The Ultimate Guide to Big Bend National Park


Ultimate Guide to Big Bend

Contents:

  • Park Info: Located in West Texas, Accessible by Car

  • Where to Stay & Eat: Chisos Mountains Lodge

  • When to Visit: Spring & Fall

  • Know Before You Go: Plan Ahead & Prepare for a Large Park

  • Top Trails & Things to Do: Lost Mine Trail, Window Trail, Santa Elena Canyon

  • My Favorite Photo Spots: Chisos Lodge, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Santa Elena Canyon

  • Itineraries: 2 Days in Big Bend


Intro


In my opinion, Big Bend National Park is hugely underrated. I've been to some of the greats - (Zion, Grand Canyon, Yosemite), yet at night I find myself craving the dark, vast West Texas skies and blissful seclusion that accompanies Big Bend.


I was lucky enough to tackle the 10 hour drive to Big Bend a few times when I was living in Houston. I remember the feeling of awe when I finally reached the Chisos Mountains Lodge for the first time. It's captivating, really. Beautiful, grand mountains surround you - the complete opposite of what you see in East Texas.


Big Bend is a special gem with some incredible hikes that I am happy to share.


Big Bend National Park Overview:


Home of the Chisos Mountain Range, Big Bend is located in Southwest Texas and hosts just 440,000 visitors per year. (Compare that to the Grand Canyon at 6 million visitors per year)!

Big Bend National Park

You might be thinking, why does Big Bend have such minimal annual visitors compared to other National Parks? Out of 62 National Parks, it ranks 44th for Visitation.


Well, for starters, it's not quite as easy to access as other parks and there are very few things in the surrounding area. For example, the closest airport, Midland, is roughly 3-4 hours away, and it's not even a major airport. If you're not staying at the Lodge inside the park, the closest town is at least 45 minutes to an hour away. The inconvenience is a bit of a deterrent to some people, but I'll be honest, I believe all of these reasons add to the charm of this National Park.


Big Bend is home of the majority of the Chihuahuan desert, as well as the Rio Grande, the river that separates the US from Mexico. In fact, there is an official border station located inside the park if you wish to walk over to the small, neighboring town of Boquillas, Mexico. As of 2019, Big Bend is the 14th largest National Park in the US with over 800,000 acres! All of that land is accompanied by 1,200+ species of plants and over 450 types of birds. Wow!


What I found most enticing about visiting this Park was the true lack of light pollution. Big Bend was recognized as an International Dark Sky Park in 2012 - they weren't kidding when they said "the stars at night are big and bright... deep in the heart of Texas!"


This place is worth a visit, I promise.


How to Get Here


If you're coming from anywhere in East Texas (Houston, Austin, Dallas, San Antonio), I absolutely recommend driving. The furthest drive of the major cities is from Houston, and at about 8.5-10 hours, it's still totally doable. It's a beautiful drive once you get closer to the park, and I would just note that after San Antonio there aren't as many food options along the drive. In addition, once you hit Alpine, TX, make sure you fill up your gas tank because this is the last gas station for the next 80 miles until you're inside the park.


Having a car in Big Bend is a must, so if you can make the drive, this is preferred.


If you're not within reasonable driving distance of the Park, not to worry! You have options!


As I mentioned before, the closest airport to Big Bend is Midland/Odessa around 250 miles away, and you'd most likely need a connecting flight to arrive at that airport. The recommended airport to fly into for visiting Big Bend is El Paso. You'll have more access to flights, rental cars, and food in that area.


The El Paso airport is a little over 300 miles from the Big Bend Visitor Center. You can take some detours and look into Marfa, Texas (although I never did this, some find it super interesting) or you can head straight there.


If you're worried about investing a flight, rental car, and hours of driving just to see one park, I totally understand. While there is more than enough in Big Bend to keep you occupied, you still have other National Parks within driving distance that you could check off your list! Think about adding Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and my personal favorite choice, White Sands National Park to your road trip!


On my first visit to Big Bend, I added White Sands and Carlsbad Caverns to the mix and the driving didn't feel so overpowering since it was split between my visits at each park.


Where To Stay


This brings me to my next point, and I feel strongly about this but I understand that not everyone may want the same experience!


My goal when visiting Big Bend was to enjoy as much of the Park that I could in the time allotted. I wanted to see all of the trails and enjoy every sunset at the Chisos Basin with as little driving as possible.


