Big Bend National Park is located along the Mexico-United States (U.S.) border in southwest Texas. It’s named after a prominent bend in the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River, which defines the park’s boundary for 118 miles.
The park encompasses the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert, one of North America’s four major deserts, and is the only national park in the country that contains an entire mountain range – the Chisos Mountains. Three states meet at Big Bend National Park: Texas in the U.S. and Coahuila and Chihuahua in Mexico.
Big Bend National Park covers more than 800,000 acres, making it one of the largest and most remote of the U.S. national parks, yet it’s also one of the least visited. In 2021, Big Bend National Park only received around 580,000 visitors despite its diverse wildlife and geology, interesting historic sites, dark, starry skies, and wild and scenic landscapes.
That said, the National Park Service summarizes it best:
There is a place in far West Texas where night skies are dark as coal and rivers carve temple-like canyons in ancient limestone. Here, at the end of the road, hundreds of bird species take refuge in a solitary mountain range surrounded by weather-beaten desert. Tenacious cactus bloom in sublime southwestern sun, and diversity of species is the best in the country. This magical place is Big Bend.”
The rest of this post focuses on the itinerary that we followed during our trip to Big Bend National Park, in addition to some helpful tips and recommendations and add-on hikes and excursions for your visit.
*P.S. this post contains some affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase.
When to Visit Big Bend
What was once a remote and seemingly inhospitable area, surrounded only by dirt roads, Big Bend National Park has become one of the most popular tourist spots in Texas.
Similar to the Utah Mighty Five National Parks, the best time to visit Big Bend National Park is during the dry season from October through April, specifically during the months of October, November, March and April. This is also the best time of year for stargazing at Big Bend National Park.
The weather in Big Bend National Park varies greatly from season-to-season and can sometimes change drastically day-to-day. In the fall and spring, temperatures are mild during the day and cooler at night, whereas winter can bring below freezing temperatures.
February through April, specifically March, is the busiest time of year in Big Bend National Park, as the park experiences nice weather and great hiking conditions, and there’s an influx of spring break travelers. Campgrounds and lodging fill up quickly, so be sure to plan well in advance if you’re visiting that time of year!
Since Big Bend National Park is located in Texas near Mexico, that means it’s also close to the equator. Avoid visiting the park in the summer when temperatures are soaring.
We visited in mid-November and got one beautiful day in the park with temperatures in the low 50s. Our second day in the park wasn’t as nice; temperatures were in the low 40s, and it was wet and windy.
Keep in mind that sunrise is around 7:20 am, and sunset is around 5:55 pm this time of year, and you won’t want to miss any of them!
How to Get to Big Bend
The night before our trip to Big Bend National Park, we rented a Jeep Grand Wagoneer and drove from Houston to Cedar Park in Texas, where we stayed with one of the couples who’d be going on the trip with us. The next morning, we drove the 8 hours from Cedar Park to Terlingua, stopping a few times along the way for gas and snacks, in addition to a stop in Fort Stockton for lunch.
A Broad Recommendation: if you plan to visit Big Bend National Park as part of a longer road trip, you may consider stopping in Marathon, Alpine, and Marfa as well.
One of the most popular ways to get to Big Bend National Park is flying into El Paso. However, this still requires that you rent a car, and it’s another 4.5-hour drive to the park. Basically, you better be ready for a road trip if you’re planning to visit Big Bend National Park!
Another option is taking the train from Houston to Marathon, Texas, then renting a car and driving from there.
Where to Stay for Big Bend
We booked the two-bedroom Terlingua Casita de Chiles Barndominium through VRBO and felt that this was a great find! Despite one of the couples having to sleep on a cot or the couch, this barndo fit our needs almost perfectly, and the host was kind and helpful. It’s notable that staying in Terlingua means that we had about an hour drive to Big Bend National Park each morning.
We’d originally planned to camp in the park, which would’ve been more convenient, but we’re happy we didn’t, considering how cold it got during our visit. There are three campgrounds – the Rio Grande Village Campground, Chisos Basin Campground, and Cottonwood Campground – inside the park, as well as the Chisos Mountain Lodge, which also has a restaurant.
Big Bend National Park Itinerary
Big Bend National Park has three main sections – Rio Grande Village, Chisos Basin and the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to Santa Elena Canyon. Here’s a park map that you might find useful.
Each of these sections has its own unique landscape, ranging from desert to mountains to river, as well as various hiking trails. In fact, there are more than 150 miles of trails within the park boundaries, offering lots of opportunities for day hikes and backpacking trips.
