Big Bend National Park: The Complete Guide

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Big Bend National Park

Address
Big Bend National Park, TX, USA
Phone +1 432-477-2251

Big Bend National Park is a wonder, consisting of a massive, majestic spread of complex geology and rugged wilderness. However, due to its remote location—a distinctive region called Far West Texas on the U.S.-Mexico border—it’s also one of the least-visited national parks in the country. For this reason, visiting Big Bend feels like journeying to the edge of the earth. The park protects a stunning, diverse swath of the Chihuahuan Desert, deep canyons, and the Chisos Mountains, all of it hemmed in by the mighty Rio Grande. Depending on when and where you go, it can sometimes feel like the roadrunner and yucca plants outnumber the people. Prepare for desert solitude, wide-open skies, and the kind of inner peace that can only come from checking out of the online world and checking in with yourself in untamed nature.   

Things to Do 

A bevy of outdoor adventures—in the form of burro border crossings, natural hot springs, glorious hiking and biking trails, and paddling trips on the Rio Grande—awaits you in Big Bend. Aside from hiking, here are some of the best bucket-list activities that the park has to offer:

  • Have a picnic at Santa Elena Canyon. Of all Big Bend's geologic marvels, this 1,500-foot gorge somehow manages to stand out.
  • Soak in the Langford Hot Springs. After a long hike, there’s nothing like a soak in 105-degree mineral water (in a picturesque setting on the Rio, no less) to do the body good.  
  • Check out the Chisos Mountain Basin. Even if you’re not doing one of the hikes in the Basin, the scenery here is a must-see. This is also where you’ll find the only lodging and restaurant in the park.
  • Cross the border by burro. For a uniquely Big Bend experience (and the best food in the area), take a rowboat ferry and donkey across the Rio Grande before walking into the small Mexican town of Boquillas.
  • Go birding at the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail. The riparian corridor at Rio Grande Village offers some of the best year-round birding in the park.
  • Mountain bike (or, if you must, drive) the Maxwell Scenic Drive. From Maverick Junction (near Terlingua), head out on a 50-plus-mile loop along the paved Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and onto Old Maverick Road. The views along the way are jaw-dropping.
  • Float the Rio Grande. To fully appreciate the beauty of the Rio Grande, you have to be on it. There are plenty of half-day, full-day, and multi-day options for kayaking or rafting, with Santa Elena Canyon being the most popular paddle. (See here for more info on river trips, including a list of local outfitters.)   

Best Hikes and Trails

Ranked from shortest and easiest to longest and most difficult, these are some of Big Bend National Park's top hikes:

  • Boquillas Canyon Trail. Enjoy cliff-top views overlooking the Rio Grande on this 1.4-mile round-trip trail. 
  • Santa Elena Canyon Trail. This 1.7-mile round-trip hike through the canyon is Big Bend’s signature trail and not to be missed. 
  • Chimneys Trail. A moderate 4.8 miles round-trip, this trail takes you to a series of prominent volcanic dike formations called the “chimneys.”
  • Lost Mine Trail. This thoroughly enjoyable, 4.8-mile round-trip trek serves as a great introduction to flora and fauna of the Chisos Mountains. The views at the end (of Pine Canyon and Sierra del Carmen in Mexico) are outstanding.
  • Window Loop Trail. A 5.6-mile round-trip trail that descends through Oak Creek Canyon to the Window pour-off, this trail boasts awesome desert panoramas. 
  • Marufo Vega Trail. Gobsmacking beauty abounds on this off-the-beaten-path, 12-mile trail (not recommended for inexperienced hikers). 
  • South Rim Trail. Check out the best view in Texas (no big deal) on the South Rim Trail. It’s a steep, very strenuous climb from the Chisos Basin floor to the ridge, but your efforts will be well worth it. On a clear day, you’ll be rewarded with unobstructed views stretching well into Mexico. At 14.5 miles, the South Rim will take you the better part of a day to hike, so be sure to start early (9 a.m. is too late) or make plans to camp at one of the backcountry sites along the rim. Tack on Emory Peak, the highest point in the park, if you want even more of a challenge.
  • Outer Mountain Loop. Finally, if you’re keen on backpacking, the 30-mile Outer Mountain Loop is a fantastic way to see the park if you have the time. (You do have to plan your route carefully so that you can cache water in storage boxes along the trail beforehand.) 