I mean, hey, after driving 10 hours to get here, I wanted to be up close and personal with the Park!


The Chisos Mountains Lodge


If you're the same way, I 100% recommend staying at the Chisos Mountains Lodge (or at their campgrounds if you prefer camping)! Honestly, the way I talk about the Chisos Mountains Lodge to my friends, you'd think they sponsor me.


The best part? Every time you call, they answer the phone with, "It's always a beautiful sunset at Chisos Mountains Lodge!" (or something like that).


The Lodge is the only accomodation inside the park and it's worth it for the access to dining, proximity to trails, and of course, endless views at every turn. You have a choice between hotel units, motel rooms, or the Roosevelt Stone Cottages. You can learn more about these options here. The price may be a small splurge depending on what you're used to, ranging from $155-$176 per night depending on your room choice.


I have only ever stayed in the Casa Grande Rooms, and I definitely recommend them. The views are incredible. Each balcony is surrounded by mountain views - it's breathtaking! Disclaimer: there is nothing fancy about this Lodge. The rooms aren't immaculate, but they're perfect for a National Park trip and I was always happy to see my room at the end of a long day. The Casa Grande rooms are located right next to the Chisos Basin Visitor Center and the Lodge Restaurant. It felt nice knowing that I had a bit of "civilization" around me. Bonus: the Chisos Basin has the best sunset view in the Park!


I've also heard really good things about the Roosevelt Cottages as well, however, they do not have A/C if that's something you require (and they book super far in advance).


View from our Casa Grande room at the Chisos Mountains Lodge - request a 2nd floor room if possible!

Chisos Mountains Lodge

The Chisos Mountains Lodge Restaurant and Patio


As you may have guessed, with only one lodge inside the Park, there is also only one restaurant. It was so convenient to be able to brush up after a long hike and walk right over to grab dinner during the sunset.


I've seen mixed reviews, but I thought food was really good, actually! The prices were moderate, too. They have breakfast, lunch and dinner and even offer sandwich packs to go in the morning if you have a long hike planned. The wait can get long during peak hours and seasons, so be sure to bring lots of snacks with you on your trip to hold you over.


Zach and I made sure to pack snacks and anything we could eat for meals in order to save money, but we still always ended up eating at this restaurant at least once a day, LOL!


The Visitor Center is also located right next to the Lodge, and they sell plenty of groceries there too.


*Travel Tip

Since there are so few lodging and dining options within the park, it's crucial that you book your reservations far in advance. That's not to say you can't get lucky planing a spontaneous trip! On two separate occasions, Zach and I managed to get a reservation within 2 days. People cancel all the time! Don't be afraid to call.


Dining & Eating Suggestions Overview:

  • Stay at Chisos Mountains Lodge (Any room will suffice, I loved Casa Grande!)

  • Book far in Advance depending on when you plan to visit

  • Prepare to eat at the Lodge restaurant or bring meals you can store in the fridge


Can't get a reservation at the lodge? No worries! You can absolutely still visit Big Bend.


Many people who visit stay in Terlingua, Texas. It's about 45 minutes from the Chisos Basin Visitor Center and they have a few different lodging options as well as restaurants! From what I've heard, this little Ghost Town is small but has a lot of character! If you're looking to splurge (or just update from a motel), check out the Lajitas Golf Resort! It looks absolutely stunning with a lot to offer if you want more than just to explore Big Bend. Rates typically range from $200-$300 a night, but I've seen them around $160.


Still not loving the options? I had a friend stay in a beautiful, large Airbnb within driving distance of the park. I'd check those options, too!


The entire park requires a lot of driving depending on the trails you wish to do, so staying outside the Park could bring you closer to some areas than if you were to stay at the Chisos Lodge.


Best Time to Visit


I don't think there is a "best" time to visit as it all depends on your preference, however, Spring and Fall are most popular due to their moderate temperatures. I've been in October and June, and I enjoyed both!

Lost Mine Trail

  • If you can, visit from Mar-Early May or Late Sept-Mid Nov for average high temperatures of around 80-85°

  • Visit late Feb or Early March to see the famous Texas Bluebonnets!

  • Avoid July & August to escape the hottest temperatures

  • Avoid the week of Spring Break (usually March)


I'll be honest, when I visited in June it was hot but manageable. It never felt humid and the hottest parts of the day were when we wanted to rest after a long morning of hiking. If visiting during the summer is your only option, you can plan your day and trails around the heat and the sun.