A Broad Recommendation: don’t forget to pack your hiking boots! I brought my new Thesus Weekend Boots along, and they were perfect for all the hiking we did here. Plus, this brand is vegan and sustainably made with more than 95% natural and recycled materials, which I absolutely love. I also bought some new Merrell wool socks to go with my new boots.
The park’s remote wilderness is also ideal for camping, kayaking, horseback riding and more, but we didn’t have time to try any of these during our visit.
Note that pets are NOT allowed on any of the trails in Big Bend National Park. There are black bears, mountain lions, javelinas, rattlesnakes and more in the park, and it’s important to keep in mind that wild animal encounters are possible here.
As always, remember to leave no trace and try to have as little impact on the park as possible as a result of your trip.
Day 1: Travel to Big Bend
Considering that Big Bend National Park is fairly remote, day one is set aside for driving, training and/or flying to the park or the surrounding area. As I previously mentioned, we traveled from Houston to Big Bend National Park over the course of two days, stopping in Cedar Park, Fort Stockton and Terlingua, Texas. If you’re traveling from somewhere else, you can modify this itinerary as you see fit!
Breakfast On the Go
We left Cedar Park around 7 am, stopping for breakfast tacos and coffee at Summer Moon Coffee.
Lunch in Fort Stockton
Around 12:30 pm, we stopped in Fort Stockton to stretch our legs and eat lunch at Guadalajara Mexican Grill, which was authentic and delicious!
Check-In & Hike in Terlingua
After another long stretch of driving, we arrived in Terlingua around 4 pm. We checked in to our VRBO and per our host’s recommendation, we headed out to hike Wildcat Mountain around 5 pm. The trailhead was a very short distance from our VRBO, and we watched the sunset from atop the mountain. The out-and-back hike took us about an hour to complete.
I was unable to find any information about this hike online, so I’m not sure what the official details are, but based on my Apple Watch’s tracking, we hiked about 1.2 miles.
Dinner at the VRBO
We planned ahead and stocked up on groceries to make at least two meals at our VRBO, and we’re glad we did because there aren’t a ton of dining options in Terlingua. We’d originally considered eating at the Starlight Theatre Restaurant, but our host said that you have to arrive by 4 pm to wait in line in order to get a table. Considering we’d arrived after 4 pm and wanted to spend most of our days in the park, we skipped it this time around.
Cooking at your VRBO is also a great way to save money while traveling!
Stargaze & Look for the Milky Way
As I previously mentioned, October through April is the best time of year for stargazing at Big Bend National Park and the surrounding area. Our VRBO had a hot tub outside, so after dinner, we hopped in and did a bit of stargazing. Some of us saw the Milky Way and shooting stars for the first time, and a couple of us saw the brightest shooting stars of our lives!
Day 2: Chisos Basin & Santa Elena Canyon
Because Big Bend National Park is so large, you can’t see everything in one day, and it’s important to plan ahead to ensure you get to do everything on your list! We decided to spend our first day in the park in the Chisos Basin area before taking the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to Santa Elena Canyon.
Lost Mine Trail
- Distance: 4.8 miles round-trip
- Difficulty: moderate
- Elevation gain: 1,099 feet
- Type of trail: out-and-back
- Estimated time: 3 hours (it took us 3.25 hours with photo stops)
- Trailhead location: Basin Road, mile 5 (at the pass)
Known for its incredible scenic views of the Casa Grande, Juniper Canyon, Pine Canyon, and the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico, the Lost Mine Trail is one of the most popular trails in the park. The trail also offers excellent mountain, valley and desert views.
For a shorter, easier hike, hike the first mile to the scenic viewpoint and check out the beautiful view to the southeast.
A Broad Recommendation: try to arrive as early as possible (before 7:30 am) to get a parking spot. The parking area at the trailhead is extremely small. We arrived around 11 am and somehow lucked out – perhaps due to the time of year we visited.
Since the Chisos Basin area is at a higher elevation than the rest of Big Bend National Park, and this hike has more shade than most, the Lost Mine Trail is a great option on those warmer days in the park.
Lunch in the Park
Since we picked up sandwiches at the Bad Rabbit Cafe at Terlingua Ranch Lodge before heading into the park, we didn’t have to worry about finding anywhere special to eat. We made our way to the Chisos Basin Visitor Center, where we grabbed a picnic table and ate our packed lunch. There are bathrooms, a water fill-up station (that was unfortunately not working when we were there), and a gift shop/ convenience store. The Chisos Mountains Lodge is located right next to the visitor center and has a restaurant if you’re looking for something more formal.
A Broad Recommendation: pick up sandwiches at the Bad Rabbit Cafe at Terlingua Ranch Lodge each morning before heading from Terlingua to Big Bend National Park. These are made fresh each day and are super yummy, especially after a morning of hiking!
