In 2017, Big Bend National Park had over 442,641 visitors, making 2017 its busiest year on record! Park visits were especially high during the month of March when the weather is typically mild, the cacti are in bloom and many are on spring break. Typically, the Chisos Mountain Lodge is fully booked this time of year and the campground and backcountry sites are hard to come by if you haven’t booked in advance.
Big Bend is a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts. It offers visitors spectacular scenic vistas, hundreds of miles of hiking trails and roads for exploring, the mighty Rio Grande River for float trips and some of the darkest night skies in the lower 48. We thoroughly enjoyed our recent trip and wished we had more time in this amazing park!
These are the reasons why we know you’ll fall for Big Bend, too!
There are a ton of great hikes and things to do in Big Bend National Park, which are covered in detail in our 16+ page itinerary for Big Bend National Park.
1) BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK: LOST MINE TRAIL
If you only have time for one hike in Big Bend, all five of us agree that it should be the Lost Mine Trail! It was the first hike we took mid afternoon (shortly after we’d entered the park). This moderately steep 4.6-mile trail follows a series of switchbacks and offers stunning views of the Chisos Basin and Casa Grande for much of the hike.
The trail ends at the Juniper Canyon overlook. We enjoyed a snack and took in the amazing views with little company. Though we met some hikers returning to the trailhead when we were on our way up, we were the last ones out for the day! The whole trip should take about 3 hours.
NOTE: If you hike this trail in the warmer months, make sure to set out early in the morning to increase your chances of being in the shade and getting a parking spot. The parking area is small (about 20 cars) and the only other parking areas are small pull-offs located further down Chisos Basin Road.
See our blog for more details on the Lost Mine Trail.
2) CHISOS BASIN IN BIG BEND
The Chisos Basin is located in the heart of Big Bend, and the uphill drive into the basin area yields a dramatic shift from a desert landscape to forest. The Basin supports an entirely different ecosystem than the rest of the park. Signs warn of bears and mountain lions, and abundant trees provide shade from the often intense Texas heat. Many come here for lodging—both a campground and the Chisos Mountain Lodge are located here in the shadow of Casa Grande. You’ll also find the only restaurant in the park, as well as a visitor center, ranger station, gift shop and convenience store. However, the main draw here is the dramatic Window, a v-shaped opening in the basin wall.
The short, paved Window View Trail is an excellent spot from which to watch sunset or just take in the beautiful basin views. There are also a variety of more challenging trails originating from the Chisos Basin area.
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3) THE WINDOW TRAIL
After witnessing sunset at the Window View Trail, we were excited to set off on the popular Window Trail early the next morning to get a closer look. Although there are two trailheads, we chose to begin our hike from the basin campground (a shorter and slightly easier hike than the one which begins at the visitor center). From the Chisos Basin campground, the trail is 4.4 miles roundtrip.
The trail down into the basin follows a drainage shaded by trees.
As we neared the basin’s pour-off, the walls of the canyon started to close in around us and the trail changed from dirt to solid rock.
Although dry at the time of our hike, all the rain and snowmelt in the basin drains from this area into the desert below and carves a path out to the Window. The rock at the very end is extremely slick, so be sure to enjoy the view of the desert from a safe spot rather than risking a look over the edge! And be sure to refuel and hydrate before heading back.
Although the hike down to the Window seems relatively easy, the walk back is uphill. Allow 2-2 ½ hours for this hike. (Add on another hour if you choose to hike from the trailhead near the visitor center.)
NOTE: We recommend hiking early in the morning for two reasons--to avoid crowds and beat the heat! Even with cooler February temperatures, we were getting warm on the way back.
We covered this in detail in our blog on hiking the Window Trail.
4) SCENIC DRIVES IN BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
Big Bend’s extensive network of roads allows access to interior areas of this vast park. There are over a hundred miles of paved roads and another 150 miles of dirt roads to explore. If you have a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle, you have access to dozens of remote campsites and hiking areas. Otherwise, travel on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive or Chisos Basin Road to take in the sights and vistas from the many pull-offs and overlooks. If you don’t mind taking it slow but like to get off the beaten path, then the unpaved Old Maverick Road might be the one for you!
5) SANTA ELENA CANYON
If you’ve taken the time to travel down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to the west side of the park, the Santa Elena Canyon trail is a must-do! This relatively easy 1.4-mile hike starts where the Terlingua Creek and Rio Grande River meet and involves crossing the Terlingua Creek. When we hiked in February, the creek was barely running, and we were able to keep our feet dry.
If the park has had recent rain, you may want to be prepared with appropriate footwear that can get wet. After crossing the creek, the trail climbs up a series of switchbacks that lead into the canyon.
The trail first becomes a wide ledge above the river and then continues down along the banks of the Rio Grande.
This was the perfect place to spend the afternoon, as it provides some shady relief from the strong afternoon sun. We hear it’s also a great spot to watch sunrise!
Big Bend National Park’s diverse landscape has so much to offer, and we can assure you that it is worth the long drive to get here! We only had a couple of days in Big Bend, but we could have easily stayed longer.
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OTHER TIPS WHEN HIKING AND EXPLORING BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
- Carrying plenty of water is a must in this dry landscape. We recommend using a water pack in your backpack, and our favorite is the Platypus Hydration bladder. You’ll want to make sure that you fill up your water at the Visitor Center, just west if you haven’t already.
- Flash floods can occur in Big Bend, so stay out of low lying areas if there is rain in the forecast.
- Wildlife can be found throughout the park, including bears and javelinas, the later of which are known for having a nasty temper. While elusive, you should also be aware that snakes and scorpions can also be in the desert, so keep an eye out!