Tips + Know Before You Go


Border Checkpoints in Texas

  • You'll notice on your drive to Big Bend that there is a Border Patrol checkpoint due to the proximity to Mexico

  • I've never had to wait to pass through - they typically just ask to see your license, but keep in mind that even if you are a legal immigrant, I've heard you must have your visa or green card present


Plan Ahead

  • In addition to making reservations, be sure to plan your daily hikes! Many trails are far apart from each other and may take at least an hour to drive there - I have the Top Trails listed further below, organized by which location they are in which can help you plan

  • Luckily, some of the best trails (in my opinion) are located within minutes of the Chisos Mountains Lodge if you end up staying there

  • See below for attached Map with the three main areas of Big Bend - Chisos Basin to either the Rio Grande Village or Santa Elena Canyon can take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour (but both drives are beautiful and offer many scenic viewpoints)!

  • Attaching full, official map from the NPS here

Map of Big Bend National Park

Early Bird Gets The Worm

  • While the Chisos Basin is known for their beautiful sunsets, the sunrises are just as inspiring. Be sure to get up extra early at least one day on your trip to check out the sunrise from the lodge. If hiking the South Rim Trail (with Emory Peak!), start early and you'll be rewarded with colorful skies at the Chisos Basin

  • If you're planning on hiking Lost Mine Trail, I also recommend starting this one very early as there is limited parking at the trailhead!


Lions and Tigers and Bears?


Yes, Big Bend is home to Snakes, Tarantulas, Coyotes, Bobcats, Bears, Mountain Lions, and more, although it is not common that you'll run into any on your trails. Always be alert and remember to walk, don't run if you run into Bears or Mountain Lions.


I've only ever come across a tarantula, and that was just once on the side of a road.


Don't Forget the Essentials!

  • Proper hiking shoes & attire

  • Water (I bring multiple gallons and use them to fill up my Camelbak)

  • Hiking snacks / food

  • Sunscreen

  • Bug Spray - the mosquitos are out during prime sunset viewing hours!

  • Bathing suit (If you plan on visiting the Hot Springs near Rio Grande Village, although you'd be fine in shorts & a tank)

  • Passport (If you plan on walking to Mexico at the Boquillas Border Crossing)


You can check out a more detailed list of what I pack on a day hike here!


Top Trails & Things to Do at Big Bend

Lost Mine Trail and Merrell's

Scenic Drives


Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

About: Photographic paved drive that ends at the Santa Elena Canyon - a must do!

Length: 30 miles

Driving Distance from Chisos Lodge: 1 hr. 10 min to the end of the drive at Santa Elena Canyon Trail

Perfect For: All ages and skill levels


Old Maverick Road

About: Somewhat rough, dirt road located by Santa Elena Canyon that passes through Terlingua Creek

Length: 14 miles

Driving Distance from Chisos Lodge: 1 hr. for a direct route, but since this road is located on the West side of the Santa Elena Canyon, you can drive the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to the Canyon, then drive a little bit on Old Maverick Road since you'll already be there

Perfect For: All ages and skill levels, although can be a little rough, so it's preferable to have a high clearance vehicle (but doable without one)


Trails (By Location)


Trails near Chisos Basin

Window View Trail

About: More of a walk than a trail, this paved path is Wheelchair Accessible leads to beautiful views of "The Window," which is the famous view between two canyons

Length: 0.3 miles

Driving Distance from Chisos Lodge: No drive necessary! Located right outside of the Lodge

Perfect For: Families, Elderly, Anyone wishing to watch the sunset


Window Trail

About: Not to be confused with the Window View Trail, which is more of a scenic overlook, the Window Trail is an out-and-back trail that takes you down to the "Window" and offers beautiful views along the way. Try to plan wisely to hike during sunset hours (assuming you can make it back before dark!)

Length: 5.6 miles

Driving Distance from Chisos Lodge: No drive necessary! Located right outside of the Lodge

Perfect For: Moderate Hikers

Window Trail Big Bend


South Rim Trail (+ Emory Peak Loop, if you're up for it!)

