Established in 1944, Big Bend National Park sits in the bottom corner of Texas in the Chihuahuan Desert. It protects 801,163 acres of land within its confines, and while it is one of the most remote national parks in the US, it is starting to become more popular with about 600,000 visitors each year.
Millions of years ago, Big Bend’s vast deserts and mountains were covered by a large and shallow ocean. However, as the ocean started to recede, more life began to come to this area, particularly dinosaurs. Big Bend National Park has held the bones–and the secrets– of over 90 species of dinosaurs. But don’t just come for the dinosaurs! Big Bend is home to living animals too: bears, javelinas (wild pigs), mountain lions, and falcons all live in this harsh desert environment.
Because Big Bend borders Mexico, it is incredibly hot and dry in the summer but much cooler (even cold!) in the winter. Some of the amenities are closed in the summer, as temperatures can reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The summer is definitely the “off” season, while winter brings more visitors and activities. Winter temperatures are much more moderate, with highs often in the 60s and lows in the 30s or 40s.
Personally, I think Big Bend is beautiful, but I am not a lady built for the heat, so I prefer the winter time to come visit Big Bend. Really anywhere from November to March would probably be the most comfortable, especially if you are in a vehicle that does not have air conditioning!
Who Should Travel to Big Bend?
If you are a rugged adventurer, Big Bend is the place for you! The park itself is quite remote, with the closest town to the north (Marathon) being about 40 minutes away from the park’s entrance, and Terlingua being the closest town to the southwest (about 15 mins). Big Bend is definitely best for those who love desert scenes and those who do not need a lot of amenities to be comfortable. Also, those with off-roading, high clearance, 4×4 vehicles will have a larger selection of campsites than those hauling large trailers or only have 2 wheel drive (like us!)
BEST THINGS TO DO IN BIG BEND
Boquillas Hot Springs on the Rio Grande
This was a sneaky little gem! Zak and I weren’t sure what to do at 5:30pm on our first night. While we were not originally going to go to the springs, we figured, “What the Heck, Let’s give it a shot!” It was about a 20 minute drive from Panther Junction Ranger’s Station, on mostly paved roads. However, the last 1.5 miles were on a very narrow, dirt road. The last half mile is NOT open to large RVs or trailers over 20 feet! So bring a smaller vehicle or be prepared to walk!
The Hot Springs are also a historical site where, back in the 20s-40s, there was an old resort and post office. These are cool little buildings that you can look at as you walk towards the springs. There is a 1.4 mile loop to the hot spring, or you can walk an easy 0.25 miles to the spring. Whatever suits your fancy. We did the 0.25. The hot spring was packed with people, but it was so warm and sandy!
The spring is a ~10×10 ft tub that was likely built back in the time of the resort. It is right on the river as well, so you can reach your arm over the wall and touch the cool river water as you sit in the tub. On our way back, as the sun was setting, we saw a lot of bats flying through the air and catching bugs! So cool! PS- I’m totally a baby when it comes to cold water, and the water here felt like an actual hot tub—I was hot! Even though it was crowded, this was SUCH a fun experience! We highly recommend, just be prepared for the people.
Pro Tip: The top right side of the tub, bordered by the big wall and the Rio Grande, is where the water is the hottest!
The Lost Mine Trail
This is a moderately difficult 4.8 mile round trip hike, so 2.4 miles in and 2.4 miles back. Overall, the grade was very gradual, and we got to see a lot of beautiful sights on the way up. The path is very well maintained, but there certainly are a lot of rocks, so make sure to wear appropriate hiking footwear and look down!
The top offers a stunning view of the valley below and offers ample room for you and your friends to have lunch. Please, just make sure to pack out anything you bring in! As we were walking up, we saw someone’s top to a disposable smoothy cup on trail. There are garbage cans and recycling at the bottom of the trails, so please make sure you keep track of your trash and bring it down!
