I think the Big Bend area of southern Texas is an undiscovered jewel in our National Park system. My first visit was in 1990 and I loved it then and loved it even more on my recent trip this past September which was a perfect time to explore the park. The weather was not super hot (low 80’s during the day) and it was not at all crowded since the busy season had not yet started. I am sharing my 25 favorite Big Bend experiences to inspire your next trip to one of the least crowded National Parks in the lower 48 states.
In Big Bend National Park
Covering over 1250 square miles, Big Bend National Park is one of the largest National Parks in the lower 48 states and is also one of the most remote parks which makes it also one of the least visited. The park protects a large swath of Chihuahuan desert and also contains the whole of the Chisos Mountain Range. 118 miles of the Rio Grande River forms the southern border of the national park, as well as a border with Mexico.
At the Fossil Discovery exhibit, you can learn about the 130 million years of history that shaped the land that is now Big Bend National Park. The self guided interpretive exhibit takes you from the time when this land was covered by a large sea, to dinosaurs and their extinction and then finally to the advent of mammals living in the area. Each epoch is documented with informative displays and fossils found in the park. You’ll find the Fossil Exhibit on highway 385 about 8 miles north of Panther Junction.
Even though they extend for 20 miles, the Chisos mountains are the only mountain range that exist completely within the boundaries of a National Park. Emory Peak, the highest point in the park is 7835 ft. above sea level. A paved road takes you up from the desert into the forested Chisos Basin where you will find lodging, a restaurant and the start for a number of hiking trails.
Stay or Eat at the Chisos Mountain Lodge
The Chisos Mountains Lodge and Restaurant are the only non-camping lodging option within the park boundaries. The lodge is open year round and offers a variety of room and cabin options. I had a basic, clean and comfortable motel style room that was quiet and quite adequate. The room also came with a fridge and coffee maker if I needed it.
I grabbed a quick take away dinner and next day’s lunch at the Mountain View Restaurant at the Chisos Lodge. This is the only full-service dining option inside the park. The restaurant has grand views of the mountains both inside and out. The chicken tacos I had for dinner were very good, as was the chicken quesadilla which I ordered to go and stored in my room’s fridge to keep for a picnic lunch the next day.
Windows View Trail at Sunset
One of the easiest trails in the park is also one of the most rewarding. The Windows View trail is an easy 0.3 mile paved trail in the Chisos Basin area which is wheelchair accessible. There are also benches along the trail which makes it easy to sit and enjoy the view of the mountains and the setting sun as it drops through the “window”.
Hike the Lost Mine Trail
My husband and I hiked the first mile of this trail on our first visit to Big Bend in 1990. We only went as far as the Juniper Canyon viewpoint because we also had our 3 1/2 year old son with us, but the view was stunning.
Hike the Grapevine Hills trail to Balanced Rock
The Grapevine Hills Trail is an easy 2.2 mile round trip hike to a balanced rock formation that gives nice views over the Chihuahuan desert toward the Chisos range. The first 9/10 of a mile is a very level stroll., while the last 2/10 of a mile is a steep rock scramble that is well marked. You can read my story about my hike down memory lane to Balanced Rock here.
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive takes you to Santa Elena Canyon and the Castelon historic district. On the way you’ll get to see the western side of the Chisos mountain range. Along the way there are scenic pull offs and short hikes to a few abandon ranches homes.
The Sotol Vista overlook along the Ross Maxwell scenic drive is another great spot to watch the sun set. The view is spectacular any time of day as you get to look out over the whole western side of the park all the way to Santa Elena Canyon.
The Castolon Historic District
In the early 1900’s, the rich soil in the Rio Grande flood plain to the south of Santa Elena canyon brought settlers and farmers. During the Mexican Revolution, it also brought a cavalry outpost. This history is still on display with exhibits at the Castolon Visitor’s Center as well as with the remaining buildings and machinery.
Santa Elena Canyon
Over the course of 2 million years, the Rio Grande cut its way through the limestone to form Santa Elena Canyon, which today is 8 miles long and about 1500 feet deep. You can look down into the Santa Elena Canyon from an overlook or you can hike the 1.7 mile round trip trail into the canyon if the water levels are not high (which they were when I visited in early Sept). Rafting through the canyon is also a popular activity. This is an especially pretty area to watch the sun rise as it glows orange on the cliff face.