About: Scenic loop trail that offers views all the way into Mexico from the summit. Add the Emory Peak trail once you reach the top, which will bring you to the highest peak in Big Bend National Park. There are two directions you can take for this hike - you can begin at the Laguna Meadows Trail or the Pinnacles Trail. I recommend beginning up the Pinnacles Trail if you're adding Emory Peak. It's much steeper, but the views are better and it brings you right to the Emory Peak trailhead so you can knock that off first before completing the rest of the South Rim Loop

Length: 12.6 miles for South Rim Only (or 15.6 miles if adding Emory Peak)

Driving Distance from Chisos Lodge: No drive necessary! Located right outside of the Lodge

Perfect For: Advanced Hikers

Emory Peak Big Bend


Lost Mine Trail

About: Out-and-back trail that offers jaw-dropping views of the Chisos Mountains

Length: 4.8 miles

Driving Distance from Chisos Lodge: Located minutes from the Lodge, this is located on Basin road with a small section for parking

Perfect For: Moderate Hikers, although there are some pretty steep portions

Lost Mine trail big Bend


Grapevine Hills Trail

About: Family friendly out-and-back trail with no shade that leads to a Balanced Rock Formation at the end

Length: 2.2 miles

Driving Distance from Chisos Lodge: About 30-35 minutes, 7 miles on a dirt road which is typically accessible by all vehicles

Perfect For: All ages and skill levels

Balanced Rock Big Bend


Pine Canyon Trail

About: Out-and-back trail that offers wildflowers and can lead to a waterfall after rain

Length: 4.2 miles

Driving Distance from Chisos Lodge: About 55 minutes, and the last 6 miles to the trailhead are unpaved require 4WD and a high clearance vehicle

Perfect For: Moderate Hikers


Trails near Rio Grande and Boquillas Canyon

Hot Springs Historic Trail

About: Quick out-and-back trail that leads to the Hot Springs. You can take a dip in the Rio Grande, too!

Length: 1 mile

Driving Distance from Chisos Lodge: 45-50 min

Perfect For: All ages and skill levels


Boquillas Canyon Trail

About: Out-and-back trail that begins in the parking lot and climbs to overlook the Rio Grande. Continue on the trail and you'll pass the "singing Mexican" man who sometimes crosses on his canoe from across the river to serenade/sell small trinkets. (He'll leave you alone if you just keep walking)! The end of this trail allows you to skip rocks and dip your feet into the Rio Grande - fun for kids!

Length: 1.4 miles

Driving Distance from Chisos Lodge: 45-50 min

Perfect For: New-Moderate Hikers

Boquillas Canyon Trail Photo

Boquillas Crossing (Border Patrol into Mexico - Must have passport)!

About: You can visit Mexico through the Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry - check the NPS website for up to date info on hours and days available to cross. Once you get through the quick and easy US border patrol, you can head to the river where locals charge $5 to cross the Rio Grande in a small rowboat. After crossing the river, you can choose to walk into the town of Boquillas or take a Donkey for a price.

Length: 2 miles (1 mile there, 1 mile back)

Driving Distance from Chisos Lodge: 45 min - Park at the Boquillas Crossing Parking Lot

Perfect For: All ages and skill levels

Check out my blog on if you should visit Boquillas, Mexico!


Ernst Tinaja Trail

About: Located off the 25 mile Old Ore Road, this out-and-back trail leads you through a slot canyon and features water holes. It can require some intense climbing the further in you go

Length: 1.9 miles

Driving Distance from Chisos Lodge: 1 hr, but the last 5 miles of Old Ore Road requires 4WD and a high clearance vehicle (Some parts were extremely rough!!)

Perfect For: New-Moderate Hikers


Ernst Tinaja Trail


Trails near Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon Trail

About: Beginning at the end of the Ross Maxwell scenic drive, this out-and-back trail that leads you through the canyon and requires you to walk through the Terlingua Creek (usually dry during summer months) - a must do for the beautiful views of the canyon up close

Length: 1.7 miles

Driving Distance from Chisos Lodge: 1 hr. 10 min

Perfect For: New Hikers, Families


Adventure Activities


Although I didn't get the chance to do either of these, I would have loved to do a canoe trip through the river or a horsebacking riding session in the mountains. Most of the companies that offer these activities are located in Terlingua.


Check out this link here to find anything that may suit you!


Things to Do Overview:


Here are my top picks that may help you determine which hikes to choose:


  • Best Overall Hike: Lost Mine Trail

  • Best Family-Friendly Hike: Grapevine Hills Trail (Balanced Rock)

  • Best Challenging Hike: South Rim Trail + Emory Peak

  • Best Sunset View