The Ultimate Big Bend National Park Road Trip

Thanks to the park’s varied terrain, you can choose between desert, mountain, and river hikes, or hop in your car and explore the park on four wheels

Big Bend National Park has it all—vast amounts of open space, rivers, canyons, pictographs, and hot springs. Located in southwest Texas, the park can be wonderfully warm in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer offering year-round access to some of the most beautiful terrain in the state. Big Bend National Park is where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Chisos Mountains and it’s where you’ll find the Santa Elena Canyon, a limestone cliff canyon carved by the Rio Grande.

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Big Bend National Park abuts the border with Mexico across a stunning stretch of southwestern Texas where evenings are defined by an orange sky and red canyon walls and where chirps of yellow meadowlarks and the sounds of the Rio Grande fill the air. While such stunning scenes are commonplace within Big Bend, the massive desert preserve remains overlooked among U.S. national parks—it has never surpassed 500,000 annual visitors since its designation in 1944.

The lack of tourists is likely due to the park’s extreme remoteness: Big Bend lies 300 miles from El Paso, the nearest major metropolitan area, and is geographically isolated within a massive turn of the Rio Grande from which the park gets its name. Those who brave the miles will find the journey is filled with natural riverfront hot springs, luminous night skies, and secluded mountain trails. Here is how to make the most of your trip to one of the more underrated national parks in America.

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Pick the right season and give yourself plenty of time

With its southerly location and exposure to the elements, triple-digit temperature stretches in the summer months are not uncommon and threaten to turn the most well-intentioned hiker into a sweaty, sunburned mess. A better experience is found in winter and autumn but spring comes with the double bonus of long daylight hours and wildflower season. If you do go in the summer make sure to bring lots and lots of water, sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat (I prefer a Tilley), and plan your excursions around the heat. Winters can also get surprisingly chilly—averages hover around 60 degrees but can dip into the forties—so dress warmly if you plan your trip in the colder months.

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Big Bend is among the largest national parks in the United States. With numerous trails, mountains, canyons, and nearby villages to explore; each point of interest could easily yield itself to days of exploration. For the best experience resist making a set plan—allow yourself plenty of time to explore and discover each desert sanctuary at your own pace.

While the paved roads make it possible to explore much of the park’s natural beauty, many of the more obscure sights are hidden deep within the park’s interior on rough, dirt roads. To explore this rugged area bring a vehicle with four-wheel drive, plenty of ground clearance, and good tires.

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Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife and gaze at the night skies

Roadrunners, sparrows, and warblers are among the 450 species of birds found within Big Bend, home to more birds than any other national park. With a keen eye and a bit of luck, you can also spot jackrabbits, coyotes, black bears, mountain lions (known in Big Bend as panthers), and javelina—a hairier cousin to the familiar pig. Sunrise and sunset observations are recommended for optimal wildlife spotting and while the average smartphone may suffice take a camera capable of capturing the brilliant scenery at night.

This is dark sky country. Due to its relative isolation from major cities, this side of West Texas has some of the lowest levels of light pollution in the country. Thousands of stars are visible on a clear night and even the Milky Way can be seen under the darkest conditions earning it a designation by The International Dark-Sky Association. Consider bringing a telescope or simply lie down at night, looking up, and see what appears above.

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Pass through Marfa on the way in and Terlingua Ghost Town on the way out

The tiny, peculiar artistic town of Marfa is about 100 miles north of Big Bend. Here you’ll find the El Cosmico hotel with rooms consisting of brightly colored vintage trailers, tepees, and yurts. The town acts as a venue for the annual Trans-Pecos festival in September containing a weekend’s worth of art, building, and songwriting workshops, artisanal markets, pop-up parties, live music of all genres, and the tense yearly sandlot baseball showdown between Austin’s Texas Playboys and the Los Yonke Gallos de Marfa.

