Who doesn’t love a national park? How about a road trip? A visit to Big Bend National Park gives you the best of both worlds! Big Bend is one of two national parks in Texas, the other being Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and both are vastly different. The Guadalupe Mountains are the remains of what was once a massive underwater reef. The Big Bend area was the edge of an ocean back when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
Today, we are sharing our top ten things to see and do at Big Bend in random order, so let’s get going to one of our favorite national parks!
1. The Chisos Mountains
The Chisos Mountains lie entirely in Big Bend National Park. The rugged Chisos were formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago, and erosion has sculpted them into the beautiful hills and peaks we see today. Emory Peak, at 7,835 feet above sea level, is the highest peak in the range. Black bears, mountain lions, a variety of smaller mammals, reptiles, bats, and birds make their homes in the Chisos Mountains.
The well-maintained Chisos Basin Road carries visitors seven miles through an interesting variety of flora and spectacular mountain scenery. The road ends at Chisos Basin where visitors will find a visitor center, campgrounds for RVs and tents, the Chisos Mountains Lodge (the only commercial lodging in the park), a restaurant and gift shop, as well as an assortment of trailheads for all levels of hikers. The Window serves as a pouroff when water needs to drain from the Chisos Basin and surrounding areas during heavy rainfalls
Park visitors flock to the Window for dramatic sunset photo ops. The 5.6-mile out and back Window Trail originates at Chisos Basin. (Note that the trail has a 900- foot elevation gain on the return.) Another trail – Window View Trail – is easy and wheelchair accessible. In our opinion, there are many places in the park that are perfect for watching the sunset and sunrise, but the Window certainly provides a unique photographic perspective.
2. Santa Elena Canyon
The breathtaking eight-mile-long Santa Elena Canyon features 1500-foot cliff walls that frame the Rio Grande River as it meanders through the big bend of Texas. The Santa Elena Canyon Trail is a fairly easy 1.4-mile out and back hike originating at a parking lot on Santa Elena Canyon Road. The trailhead is approximately 44 miles (1+ hour drive) from the main visitor center at Panther Junction.
Local outfitters are available to arrange a variety of river trips ranging from one to three days on the Rio Grande and through Santa Elena Canyon. (Note that a backcountry permit is required by the park for overnight trips.) The river forms the border between the U.S. and Mexico. While there is no requirement to have a guide in order to float or paddle the Rio Grande, we highly recommend using an experienced outfitter.
3. Fossil Discovery Exhibit
As we mentioned, Big Bend National Park lies in an area that was once the edge of an ocean. The Fossil Discovery Exhibit showcases some of the creatures that inhabited the area millions of years ago including sea life and dinosaurs. Kids and adults alike will enjoy exploring this open-air museum space which is located approximately eight miles north of the Panther Junction Visitor Center.
4. Wildlife Viewing
Big Bend National Park is home to a large variety of wildlife. In addition to those that live mainly in the Chisos Mountains, many other animals and birds live within the park’s other two ecosystems: river and desert. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to photograph all of the animals that we have seen at Big Bend, but we have been lucky enough to capture a few. We have spotted Barbary sheep, fox, coyote, hawks, and many other birds, just to name a few.
5. Hike, Walk, or Backpack
Big Bend offers a wide variety of hikes to choose from – 79 trails in all – and rather than try to describe them, we are listing a couple of links that should provide complete trail information:
- Off trail hiking is allowed
- Backcountry requires a permit
- Backpackers and primitive site campers are required to have a permit
If in doubt, always check with the park before setting out on any lengthy or overnight trek. Stay conscious of the weather conditions including high temperatures in late spring, summer, and early fall.
6. Scenic Drives
There are over 100 miles of improved, well-maintained roads in Big Bend. The most popular road is the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive which is a 30-mile-long road that takes visitors through some of the most diverse and scenic parts of the park and ends at Santa Elena Canyon.
But wait – there’s more! Spectacular scenery can be viewed from all of the paved roads in the park so driving any of them is a thrill. Note that the only gasoline available in the park is at Panther Junction.
7. Terlingua Ghost Town
Terlingua is a gateway community to the park but does not lie within the park boundaries. The entrance to Big Bend is approximately 8 miles from Terlingua, and it’s another 22 miles (30+ minute drive) to Panther Junction Visitor Center.
And…Terlingua isn’t quite a ghost town in traditional ghost town terms. People do live there, and there are some thriving businesses including a few restaurants and area hotels. Visitors will certainly experience ghost town vibes while walking through the cemetery and when viewing the crumbling buildings in the former cinnabar mining town.
Terlingua is a great place for a couple of hours of roaming and eating if a break from the park is on the agenda. The history of the town is interesting as is the history of the cemetery. Funky souvenirs of all kinds can be purchased at Terlingua Trading Company which is next door to the Starlight Theatre. Terlingua is also the site of the famous Terlingua International Chili Championship which has taken place there on the first weekend of November since 1967.
