A Guide to Visiting Big Bend National Park
Visit Big Bend National Park in West Texas
I remember as a little kid how so many people would drive out to West Texas to Big Bend for their vacations. It seemed insane to drive so far, 8-10 hours in a car at that age sounded like absolute torture. I felt grateful we didn't go ourselves. But after completing a month-long road trip in South Africa in January (read about that here), the 8 hours from Austin to Big Bend sounded like a piece of cake and we went for it.
It was absolutely worth it y'all, and now I'm obsessed with both Big Bend AND road trips. I have so many US National Parks on my dream bucket list now, like Zion and Yellowstone.
When to visit Big Bend
Big Bend is busiest during Spring Break and during the December holiday breaks. Everywhere we read advised against visiting in the summer because, obviously, it's a desert in the summer. But with the decision between visiting in the summer or not at all, we chose to visit with the summer heat upon us. It was hardly insufferable. I'd say the only thing we were unable to do was hike through the desert itself. That said, if you can visit in the Spring, ideally April (after Spring Break), you'll have the best weather.
How to get there to Big Bend
From the east, from the Houston/Austin/San Antonio area, you can take Hwy 90 or I-10. We chose to take Hwy 90 on the way there, making stops in Bracketville (Ft. Clark & a spring-fed pool), Del Rio (for lunch), and Langtry (Judge Roy Bean Museum). We took I-10 on the way home. The speed limit is higher on I-10 so maybe you'll save a little bit of time, but I found the difference to be minimal. I recommend stopping at the Caverns of Sonora. It will take around 6-7 hours without stops.
From Dallas, you can take I-20 straight through to Big Bend in about 8 hours. If it were me, I'd add a few days to the trip and make a detour to Marfa, stopping in the Davis Mountains for Ft. Davis and the McDonald Observatory on the way. Plan your trip right and you can go to a Star Party.
Flying in, the closest airports are in El Paso or in Midland. Rent a car and drive 4.5 hours (from El Paso) or 3 hours (from Midland).
I never said it was easy to get to, but most good things aren't easy, are they?
Big Bend Entry Fees
$25 will get you a week's entrance for one vehicle (regardless of the number of people in said vehicle). $20 for a motorcycle $12 for those daring enough to bicycle (this actually sounds fun given the right weather), or pedestrians (are you crazy?) All of these passes last 7 days.
Always keep an eye on your gas tank. Don't be a gambler with that last quarter tank. The distances are large, I filled up whenever I was below half a tank and passing a station. Maybe it was overkill but you don't see me stranded in the desert, do you? Also, always keep water and snacks on you, same reason as above. No one wants a hangry tourist wandering the desert plains.
things to do in Big Bend
So much. The park consists of three different sections: desert, river, and mountains. I'd recommend having at least three days to be able to do everything justice, but the more the better. We had three days and left with plenty of things undone, left for next time.
Big Bend is one of the largest national parks in the United States. It's also one of the most isolated, therefore one of the least visited. Their loss, our gain, because we were able to enjoy the park in peace, often going large stretches of time without passing another hiker or car. We were told it's the only national park to enclose an entire mountain range, the Chisos, within its borders.
Start at Panther Junction
The Panther Junction Visitor Center is a great starting point. You can get a good look at a map and ask the ranger any questions you have. You have access to WiFi, bathrooms and can re-fill your water bottles here. Speaking of...
What to pack for Big Bend
Big Bend National Park is very isolated, so it's best to come prepared. What to bring to Big Bend? Prepare yourself for heat and sun!
Water, they recommend 1 gallon per person per day. We had large bottles that we re-filled at every camp or visitor site we passed.
Clothing to protect you from the sun: a hat, sunglasses, a light but long sleeved shirt
Lunch and salty snacks
If you’ll be camping, bring all your equipment. Consider the fact that you’ll probably be hiking a long distance to get to the campsite so pack lightweight sleeping bags.
See Dinosaurs at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit
Not far from Panther Junction is the Fossil Discovery Exhibit. I definitely had no idea that the land Big Bend occupies is home to one of the nation's richest deposits of fossils. The new museum pavilion was really interesting. I admit I mainly went to have a break from the sun, but it was fascinating. Texas at one point, millions of years ago, looked similar to what the Maldives look like today.
This area was an ocean bed, and was home to alligator ancestors the size of a large yellow school bus! Volcanic activity, lush forests, fish that make sharks look tame, and enormous dinosaur fossils, Texas has a lot more to it than I knew.
Explore the Chisos Mountains
We visited in the peak summer heat of August and the advice we got over and over was to find the Chisos Basin and not look back! It really is a stark contrast from the flat, hot desert to suddenly be gaining altitude surrounded by pine trees and signs warning of bears.
Enjoy the Sunset
Watch the sunset from the Window View Trail (above), just steps away from the Chisos Mountain Lodge. This "trail" is a short quarter mile paved path with benches to enjoy the view. Grab a snack or a drink and enjoy the view.
Hike the many trails
There are more than 150 miles of hiking trails in Big Bend. In three days we only covered about 20. Read my post here for the best hikes in Big Bend.
Drive the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
This 30-mile drive through the desert towards the Santa Elena Canyon is quite the stunner. Stop at the Sotol and Mule Ears viewpoints for some picture-worthy views. If you have the energy, hike out to the Mule Ears, or take one of the other shorter desert hikes you'll see signs for.
Continue on to the Castolon Historic District, amidst these turn of the century cavalry buildings you'll find a rest stop and a camper store. Fill your water bottles and continue from here onwards to the Santa Elena Canyon, you can take a short hike into the gorgeous canyon.
Go on a Desert Safari
At first glance, a desert may seem barren but keep your eyes open because it's teeming with life. We saw coyotes, three rattlesnakes (from the safety of our car), jackrabbits, kangaroo rats, and more. We saw animals mainly in the mornings (coyote) or in the evenings (snakes), rather than in the heat of the day. On our hikes in the Chisos, we came across deer and jackrabbits, but we weren't lucky enough to get a rare mountain lion or black bear sighting.
Go to Mexico
You can cross the border into Mexico and visit Boquillas del Carmen. It's easy, safe and you only need about half a day for the visit. Besides our hikes, this was my favorite thing we did in Big Bend. We crossed the border at around 10 am and enjoyed a relaxing lunch of homemade enchiladas overlooking the Rio Grande.
If you're interested in going to Boquillas, read my post here for the details.
Go on a River Trip
There are many options to go on guided canoe trips down the Rio Grande. Choose what works best for your skill level and time limitations. You can choose an easy half day or full day trip, overnight or multi-day trips. We didn't have time for this, so I don't have any particular tour I can personally recommend. However, most seem to offer generally the same thing in regards to half-day and full-day trips, with prices starting at $79. Offerings seem to differ when it comes to multi-day trips, so if you're yearning for more adventure be sure to compare your options.
Be an adventurer, pitch your tent, and enjoy the stars. Camping obviously seems to be the way to go, with campsites all over the park. But, what do I know about camping? Absolutely nothing. If you're like me, you can find more comfortable lodgings at the Chisos Mountain Lodge. For more budget options, look at Terlingua right outside the park gates.
I know the distance can be off-putting but embrace the road trip. Plan fun pit stops and look at the drive as part of the trip, not just something you have to endure, and you'll not have a moment of boredom. People who love Big Bend, LOVE Big Bend, and it's easy to see why! Adventure out to West Texas and you won't be disappointed.
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