- Gas stations are rare in this part of Texas, so if you find your car down to a half tank, make sure you fill up at the next service station. Prices may be high, but towing costs are even higher!
- While Big Bend is crowded only during certain times of the year, many of the parking lots are small and fill up fast. Our blog on How to Avoid Crowds in National Parks might be of use as well to help stay ahead of the rest of the visitors!
FURTHER BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK INFORMATION FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS
- There are a ton of great hikes and things to do in Big Bend National Park, which are is covered in detail in our 16+ page itinerary for Big Bend National Park.
- For details on one of our favorite hikes in Big Bend National Park, check out our blog on the Lost Mine Trail.
- Nearby to Big Bend National Park are Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Park. We offer detailed itineraries for both parks!
ADDITIONAL GREAT HIKES IN BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
Besides the hikes highlighted above, Big Bend National Park has many great hikes to offer for families and experts alike. We thought it would be beneficial to include a few of them here:
Rio Grande Village Area:
- The Hot Springs Trail is an easy 1.2-mile hike that ends at the Hot Springs. This can be crowded, but it’s for a good reason, as it has great views and access to the river.
Chisos Basin Area:
- The challenging Emory Peak Trail is a 9.3-mile (round trip) hike to the highest point in the park with panoramic views. If you are an experienced hiker, make sure you do this trail!
- The Grapevine Hills Trail climbs 285 ft. over 1.1 miles (one-way) to Balanced Rock, which is frequently a hit with kids in particular.
- The Tuff Canyon Trail is an easy, 0.6-mile jaunt from the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive with views into the mouth of the canyon.
CAMPING IN AND AROUND BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
There are three campgrounds inside of Big Bend National Park:
- The Chisos Basin Campground is by far the most popular campground, due to its excellent location. It is surrounded by mountains and some locations have a view to the Windows. It is also right near the Windows Trail and close by the General Store. Reservations can be made here and are available during the peak times of the year (call up to six months in advance). A limited number of group sites are also available.
- The Rio Grande Village Campground is right alongside the Rio Grande River with good access to the Hot Springs area. The campground is cooler than other parts of the park, though it can still get very hot here. Reservations can be made here (call up to six months in advance).
- The Cottonwood campground is located near Santa Elena Canyon. The campground is small and quiet, but reservations are not accepted. This is in a remote part of the park, though there is a small store in nearby Castalon.
More detailed information on campgrounds in Big Bend is can be found on the National Park site.
Outside the park, the best options for camping are as follows:
- Terlingua, TX has several options and is located just outside the western park entrance.
- Marathon, TX is located about 45 miles north of the park.
WHEN TO GO AND WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU GET TO BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
Big Bend is out of the way, so be prepared to drive and feel “in the middle of nowhere.” The nearest city that offers commercial flights is El Paso, TX, which is located about 4:30 min northwest of the western entrance.
The park receives about 380,000 visitors annually, with most of them coming in the cooler months of the year (November to May). The local flora blooms in March and April, a, which routinely have the greatest crowds. Summertime is generally very lightly attended, as the temperatures average over 100 degrees in June and July and don’t really cool off below 75 degrees in the evening.
WHAT ELSE TO DO WHEN VISITING BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
Since Big Bend is so remote there isn’t much else to do in the immediate vicinity. However, if you are willing to drive a bit, there are quite a few options worth exploring.
- If you happen to be traveling through El Paso, make sure you check out Liz and Chanelle’s post on the El Paso Mission Trail. They’ll provide you all that you need to know to keep yourself busy for at least a day in the city!
- Big Bend Ranch State Park is located adjacent to Big Bend on the western side and is a fantastic place to visit if you want more of what Big Bend has to offer.
- Franklin Mountains State Park is located in El Paso, TX, about 4.5 hours away. This is a great place to go for camping, mountain biking, hiking and rock climbing.
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park is located about 4 hours north in Salt Flat, TX. This is an excellent location for hiking, particularly in the cooler months of the year.
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located right near Guadalupe Mountains, just around 4 hours north in Carlsbad, NM. This popular location contains a deep underground cave system that is great to explore anytime of year.
- White Sands National Monument is located about 6 hours northwest and contains white sand dunes where visitors can sled! This sand stays cool, even in the summertime (though the sun is still plenty hot!).
WHAT TO PACK FOR YOUR VISIT
- One of the most useful pieces of information that we recommend when hiking in Big Bend is the Big Bend National Park (National Geographic Illustrated Map). It is waterproof and hard to rip, but mainly it contains phenomenal maps to help with navigation. Additionally, it can help identify landmarks not shown on National Park Maps.
- Our favorite water bottle is not a bottle at all, but rather the Platypus Hydration bladder. This goes right in your backpack, carries a ton of water and is easy to clean. They have sizes for kids as well.
- Our itineraries offer good hiking information, but the Falcon Hiking Guide for Big Bend National Park goes into great detail on each hike in the park.
OTHER USEFUL INFORMATION ON BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
- The National Park Service has a ton of information on Big Bend National Park, including Big Bend National Park maps and lodging information.
- A brief overview of hiking information is available in this link: day hikes in Big Bend National Park
- There are several Scenic drives in the park, and this link provides an overview of what you'll find on these drives.
- If you plan on any backcountry adventures, check out: Backcountry use
- Chisos Mountain Lodge has a great, central location in the park and is a great place to make your "home base."
- Right Kind of Lost shared her experiences in the park in the wintertime as well and was able to see parts of the park that we didn't get to. Check out her blog here.
- For some incredible photos in Big Bend National Park, check out "Images from Texas" here.