Mountains of immense lava rock formations, vast Chihuahuan Desert expanses that were once ancient dinosaur fossil-filled lake beds, and limestone layers forming deep, narrow canyons carved by the Rio Grande River: This is Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas bordering Mexico, right where the Rio Grande makes the elbow curve.
You could spend a week here and not experience everything this geological wonder has to offer. Adventures like hiking, backpacking, river trips through deep canyons, dirt road adventures, brilliant star-gazing, camping in both developed campgrounds and backcountry primitive sights, and lodging in the park-owned rustic Chisos Mountain Lodge are available for the nearly half a million explorers annually at Big Bend National Park.
To help make the most of your stay, I have divided the park into three regions, one per day, and I have mapped out each area with the top places and things to see:
The Chisos Mountains, Chisos Basin, Window View
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to Santa Elena Canyon
1. Museum Of The Big Bend
Before entering the park, visit The Museum of the Big Bend located on the Sul Ross State University campus in Alpine. You’ll see the big picture and appreciate the park more after this visit.
2. Persimmon Gap Visitor Center
Enter the east side of the Park on Highway 385 south from Marathon. Stop at Persimmon Gap Visitor Center to get your park map showing paved, dirt, and four-wheel-drive roads, hiking trails, picnic areas, ranger stations, campgrounds, distance indicators, and more. Use your Senior Pass or America the Beautiful Annual Pass.
3. Fossil Discovery Exhibit
Stop at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit on the way to Panther Junction. The Big Bend exhibits over 1,200 species of fossils and dinosaur remains, such as the horned dinosaur and the Bravoceratops polyphemus. Other significant fossil discoveries made in the area include the long-necked sauropod and the pterosaur, the largest flying creature with a wingspan of 36 feet, plus the duck-billed dinosaur, mosasaur, giant alligatoroid, and mammals such as the brontothere, which looked like an ancient rhinoceros.
4. Panther Junction Visitor Center
Stop at Panther Junction Visitor Center, which serves as the park headquarters, to see the Big Bend film. Talk to rangers about dirt road driving conditions, backcountry permits, camping limits and reservations, Junior Ranger badges, and more. The Panther Junction Gas Station and Store is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
5. Chisos Basin
Drive west and turn up the Chisos Basin Road. The kids will love the double-back hairpin turns winding back and forth that take you from the desert floor, up over 2,000 feet to the erosion-formed basin area surrounded by four peaks that are over 7,000 feet in elevation. At the top, where temperatures are 10 to 20 degrees cooler, you’ll find a visitor center, Chisos Mountain Lodge, restaurant, a campground, a camp store and gift shop, and miles of hiking trails.
Note: The road to the basin is not suitable for RVs longer than 24 feet or trailers longer than 20 feet due to the narrow hairpin turns.
We enjoyed a late lunch in the restaurant with a view of the “window,” a rock formation with a fantastic view of the desert miles below. The trail to the window is a half-mile round trip on level, paved terrain and the best place to photograph the sunset. There are at least five other hiking trails in this area from moderate to strenuous. They take one to eight hours round trip.
Watch for protected black bear, mountain lions, javelina, and coyotes in the backcountry.
A stay here assures close access to the free ranger programs covering presentations about dinosaurs, the once nearly extinct black bear, and the mountain lions in the park. You’ll find Wi-Fi at the visitor centers only, but you won’t have time to miss the lack of cell phone service during your stay.
When you leave, it’s down the same way you came up. There are plenty of places to pull over to take pictures.
6. West Park Entrance
Head west through the park toward the Lajitas Golf Resort, past Study Butte and Terlingua.
At Study Butte, you will find local outfitters offering river trips, Jeep excursions, and other park explorations, plus cabins, ranches, and RV parks.
Stop in Terlingua at the Trading Company gift shop for your favorite beverage, souvenirs, and snacks. Terlingua Ghost Town is the capital of the championship chili cook-offs held annually since 1967, drawing over 10,000 “chili heads.”
Head farther west to Lajitas Golf Resort, one of the best golf courses in Texas, where we stayed in the old historic Cavalry Post, part of the Army barracks used early in the 1900s by General “Black Jack” Pershing during the raids against Pancho Villa’s Mexican Army.
