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Big Bend National Park: The Complete Guide for 2023

Michael Warford

Montreal, QC, Canada

At Big Bend National Park, expect to experience vast stretches of desert, stony mountain peaks framed against a pitch-black night sky, and towering canyon walls that look like they’ve come straight out of the Lord of the Rings. Part of Big Bend’s charm comes from its isolation. With the closest major city nearly 5 hours away, this corner of Texas feels completely cut off from the rest of the world. While it is getting more popular—and crowded—as time goes on, it’s still so massive that it’s easy to find a place for yourself where you can truly appreciate the immense grandeur of the desolate landscape.

Where is Big Bend National Park?

Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.

Located in West Texas, Big Bend National Park hugs the US-Mexico border where the Rio Grande River makes a dramatic bend from south to north (hence the park’s name). It’s about halfway between El Paso and San Antonio. For practical purposes, however, Big Bend National Park is in the middle of nowhere, which is exactly what makes it so exciting.

Big Bend National Park Facts

At over 800,000 acres, Big Bend National Park is one of the largest national parks in the lower 48 states. It’s also the largest protected area of Chihuahuan Desert in the country and an important dinosaur fossil site.

Getting to Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.

El Paso is the closest city to Big Bend National Park, but the drive will still take you close to five hours. Be sure you fill up on gas whenever you can since service centers are few and far between. As you’re leaving El Paso, take the I-10 East until Van Horn, then take U.S. Route 90 East. Once you get to Marathon, turn right onto U.S. Route 385 South, which ends at the park entrance.

The drive from San Antonio to the park takes about six hours. Again, fill up on gas whenever you can. The fastest route is via U.S. Route 90 West, which you will follow all the way to Marathon. Then take U.S. Route 385 South straight to the park.

If you’re planning a Texas National Park road trip, make sure to hit Guadalupe Mountains National Park is roughly four hours northwest, just outside of El Paso.

Big Bend National Park Weather

Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.

While Big Bend National Park is extremely isolated, there are times in the year when it can get crowded. The high season is mid-January to mid-April when temperatures are relatively mild. March—because of Spring Break—is usually the busiest time of the year. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years are also popular. If visiting around any of these times, be sure you have your camping spot or hotel room reserved in advance.

If you can stand the heat, visiting Big Bend National Park outside of these peak times is highly recommended. The crowds will have thinned out, which will help you better appreciate the vastness and solitude of the Chihuahuan landscape. Plus, you’re much more likely to encounter wildlife at these times with fewer people around.

Big Bend National Park Hours

Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.

Big Bend National Park is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. There are five visitor centers in the park, but only the two main ones—Panther Junction and Chisos Basin—are open all year. The other three—Persimmon Gap, Castolon and Rio Grande Village—are open November 1 to April 30. The Panther Junction Gas Station (the only gas station in the park) is open 24 hours, although the store’s hours are 10:00 AM to 5:30 PM.

The park is currently under limited operations due to COVID-19. For recent COVID status and frequent updates, check out Big Bend’s status and updates.

Big Bend National Park Entrance Fee

Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.

The entrance fee for a private, non-commercial vehicle is $30, which lasts for 7 consecutive days. The fee covers everybody in the vehicle up to 15 passengers. The fee for motorcyclists is $25, while for individuals (such as cyclists and pedestrians) the fee is $15. You can also buy an annual pass for $55, which is good for one year from when it is purchased.

Hiking in Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.