Lajitas is a great place to stay for visitors to Big Bend and is located approximately 12 miles west of Terlingua. While some regard Lajitas as a town, we can’t bring ourselves to call it that because it doesn’t have a post office. It used to have a post office, but it closed in 1939. Lajitas does, however, have a mayor – a mayor who is a goat, that is, and his name is Clay Henry.
Lajitas is actually home to the fabulous 27,000-acre Lajitas Golf Resort and Spa. Touted as one of the best and most beautiful golf courses in Texas, Black Jack’s Crossing is a premier course that attracts amateur golfers and pros alike. The resort is located on FM 170 along the banks of the Rio Grande between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park. Also known as the River Road or Camino del Rio, FM 170 covers 114 miles between Terlingua and the border town of Presidio and is considered one of the most scenic drives in the state. The Lajitas Golf Resort and Spa features modern, well-appointed hotel rooms with an Old West vibe, as well as a multitude of amenities and activities for the entire family. A general store and a gated RV campground are also located within the resort. Charter air services are available from Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston. For further information, here is a link to the resort’s website: https://www.lajitasgolfresort.com/
Pack your telescope! Big Bend is an international dark sky park. In fact, Big Bend has the darkest skies of any national park in the lower 48 states. The park hosts various programs such as star parties, ranger talks, and moonlight walks throughout the year. The summer months are the best time to view and photograph the Milky Way.
10. Cross the River Legally
The only port of entry in Big Bend is across the river from Boquillas del Carmen, usually referred to as Boquillas. A former mining town, Boquillas struggles today as a tourist destination for visitors to Big Bend.
Visitors must have a passport and will pass through customs when returning to the U.S. River crossings are done by small rowboat or on horseback, each for a nominal fee. An additional fee ($2.00, last we checked) is required to enter the Maderas del Carmen Natural Protected Area where Boquillas is located. There are a couple of cantinas in Boquillas that serve food and drinks as well as a few places to buy souvenirs and handmade goods. Tours are available for a fee, though a guide is not required in order to explore the town. U.S. currency is accepted in Boquillas, but only in small denominations.
For further information about Big Bend, click this link to the park’s website: https://www.nps.gov/bibe/index.htm
Those are our top 10, though we barely touched on the park’s features and those of the surrounding areas. Below we have listed some additional things to know if you’re planning a trip to Big Bend.
- Unfortunately, people have been led to believe that Big Bend is not a safe place to visit. We believe it’s very safe. We are more afraid of encountering a rattlesnake than having a border issue there. Travelers should always be aware of their surroundings no matter where they are.
- Early spring and late fall are great times to visit Big Bend, but those times are when the park experiences the most visitors. With that said, it is an enormous park with plenty of room to spread out so crowds shouldn’t be a problem.
- There are several campgrounds at Big Bend. RV camping with hook-ups book up fast so make reservations as far out from your visit as you can. The same goes for booking a stay at Chisos Mountains Lodge.
- The park is remote so cell service can be very hit and miss.
- The closest major airport is in Midland/Odessa, Texas which is approximately 242 miles (4+ hour drive) to Big Bend.
- Alpine, Texas is 82 miles (1+ hour drive) north of Big Bend and serves as gateway city to the park. Hotels, restaurants, and the Museum of the Big Bend are all located in the pretty city.
- Marathon, Texas is 73 miles (1 hour drive) north of Big Bend and serves as another gateway to the park. The historic Gage Hotel is the centerpiece of Marathon and delights visitors with its 27-acre Gage Garden botanical area and fine dining at the 12 Gage Restaurant, among other amenities. Shopping, art galleries, additional restaurants, a museum, and a city park can also be found in Marathon.
- Marfa, Texas is home to the Marfa Lights, Marfa Prada as well as other art installations, and the historic Hotel Pisano. Marfa is located 30 minutes west of Alpine on US 90, and approximately 1.5 hours from Big Bend National Park.
- Fort Davis, Texas is approximately 1.5 hours from Big Bend and features Fort Davis National Historic Site.
- Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas’ biggest state park, is located approximately 13 miles west of Terlingua (20 minutes from Big Bend National Park) and is home to 238 miles trails for a variety of uses. Off-roading, horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, and backpacking are just a few of the activities that visitors to Big Bend Ranch State Park can enjoy. Click the link for more information: https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/big-bend-ranch
We could go on, but we’re going to close the post here. Our purpose in posting is to give our readers a comprehensive overview of the places we visit. We hope that we have inspired you to visit the U.S. National Parks because they really are our country’s best idea. If we can help you with planning your trip or answer questions, please leave us a message in the comments section below.
Happy, safe travels, y’all!
Mike and Kellye
As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) We aren’t paid for our recommendations, and we only recommend our own tried and true vendors and venues. Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.