At Boquillas you can hike down to the river’s edge and into the Boquillas canyon. Another unique and interesting experience would be to cross over into the town of Boquillas in Mexico for the day at the Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry – information on what that entails is here.
Rio Grande Village
Rio Grande Village on the east side of the park is a good place to stop to fill up your tank with gas, pick up some groceries for a picnic or more water. There is also WiFi, an ATM, a picnic area, camping, showers, a ranger station and a visitor’s center that is open Nov. to April. (Note that the store sells ice cream bars which is a nice treat on a hot day).
Experience Really Dark Skies
Both Big Bend National Park and Big Bend State Park have Dark Sky Park status, which means that you will be in an area the size of the state of Rhode Island without any light pollution. If you have never been in a Dark Sky area, you will be absolutely amazed at how many stars you will be able to see. In the summer months, you will be able to see the bright milky way for most of the night, while in the fall it will be visible just after sunset, and in the spring it will be visible just before sunrise. And if you visit during a new moon you will also not have any moonlight to interfere with your star gazing. You can read my story about Big Bend’s dark skies here.
For up to date information on visiting Big Bend National park please visit https://www.nps.gov/bibe/index.htm
Marathon is the northern gateway town for Big Bend National Park and is about a 45 minute drive from the entrance into the park. The town has a number of accommodation and restaurant options as well as a variety of frequent weekend events. It makes a good home base for exploring the park.
Eve’s Garden B&B
I loved my stay at Eve’s Garden B&B. It has a colorful and homey atmosphere and the breakfast was absolutely delicious. It is also an easy walk to the restaurants on Marathon’s Main Street.
Stay or Eat at the Gage Hotel and Restaurant
The historic Gage Hotel has a number of accommodation choices all of which will have you feeling like you are staying in a very luxurious version of the old west. The Gage also has a bar and a full service restaurant that regularly hosts musical acts.
The Gage Gardens are a surprisingly lush retreat in the midst of the Texas desert. The 27 acres next to the Gage Hotel offer something for every taste with the manicured gardens, fountains, ponds, a walking and jogging trail, a nine hole putting green, a vineyard and fruit orchard, and a fire pit.
Brick Vault Brewery and Barbecue
If your taste buds have a hankering for some good Texas BBQ and a local craft beer to go with it, then the Brick Vault is for you. The restaurant is named after a bank vault which was the only thing left standing on this site after a fire burned down the bank building around it. Now the vault produces its own fires as part of the smoking rooms for the BBQ that is made fresh daily on site.
In Terlingua Ghost Town, TX
In the late 1800’s Terlingua developed into a prosperous mining town with a population of about 2000. By the end of the 1940’s, the mines were worked out and the town slowly fell into ruins. Today, the stone building remnants and miscellaneous stranded rusted equipment add an additional level of interest to a town that is becoming redeveloped and is now a tourist destination. The town is best known for its annual chili cook off which happens the first weekend in Nov. and which brings in over 10,000 partying enthusiasts. (You can read my story about Telingua here.)
Explore the ruins in Terlingua Ghost Town
Sitting in between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park, Terlingua provides convenient access to activities in both parks. The town itself is also an interesting locale to explore in its own right. Pick up a Ghost Town Self Guided Walking Tour map at the Terlingua Trading Company (next to the Starlight Restaurant) to learn about the town’s history and view the remaining structures. Today’s businesses and residences have been built among the ruins of the former town which has produced an eclectic mix of run down and funky new.
Explore the Terlingua Cemetery
The Terlngua Cemetery looks the way you would expect a cemetery to look like in a town that includes the words “Ghost” in its name. The oldest graves are from the early 1900’s, though the cemetery is still in use today, so you will also see newer graves. Each Nov. 2, the town celebrates the Day of the Dead at the cemetery, leaving flowers, coins and food to honor those interred here.
Stay at Posada Milagro
I really enjoyed my stay in the Chisos Suite at Posada Milagro. The room had a great blend of western and modern elements and the pillows and duvet felt like my own at home. The site also has fantastic views across the desert toward Big Bend NP.
Eat at the Starlight Theater and Restaurant
You should’t pass through Terlingua Ghost Town without experiencing either a drink or a meal at the historic Starlight Theater Restaurant and Saloon . Like the town, it’s a funky setting that has good food and frequent evening entertainment. And yes, as the site of the town with the World Chili Cook Off, the chili at the Starlight was quite good.