If you’re ready to stretch your legs (but not sure where to start), here’s a list of our favorite hiking trails in Big Bend National Park:

Easy, perfect for families:

  1. Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail (0.5 mi loop)
  2. Grapevine Hills Trail (1.9 mi out-and-back)
  3. Lower Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail (1 mi out-and-back)
  4. Panther Path (50 yard loop)
  5. Sam Neil Ranch (0.5 mi loop)
  6. Tuff Canyon (1 mi out-and-back)
  7. Window View Trail (0.3 mi loop)
  8. Hot Springs Historic Trail (1.2 mi loop)
  9. Rio Grande Village Nature Trail (1 mi loop)

Moderate, fairly strenuous:

  1. Chimneys Trail (4.6 mi loop)
  2. Dog Canyon (4.1 mi out-and-back)
  3. Mule Ears Spring Trail (3.9 mi out-and-back)
  4. Upper Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail (3.7 mi out-and-back)
  5. Chisos Basin Loop Trail (2.4 mi loop)
  6. Lost Mine Trail (4.8 mi out-and-back)
  7. Window Trail (5.2 mi out-and-back)
  8. Boquillas Canyon Trail (1.2 mi out-and-back)
  9. Hot Springs Canyon Trail (5.5 mi loop)
  10. Santa Elena Canyon Trail (1.5 mi out-and-back)

Hard, experience recommended:

  1. Marufo Vega (13.5 mi loop)
  2. Mariscal Canyon Rim Trail (12 mi out-and-back)
  3. Boot Canyon Trail (6.3 mi out-and-back)
  4. Emory Peak (10 mi out-and-back)
  5. South Rim (12.6 mi loop)

Big Bend National Park Lodging

Basecamp Terlingua, Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.

Big Bend National Park Camping

Planning a night under the stars? Here are some of the best campgrounds and campsites inside and outside of Big Bend National Park:

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Big Bend National Park Hotels

If camping isn’t your thing, there are plenty of resorts, hotels, hostels, inns, cabins and B&Bs within an hour of Big Bend National Park. Here are some of our favorites:

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Big Bend National Park Airbnb

Airbnb stays near Big Bend National Park are truly one of a kind. You’ll find ranches, adobe houses, caravans, and colorful homes on offer, often with stunning views of the landscape. The tiny town of Terlingua has a lot of options, and it conveniently puts you just minutes from the Maverick Junction entrance. Marathon also has plenty of Airbnbs, although it’s a bit further from the park. Remember to book well in advance as the best ones get snapped up quickly during high season.

Big Bend National Park Tours

Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.

There are a ton of different ways to experience Big Bend National Park and an equally diverse number of tour operators. A classic option is a guided ranger tour. Head to the Panther Junction or Chisos Basin Visitor Centers to find out what ranger tours are on during your visit. There are also many private outfitters that operate in and around the park offering hiking, horseback riding, 4WD, scenic flights, rafting, and kayaking tours. Most of the outfitters are based in Terlingua, just to the west of the park.

The Best Things to Do in Big Bend National Park

Snap a Photo at the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook

Santa Elena Canyon Overlook, Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.

The towering walls of the Santa Elena Canyon can be seen for miles around and are arguably the most impressive sight in all of Big Bend National Park. Head to the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook for an unforgettable view of where the Rio Grande exits this amazing geological feature.

See the Most of Big Bend Along Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

Rose Maxwell Scenic Drive, Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.

The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is a 30-mile paved road connecting Castalon/Santa Elena Junction (near Chisos Basin) and the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook. This is the drive you want to do if you’re looking for a taste of what Big Bend National Park is all about. You’ll pass by many of the park’s best attractions and there are plenty of turnouts to take pictures of the desert views.

Contemplate the View at the Window Trail

Window Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.

The Window Trail is located in the Chisos Basin and offers the most classic view of Big Bend National Park. Most of the trail is fairly easy, although the last part gets quite steep. You’ll be rewarded with a view overlooking the desert framed by two mountains (hence the name). Do the hike in the morning or late afternoon to increase your chances of seeing some wildlife.

Float Down the Rio Grande

Rio Grande, Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.

The Rio Grande is more than just the border between the U.S. and Mexico, it is also an impressive natural wonder. Rent a raft or kayak and float through awe-inspiring canyons. While much of the river is very tame, there are rapids in some parts, so make sure you only navigate it with the help of a local guide.

Drive Up (and Up) the Chisos Basin Road

Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.

