas, which has under 300 residents and is powered by a solar farm and flanked by tall, striped canyon walls. The town isn’t much more than a catholic church, a couple of restaurants, and families that create art to sell, but it makes for an ideal cultural excursion and affords arguably the best meal in the Big Bend area.
How to Get There
Big Bend isn’t one of those parks you happen upon casually; you have to want to visit this place and then work hard to make it happen. Most people fly into Midland, the closest decent-size airport, rent a truck, and then drive 200 miles southwest through oil fields and tan desert to reach the park’s Persimmon Gap entrance. Terlingua, eight miles west of the Maverick Junction entrance or 30 miles west of park headquarters and the visitor center at Panther Junction, is the closest thing to a trail town, but there isn’t much more to it than a bike shop, a couple of restaurants, and some cool stone ruins overlooking a spooky cemetery. Big Bend has five visitor centers, two of which stay open in the summer (central Chisos Basin, at the base of the mountains, and Panther Junction, in the northeastern section of the park), and the general stores have limited supplies, so stock up on whatever you need in Midland or Terlingua.
What’s the Best Time of Year to Visit Big Bend?
Winter: While temperatures are mild and days are often sunny from November to February, conditions can fluctuate from below freezing at night to 80 degrees during the day, so bring layers and sunscreen. There’s a bizarre temperature inversion during the winter, in that the cold air settles in the valley surrounding the Rio Grande, and warmer air occupies the higher-elevation Chisos Basin. It goes without saying that a visit to the hot springs is a must during these cooler months. Thanksgiving and Christmas can be busy throughout the park, so make reservations in advance.
Spring: Arguably the most pleasant season in Big Bend, with temperatures that range from the mid-fifties to the eighties. It’s also the busiest season, as the park has become a major spring-break destination. Avoid mid-to-late March, when campsites and hotels are filled with college kids and families. The bluebonnet, the state flower of Texas, is usually in peak bloom in early April.
Summer: Temperatures routinely rise above 100 degrees on the desert floor, but the mornings and evenings are pleasant, with nights typically in the low seventies. Head into the Chisos Mountains, and you can expect temperatures to be 10 to 20 degrees cooler. The rainy season runs from May through September, and the most falls in August, though the average is only a couple inches of precipitation. Afternoon thunderstorms can create flash floods but also help cool things down.
Fall: September can still see some rain, but the temperature drops to the mid-eighties throughout the park. In October and November, you’ll even find fall colors in the trees that pepper the Chisos Mountains.
Where to Stay in Big Bend National Park
Camping is your best bet within the park, with three front-country campgrounds and dozens of backpacking and primitive roadside options in the backcountry. Big Bend recently set aside roughly half of its front-country sites for reservations (up to a year in advance; from $16), while still leaving plenty available for first-come, first-served. Each provides drinking water and restroom facilities. Chisos Basin has 60 sites, 40 of which you can reserve. It sits at 5,400 feet in elevation and is surrounded by cliffs, with sites tucked into groves of Arizona cypress and mesquite trees. You’ll have immediate access to popular trails like the Lost Mine, Window, and Pinnacles. Cottonwood Campground is the least visited campground in the park and your best bet if you’re showing up late without a reservation. Despite being a bit out of the way, in the southwest corner of the park near the Castolon Visitor Center, it’s still easy to get to the main areas. It has 24 large sites at the end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, about eight miles from the popular Santa Elena Canyon Trailhead. If you have an RV, the campground at Rio Grande Village, near the river, has 25 sites with full hookups.
The best place to stay in Big Bend is deep in the backcountry, and starting this month, you can reserve 20 of the park’s primitive roadside campsites and 34 backpacking sites. Most backpackers stick to the higher elevations in the mountains; the desert is more suited to overlanding, with its prevalence of unimproved roads and roadside campsites. There are 42 backpacker sites in the Chisos Mountains, many of which have food-storage lockers where you can cache water and food on a multi-day jaunt. Juniper Canyon, east of Emory Peak, has sites that are shady year-round and surrounded by weeping juniper trees, while the park’s southwest rim, where sites are tucked into the trees near a tall cliff on the southern edge of the Chisos Mountains, has views of the Sierra Quemada in Mexico.
