Guide to Big Bend National Park

Deserts, mountains, rivers, canyons, fossils, wildlife, hot springs, dark skies, and endless vistas that make you feel small. Big Bend, the 19th National Park we’ve visited on a road trip, has all the right ingredients for a National Park. In June, an opportunity came up for a road trip to Arizona across Interstate 20. A separate Texas itinerary had been in the works for a while. Even though June isn’t an ideal time for either state, because of the heat, we decided it was as good a time as any to head down to southwest Texas. Three days tent camping in Big Bend and we wished for more. As it turned out the heat wasn’t so bad. I would go back again in June if the opportunity arose. Here’s what we did in my guide to Big Bend.

As the name suggests, Big Bend is named after the big bend in the Rio Grande, which is the Southern park boundary and forms the border between the United States and Mexico. The National Park Service administers approximately 118 miles along that border. It’s a little surreal to look across the river and know that you are looking at Mexico from inside a National Park.

Since Big Bend is in the Chihuahuan Desert, it’s hot, especially in June. Peak season, November through April, with lower temps, is the best time to visit. The advantage to the summer is you can drive for miles and not see another person. You feel like you’ve got the park all to yourself.

Mountains

Big Bend surprised us with it’s mountains. The Chisos Mountains, the southernmost mountain range in the United States, are fully contained within the boundary of the park. A good ten degrees cooler than the surrounding areas, they are like an oasis in the desert heat.

Highlighted by Emory Peak, at 7,825 ft. above sea level, the Chisos are home to a lot of wildlife. One of the park’s greatest accomplishments of the NPS is the return of the Mexican Black Bear. Absent for years, they have recently begun to be spotted again in the mountains.

Canyons

The Rio Grande has flowed through the area for millions of years and in it’s wake, left three beautiful canyons in Big Bend. Two of which we visited.

The Boquillas Canyon is easily accessible by a 1.2 mile trail that takes you up and over hills, giving you unbelievable views of the surrounding area, the river and the Mexican town, Boquillas del Carmen, just across the border.

There’s a port of entry here so you can cross the border. Wednesday thru Sunday during high season, you can catch a boat across the Rio Grande and then, either walk or ride a burro to the town.  There’s restaurants and shopping. During low season, the border is closed during the week so unfortunately, we didn’t get to do this. Yet another reason to go back.

If Boquillas Canyon had a big sister, it would be the Santa Elena Canyon. Impressive is an understatement. Once you know where to look, it can be seen from the park loop road. What appears to be a small slit in the surrounding mountains is a huge canyon carved deep into the limestone, with walls that rise straight up from the canyon floor.

Photographs just don’t do it justice. 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

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. Unfortunately, when we were there, it was a full moon and all we mostly saw was, the full moon.

Watch for special Ranger led programs thru out the year that highlight Big Bend’s starry skies.

Fossils

Dinosaurs once roamed the land that is now Texas. Don’t miss the Fossil Discovery Exhibit, especially if you have kids. There are displays and fossil themed play areas for kids to learn about the dinosaurs. It’s located 8 miles north of Panther Junction on Hwy 385. Totally accessible by wheelchair, with a shaded picnic areas and toilet.

Big Bend is one of the most remote, least visited parks in the National Park system. The unique features and loneliness only add to it’s appeal. It turned out to be one of my favorite parks to date. I can’t wait to go back.

Go

We entered Big Bend from the Northwest entrance 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 isolated Texas highways with interesting, quirky towns worth a stop.

The nearest town to Big Bend is Study Butte-Terlingua. There is a gas station and general store there but no large grocery store. Depending on the route you take from I-10, the closest bigger towns will be Marfa, Alpine and Marathon. Supplies or groceries, would be best bought in those towns. There are camp stores in the park but the selection is limited.

Gas is available in the park in the the Panther Junction area, open year round, and the Rio Grande area, closed during low season. The prices are about the same as outside the park.

If you have a little more 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.

There are five Visitors Centers in the park. Panther Junction and Chisos Basin are open year round. If you visit Panther Junction (that has wifi) make sure to take time to watch the informative movie about the history of the park.

 

Stay

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 to see what’s available. We arrived in the Chisos Basin campground on a Tuesday after lunch and had plenty to select from. Make sure to check in with the camp host if there is one. Our camp host in the Chisos was named George and he had a lot of good tips about the park. Plus it’s just a good practice to let someone know where you are.

Chisos Basin Campground

  • Open year round
  • Elevation 5,400 ft
  • 60 sites. 26 reservable Nov 15-April 15. No hook- ups. $14
  • Group campsites
  • No fires. That included charcoal when we were there.

We looked at all the campgrounds and they are all very nice, but because of the heat in the summer, Chisos Basin is the preferred one. Because of the elevation, it’s a good ten to twenty degrees cooler than the Rio Grande campground in the summer and because of sinking cold air, warmer in the fall and winter. It was perfect sleeping weather, even in June.

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. This comes in handy in case of a thunderstorm, which we 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.

Rio Grande Village Campground

  • 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.

Cottonwood Campground

  • Open year round
  • 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.

Chisos Mountains Lodge

The lodge has rooms and cottages, gift shop, restaurant (with WiFi) and a bar. We ate dinner at the lodge a couple of times because you couldn’t make a fire and we were tired of sandwiches. The food was very good and affordable for a park restaurant. They have nachos, burgers, salads and some meat and vegetable entree options. They also serve breakfast and have a $8.99 breakfast buffet every morning. We didn’t get a chance to try it though.

Even if you aren’t planning on eating there, go by and see it. The lodge and restaurant sits up high and has a wall of windows and an outdoor deck area for beautiful sunset views.

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 nice too and they offer rooms, a campground and tours.

Cell phone service was very spotty and almost non existent but they were installing a tower when we were there.

Hike with plenty of water. One of the really great things about BBNP is that there were plenty of water filling stations and fountains all over the park.

The Boquillas Canyon hike was one of our favorites. If you are there in the hotter months, like we were, early mornings are your best bet for an enjoyable hike. We found one of the highlights of the hike to be when, Jesus, who lives in Boquillas del Carmen, sings for you. He comes to the river every day to greet visitors.

As you walk along the trails close to the river you will see  souvenirs and trinkets that have been placed along the trail. Even though the NPS has a warning on park literature about contraband, no one had removed the items when we were there.

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