Picking a national park is all about setting: Do you want deserts, forests, mountains, or water? Since everything’s bigger in Texas, Big Bend National Park has it all. Cacti-strewn deserts shift to the wooded slopes of imposing mountains before again changing to spectacular river canons where greenish water flows.
You can find Big Bend right next to the border, close to the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila. Texas’s biggest (and bendiest) national park spans over 800,000 acres and holds the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert in the US. Which means it’s a journey to get to.
Big Bend’s remoteness is one of its main attractions. Isolated and vast, this park embodies what’s so captivating about West Texas: It’s a quiet place where you can easily find solitude and appreciate what it means to be such a small part of our big, beautiful universe.
In the last couple of years, more and more people have been making the trip to experience Big Bend’s magic—a true testament to its wonders given the aforementioned distance that must be traversed to get there. In 2021, the park welcomed a record number of visitors: 581,221 to be exact. That’s quite something, considering that just 1,400 visitors came in 1944, the year the park first opened. And that number looks even better when you take into account the couple million that head to the most crowded national parks.
If you’re ready to see for yourself what the big deal is about Big Bend, here’s what you need to know to make the most out of your trip.
Know when not to go
Since Big Bend hugs a portion of the Texas-Mexico border, it should come as no surprise that summers here can get scorching. From June through August, the temperature can easily reach the 90s in some parts of the park. Some is worth specifying because temperatures by the river and in the park’s low desert areas can be around 10 to 20 degrees warmer than areas in the mountains.
Factoring that in, the best time to visit the park is sometime between October and April when the weather is cooler and you can camp and hike without sweating buckets. Needless to say, the holiday weeks and weekends during this stretch (Thanksgiving, Christmas, spring break, etc.) are when people come in droves, so unless you want to deal with the crowds, it’s best to steer clear of those specific periods.
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Speaking of crowds, timing your trip to avoid the park’s busiest periods isn’t just making your communing with nature as peaceful as possible—it affects logistics too. Since there’s limited parking at the most popular spots there are times when it becomes “one-in, one-out” to control the traffic. Who wants to wait for some people to finish their fun before you can have yours?
Choose your own adventure through deserts, water, or mountains
Some people refer to Big Bend National Park as three parks in one because of its distinct environments: desert, mountain, and river. While the Chihuahuan Desert covers a majority of the park’s area, the dramatic mountain portion of the park (which would be the Chisos Mountains) runs right through its middle. The river environments, meanwhile, exist along the twisty Rio Grande which marks the park’s winding, southern border.
Fun fact: The Chios is the only mountain range in the US that’s completely contained within a single national park.
When tackling this wide-ranging landscape, you might be comforted to know that Big Bend has not one, not two, but five visitor centers. Northernmost is Persimmon Gap Visitor Center which is the first one you’ll hit if you’re driving into the park through the town of Marathon. Next is Panther Junction Visitor Center which is considered the main visitor center and functions as the park headquarters with a post office. Also at the heart of the park is the Chisos Basin Visitor Center which serves as a great starting point for some of Big Bend’s best hikes. Then there’s the Castolon Visitor Center in the west and the Rio Grande Village Visitor Center in the east.
Must-do hikes amid towering rocks
So where should you even begin hiking when the park has over 150 miles of trails to explore? One way to narrow it down is to decide if you want to be in the desert, amid the mountains, or by the river.
For those who want to experience the enchantment of the Chihuahuan Desert, the Chimneys Trail is an essential option. This moderately difficult trail is 4.8 miles total, there and back, and delivers you to the aforementioned “chimneys,” a stretch of volcanic dike formations (if you want to get all technical about it) looking like strange, rocky pillars. One of the coolest things about this hike is not necessarily what you pass along the way but what you can see when you reach your destination: millennia-old pictographs and petroglyphs on the rock face of one of the chimneys.
If the mountains are calling your name, then you’re in for a real treat with the South Rim trail. There’s no denying that this hike is a difficult one. It’s 12 to 14.5 miles round trip plus there’s a 2,000-feet elevation gain—but anyone who takes on the challenge will be rewarded with absolutely incredible views of the undulating peaks and valleys of the Chihuahuan Desert all the way to Mexico. Many would agree it’s the most scenic hike in the whole park. If you have enough energy tack on the side trip to Emory Peak, the highest point in the Chisos Mountains and you’ll feel like you’re on top of the world.
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Anyone who is soothed by the tranquil sight and sound of water as they hike must do the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. Its low effort and high reward with this one, seeing as it’s just 1.7 miles round trip of relatively easy walking. The views are frankly stunning as you find yourself flanked by looming canyon walls and the river cuts its way through the impressive rock formations. If ever there was a classic Big Bend photo op, it’s here.
See miles of scenic roads and countless stars
Aside from hiking, another way to enjoy this massive park is just by driving its various scenic roads. For example, the 30-mile-long Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive holds up to its name taking you by noteworthy spots like the Mules Ears viewpoint (where you can see two jagged rock formations that jut up resembling donkey’s ears), Sam Nail Ranch (a historic homestead built in 1916), and Santa Elena Canyon (get those cameras ready).
If you have a high-clearance 4WD vehicle you can check out the most remote part of the already very remote Big Bend by driving the 51 miles of the River Road. Don’t get confused by the name—you won’t get to see the Rio Grande along the way but the rough road does generally follow its curves. Remember though, off-road driving isn’t allowed.
Stargazing is another must-do while visiting Big Bend. Not only is the park designated as an International Dark Sky Park but according to the NPS website it actually has the least light pollution of any national park in the continental United States. Basically, you won’t have to try very hard or go anywhere special to witness the dazzling display but one particularly lovely way to go about it is to spend an evening soaking in the warm water at the Hot Springs and looking up at all that beauty above.
Where to stay in and around Big Bend
Since it takes a long time to reach the park—and then once there, you can spend a good amount of time just getting around within the park—it’s not a good idea to expect to find a campsite when you arrive; booking in advance is crucial if you plan on camping at Big Bend. Seriously, reservations for the developed campgrounds are required. These campgrounds are pretty much guaranteed to be full every night from November through April and there’s no first-come, first-serve situation here.
You definitely don’t want to be that person who just spent who knows how many hours driving to Big Bend to realize you’ll have to drive an hour or more back out to find somewhere to stay because there are no overflow campsites. And don’t even think about setting up camp in a parking lot or along the park roads, because you will get in trouble—sorry ‘bout it.
So, on to the options. For camping within Big Bend, you have four developed campgrounds to choose from: Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, Cottonwood, and Rio Grande Village RV Park. You can book your site up to six months in advance, so get to planning. If you’re someone who waits a little bit longer before making a move, there are a limited number of sites available for reservation up to 14 days in advance, but again—planning ahead pays big time with this out-of-the-way national park. There are also backcountry campsites, and you’ll need a permit for those.
If there are no developed campsites within the park available during the time of your planned visit, don’t assume your big Big Bend camping adventure is dashed. There are still some camping options outside the park in nearby areas like Study Butte, Terlingua, and Lajitas.
Want to be in the heart of the action but rather not rough it? Then check out the Chisos Mountains Lodge with its simple but comfortable rooms and cottages. It’s actually the only lodging available in the whole park so really it’s either that or staying somewhere outside the park. In terms of the latter, you can find some pretty cool accommodations in Terlingua like cute casitas, unique tipis, vintage trailers, and luxurious bubble domes.
Big Bend is a land of strong beauty—often savage and always imposing.