Most primitive sites are off-road in the desert, though there are a few, like Croton Spring and the sites on Old Maverick Road, which are located along improved dirt roads that can be reached via normal cars. The spots along River Road, which follows the southern edge of the park, are particularly choice as many of them have direct access to the Rio Grande; two such places are La Clocha, off River Road East, a few miles west from the paved road that leads to Rio Grande Village, and Loop Camp, located at the center of River Road, with two sites that are big enough for small groups and situated on a bluff overlooking the water. Just remember to bring a gallon of water per day, whether you’re on foot or in your truck.
The 72-room Chisos Mountain Lodge (from $166) is the only indoor lodging inside the park, with a mix of motel-style rooms and stone cottages, a restaurant, and a general store. Accommodations aren’t fancy, but the location is perfect as a base camp for treks into the Chisos Mountains. Or stay outside the park, in the northwest corner of Big Bend, 20 miles from the Maverick Junction entrance, at the 101-room Lajitas Golf Resort and Spa (from $149), which has plush digs and a good restaurant. It’s the kind of place that has its own airstrip, but it also features 25 miles of mountain-bike trails that roll through the desert.
Terlingua Ghost Town
If you’re looking for something with more character, you can reserve a spot using Hipcamp (from $35) that’s in the middle of the old Terlingua Ghost Town, pitching your tent near the cemetery and stone ruins.
What to Do While You’re There
The Chihuahan Desert covers 80 percent of Big Bend, only giving way to the Chisos Mountains in the northern section of the park and the winding Rio Grande. The park’s 150 miles of trails include popular routes like the 4.2-mile Lost Mine and 12.6-mile South Rim in the mountains, the 1.7-mile Santa Elena Canyon along the river, and the 3.8-mile Mule Ears Spring in the desert.
The Chisos are like a slice of Utah misplaced in this corner of Texas, with the high point, Emory Peak, rising to 7,825 feet, making it an obvious destination for hikers. While the Lost Mine Trail and South Rim Trail are obvious standouts if you’re looking for short day hikes, the Outer Mountain Loop is an ideal way to see the park if you have the time. It begins in Chisos Basin and forms a 30-mile circle around the mountain range. Most people take at least three days to complete this tough hike, which hits Big Bend’s highlights, from lush canyons and grassy meadows to cliffs with long-range views. Plan your route carefully so you can cache water in the storage boxes along the way, and get a backcountry permit at either Panther Junction or the Chisos Basin Visitor Center ($10 per night).
If Big Bend has a signature trail, it’s the 1.7-mile round-trip Santa Elena Canyon Trail, which drops from the end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to the Rio Grande, following the river to the mouth of the gorge, the tallest in the park, where you’re hemmed in by 1,500-foot limestone walls. It’s an easy hike, suitable for the whole family, though there is a creek that’s tough to cross after heavy rain. The trail takes you along the grassy banks of the river and climbs briefly to give you a full view of it before finally dropping into the mouth of the canyon, where vertical walls meet the water.
For a short slice of the desert, hike the Grapevine Hills Trail, a 2.2-mile out-and-back that starts at the Grapevine Hills Trailhead at the northern end of the park and follows a sandy wash before climbing gradually through scrub and cactus into Grapevine Hills, an area filled with towering rock chimneys and huge rounded boulders. There’s plenty of scrambling and climbing (watch for snakes), but the highlight is Balanced Rock, where one large boulder sits perched atop two others, forming an arch. Poke around the hillside and you’ll find similar formations and small caves.
Like most national parks, trails in Big Bend are closed to mountain bikers, but its 160 miles of unpaved backcountry roads and the low-traffic paved roads are great alternatives. From Maverick Junction, near Terlingua, make your way out on a 50-plus-mile loop along the paved Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and onto Old Maverick Road, which will take you around the edge of the Chisos Mountain Basin before dropping down to the Rio Grande. There will be opportunities for side hikes into the grassy, riverside Santa Elena Canyon and along the 4.6-mile out-and-back Chimneys Trail, where rock spires dot the landscape. Then make your way back on dirt through the Terlingua Creek Badlands, where roadside camping options make this an ideal overnight bikepacking loop.
