“Big Bend is a land of strong beauty-often savage and always imposing” Lori Garrison
When it comes to National Parks, Big Bend checks all the boxes. Rivers, mountains, canyons, dark skies, hot springs and fossils are just a few of the amazing things you will see in the park. Since it’s also one of the least visited and largest National Parks, there’s enough space to explore and not feel crowded. If you choose to visit in June, which is low season, like we did, you’ll practically have the park to yourself.
Big Bend, located in the desert of deep Southwest Texas, along the United States/Mexico border, is named after the big bend in the Rio Grande river. The river serves as the Southern park boundary and forms the border between the United States and Mexico. The National Park Service takes care of and administers to approximately 118 miles along the border. Looking across the river into Mexico from a National Park is a unique experience.
Mountains of Big Bend
After driving through much of flat Texas, Big Bend surprised us with it’s beautiful mountains. The Chisos Mountains, which are the southernmost mountain range in the United States, are fully contained within the boundary of the park. There is no other National Park that has that unique distinction. This means even though the park is located in the desert, the altitude of the mountain makes it a good ten degrees cooler in that area than the lower areas. It’s the perfect for camping, even in the summer months.
The Chisos, highlighted by 7,825 ft tall Emory Peak, are also home to a lot of wildlife. One of the park’s greatest achievements has been the return of the Mexican Black Bear. Absent for years, they have recently begun to be spotted again in the mountains.
Canyons of Big Bend
The Rio Grande has flowed through this area for millions of years and left behind three beautiful canyons. Two of which we got to see and hike a bit.
Boquillas Canyon is easy to get to from the 1.2 mile trail that takes you up and over some hills, giving you unbelievable side open views that make you feel small. Except for the roadrunners, we were the only ones on the trail on the park side. We did see a couple of people on the Mexico side including, Jesus, who we learned lives in Boquillas del Carmen. He if sees you from across the river he will sing for you.
You can see Boquillas del Carmen across the river and as long as you remember to bring your passport, you can cross the Rio Grande and check it out in person. There’s a boat that will take you across at the port of entry. Once on the other side, you can either walk or ride a burro into town. The port of entry is open Wednesday through Saturday in high season and on weekends during low season. We had our passports ready but since we were there during the week, sadly, we didn’t have a chance to cross.
Since you are so close to the border, you might encounter souvenirs, trinkets and even carved walking sticks places along some of the trails for sale. There is usually a jar or box for money. You might be tempted to buy something but there is a warning in park literature about buying “contraband”. The warning states that if found, the items will be confiscated.
If Boquillas Canyon had a big sister, it would be the Santa Elena Canyon. Huge doesn’t even describe it. Once you know where to look, it can be seen from the park loop road. What appears to be a small slit in the rock is a huge canyon carved deep into the limestone, with walls that rise straight up from the canyon floor.
Photographs just can’t capture it. You can cross the river to the right side of the canyon, pictured below, and hike up, and then down again to the river. We did only a small portion of this hike because it was 110 degrees and the first section is straight up.
Just to show you the size of this canyon, here’s a photo of a kayaker. Look how small in comparison to the canyon walls.
Dark Skies of Big Bend
Because of it’s remoteness, in 2012, Big Bend was named an International Dark Sky Park. Not only does it have the darkest skies measured in the lower 48, it’s also the largest International Dark Sky Park to date. It was a full moon when we visited and all we mostly saw was, the full moon. I can only imagine how great it is when there’s no moon because it truly is so remote.
Watch for special Ranger led programs thru out the year that highlight Big Bend’s starry skies.
Fossils of Big Bend
You might be surprised to know that dinosaurs once roamed the land that is now Texas. Located eight miles north of Panther Junction on Hwy 385, Big Bend has a Fossil Discovery Exhibit where kids, big and small, can learn about those dinosaurs and view replicas of fossils in an interactive museum and play area.
How to Get to Big Bend
Since we were coming from the northwest, we entered Big Bend from the northwest entrance station on Hwy 118. If you are planning on flying and renting a car, the closest airport is El Paso (ELP). It’s a four and a half hour trip from the airport that takes you on some very isolated Texas highways with interesting, quirky towns that are worth a stop. Marfa, Alpine, Valentine and Marathon all deserve further exploration.
If you have even more time and want to take a slower scenic route, make a turn on Hwy 67 south out of Marfa. You will end up in Presidio where you can drive Texas 170 or the “River Road”. It’s a 120 miles scenic road that passes north along the Rio Grande and takes you through Big Bend Ranch State Park and the ghost town of Terlingua.
Since this area is pretty remote, we just would put gas in the car when we were in a town. I have also gotten to a park and needed gas and it usually cost more. There’s a gas station in the Panther Junction area, open year round and surprisingly, gas was the same as outside the park.
The nearest town to Big Bend is Study Butte-Terlingua. There’s a gas station and general store there but no grocery store. Depending on the route you take from I-10, the closest bigger towns will be Marfa, Alpine and Marathon. If you are planning on buying supplies or groceries, it would be best to buy them in those towns. There are camp stores in the park but the selection is limited.