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Travel 30 minutes north on U.S. 90 to find the famous Prada Marfa art installation in neighboring Valentine, a tiny, fake store isolated within the surrounding landscape and complete with actual Prada shoes and handbags from the fall 2005 collection. Try heading east about 10 miles to watch for the mysterious Marfa Lights off of U.S. 67. Sometimes they’re red, sometimes they’re green, and sometimes they’re white. Visible at night regardless of season or weather, nobody is quite sure what causes them.

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From Marfa travel 30 miles east on U.S. 90 to the town of Alpine and take TX-118 for 80 miles due south to Terlingua at the gates of Big Bend. The remnants of a mercury mining camp from the early 20th century, the former ghost town has become known for its charming assortment of gift shops, earthy hotels, and its famous chili cook-off in early November. Check out the Terlingua Trading Company for handmade gifts and grab a bite of chips and guacamole and catch live honky-tonk music at the old Starlight Theater Restaurant and Saloon. Spend a few days at Paisano Village RV Park & Inn to further explore the area.

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Take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and see Santa Elena Canyon in west Big Bend

At the western end of the park coming from Terlingua, the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is perfect for single-day trips. The paved road covers 30 miles of gorgeous desert scenery including stops at landmarks such as Sotol Vista, Tuff Canyon, and Mule Ears. The road ends at Santa Elena, one of the numerous river canyons within Big Bend.

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Tour the Chisos Mountains in central Big Bend

In the center of Big Bend lies the Chisos Mountains, the only mountain range in the United States fully contained within a single national park. Given their relatively high elevation—the summit of Emory Peak stands at 7,835 feet—the Chisos are typically 10 to 20 degrees cooler than the adjacent desert and home to a wide variety of shady juniper, mesquite, and oak. Within the 20 miles of trails here it’s a fairly easy hike to a beautiful view at the summit of Emory Peak. Camping is available here as well at the Chisos Basin Campground. If camping isn’t for you, try the stone cottages at the Chisos Mountain Lodge the only hotel within the park.

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Visit the Hot Springs Historic District and Ernst Tinaja in east Big Bend

The eastern side of the park is home to Big Bend Hot Springs, a geothermally heated oasis now sitting within the remnants of an early 1900s bathhouse. Once a gathering place for locals, soak in the year-round 105-degree waters said to have healing properties and enjoy unobstructed views of the Rio Grande and into Mexico. A short trail passes Native American petroglyphs on the adjoining limestone cliffs and the still-standing Hot Springs Post Office where mail was delivered every Monday in the early 20th century.

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What to know about camping in Big Bend National Park

When night falls, you’ll want to have an already reserved campsite so all you have to do is settle in. Here’s everything you need to know to secure that perfect Big Bend National Park camping spot.

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There are four campgrounds inside Big Bend National Park—three park-operated camping areas with various services and one by an outside company. The three park-run campgrounds are Chisos Basin Campground, Rio Grande Village Campground, and Cottonwood Campground. All require advance reservations booked (up to 6 months in advance) through recreation.gov.

Chisos Basin Campground sits in a scenic mountain basin with views of Casa Grande and Emory Peak. There are plenty of hiking trails nearby, including Window Trail, a popular place to watch the sunset. The year-round campground has 60 sites with access to flush toilets, running water, and a dump station. There are no hook-ups, and trailers over 20 feet and RVs over 24 feet are not recommended.

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The year-round Rio Grande Village Campground is nestled in a grove of trees near the Rio Grande. This is the place to go if you want access to more amenities—a store, laundromat, and visitor center are nearby. The park has 100 sites with access to flush toilets, running water, showers, and some sites with overhead shelters. A dump station is nearby.

The small Cottonwood Campground is more remote than the other campgrounds and has fewer services but tends to be quieter with plenty of shade. Cottonwood is a seasonal campground –(open November 1 to April 30) with 24 camp spots—all without hookups or generators.