Located 15 minutes from Terlingua, Lajitas also has a long western history. However, for this town, the history revolves around the ford and ideal river crossing at this location in the Rio Grande. In the early 1900’s, General Pershing set up a cavalry post here to protect the crossing from Poncho Villa and his revolutionaries. Today, the whole area has been developed into a luxury golf resort that also makes a good home base for exploring the nearby parks. (You can read my story about Lajitas here.)
The Lajitas Cemetery
This cemetery is also a reflection of the town’s history. Many of the neat and tidy graves belong to the original settlers and their descendants, and like the Terlingua cemetery, this one is also still in use with newer graves.
Lajitas Golf Resort – Lajitas, TX
The Lajotas Golf Resort is a 27,000 acre oasis with Big Bend National Park bordering one side and the Rio Grande bordering another. It is a luxurious western themed resort that offers a wide range of accommodations from standard hotel rooms to condos and villas. The choice of resort activities, including a pool, spa, restaurant, saloon, movie theater, historic chapel, and its own zip line. For RV drivers, the resort also has an RV park with use of the resort amenities.
Meet the Mayor of Lajitas
The mayor of Lajitas is a real old goat. Clay Henry III is following in the footsteps of the first Clay Henry who was elected mayor in the 1980’s. You’ll find the current mayor’s luxury pen across the road from the Lajitas Golf Resort. You can also still see the first Clay Henry at the Starlight Restaurant and Theater in Terlingua. He’s been stuffed and now stands at the front of the stage staring out at the audience.
Scenic drive in Big Bend Ranch State Park
Rt. 170 west from Lajitas takes a scenic path along the Rio Grande through Big Bend Ranch State Park. At over 300,000 acres, this is the largest state park in Texas. The park offers camping and hiking, as well as guided rafting or canoe trips, and a picnic site under teepees. A drive along Rt. 170 has been named as one of the most scenic drives in the US. Big Bend Ranch State Park also received its Dark Sky designation in 2017.
Hints for a better trip
- Distances are vast so always gas up when you pass a gas station. The outlying towns all have gas stations, but within the park, gas station are only available at Panther Junction and Rio Grande Village (note that there is not a gas station in the Chisos Basin area).
- Wear a hat and sunglasses and put on sunscreen to protect yourself from the sun.
- Bring a flashlight to get around at night – this area has a Dark Sky designation for a reason.
- Pack, carry and drink lots of water.
- Pack food for picnic lunches and snacks. There is only one restaurant in the park in the Chisos basin. Rio Grande Village has a store also.
- Bring a passport if you are planning to take the crossing into Mexico at Boquillas.
- Bring binoculars for a closer look at the night sky
- I find a collapsible hiking stick helpful, especially for steep sections on a trail.
How to Get There
I combined my trip to the Big Bend area with 2 days in San Antonio first, so I actually started my trip with a flight into San Antonio’s airport where I rented a car with plans to drop it off at the Midland Air and Space Port.
From San Antonio it was about a 6 hour scenic drive along Texas Route 90. I stopped for a bite to eat in Del Rio at Rudy’s BBQ which was delicious and I highly recommend. Also recommend gassing up the car in Del Rio as well. At one point along the drive on Rt. 90 I passe through a border patrol check point station. I answered their questions politely and drove on.
I flew back home from Midland Air and Space Port (MAF). It was about a 3 hour drive from the northern entrance of Big Bend NP to the airport. Since I had an early morning flight, I actually spent the night in Fort Stockton since those hotel rooms were cheaper than the ones in Midland closer to the airport. The Midland airport was compact, bright and efficient. The drive from Fort Stockton to MAF was about 1.5 hours.
Another option is flying into the El Paso Airport (ELP) and then driving 4.5 hours to the northern entrance of Big Bend.
A small quilts shop on Rt. 118 in Study Butte, near the intersection with Rt 170.
Marathon Quilt Show
In early Sept. the Marathon Quilters Guild has been hosting a local quilt show. This one day event attracts quilters and their quilts from the West Texas area. You can read my post about the quilt show here.
Please note that my visit to the Big Bend area was hosted by Visit Big Bend but all content is my own.
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