A beginner’s guide to visiting Big Bend National Park: Everything you need to know, see and do
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Big Bend National Park is a land of contrasts.
Nestled deep in southwest Texas, this expansive, desolate park extends along the Mexican border for over 100 miles. Within the park boundaries, you can go from 7,825-foot Emory Peak in the Chisos Mountains down to cacti-dotted Chihuahuan Desert floor and all the way to the Rio Grande carving into ancient canyons.
The area that is now known as Big Bend has a rich history that spans centuries between the Spaniards, Comanche Indians and Mexican farmers. But by the early 1900s, the land was used primarily for mining with a growing call to preserve the beauty of the region. That led to the official formation of Big Bend National Park in 1944.
These days, the national park is an outdoor adventure paradise with a distinct array of ecosystems, including a desert, mountain and river region.
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At over 800,000 acres, Big Bend is larger than iconic parks such as Yosemite and Joshua Tree. And before the pandemic, it was growing in popularity (although it’s still a fraction of what parks like Yosemite see). In 2019, Big Bend saw a record number of visitors with over 466,000 people.
Big Bend may, at times, feel like you’re visiting another planet. It certainly doesn’t resemble the rest of Texas. And there is something for almost every type of traveler, from adrenaline junkies seeking intense adventure to those simply looking for a scenic drive.
All of this amazing beauty comes with a slight downside though — it’s not the easiest park to get to. But it’s well worth the trek.
When to visit Big Bend National Park
The most popular time of year to visit Big Bend is in the late fall to early spring period, where the weather is typically more moderate.
In fact, the park is often best visited in the winter, with an average high temperature in January of 61 degrees Fahrenheit and a low around 38. And while snow is rare, I experienced it (unfortunately) during a visit to the park in February 2021.
On the flip side, the park’s location in far southwest Texas along the Mexican border means that summers can see temperatures soar to 100 degrees Fahrenheit or greater. The extreme, sweltering heat is a major concern for those spending time in the park, especially considering the remote nature of Big Bend. Word to the wise: bring extra water with you since facilities are limited.
Not only will you have to contend with heat, but May through September is Big Bend’s rainy season which means the potential for severe thunderstorms and flash floods.
The fall and spring periods are fairly pleasant, with average highs in the 80s and lows in the 50s and 60s.
Regardless of when you visit, know that the weather can vary widely even within the confines of the park. Those that are floating down the Rio Grande can have temperatures 20 degrees warmer than those hiking up the Chisos Mountains.
How much does it cost to visit Big Bend National Park
Entrance to Big Bend National Park is comparable to other national parks. A pass costs $30 (up to 15 passengers per non-commercial vehicle) and is valid for seven days.
Meanwhile, a Big Bend annual park pass runs $55 and is good for one year from the purchase date. However, if you plan to visit multiple national parks, it may make sense to purchase an America the Beautiful pass. For just $80, you’ll have access to the entire U.S. national park system for a full year. This can be well worth it if you plan on visiting more than two parks over a 365-day period.
And if you’re camping in Big Bend, developed campgrounds (Rio Grande Village Campground, Chisos Basin Campground and Cottonwood Campground) cost $16 per night per site. Backcountry campsites require a $10 per night permit.
Finally, travelers with a fourth grader (or for 2021, also a fifth-grader) in the family can also get in free to Big Bend by using the free national park access awarded to those students. Seniors aged 62 and up can also purchase a lifetime national park pass for just $80.
In addition, the National Park Service has several days a year when all national parks are entirely free to enter.
What to see and do in Big Bend National Park
Big Bend has an incredible variety of activities both on land and in the water. Then, there’s the rich history of the area that you can learn about through exhibits and restored adobe buildings. And you can even cross into Mexico (so have your passport handy). Note however that during the pandemic, this land border is currently closed.
I didn’t even mention yet that Big Bend is home to nearly 1,300 different species of plants, 450 species of birds and 75 different mammals.
More than 150 miles of hiking trails are found throughout Big Bend. In other words, the park is basically a hiker’s paradise.