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While certain park-operated campgrounds allow RVs, you’ll want to head to the Rio Grande Village RV Park (operated by Forever Resorts) for a camping experience tailored to RV campers. All 25 sites at Rio Grande Village have full hook-ups—water, electrical, and sewer—and are built for RVs. The campground sits adjacent to the Rio Grande Village Store and allows pets. For reservations, call 432-477-2293.

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Fact Box

Size: 801,163 acres

Date Established: June 12, 1944

Location: Southwest Texas

Recreational visits in 2020: 393,907

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How the park got its name: Big Bend was named for the prominent bend of the Rio Grande River that runs through it along with the United States and Mexico border.  

Did you know? Big Bend has more species of scorpions (14) than any other national park, including some species that have been found nowhere else in the world.

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Worth Pondering…

Big Bend is a land of strong beauty—often savage and always imposing.

—Lon Garrison

The Surfing Sands of Monohans

Amid an expanse of creosote bushes, the Monahans sand dunes are something you have to see to believe

A virtual island in a Permian Basin sea, the narrow strip of sand dunes runs for 200 miles from just south of Monahans north into New Mexico and creates a unique habitat that’s home to a variety of wildlife and supports one of the world’s largest oak forests—albeit the oaks themselves are of the diminutive variety.

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Most of these dunes are stabilized by vegetation, but the park is one area where many dunes are still active. Active dunes grow and change shape in response to seasonal, prevailing winds. At Monahans Sandhills State Park, the visitor will experience a dynamic landscape.

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Fresh water occurs at shallow depths within the dune field and sometimes stands in shallow ponds in low areas between dunes. A quiet vigil near such ponds at dusk or dawn is the best way to observe wildlife such as mule deer, gray fox, coyote, bobcat, opossum, wild hog, porcupine, skunk, ground squirrel, jackrabbit, and cottontail.

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Once inside the state park, rent a sand saucer and head to the back of the park (1.8 miles from the visitor center) where you’ll find huge 30-foot-tall sand dunes reminiscent of the Sahara Desert. Your youngsters will have a blast surfing the big dunes and climbing the sand hills.

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Monahans Sandhills State Park consists of 3,840 acres of wind-sculpted sand dunes, some up to 70 feet high, in West Texas, 38 miles southwest of Odessa on Interstate 20.

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More than 400 years ago, Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to report the vast hills of sand. These sand hills once presented an enormous problem for pioneers and their wagon trains as they moved through the state.

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Native Americans were present in this area as far back as 12,000 years ago. Various Indian tribes used the area for temporary campgrounds and a meeting place, finding game, abundant fresh water beneath the sands, acorns, and mesquite beans for grinding into paste with their stone tools.

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The area remained a favorable environment for Indians until the 1880s, when the Texas and Pacific Railroad selected Monahans as a water stop between the Pecos River and the town of Big Spring. In the late 1920s, oil production began in the area, now commonly known as the Permian Basin, and today Monahans is a marketing center for more than 800 square miles of oil and cattle country.

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This water has also been the source of nourishment for one of the largest oak forests in the country. However, the Harvard oaks that cover more than 40,000 acres here seldom rise above three feet in height, even though their root structure may extend as deep as 70 to 90 feet in the silica dunes that gave Monohans Sandhills State Park its name.

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The name honors American botanist Valery Havard (1846-1927). The tallest Havard oaks makes it to only four feet, but even though short, it can live up to 300 years.

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Though most visitors come to the park to play on the Sahara-like dunes, the Harvard oak forest is readily accessible from the two-mile, paved roadway winding through the park. Though too small for climbing, swings, or a tree house, these little-known trees play a vital part in the park’s ecosystem, adding stability to the sand dunes that attract thousands of visitors annually.

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The park offers an interpretive center and museum, as well as picnicking and RV camping and a favorite activity of many visitors, sand surfing. The 26 campsites offer electric and water hookups, picnic table, and a shade shelter.

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The Dunagan Visitor Center features hands-on exhibits of the cultural and natural history of the Sandhills, including Dune Dynamics, Permian Basin Heritage, and Wildlife Habitat. Scenic windows offer spectacular viewing of birds and other wildlife as they come for food and water. Park orientation is available. Sand toboggans and disks, for “surfing” on the sand dunes, can be rented at park headquarters.