This was a great hike in the Chisos Mountains that didn’t take all day– we did have to leave Auggie in the van because dogs are not allowed in the backcountry or trails in Big Bend. On the way out of the Chisos Mountains area and to our campsite, we saw a ton of beautiful Mexican Jays!
Pro Tip: There are a few really great rocks right off the trail at different spots that offer great views and great picture taking opportunities!
Santa Elena Canyon
Santa Elena Canyon is about 30 miles off of the main road, but it is a stunning drive and totally worth the detour! Once you actually get there though, the hike itself is only about 2 miles there and back.
When Zak and I first got into the park and I asked the ranger what his recommendations were, he said, “It would be a crime to come to Big Bend and not see Santa Elena Canyon.” So, we booked a spot at the Cottonwood Campground, just 8 miles away from the trailhead (BOOK IN ADVANCE!!) and hiked it twice! Zak hiked Santa Elena the night before at sunset while I cooked dinner. The next morning, we got up and did it together. It is a relatively busy trail, but with the river right beside you, I can see why it is popular! This is one of the cool, wet areas of Big Bend, so it is really a delight.
Once you’ve seen the Canyon and the trail, you can bring SUPs or kayaks and paddle down the river as well. We didn’t do this, but we highly suggest that you do, if you have the time!
Pro Tip: Stay at the Cottonwood Campground and visit the Canyon at sunset for pictures and then again for sunrise!
This fossil exhibit is the first thing that Zak and I did as we came in from the North entrance of the park. Pulling off the main road, there is a small picnic area with facts about the ancient animals and land forms, and also a life-sized metal cut out of a prehistoric alligator that used to roam Big Bend. I will say, it was way too large for comfort! I wouldn’t have wanted to be around back then!
The Fossil Exhibit itself is made up of three small, connected buildings with fossils and casts of all of some of the dinosaur fossils found in Big Bend over the years. Everything is indoor/outdoor, so there is a lot of space, and this was one place that we did bring Auggie as we looked around. There is also a small path to walk up and a few historical, informational plaques along the way too.
Pro Tip: Not really interested in the fossils? Come at night and walk up the hill and look out over the desert. Big Bend is one of the darkest Dark Sky Parks in the world, and seeing the stars here is -literally- out of this world.
CAMPING/ OVERNIGHT OPTIONS In Big Bend
There are three developed campgrounds in the National Park, many, many undeveloped campgrounds, and about 20 campgrounds outside of Big Bend as well that are not affiliated with NPS. If you want to reserve a campsite in the park, we suggest doing it well in advance on the NPS website!
The most developed camp ground is the Chisos Basin Campground, followed by the Rio Grande Village Campground, followed by Cottonwood Campground. We only stayed in the Cottonwood campground, and it is very basic, but was very comfortable for us in our van. It has pit toilets and a clean-water faucet that you can fill jugs at (no hose hook-up). This campsite is the closet to Santa Elena Canyon (~8 miles).
The night before we stayed at the Cottonwood Campground, we could not find a spot within the park, so we were told to look at the Black Gap Wilderness Management Area (about $12) to the northeast of the Park. In addition, Study Butte, which is right to the west of the exit of the park, there is a small overnight parking area, which allows cars/vans to stay for a MAXIMUM of 24 hours. There is no BLM land in Texas, so keep this in mind and plan ahead!
As I stated earlier, if you have a 4×4, off-roading, high-clearance vehicle, there will be many more options for you to camp. All you need to do is go to Panther Junction Visitor’s Center to reserve a spot (it seems as though they prefer 24 hours in advance, but you can call and ask too).
HAVE FUN IN BIG BEND!
No matter what you decide to do or where you decide to stay while you are in Big Bend, you will have an amazing time! You will love the dry landscape juxtaposed against the scenery of the Chisos Mountains and the Rio Grande. Enjoy!
As always, if you have any questions at all, please feel free to email us at zak.fal.aug.blog.com or through our contact page. You can also find us on Instagram and YouTube at @zakandfal.