The Chisos Basin is the heart of Big Bend National Park and is home to many of the park’s best trails and amenities. One of its biggest draws, however, is the drive there. The Chisos Basin Road is a winding paved road (large RVS are definitely not recommended!) that travels from the desert floor up to over 5400 ft above sea level, with plenty of overlooks along the way.

Live the Old West at Terlingua “Ghost Town”

Terlingua Ghost Town, Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.

Terlingua is marketed as a “ghost town,” although with plenty of fully operating hotels, tour operators, restaurants, and shops, there’s definitely nothing deserted about the place. That being said, abandoned mining buildings and the old cemetery have been preserved and give you a sense of the place during its heyday as a mining town in the Wild West.

Hitch Up Your Horse at Hannold Draw

Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.

Big Bend National Park, with its big sky and wide-open desert, is without a doubt an ideal place to saddle up your horse and tap into your inner cowboy. With the exception of the paved roads and busier trails, much of the park is open to horseback riding. There’s even a corral at the Hannold Draw primitive campsite so you and your four-legged companion can camp under the stars.

Say Hello to the Wildlife on the Lost Mine Trail

Lost Mine Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.

The Lost Mine Trail is a relatively easy hike in the Chisos Basin that offers an almost endless number of places to stop and take a picture of the mountain views. If you do this trail closer to dawn or dusk, there’s a decent chance you’ll get to see some of the local wildlife, including deer, black bears, and bobcats.

Gaze at the Stars at Mule Ears Viewpoint

Mule Ears Viewpoint, Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.

Big Bend National Park is many hours from any major city, which has resulted in the darkest skies of any national park in the lower 48 states. Almost anywhere in the park offers great stargazing opportunities, but the Mule Ears Viewpoint is one of the best as you’ll get to see the twin peaks of Mule Ears against the star-filled night sky.

Check Out the Dinos at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit

Fossil Discovery Exhibit, Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.

Big Bend National Park is the only national park where the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary (i.e., when the dinosaurs went extinct) can be seen in the exposed rock. As a result, it has an impressive collection of dinosaur bones, including the Quetzalcoatlus northropi, the largest flying animal that ever existed. Head to the Fossil Discovery Exhibit to learn more about the park’s fossils.

Wander the Ruins of Sam Nail Ranch

Sam Nail Ranch, Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.

There’s not much left of Sam Nail Ranch—just two windmills and a couple trees—but the trail to the ranch offers a good history lesson about ranching in the area. It’s also an easy hike and there’s a good chance you’ll catch glimpses of a few desert animals, including lizards, vultures, and snakes.

Escape the Crowds at Mariscal Canyon

Mariscal Canyon, Big Bend National Park, Texas, US. Credit: NPS

Mariscal Canyon is one of the most spectacular places in Big Bend National Park, but it is also very difficult to get to. You’ll need a 4WD since the road is not maintained. The Mariscal Canyon Rim Trail provides outstanding views over the canyon and there’s a good chance you’ll have the place entirely to yourself.

Go Birding at Rio Grande Village

Rio Grande Village, Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.

Big Bend National Park is home to hundreds of bird species, as well as the only breeding ground in the U.S. of the Colima warbler. Rio Grande Village is arguably the best spot for birdwatching with more than 300 species including herons, hawks, kingfishers, and woodpeckers.

Take a Dip at the Hot Springs Historic District

Hot Springs Historic District, Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.

Hot Springs was a magnet for tourists in the early 20th century who were looking to regain their health in the 105F waters. The old post office is still standing and you can even take a dip in the hot springs, which are in the foundations of the old bathhouse overlooking the Rio Grande.

Hike Along the Rio Grande at Boquillas Canyon

Boquillas Canyon,Big Bend National Park, Texas, US.

Boquillas Canyon is easy to hike, but because it is in the less-visited eastern end of the park, it tends to get a lot less crowded than other areas. The trek will take you along the Rio Grande and into the Boquillas Canyon, with some great spots for pictures of the river along the way.

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