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
The 30-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is a must-do for any first-time visitor to Big Bend National Park. The drive begins at Panther Junction Drive and ends at the Santa Elena Canyon, and highlights the geologic gem that is Big Bend National Park.
A Broad Recommendation: give yourself plenty of time (like half a day) to stop at the scenic overlooks, historical sites and hiking trails along the drive. Unfortunately, we didn’t start the drive until around 3:30 pm, which didn’t give us enough time to do this during our visit, but we can attest that the drive itself is absolutely beautiful!
The following stops are on our list for next time:
- Sam Nail Ranch – one of the many legacy homesteads inside Big Bend National Park that now serves as a historical site. A working windmill attracts a variety of birdlife to the area, and the remnants of the ranch provide shade and habitats for desert wildlife.
- Blue Creek Ranch Overlook – a pull-off with a view of the Homer Wilson Ranch, which was once of the largest in the region. You can hike the short trail down to the remaining buildings and continue onto the Blue Creek Canyon and Dodson trails.
- Sotol Vista Overlook – a pull-off with epic views of the western side of Big Bend National Park, including the Santa Elena Canyon. This is a great spot to watch the sunset – more on that later!
- Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff – located off a 1.5-mile spur road, a 0.5-mile trail leads to the base of the colorful cliffs of Burrow Mesa and into a hidden box canyon with a high, dry waterfall.
- Mule Ears Viewpoint – a pull-off with a view of the beautiful Mule Ears, and a 2-mile-long trail that leads to a desert spring. This is another good spot for sunset.
- Tuff Canyon – a deep, narrow canyon that was carved out of soft volcanic tuff (compressed ash). It can be seen from two overlooks, or you can proceed along the 0.75-mile round-trip hike into the heart of the canyon and through the gorge.
- Castolon Historic District – established as a cavalry camp in the early 20th century, Castolon was later used as the headquarters of the La Harmonia Company. Now, the area hosts a visitor center and a camper store.
Santa Elena Canyon
- Difficulty: easy
- Distance: 1.5 miles
- Elevation gain: 610 feet
- Type of trail: out-and-back
- Estimated time: 1 hour
- Trailhead location: Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, 8 miles west of Castolon
The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive ends at the magnificent Santa Elena Canyon, where limestone cliffs rise 1,500 feet above the Rio Grande. A short trail follows the river upstream and across several switchbacks, leading into the canyon and dropping down to the canyon floor.
Since the trail sits right along the border between the U.S. and Mexico, the canyon walls to the left are located in Mexico, and those to the right are located in Texas. Neat, right? The Santa Elena Canyon Trail is another one of Big Bend National Park’s most iconic trails, so you definitely won’t want to miss it!
A Broad Recommendation: if the river is high, you may have to wade across Terlingua Creek to access the trail, so be sure to wear appropriate footwear and clothing that you don’t mind getting wet. Do NOT hike this trail during a storm; flash flooding is possible and the Terlingua Creek could become impassable.
Another unique experience here is taking a canoeing, kayaking or float trip down the Rio Grande, through Santa Elena Canyon. You can organize one of these in the towns of Lajitas or Terlingua.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can drive the Old Maverick Road, a 14-mile improved dirt road that runs from Santa Elena Canyon to Maverick Junction at the western entrance of the park. Along the way, you’ll pass various historic sites and the Terlingua Creek badlands on the west side of the park.
Note: this road requires a high clearance vehicle and may be impassable after heavy rains.
Sunset In the Park
Considering we’d researched several sunset spots in the park, we headed back along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and tried to visit a few of them (within the span of about an hour).
First, we stopped at Mule Ears Viewpoint, a pull-off with a view of the beautiful Mule Ears.
Next, we stopped on the side of the road near the Chimneys trailhead, where we witnessed a breathtaking sunset and took lots of photos.
Finally, we made our way to the Sotol Vista Overlook, another pull-off with epic views of the western side of Big Bend National Park, including the Santa Elena Canyon.
It’s safe to say, you really can’t pick a bad spot to watch a sunset in the Chisos Basin area of Big Bend National Park. Anywhere along the Ross Maxwell Drive will likely offer stunning views this time of day.
Dinner at DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ
We ended our action-packed day at DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ, a highly rated Texas barbeque spot in Terlingua. The food was delicious and the setting, although very simple, was enjoyable with country music videos playing on the TVs.
Day 3: Rio Grande Village
Day two in the park was spent exploring the Rio Grande Village area of Big Bend National Park. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the best weather, and it was a big cold, rainy and windy at times, but we made the most of it!
