In a remote desert with rivers, mountains, canyons and wildlife, visiting Big Bend National Park might seem a bit overwhelming. Just getting there takes effort. The best way to enjoy the park to it’s fullest, is to do your research and go prepared. And if you are wondering if Big Bend is worth the effort? Most definitely! Here’s a few tips to help you plan your trip.
Big Bend national park at a glance
LOCATED IN TEXAS
national park service abbreviation is BIBE
established in 1944
elevation 1800-7825 ft. at emory peak
visited in june
What Makes Big Bend Special?
- Size – Big Bend is huge! It’s the 15th largest of all national parks with over 801k acres to explore. That’s bigger than the state of Rhode Island. Since it’s a lesser visited park, there’s plenty of room to move around and not feel crowded.
- Mountains – the Chisos Mountains, the southernmost mountain range in the United States, are fully contained within the boundaries of the park. There is no other National Park that has that unique distinction.
- 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.
- Dark Skies – Big Bend is 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.
- Canyons – the park has three large Canyons that have been carved by time and the Rio Grande River. The canyons make up the Rio Grande Wild + Scenic River (RIGR) park unit.
What’s the Best Time to Visit Big Bend National Park?
The Big Bend National Park busy season is November through mid April. March is especially busy because of spring break vacations in Texas. If you don’t mind hotter temperatures, then summer and early fall are the best times to avoid crowds. We visited in June when temperatures were already over 100 F. Even though it was hot, the almost non existent amount of people there, was perfect for exploring. At times, we felt like we were the only ones in the park.
Where is Big Bend National Park?
Big Bend National Park is located in the Chihauhaun desert in southwest Texas. It lies along the Rio Grande River, that forms the border between the the United States and Mexico. The National Park Service takes care of approximately 118 miles along the border. Because Big Bend National Park is so far south, it’s not the easiest park to get to but very much worth the effort.
What’s the Closest Airport to Big Bend National Park
If you are thinking about flying to save driving time when visiting to Big Bend National Park, the closest airport is Midland International Air + Space Port (MAF) in Midland, Texas, 195 miles away. The next closest, commercial and accessible airport is El Paso International Airport (ELP), 300 miles from the park. Other possible Texas cities for a fly and drive road trip to Big Bend would be:
- San Antonio, TX (SAN) – 400 miles
- Austin, TX (AUS) – 435 miles
- Dallas, TX (DFW) – 533 miles
- Albuquerque, NM (ABQ) – 520 miles
Road Tripping Big Bend National Park
Most people road tripping to Big Bend National Park will use Interstate 10, to US Route 90, and then enter the park on Texas State Highway 118 from Alpine or US Route 385 from Marathon.
Our trip to Big Bend was part of a longer road trip that included White Sands National Park in New Mexico and Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas. Coming from the northwest, we drove US Route 90 from Van Horn, TX to Alpine, TX and entered Big Bend from the northwest entrance station on Texas State Highway 118.
If you have the time, you could also leave I-10 at exit 176 in Kent and drive the full length of Texas State Highway 118, which is part of the larger Texas Mountain Trail route.
For an even 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.
Southerner Says: Texas is big, with plenty of really remote roads. Take my advice and buy gas when you can. There are two gas stations inside the park. One at Panther Junction and one at the Rio Grande Village. Even though you can buy gas inside the park, it’s a good idea to stop in Terlingua or Marathon and fill up before you go into the park. Gas always costs more inside a park.
Big Bend Map
How to use this Google map: in the top left corner of the map is a button with an arrow. Click that and it shows the different layers of the map. You can also add the map to your Google account so you will have it for the future, by clicking the star next to the title.
Things To Do in Big Bend National Park
There are five Visitors Centers in the park. Panther Junction and Chisos Basin are open year round. The Panther Junction Visitor Center was my favorite. It has WiFi, a water filling station and an exceptional movie about the history of the park. The other visitor centers are Castolon Visitor Center, Persimmon Gap Visitor Center and Rio Grande Visitor Center. In low season, if an entrance station is unmanned, stop by one of the Visitor Centers for a park map.
Southerner Says: check NPS.gov for up to date 2021 info and visitor center closures and hours. Most of the buildings are closed but there are rangers outside so you can still get your passport stamped, buy park keepsakes and learn more about the park.
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
Of all the things in the park, don’t miss the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. It’s a beautiful drive. You don’t even have to get out of the car to enjoy the scenery. The drive is a 30 miles that takes you through the Castolon Historic area and to Santa Elena Canyon. There are plenty of stops and overlooks along the way, in addition to the Castolon Visitor Center. Don’t miss the Sotol Vista Overlook. Also, as you drive towards Santa Elena Canyon, you can see the canyon in the distance. What first appears as a small slit in the rocks gets bigger and bigger the closer you get.
The paved scenic drive starts at the Santa Elena Castolon Junction and ends at Santa Elana Canyon. If you want to continue on, Old Maverick Road is 13 miles of unpaved road that will bring you back onto Texas State Highway 118.
Visiting Big Bend National Park gives you a unique chance to visit Mexico. The small town of Boquillas del Carmen is right across the Rio Grande from the park and as long as you remember to bring your passport, you can check it out in person.
At the Boquillas port of entry, there’s a boat that will take you across the river. Once on the other side, you can either walk or ride a burro into town. There are restaurants and shopping to enjoy. The port of entry is open Wednesday through Saturday in high season and only on weekends during low season.
Southerner Says: due to the pandemic, as of November 2020, the border crossing is closed
Did you know that dinosaurs once roamed what is now Texas? I had no idea until I visited Big Bend National Park. The park has plenty of info and special exhibits about dinosaurs. Eight miles north of Panther Junction on Hwy 385 is the Fossil Discovery Exhibit. Here, kids, both big and small, can see replicas of fossils and learn about them from interpretive info in this interactive museum. There is also a play area and bathrooms.