Obviously, there are many, many options when it comes to hikes. The first thing you should probably do is to narrow down which section of the park you’d like to see: mountain, desert or river. Here are a few choices in each region.
Mountain: The Chisos Mountains have a variety of trail options, with one of the standouts climbing to the top of Emory Peak, rising 7,825 feet. Meanwhile, the Lost Mine Trail and South Rim Trail are fantastic choices if you’re looking for solid, day-long hikes. If you’re short on time, the Chisos Basin Loop Trail is a moderate trek and just 1.8 miles in length.
Desert: The Chimneys Trail is a 4.8-mile round trip moderate hike that’s known for, well, its “chimneys.” The prominent volcanic rock formations are a signature landmark, with Indian rock art marking the base of these high pinnacles. Another option is the Grapevine Hills Trail, a shorter, 2.2-mile hike that leads through scrub and cactus to a group of perfectly balanced rocks.
River: The Santa Elena Canyon Trail is a classic Big Bend hike. This 1.7-mile out-and-back trail starts at the end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and follows the Rio Grande to the mouth of the gorge, the tallest in the park, where you’re left looking up in awe at the 1,500-foot limestone walls.
If you want a quick taste of all of Big Bend National Park from primarily the comfort of your vehicle, your best bet would be the 30-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The route highlights mountain, desert and river regions — as well as the geologic splendor the park is known for. The entire route is paved and the furthest point is Santa Elena Canyon.
Instead of going back the same way, you could also go on the Old Maverick Road, a dirt road that runs between the Maverick Junction park entrance and Santa Elena Canyon.
This 14-mile improved dirt road passes along the Terlingua Creek badlands on the west side of the park. It’s recommended to drive 4x4s here, but if you’re brave (and not in a rental), it’s passable for most vehicles. Before you go on, ask a ranger about road conditions.
A unique Big Bend activity is being able to paddle along the Rio Grande. This can be done on your own or through some independent outfitters that offer professionally guided trips from two hours to 10 days. However, both day-use and overnight boating trips require a permit.
Santa Elena Canyon and Boquillas Canyon are some of the more popular paddle trips in Big Bend.
Horseback riding, border crossing, stargazing and more
Want to bring your horse to ride at Big Bend? You can, as long as you get a backcountry permit in person at a park service visitor center up to 24 hours in advance.
As mentioned, you can even visit Mexico at Boquillas Crossing (not open during the pandemic). For $5 round-trip, visitors with a valid passport can be ferried across the Rio Grande on a small rowboat to the village of Boquillas. Once there, vendors sell goods and you can even pay to ride a burro.
You can also do some amazing stargazing at Big Bend National Park, known as one of the most outstanding places in North America to do it. It has the least light pollution of any other national park unit in the lower 48 states.
Finally, Big Bend has hot springs that you can bathe in, aptly named the Hot Springs Historic District. Unfortunately, during the pandemic, these springs are also closed.
How to get to Big Bend National Park
On the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, much of Big Bend’s appeal is its relative seclusion. (Hermits, rejoice.)
Therefore, getting to the park will typically require a significant amount of driving. Unless you’re part of a tour group, driving your own vehicle is the only option as there is no public transportation to or within Big Bend.
Several highways lead to the park. Options include Highway 118 from Alpine to Study Butte; Highway 170 from Presidio to Study Butte; and Highway 90 and Highway 385 to Marathon. Keep in mind that even when you enter the park grounds, it may still be a considerable distance to get to park headquarters or a visitor center.
A day trip from the artsy town of Marfa — a drive that I personally have done — is also possible. It’s about 100 miles (or about 90 minutes depending on traffic and weather conditions) in each direction. However, roads are desolate, so be prepared if you’re driving in the dark or in adverse weather conditions.
The nearest airports served by major airlines are located in Midland, Texas, about 235 miles from park headquarters. Further afield is El Paso’s airport, about 330 miles from the park. It’s possible to rent a car from either airport. (And you might want to rent a 4×4 if accessing every nook and cranny of the park is a must.)