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But, what really makes this park special and sets it apart is the fun you can have on sand.

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Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…
The forces of nature and their impact on the Texas landscape and sky combine to offer an element of drama that would whet the imagination of artists from any medium.

—Wyman Meinzer

Fort Davis National Historic Site: Frontier Military Post

A key post in the defense system of western Texas, Fort Davis played a major role in the history of the Southwest

Set in the rugged beauty of the Davis Mountains of West Texas, Fort Davis is the best surviving example of an Indian Wars frontier military post and one of the best preserved Buffalo Soldier forts in the Southwest. Fort Davis was strategically located to protect emigrants, mail coaches, and freight wagons on the Trans-Pecos portion of the San Antonio-El Paso Road and the Chihuahua Trail, and to control activities on the southern stem of the Great Comanche and Mescalero Apache war trails.

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Fort Davis is important in understanding the presence of African Americans in the West and in the frontier military; the 24th and 25th U.S. Infantry and the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry, all-black regiments established after the Civil War, were stationed at the post. When not chasing renegade bands of Apache or bandits, the soldiers helped build roads and telegraph lines.

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The soldiers, most of whom were former slaves from southern plantations, worked long, hard hours for little pay and marginal living conditions, yet they had excellent morale. The black regiments had fewer problems with alcoholism and desertion than the army did overall. They took part in most of the major military expeditions on the Texas frontier and earned a reputation as good soldiers among whites and Native Americans.

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The Apaches and Comanches called them Buffalo Soldiers because of their skin color. Despite their notable military accomplishments on the Texas frontier, black soldiers didn’t serve alongside white soldiers again until the Second World War. 

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Fort Davis doesn’t look like the Western forts depicted in Western movies. Instead of log walls, it was surrounded by the cliffs of a box canyon on three sides. Fort Davis National Historic Site on the edge of Fort Davis looks pretty impressive from the heights of the Scenic Overlook Trail. From this advantage, you can hear the recorded bugle call from the visitor center in the valley below while Sleeping Lion Mountain stands guard on the horizon.

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Soldiers occupied the fort from 1854 to 1891. From 1867 to 1885, Fort Davis was Regimental Head­quar­ters for the four Buffalo Soldier regiments serving in the West. After the military left, civilians moved into many of the buildings. The new occupants helped preserve the officers’ quarters, hospital, and enlisted men’s barracks.

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President Lyndon Johnson turned Fort Davis into a 460-acre national historic site administered by the National Park Service in 1963.

Fort Davis National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, twenty-four roofed buildings and over 100 ruins and foundations are part of Fort Davis National Historic Site. The site is well maintained and thoughtfully restored with interpretive and historical displays, an excellent book shop, and a museum. Five of the historic buildings have been refurnished to the 1880s, making it easy for visitors to envision themselves being at the fort at the height of its development. 

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Three hiking trails climb from the Fort, with two links to the hiking trail at Davis Mountains State Park. Small plaques explain natural features and their value to the Fort when it was active.

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Fort Davis National Historic Site symbolizes the era of westward migration and the essence of the late 19th century U. S. Army. It is a vivid reminder of the significant role played by the military in the settlement and development of the western frontier.

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Fort Davis National Historic Site is situated at the eastern side of the rugged Davis Mountains at an elevation that ranges from approximately 4,880 feet at the fort to approximately 5,220 feet in the Davis Mountains. Annual rainfall averages 19 inches.

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Fort Davis National Historic Site is on the northern edge of the town of Fort Davis. The site opens daily from 8am to 5pm. The $10 per person (or $20 per vehicle) admission fee helps maintain the interpretative programs and four miles of hiking trails.

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Worth Pondering…

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,

Healthy, free, the world before me,

The long brown trail before me leading wherever I choose.

—Walt Whitman