Where to Stay

  • Campgrounds. There are three front-country campgrounds (and dozens of backpacking and primitive options) with drinking water and restroom facilities in Big Bend: Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, and Cottonwood. In addition, a full hookup RV camping area is operated by the park concessionaire, Forever Resorts.  
  • Chisos Mountain Lodge. This is the only indoor lodging in the park. Accommodations are unfussy, and the location makes for the perfect jumping-off point for some of the best hikes and other park highlights—be sure to book well in advance. 
  • Terlingua. A former quicksilver mining town, the colorful community of Terlingua makes for a great place to lay your head at night (and explore). La Posada Milagro Guesthouse, the Big Bend Holiday Hotel, and the El Dorado Motel are all good options in town. Terlingua also has its fair share of eclectic lodging and luxury casitas, if that’s more your speed.   

How to Get There

The most accessible commercial airport to Big Bend is El Paso International (the park is roughly 300 miles east); this is the most popular entry point for visitors coming from the West. The closest commercial airport to the park is Midland/Odessa, about 240 miles from park headquarters. While there are bus services to Alpine, that’s still about 100 miles from the park. Your best bet, especially given how spread out the park is, is renting a car or making the trek in your own vehicle.     

Accessibility 

All of the visitor centers at Big Bend National Park have reserved parking and are accessible by ramp. At the Chisos Basin Campground, site #37 is fully accessible for wheelchair users, and other sites near the accessible restroom are flat and smooth. At the Rio Grande Village Campground, site #14 is fully accessible (though other sites may be suitable for wheelchairs), and the adjoining restroom is also accessible. Cottonwood Campground has wheelchair-accessible vault toilets; campsites aren’t accessible, but most are level and usable by people in wheelchairs. For more on which picnic areas and trails are accessible and for more in-depth information regarding accessibility in general in Big Bend, check out this National Park Service page.

Tips for Visiting 

  • There are more than 100 miles of pavement in Big Bend, so note that it may take a while to get from one corner of the park to another, depending on where you're going. 
  • Amenities are limited once you’re in the park, so plan accordingly. You can fuel up at Panther Junction or the Rio Grande Village or in Terlingua, which is the closest town to the park headquarters (it's about 30 miles away). As far as food and other provisions go, you’ll find convenience stores at the Chisos Mountain Lodge and the Rio Grande Village. Still, you’re best off bringing everything you need in and only relying on these stores for anything you may have forgotten. 
  • Bring your passport if you plan to cross into Mexico to visit the town of Boquillas. (U.S. dollars are accepted in Boquillas, but be sure you have plenty of small bills on hand.) 
  • Get backcountry permits at Panther Junction or the Chisos Basin Visitor Center if you plan on doing any backpacking.
  • Note that having a pet with you may limit some of your activities, as pets are not allowed on trails, off roads, or on the river. If you want to hike, it’s best to leave your pup at home.
  • Plan your day around the heat, especially in the summer. Start your hikes early, find shade to rest in during the afternoon, and always carry plenty of water: a gallon per person per day during the summer and a little less during the winter. 
  • If you’re visiting in spring, fall, or winter, pack for weather fluctuations and elevation changes. At the lowest reaches near the Rio Grande, temperatures can average 20 degrees warmer than in the Chisos. Bring layers.  
  • Use wildlife common sense. Big Bend is home to black bears, mountain lions, javelinas, and plenty of other creatures. Use the food and water caches that the park provides, and never feed or approach wildlife.
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Big Bend National Park: The Complete Guide