At the resort, you can play top-notch golf, ride horses, take zip line adventures, relax at the spa, do stargazing, or enjoy dinner at the Candelilla Cafe.
Bring your binoculars to the East Side of the park past Panther Junction toward Rio Grande Village for hiking and bird-watching or enjoy a half-day Jeep trip and half-day river kayak trip with Far Flung Outdoor Center. You’ll find offerings from family-friendly float trips to overnight adventures with expert guides.
1. Hot Springs
A two-mile gravel road descends a rough, narrow wash to the Hot Springs Historic District and trailhead area. Hike a half-mile round trip to the hot springs at the remains of J. O. Langford’s historic bathhouse. Soak in 105-degree hot spring water that contains dissolved mineral salts.
2. Rio Grande Village Campground And Visitor Center
The campground offers individual campsite reservations on a six-month rolling basis; see the website for first-come, first-served booking and to make specific reservations for the 100 campsites.
The nature trail here offers birding and wildlife viewing. Watch for the Colima warbler and 400 other songbirds and waterfowl species.
3. Daniel’s Ranch
Daniel’s Ranch Picnic Area is an excellent birding spot. The Daniel’s Ranch Trail to the Hot Springs has cliff drop-offs, which prevent access to the river along most routes. Note that there is no shade provided.
4. Boquillas Canyon Overlook And Mexico River Crossing
Bring your passport for a visit to the small border village of Boquillas del Carmen. From the Boquillas Crossing port of entry, take a short rowboat ride to Mexico. On the Mexico side of the Rio Grande, you can walk a quarter-mile to the village or pay an additional fee to ride a donkey or horse, or in a vehicle. Shop for handmade crafts or have lunch in the town. Check the website for closures of the crossing.
5. Grapevine Hills Trail
Two miles west of Panther Junction, turn right on Grapevine Hills Road and travel six miles on the dirt road past primitive campsites to the parking area. The Grapevine Hills Trail is 2.2 miles round trip and follows a gravel wash, then climbs steeply for the last quarter mile to the many giant rounded boulders.
Alternatively, you can coordinate a half-day river float trip and a half-day visit to the park’s east side.
1. Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive To Santa Elena Canyon
From the Maverick Junction west entrance, drive east 13 miles and turn right onto Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.
2. Sam Nail Ranch
This half-mile loop trail leads through the old homestead of Sam Nail and Nena. Find historic adobe remnants and two windmills, one still in operation. You’ll find excellent spots for birding and wildlife viewing along this trail.
3. Sotol Vista
The Sotol Vista is a picturesque overlook with views of the expansive landscapes of the Chihuahuan Desert and the Chisos Mountains. The short loop is a must-visit for photographs.
4. Mule Ears Viewpoint
Take photos at the Mule Ears Trail parking area. Hike the trail through rolling desert terrain past Trap Spring, Mule Ears Spring, and numerous mountain valleys. Turn around before the steep descent for a six-mile round trip. Caution: Take plenty of water. Park rangers recommend one gallon per person per day to avoid dehydration and heatstroke.
5. Castolon Visitor Center
The Castolon visitor center is open again after a fast-moving wildfire jumped the Rio Grande from Mexico and burned the historic barracks building housing the La Harmonia Store and visitor center. Note that this attraction is closed during the 110-degree summer temperatures.
6. Santa Elena Canyon
Fifteen hundred-foot cliffs form the walls of Santa Elena Canyon. A 1.7-mile round trip, the trail crosses Terlingua Creek and ascends paved steps to an overview, or you can walk a quarter-mile from the parking lot to the beach to view the canyon.
Return to the west entrance of the park via the 14-mile improved dirt Old Maverick Road.
When you leave the Big Bend National Park area, I recommend taking the 50-mile scenic drive from Lajitas to Presidio along the Rio Grande. Motorcycle riders love this scenic drive.
When it comes to planning your trip and booking accommodations, the best time to visit is October through March while the temperatures are cooler. Far Flung has great cabins and casitas. Since we enjoy historic and luxury hotels, we spent three nights at Lajitas Golf Resort on the west side of the park.
For more Texas vacation recommendations, consider these 10 fantastic experiences at Dinosaur Valley State Park and eight fun things to do at the Fort Worth Stockyards.