Big Bend National Park runs the border with Mexico across a stunning stretch of southwestern Texas, where evenings are defined by an orange sky and red canyon walls, and where chirps of yellow meadowlarks and the sounds of the Rio Grande fill the air. While such stunning scenes are commonplace within Big Bend, the massive desert preserve remains overlooked among US national parks — it has never surpassed 500,000 annual visitors since its designation in 1944. The lack of tourists might be due to the park’s extreme remoteness: Big Bend lies 300 miles from El Paso, the nearest major metropolitan area, and is geographically isolated within a massive turn of the Rio Grande from which the park gets its name. Those who brave the miles will find the journey is filled with natural riverfront hot springs, quaint Mexican villages, luminous night skies, and secluded mountain trails awaiting them. Here is how to make the most of your trip to one of the more underrated parks in the United States.
Pick the right season, and give yourself plenty of time
With its southerly location and exposure to the elements, triple-digit temperature stretches in the summer months are not uncommon in Big Bend and threaten to turn the most well-intentioned hike into a sweaty, sunburned mess. A better experience is found in winter and autumn, but spring comes with the double bonus of long daylight hours and wildflower season. If you do go in the summer, make sure to bring lots of water, sunscreen, and plan your excursions around the heat. Winters can also get surprisingly chilly — averages hover around 60 degrees but can dip into the forties — so dress warmly if you plan your trip in the colder months.
Big Bend is among the largest national parks in the United States. With numerous trails, mountains, canyons, and villages to explore, each point of interest could easily yield itself to days of exploration. For the best experience, resist making a set plan — allow yourself plenty of time to explore and discover each desert sanctuary at your pace. Three days is enough time to traverse the park by car, stop in each area, and get a few hikes in along the way.
While the paved roads make it possible to explore much of the park’s natural beauty, many of the campgrounds and more obscure sights are hidden deep within the park’s interior on rough, dirt roads. Bring something with four-wheel drive, plenty of ground clearance, and good tires, or head to Lucky Sun Jeep Rental in neighboring Terlingua and grab a vehicle capable of getting you where you need to go.
Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife and gaze at the night skies
Roadrunners, sparrows, and warblers are among the 450 species of birds found within Big Bend, home to more birds than any other national park. With a keen eye and a bit of luck, you can also spot coyotes, black bears, and the javelina — a hairier cousin to the familiar pig. Sunrise and sunset observations are recommended for optimal wildlife spotting, and while the average smartphone will mostly suffice, take a camera capable of capturing the brilliant scenery at night. Due to its relative isolation from major cities, this side of West Texas has some of the lowest levels of light pollution in the country. Thousands of stars are visible on a clear night, and even the Milky Way can be seen under the darkest conditions. Consider bringing a telescope or simply lie down at night, looking up, and see what appears above.
Pass through Marfa on the way in, and Terlingua Ghost Town on the way out
About 100 miles north of Big Bend lies the tiny, peculiar artistic town of Marfa. Here you’ll find the El Cosmico hotel, with rooms consisting of brightly colored vintage trailers, tepees, and yurts. The town acts as a venue for the annual Trans-Pecos festival in September, containing a weekend’s worth of art, building, and songwriting workshops, artisanal markets, pop-up parties, live music of all genres, and the tense yearly sandlot baseball showdown between Austin’s Texas Playboys and the Los Yonke Gallos de Marfa. Travel 30 minutes north on U.S. 90 to find the famous Prada Marfa art installation in neighboring Valentine, a tiny, fake store isolated within the surrounding landscape and complete with actual Prada shoes and handbags from the fall 2005 collection. Grab a pimento cheese dip from Para Llevar and try heading east about 10 miles to watch for the mysterious Marfa Lights off of U.S. 67. Sometimes they’re red, sometimes they’re green, and sometimes they’re white. Visible at night regardless of season or weather, nobody is quite sure what causes them.
Travel 30 miles east on U.S. 90 to the town of Alpine, and then take TX-118 for 80 miles due south to find Terlingua at the gates of Big Bend. The remnants of a mercury mining camp from the early 20th century, the former ghost town has become known for its charming assortment of gift shops, earthy hotels, and its famous chili cook-off in early November. Check out the Terlingua Trading Company for handmade gifts, the High Sierra Bar + El Dorado Hotel for drinks and lodging in a rustic western atmosphere, or grab a bite of chips and guacamole and catch live honky-tonk music at the old Starlight Theater.
Take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and see Santa Elena Canyon in west Big Bend
At the western end of the park coming from Terlingua, the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is perfect for single-day trips. The paved road covers 30 miles of gorgeous desert scenery, including stops at landmarks such as Sotol Vista, Tuff Canyon, and Mule Ears. The road ends at Santa Elena, one of the numerous river canyons within Big Bend. Rent a kayak and place yourself within the scene of the towering 1,200-foot cliffs of Mexico and the United States, as the Rio Grande doubles as an international border throughout the park. While the relative shallowness of the river makes navigation simple, if rafting is on your itinerary, consider the aptly-named Rock Slide rapids upstream for an extra challenge. Big Bend River Tour can take you there.
Tour the Chisos Mountains in central Big Bend
In the center of Big Bend lies the Chisos Mountains, the only mountain range in the United States fully contained within a single national park. Given their relatively high elevation — the summit of Emory Peak stands at 7,835 feet — the Chisos are typically 10 to 20 degrees cooler than the adjacent desert and home to a wide variety of shady juniper, mesquite, and oak. Within the 20 miles of trails here, it’s a fairly easy hike to a beautiful view at the summit of Emory Peak, the highest point within Big Bend. Camping is available here as well at the Chisos Basin Campground. If camping isn’t for you, try the stone cottages at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, the only hotel within the park.
Visit the Hot Springs Historic District and Ernst Tinaja in east Big Bend
The eastern side of the park is home to Big Bend Hot Springs, a geothermally heated oasis now sitting within the remnants of an early 1900s bathhouse. Once a gathering place for locals on both sides of the river, soak in the year-round 105-degree waters, said to have healing properties, and enjoy unobstructed views of the Rio Grande and into Mexico. On the short trail there, don’t miss the Native American petroglyphs on the adjoining limestone cliffs, and the still-standing Hot Springs Post Office, where mail was once delivered every Monday in the early 20th century. If the springs are occupied, go about seven miles north on nearby Old Ore Road to find one of Big Bend’s more overlooked refuges in Ernst Tinaja. A bright red mini-canyon featuring hidden swimming holes, this is the perfect place for a low-key hangout with friends.
For the truly hardcore, there is the opportunity to raft Mariscal Canyon, the most remote of the park’s river canyons. The journey there requires 30 miles of driving on very rough dirt roads to the put-in at Talley campground. The canyon, roughly 10 miles in length, is also home to rapids bearing fun names such as “The Tight Squeeze” and the “Rockpile.” Those willing to brave the journey will be rewarded with perhaps the most rarely seen treasure in all of Big Bend.
Cross the border into Mexico via burro or boat and visit Boquillas del Carmen
On the far eastern end of the park, visitors with a valid passport and $5 can ride a burro across the Rio Grande to the Mexican village of Boquillas del Carmen, where guests can buy handmade quilts and wire sculptures of the desert wildlife, or sample the Mexican cuisine. Paddle a canoe downstream to be immersed in the nearly 1900 foot walls of nearby Boquillas Canyon, the deepest in the entire park. For the same price, you can also travel across the river by rowboat. Tickets for both can be purchased onsite.