Hiking in Big Bend
With over 150 miles of hiking trails, there’s a hiking trail for everyone and any skill level, in Big Bend National Park. Some of our favorite trails were the canyon trails:
- Boquillas Canyon Trail – an easy 1.2 mile trail that takes you up and over some hills along the Rio Grande. It has unbelievable wide open views into Mexico that make you feel small.
- Santa Elena Canyon Trail – an easy 1.7 mile trail that takes you into the canyon. Even if you don’t do the whole thing, the area before you get to the overlook and trail is fun to explore. There picnic tables and trails along the river.
- Hot Springs Trail – easy .5 mile round trip. There is also a one mile loop that continues on the to bluff above the trail.
If you are visiting Big Bend National Park in summer, like we did, then it’s best to hike early or in the late evening since it’s hot. Have plenty of water and keep an eye on the weather. We had a really bad pop up thunderstorm that forced us to leave our campsite because of the lightening. I really thought our tent would be gone when we went back.
Canoe + Kayak
My biggest regret about our trip to Big Bend National Park was that we didn’t have the chance to float the Rio Grande River. The river outfitters work so many continuous months in high season, many of them take the month of June – low season – off. So when we were there, no one was offering river trips. Taking a tour of the Rio Grande will be one of the first things I do next time I’m in Big Bend National Park. There are even overnight trips.
Big Bend National Park is home to over 100 species of bird. Spring is the best time for bird watching but there are other months where particular species are migrating that are also good. We aren’t birders but we enjoyed seeing different birds and especially looking for roadrunners in the park.
Since it’s so far away from any big cities, Big Bend National Park is a Dark Sky Park. It actually has the least amount of light pollution of any national park in the lower 48.
In normal, non pandemic times, there are ranger led night sky programs throughout the year. These programs include moonlight walks and star parties. Unfortunately when we were there it was a full moon and there were very few stars we could see.
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Where to Stay in Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park is so large, you’ll be doing a lot of driving just to see it all. The best way to make the best use of your time, is by staying inside the park or at least as close to it as you can. Terlingua Study Butte has a couple of resorts and one of the tour operators in town.
Inside the park, is a park lodge and four developed campgrounds. Additionally, there’s permit only, backcountry camping available for those who really want an off the grid experience. More info about camping and lodging can be found in my Where to Camp in Big Bend National Park article. It has details and tips about all the campgrounds in Big Bend National Park.
A Few Camping Tips For Big Bend
If you do plan on camping and cooking your own food then it’s best to bring supplies and groceries with you. There are three camp stores in the park. Rio Grande Village, Chisos Basin and Castolon have a few supplies but they are limited on what they have, pricey and not open all year round. In Terlingua, there is a general store that has some supplies now. We stopped in Marfa and bought our food before we went into the park.
For cooking, always check the latest park and campground rules about fires. When we were there, even charcoal fires weren’t allowed.
You might be surprised to find out that there are bears in the park. If you campground has a bear boxes then you should use it. The NPS has worked hard to reintroduce the bears into Big Bend National Park. Don’t sabotage their hard work by inadvertently feeding the bears by leaving food out. The NPS has some good info about bear safety in the park that’s a must read before you plan on visiting a park with bears.
FAQ’s About Big Bend National Park
- How much does Big Bend National Park cost?
The fee for Big Bend National Park is $30 per car, $25 per motorcycle for 7 days. If you haven’t already, consider purchasing an America the Beautiful Park Pass that cost $80, is good for a year and gets you into over 2k interagency park units.
- How many days to you need in Big Bend National Park?
As many as you have. There is so much to see and do in this park and since it’s a long Texas way down there you want to take advantage of the time you spent getting there. However, you could see a few top things in two days. Three days would be better and I don’t think a five days to a week is too much. We spent two days and two nights and missed a lot.
- Will I have cell service in Big Bend?
Probably not. Cellular service was almost non existent when we were there but they were installing a new tower so I really can’t say how it is now.
- Are dogs allowed in Big Bend National Park?
Dogs are not allowed on trails in Big Bend or in the backcountry. Basically dogs can only go where your vehicle goes. So roads, developed campgrounds and primitive campsites.
- Is Big Bend National Park safe?
Big Bend is as safe as any other national park, considering you are outside and dealing with wildlife and a wild environment. Use common sense. If you are traveling solo, let someone know where you are. Check in with your campground host or rangers to check status of happenings in the park if you have a concern
What Else is There to do Around Big Bend
West Texas is excellent for road tripping. While you are in the area, check out the ghost town at Terlingua Study Butte. Big Bend Ranch State Park is about 80 miles from the national park. Valentine, Marfa, Alpine and Marathon are all cool, quirky Texas towns worth stopping for. Visit Prada Marfa or try to see the mysterious Marfa lights. The wild west town of Fort Stockton is just 99 miles north of Big Bend.
Big Bend June Packing List
- shorts + short sleeve shirts
- appropriate food wear
- swimsuits and towels
- food if you are camping
- water (there is water in the park for refills)
- hand sanitizer + soap
Other Resources For Big Bend National Park
- Big Bend National Park map from NPS.gov
- There is a audio tour guide mobile app for Big Bend. I have not used it so I can’t say if it’s helpful or not. If you have used it please let me know in the comments.
- Lonely Planet Texas includes a section on Big Bend.
- Nevada Barr Borderline if you enjoy reading books about the areas you are traveling to, check out this mystery fiction book set in Big Bend National Park.
- Always remember to use Leave No Trace principles when you visit public lands