If you’re hungry for more dirt, arrange for a shuttle through the park’s only outfitter, Desert Sports—it’ll drop you off at the northern terminus of the road on Texas Highway 118, about four miles south of Panther Junction—and pedal the 16-mile Glenn Springs Road south past the oasis of the same name, connecting to River Road East, which runs for ten bumpy miles to Langford Hot Springs, where you can have a post-ride soak next to the Rio Grande while looking into Mexico.
The Rio Grande has carved dramatic canyons that split the Chihuahuan Desert in two, dividing the United States and Mexico in the process. You can drive along portions of the river and take short hikes that will give you a glimpse of the canyons, but to fully appreciate the grandeur of this waterway, you have to get in a canoe or kayak and paddle it.
Santa Elena Canyon is the most popular paddle trip in the park. Sign up with Desert Sports for a 20-mile, two-day paddle that begins in Lajitas, on the northwest corner of the park, and passes through 13 miles of desert before hitting the canyon proper, where rapids await (guided trips from $400 per person), or rent a canoe or kayak to make the trip yourself (be sure to bring a type I, III, or V personal flotation device). This adventure is more about the scenery than the rapids; the narrow passage is just 100 feet wide at some points, and massive limestone boulders and the occasional sandbar dot the base of the cliffs. Most overnight paddlers spend the night at Entrance Camp, a remote and primitive paddlers-only site at the upper mouth of Santa Elena, on the banks of the Rio Grande, before entering the canyon on the second day.
For a longer trip, take a ride on the 33-mile-long Boquillas Canyon, inside the federally designated Wild and Scenic portion of the Rio Grande, which has mild rapids, 1,200-foot-tall limestone walls, and ruins of candelilla wax–mining camps on the Mexican side of the river. The trip begins at Rio Grande Village, takes three to four days, and ends at Heath Canyon at the southeastern end of the park.
The most popular overlanding route is a 116-mile loop that circumnavigates the majority of the park by combining Old Maverick Road, River Road, and Glenn Springs Road. It’s a mixture of fairly well-maintained dirt roads with some pavement thrown in, but if you have the right vehicle and off-road skills, you can tack on the 8.5-mile Black Gap Road, a rough connector between River Road and Glenn Springs Road that requires heading over rock ledges as you make your way through a wide canyon.
The Best Places to Eat and Drink Around Big Bend
Big Bend isn’t the kind of place you visit looking for nightlife or fine dining, but Terlingua is a wonderful place to have a beer in the shade while watching the sun set over the Chisos Mountains. The town’s Starlight Theatre is the cultural hub of the region. The food is serviceable Texan, the beer is cold, and most of the action happens on the long front porch, where locals gather to play music and share bottles of Lone Star. Espresso y Poco Mas, just around the corner from the Starlight, serves a great cup of coffee and breakfast burritos. An hour and a half northwest is the artsy hub of Marfa, where you’ll find Capri, a hip restaurant known for its pre-Columbian cuisine; the restored 1950s motel Thunderbird (from $149); and cultural pilgrimage sites like the arts foundation Ballroom Marfa, whose desert installation Prada Marfa went viral when Beyoncé posted a selfie in front of it a few years ago.
How to Be Conscious
Big Bend is full of historical sites like old mining camps that might look like trash to some hikers (old trucks, rusty cans, broken bottles). Don’t clean them up, don’t shoot bullets into them, and don’t take them home as souvenirs. Use wildlife common sense when visiting Big Bend: the park is home to black bears and mountain lions that have a hankering for human food, so use the food and water caches the park provides in the backcountry area, and don’t approach wildlife if you can help it. It can be tempting to soak in the natural springs that are found throughout the park, but don’t do it; sunscreen, lotion, and soaps can contaminate the natural springs, proving problematic for the animals that rely on them as water sources. Finally, Mexico will only be a few watery feet away if you visit the hot springs or any piece of the Rio Grande, but stepping foot into Mexico and coming back into the States is a serious offense that could carry a $5,000 fine or up to a year in jail. The only exception is if you’re scouting a rapid, bailing a boat, or in danger on the river.