Finally, if you’re looking to take Amtrak to the region, the closest station is located in Alpine, Texas, about 100 miles from Big Bend.
Where to stay in or near Big Bend National Park
Unlike some more popular national parks, Big Bend doesn’t have a large gateway town (think: Springdale next to Zion, for instance). That means not only are facilities more limited, but your accommodation options are fairly slim as well. If you’re looking to use points to stay near Big Bend, you’re mostly out of luck.
Chisos Mountains Lodge
Chisos Mountains Lodge is the only indoor, non-camping option located on the park grounds. This 72-room property is nestled within the Chisos Basin at a 5,400-foot elevation.
A selection of motel-style rooms and stone cottages are available, along with a restaurant and general store. While accommodations are fairly barebones, the location is perfect as a basecamp for hiking around the Chisos Mountains area of Big Bend. Nightly rates run for around $160 for a double room.
Beyond the park grounds
Outside the park, the closest town is Terlingua. A former mining community around the turn-of-the-last-century, it was the site of the first famous championship chili cook-off in 1967. Cute, right? Now, the historic “ghost town” has a few lodging and bed-and-breakfast style options, many of which are found on Airbnb.
At the northwest corner of Big Bend, approximately 20 miles from the Maverick Junction park entrance, is the four-star Lajitas Golf Resort and Spa. The hotel is even equipped with its own small airstrip so you can charter a flight to Big Bend’s entrance if you so choose.
If you’d rather stay in a slightly larger town, a day trip from the likes of Alpine, Marathon or Marfa is also possible. However, recognize that this will involve a considerable amount of driving.
But on the plus side, these areas are much more developed with a wider array of accommodation options, from small boutique properties to even points hotels such as the Hampton Inn in Alpine.
Within the park itself, camping is a popular choice with four front-country campgrounds (including one full hookup RV campground) and dozens of backpacking and primitive roadside options.
These are the front-country options. Note that reservations are required.
- Chisos Basin Campground (60 sites)
- Rio Grande Village Campground (100 sites)
- Cottonwood Campground (24 sites)
Rio Grande Village RV Park (25 sites with full hook-ups)
In the backcountry, permits are required and many sites are off-road in the desert, so plan your drive (and vehicle) accordingly. Don’t forget to bring a gallon of water per day, whether you’re on foot or in a 4×4.
Getting in and around Big Bend National Park
Driving is the name of the game in Big Bend. But not all roads are created equal.
The park has three different types of roads: paved roads, improved dirt roads and primitive dirt roads. If you really want to get off-the-beaten-path, you’ll need a vehicle with high clearance and 4×4 capabilities.
Road conditions can change rapidly, especially after rain, so it’s important to monitor weather conditions and speak to a ranger before going off-roading.
Within Big Bend, five visitor centers are scattered throughout the park; only the Chisos Basin and Panther Junction visitor centers are open year-round.
- Panther Junction Visitor Center
- Chisos Basin Visitor Center
- Castolon Visitor Center (open seasonally November 13 through April 30)
- Persimmon Gap Visitor Center (open seasonally November 5 through April 30)
- Rio Grande Village Visitor Center (open seasonally November 5 through April 30)
How many days should you plan for Big Bend?
You could spend weeks in Big Bend and still not see the park in its entirety.
However, there is only so much you can see from the paved roads. In fact, most of the park is only accessible through primitive dirt roads. Therefore, if you’re planning a longer stay, it might make sense to have a high clearance 4×4 vehicle.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you only have a day or so, you can still get a taste of what Big Bend has to offer. Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, a short 1.4-mile hike at Santa Elena Canyon and a quick visit to the Chisos Mountains is a solid day-long itinerary (and one that I’ve done myself).
With that said, a perfect sweet spot might be a long weekend in the park to truly explore the distinct regions of desert, mountain and river.
Big Bend National Park is a remote, hidden gem deep within south Texas.
If you’re looking for impressive solitude, a pristine night sky and miles upon miles of empty trails that lead to magnificent vistas, Big Bend truly can’t be beaten.
Featured photo by jamespharaon/Getty Images
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