Growing up in Texas, I always heard about Big Bend, but I didn’t ever know of many people who had actually been there. That fact is a testament as to how far away Big Bend is from the major metropolitan areas of Texas (or what others would call “civilization”). If you can deal with the drive, though, you’ll be rewarded. Big Bend has some great hiking and beautiful and unique scenery that makes it one of the most underrated national parks out there.
To help you plan your trip to this park, here’s a list of things to know and do at Big Bend National Park:
Best time of year to visit Big Bend
The best time to go is probably in the fall, spring, or early summer. Big Bend is its busiest during Thanksgiving, Christmas holidays, and spring break. For those reasons, you’ll want to catch the park in between those busy times. If you can’t avoid going during peak season, then be sure to make your camping or lodging reservations way in advance because they fill up really quickly.
The worst time to go to Big Bend is probably when I went last time in mid-July. That’s right as the monsoon season is beginning and while it felt amazingly cool and breezy up in the Chisos Mountains, the rain was relentless and caused half the park to be inaccessible. We even witnessed an anomalous West Texas funnel cloud it was so bad out there.
The Window at Big Bend is the place to watch the sunset. If you stay at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, you’ll be about 30 seconds from the viewpoint. There are paved paths with a few benches along them where you can take in the sunset and take some great photos. In August, the benches were pretty much empty but in the peak season, I’m sure they get filled up in the evening. Still there are plenty of areas to wander and if the park is packed consider bringing lawn chairs and finding your own spot to relax and catch the view.
Just remember to turn around when you are watching the sunset at The Window because the light beaming off Casa Grande and the surrounding monoliths that are right behind you is a sight to behold!
Santa Elena Canyon
This is probably the most distinct feature of the park. The Rio Grande cuts through these canyon walls that rise over you up to 1,500 feet. Paddling through the canyon is a great way to experience it and my recommendation would be to look into taking the “boomerang” trip, where you’ll paddle upstream and then come back while being carried by the current. Definitely do some research into the different tours offered for river trips. While some of the tours can get a little pricey, you won’t find many other places in the country that can offer you the same experience.
When I went in August, these hot springs were completely flooded over with rushing brown, muddy rain water. However, if you catch the springs at the right time they are are actually very pristine and would make for a fun experience. Also, while you are there you can check out the ruins of Rio Grande Village, a hotel area that just didn’t quite make it.
To access the springs by car, you really need a 4×4 to get through the narrow dirt roads that get a little cliffy so be prepared. If you don’t have a 4×4, there’s a three mile hike that leads to the springs. Just remember it gets hot down there by the river, so if you are going during the summer bring ample water because the hike will be strenuous due to the relentless heat.
The Sotol Vista is a viewpoint in Big Bend in between the Chisos Mountains and the Santa Elena Canyon. It offers sweeping views of the entire park and if you’re looking for an additional point to capture the sunset this makes a great location for that.
Off-roading at Big Bend
We rented a Jeep to get out to Big Bend and take advantage of all of the great off-roading. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other plans. Due to the inclement weather the park had shut down many of the dirt roads so we didn’t get to venture on many of the roads. But do know there are plenty of unpaved and dirt roads for you to jump on out here, so I highly recommend bringing or renting a 4×4 vehicle to get around on.
We caught sight of tons of little road runners out at the park while driving around. There are numerous wildlife lookout points along the roads inside the park. If that’s your type of thing then maybe look into bringing some binoculars. Also, Big Bend is known for Javelina, which are known to be a little aggressive at times so if you come across one just be alert. But there are plenty of other animals roaming around here for you to come across (including a multitude of different rattlesnakes so watch out).
And I can’t forget about the plants out here — there’s a tone of interesting flora out here to check out. I think I saw at least five to ten different types of plants I’d never seen before.
Best Hikes to do at Big Bend
Up in the Chisos Mountains, there are a number of great hikes to choose from. We planned on doing the Emory Peak climb (the highest peak in the park at 7,825 feet) but the rain downpour was just too much. I didn’t want to risk taking my brand new camera in the heavy rain and so we opted to not do the hike.