Grapevine Hills to Balanced Rock
- Difficulty: moderate
- Distance: 2.2 miles round-trip
- Elevation gain: 80 feet
- Type of trail: out-and-back
- Estimated time: 1.5 hours
- Trailhead location: 6.4 miles down the Grapevine Hills Road
First up was the Grapevine Hills Trail, which leads to the famous ‘Balanced Rock’, not to be confused with the Balanced Rock at Arches National Park in Utah! The trail starts off following a sandy wash through a massive boulder field. Then, a short, steep, rocky scramble near the end of the trail leads to the large balanced rock.
From the top, you can also see epic views of the Chihuahuan Desert through the window formed by ‘Balanced Rock’.
On the way back, take advantage of the awesome views of the boulder field you traversed from a higher vantage point.
Note: the gravel road that leads to the trailhead requires a 4WD, high clearance vehicle.
Lunch On the Go
Again, we picked up sandwiches at the Bad Rabbit Cafe at Terlingua Ranch Lodge before heading into the park, so we just sat in the car to warm up and ate our lunches there.
Boquillas Canyon Trail
- Difficulty: easy
- Distance: 1.2 miles round-trip
- Elevation gain: 230 feet
- Type of trail: out-and-back
- Estimated time: 1 hour
- Trailhead location: end of Boquillas Canyon Road
Next, we hiked the Boquillas Canyon Trail, which begins with a short climb, then descends via a sandy path along a lovely stretch of the Rio Grande. The trail offers a couple of nice viewpoints along the rocky ascend and a variety of terrain throughout the short hike.
This trail was especially cool because we saw a herd of wild horses roaming around by the riverbank.
Along the trail, you’ll also notice souvenirs for sale left by residents of Boquillas, Mexico or you may even run into a resident or two trying to sell souvenirs in person. The National Park Service asks visitors not to purchase any of these items, as it encourages illegal border crossings.
Boquillas, Mexico Overlook
The Boquillas, Mexico Overlook is just a quick drive from the Boquillas Canyon Trail and offers panoramic views of the Rio Grande and Boquillas, Mexico, which sits right across the river.
A couple of quick notes: it was extremely windy during our visit. Be sure to watch out when opening car doors, and don’t go too close to the edge of the cliff here. You’ll also find items for sale, but remember not to purchase any!
A Broad Recommendation: if you have extra time, bring your passport and some cash, cross the border, and spend the afternoon in the small village of Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico!
Boquillas Hot Springs
- Difficulty: easy
- Distance: 1.1 miles round-trip
- Elevation gain: 120 feet
- Type of trail: loop
- Estimated time: 45 minutes + however long you spend in the hot springs
- Trailhead location: end of Hot Springs Road
Our last hike of our two day trip to Big Bend was the Boquillas Hot Springs Trail. The upper trail goes through the historic area and past the remains of the rustic, riverside resort and homestead that was built by J.O. Langford in the early 1900s.
A Broad Recommendation: bring a bathing suit and towel and get in the hot springs! The small riverside pool stays around 105 degrees year-round, and is perfect for a chilly morning or after a day full of hiking. Before our visit, I read that sunrise is the best time to visit, specifically to avoid crowds.
Unfortunately, by the time we got here, it was late in the day and even colder than it had been that morning, so we opted out of getting in the hot springs.
Another reason we didn’t get in the hot springs is because it was starting to get dark out, and the road in and out of this area is a little scary with some steep drop-offs. Be careful and take your time as you’re driving on this short stretch of road.
A Broad Recommendation: if there’s been a lot of rain in the area, check with a park ranger when entering the park or at one of the visitor centers to make sure that the hot springs are open. When I was planning our itinerary, I noticed that the riverside trail to the hot springs was closed, since they’d been submerged under the river, but the historic area and the upper trail remained open. However, when we entered the park the first day, we were informed that the hot springs themselves had been reopened.
A Broad Recommendation: if the weather is better for your visit, stick around in this part of the park and hike the Rio Grande Valley Nature Trail for sunset. It’s supposed to be one of the most beautiful sunset views in the park!
Dinner at the VRBO
For our last night in Terlingua, we decided to make dinner at the VRBO again. Our place had a grill onsite, so we took advantage of that and grilled up some chicken and vegetables before heading back out to the hot tub for one last dip.
Day 4: Travel Back Home
After an awesome time exploring Big Bend National Park, we made the 12-hour drive back to Houston, Texas, stopping again in Cedar Park to drop off one of the couples.
Would you consider visiting Big Bend National Park? What would you like to do first?
XOXO Sara at Travel A-Broads