Where to Stay at Big Bend
Big Bend has a park lodge, three developed campgrounds and primitive back country sites that require permits. One of the unique things about the primitive sites is that some of them are actually roadside so they don’t require any hiking in. You do still have to get a permit.
Some sites in the developed campgrounds are reservable during high season, otherwise, you just drive through the campground to see what’s available. We arrived in the Chisos Basin campground on a Tuesday right after lunch and there were plenty of sites to choose from. You should check in with the camp host if there is one on duty. Our host George had a lot of good tips about the park. Plus it’s just a good practice to let someone know where you are and what kind of plans you have.
- Open year round
- Elevation 5,400 ft
- 60 sites. 26 reservable sites Nov 15-April 15. Summer is first come fist serve. No hook- ups. $14
- Group campsites
- No fires. That included charcoal when we were there.
We researched all the campgrounds while we were there and they are all nice, Chisos Basin is the preferred one, especially in the summer. Because of the elevation, its a good ten to twenty degrees cooler than the Rio Grande campground. Even in June, it was perfect sleeping weather. The elevation also works to your advantage in winter. Because of sinking cold air and the way the mountains surround the campground, it’s much warmer there too.
All the campsites have grills, bear proof food storage boxes and picnic tables. Most sites are nicely shaded and some even have the picnic tables on a covered concrete pad. If you have a small tent, there should be enough room to set it up on the concrete under the cover. This comes in handy in case of rain or a thunderstorm, which we did experienced when we were there.
There are bathrooms but no showers. Plenty of places thru out the park to to refill your water. There’s also a camp store and the restaurant at the lodge nearby. Note RVs over 24 ft. are not recommended in the Chisos Basin and there is no RV parking. NPS recommends tents smaller that 8×8 ft.
- Open year round (some amenities closed during low season)
- Elevation 1,850 ft.
- 100 sites. 43 reservable. Nov 15-April 15. No hook-ups $14
- RV hookups (call for reservations)
- Group campsites
- No fires. That included charcoal when we were there
This area is it’s own little village and would be really nice in cooler months. In 112 degree June however, it was totally empty. Conveniently located to the Rio Grande, it’s great for water activities and boating.
This is the only campground with RV hook-ups and a dump station. Tent sites have picnic tables, grills, bear proof food storage and some overhead shelters. There are bathrooms with flush toilets and plenty of water. During high season there is a camp store, laundry and showers.
- Open year round (currently, June 2019, closed due to recent fire damage in the area)
- Elevation 2,169 ft
- 24 sites. Not reservable. No hook-ups. $14
- 1 group campsite
- Picnic area
- No fires. That included charcoal when we were there
Quiet and shady, this is the smallest of the three developed campgrounds. Sites have picnic tables and grills. There are pit toilets and water. If you are a bird watcher, this is the campground for you. When you enter, there’s a message board with all the species that have been spotted recently.
The lodge has rooms and cottages, gift shop, restaurant (with WiFi) and a bar. It’s also one of the only places in the park where we had cell phone reception. They were constructing a tower nearby while we were there.
We ended up eating dinner at the lodge a couple of times because we couldn’t make a fire and honestly we were just tired of sandwiches. The food was really good and I thought, affordable for a park restaurant. They have a full bar and serve alcohol. A few food items on the menu are: nachos, burgers, salads and some meat and vegetable options. I had a chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes that was so good. They also serve breakfast and have a $8.99 breakfast buffet every morning.
Even if you don’t plan on staying at the Lodge, you should go by and see it. It sits high up and has a wall of windows in the restaurant and an outdoor deck. It’s the perfect area to watch the sunset “through the windows’.
In the Study Butte-Terlingua area there are several other lodging options and campgrounds. Even though we weren’t staying there, Big Bend Resort & Adventures, allowed us to use their showers since the showers at the Rio Grande village were closed. For $2 you get a six minute shower. It was super clean and spacious. Staff was very nice. They have rooms, a campground and they also have some guided tours.
What to do in Big Bend
There are five Visitors Centers in the park. Panther Junction and Chisos Basin are the only two open year round. In low season, you can stop by one of those and pick up a map of the park if the entrance stations are unmanned. The Panther Junction Visitor’s Center has WiFi, water filling station and and an exceptional movie about the history of the park. NOTE: the Chisos Basin Visitor Center is currently (June 2019) closed for renovations.
Some other don’t miss things:
- Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
- Rio Grande Overlook
- Hot Springs Hike
- Mule Ears View Point
- Sotol Vista
Before you get the the Santa Elena Overlook and trail, there is a area that has picnic tables and some trails along the river. We had a good time exploring that area. There are also picnic tables at the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. Even in June this area was a bit crowded since people use this area to kayak and swim. We had hoped to kayak as well but the river outfitters in the area were closed for the month of June due to it being low season.
Like the quote at the beginning said, Big Bend is very imposing. I hope you take a trip to southwest Texas will visit. It’s a unique area and now sits on my top 5 National Parks list. Maybe I’ll see you there one day!
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