I’d still recommend the Emory Peak hike based on what others have told me, though. It is a fairly strenuous hike and there’s a pretty steep scramble at the top, so make sure you’re in relatively good shape before setting out on that trail. Also, many proclaim that the Lost Mine Trail (5 miles round trip) is known for having the best scenery of all the trails so you may want to look into that hike for something less strenuous.
Finally, the Window is another popular hike that will give you sweeping views of the Chisos Basin as well as a great chance to see some wildlife. In addition to offering majestic views of the Basin, It’s known for it’s picturesque streams you’ll have to hop across and an array of butterflies during certain time of the year.
Quick tip: if you decide to head out on The Window trail save yourself some time by heading out from the Basin Campground trailhead — you won’t really miss any of the good stuff and you’ll save a decent amount of time because you’ll only be hiking 4.4 miles as opposed to 5.6.
Driving around the park
Here’s one thing to consider: if you’re going to be hopping around from the Santa Elena Canyon to the Chisos Mountains to Hot Springs, etc., you’re going to be doing some considerable driving. There’s a gas station in the middle of the park so you should always be within distance of gas, but just always be sure you’ve got everything you need before you depart because it’s a good 40 minute drive in between these locations.
Quick tip: if you’re visiting during the rainy season, call the different ranger stations and visitor centers to make sure they are operating before driving out to them.
Also, be very mindful of the speed limits, because the roads are patrolled pretty heavily. The speed limits are like 30 or 35 and the distances between the park locations are so far you’ll probably want to speed but try to fight the urge. If you happen to get a ticket, don’t fret too much because speeding tickets issued in National Parks are considered fines and do not affect your driving history. (Don’t ask me how I know that.)
Where to stay at Big Bend National Park?
My recommendation on where to stay is the Chisos Mountain Lodge. If you are planning on doing any kind of hiking in the Chisos, then you cannot beat the convenience of this place. Everything from the only restaurant to the only convenience store in the Chisos Mountains is right there. And what I like best is that the trailheads are literally right behind the lodge, so you could literally hop off your hotel room balcony and start your hike.
The rooms aren’t the fanciest and they don’t have good wifi (you’ll likely have to go to the main lodge to connect), but the convenience factor really can’t be equaled unless you’re camping in the park. And if you’re worried that the cost to the lodge is more than the motels on the outskirts of the park, don’t forget to factor in all the time you will save in addition to the gas.
Pretty much all of the rooms have some great views, but for the best views of the Window try to get a room in Building A. We didn’t have a view of the Window but we still had a great view of the surrounding mountains and even caught glimpses of deer in the morning. One thing, we almost got locked out on our balcony because the door wouldn’t unlock from the outside. I’m not sure if that was just a malfunction of that door or if they are all like that, so watch out for that.
If you’re okay with staying outside the park there are some small hotels/motels you can check out.
If you’re visiting in the summer and plan on camping then you really need to make it up to the Chisos Mountains Campground. It will be a good 10-15 degrees cooler up in the mountains and though you may have to battle some wind, you’ll thank yourself later on. Reservations ($14 per night) can be made from November through April and it is highly suggested you make those reservations way in advance. For other times of the year, reservations are made on a first come, first serve basis.
Quick Tip: If you’d like to shower you can call the Chisos Mountain Lodge and they will allow you to use their showers for like $5 in the morning, so you have no excuse to stay dirty.
Big Bend is a Gold Tier Dark Sky, which means you’ll see some of the darkest night skies in the world out here. Try to get out and wander at night time if you can.
Big Bend is pretty far away from just about anything so there’s not many nearby destinations. However, there is one place nearby that most people don’t know about. It’s the town of Marfa. For a long time, there’s been these lights that unexplainably appear in the night sky, they call them the “Marfa Lights.” If you’re a fan of the extraterrestrial, you’ll likely want to make a quick stop in Marfa.
That’s it for now. Let me know if you have any info you’d like to add!