The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Big Bend National Park
As a born and raised Texan, I figured it absolutely necessary to finally visit Big Bend National Park. My impression of Big Bend has always been that it was a dry and barren wasteland. I could not have been more wrong! There is so much to see in this park and you’ll definitely want to spend a few days here exploring. From the flowing rivers of the Rio Grande, the beauty of the Chisos Mountains, and all the Texas desert vibes this National Park really has it all. However, Big Bend definitely taught us some things that I think everyone should know before visiting. So, I’m sharing the Ultimate Guide to Visiting Big Bend National Park!
This blog post is in collaboration with Camping Season Supply – my go-to retailer for renting outdoor and camping gear. They offer fast shipping options, easy returns, travel advice, and they are a woman owned Texas retailer that cares about the environment. If you’re looking to try out some gear before purchasing, or looking for sustainable environmentally friendly options check them out.
Big Bend National Park: How to Get There
Big Bend National Park is, well, BIG and I don’t mean that lightly. It is one of the most remote National Park’s in the US covering over 800,00 acres and one of the lesser visited national parks in the US. Arriving here isn’t convenient and requires quite the journey no matter which direction you come from. The park located in the Southwest corner of Texas and borders Mexico. Here’s how long it’ll take you to get there:
- Houston- 8.5 hours
- Austin- 6 hours 45 minutes
- Dallas- 7 hours 40 minutes
- San Antonio 5 hours 45 minutes
- El Paso- 4.5 hours
The closest airport to Big Bend is in Midland Texas and is about 3 hours away from the park entrance. This is a relatively small airport and if you plan on flying into the park you’d still need to rent a car to get to and around. The next closest airport would be El Paso Airport which would require that you rent a car and drive the 4.5 hours to the park.
Big Bend National Park: When to Visit
You can visit the park year round but the best time to visit is during the months of November through April. The temperatures in the summer months can reach scorching levels making dehydration and over heating a serious issue. The rainy season begins mid June and runs through October. We visited in March and the wind was pretty extreme as well. Our tents were collapsing in on us and winds were up to 60 MPH. We asked a park ranger and he said that was typical weather for March in the park.
Big Bend National Park: What to Bring
Depending on what you’ll be doing and where you’ll be staying will determine what you’ll need to bring. Absolutely make sure you are stocked up on snacks and easy lunches/ dinners. There are almost no dining options in or around the park. One of the most popular choices is the Starlight Theatre which opens for dinner in Terlingua Ghost Town and depending on the crowd- we visited during spring break- you could wait for up to two hours to be seated. Another option is the grocery store right outside the west park entrance.
As far as gear goes, we rented almost everything we brought from Camping Season Supply. This is a local women owned business based out of Austin Texas that has ALL the camping gear you could possibly need. The best part is when you’re done you ship it all back with a pre-paid shipping label and you’re done. We rented trekking poles, headlamps, hiking backpacks, cooking utensils, our ground tent, and day cooler that all made our trip run smoothly without having to purchase all these additional items. Check out their Instagram here. This service is perfect for people who are:
- flying into Big Bend National Park or any other national park and don’t want to have to load up a carry on full of camping gear (you can have it shipped to your location anywhere within the continental us)
- looking to rent either an entire camping package such as backpacking, hammock camping, car camping, etc OR if you’re just needing to rent a few items to add to what you already have
- living tiny and don’t have a ton of storage space such as in an apartment or full-time RV’ers
- camping for the first time and not sure if camping gear is something you’d like to fully invest in just yet. Try it before you buy it!
- Most importantly renting camping gear is sustainable and an environmentally friendly way to reduce waste and consume less, contributing to the sharing and circular economies
Big Bend National Park: Where to Stay
Staying Inside The Park
If you’re looking to stay somewhere relatively close to the park this is your best option. The nearest town is an hour away and adds that much more drive time on to your trip. Reservations are required and you can book those at www.recreation.gov. There are several campgrounds available inside the park including:
Chisos Mountains Campground- This is by far the most popular campground. With sweeping views of the Chisos Mountains and close proximity to some of the more popular hiking trails, this campground books up fast! There are 60 campgrounds and run around $16 per night. Reservations are required and no more than 8 per site due to Covid restrictions.
Cottonwood Campground– This is a remote camp site. Dry camping in the desert with no hookups available. There are 24 campsites available and it’s open year round. 16 sites are reservable from November 1- April 15.
Rio Grande Village Campground-100 campsites available that run about $16 per night. There are flushing toilets, running water, and picnic tables available in this campground. 60 sites are reservable November 1–April 30. Showers and Laundry are currently closed due to Covid restrictions.
Chisos Mountain Lodge- There are 73 rooms available starting around $145 a night. The lodge has your basic needs and is perched in a convenient place in the park. The lodge books up quickly so if you’re considering staying here book asap! There is a gift shop, laundry, and free parking among other amenities.
Backcountry Camping- Permits are required for all back country camping. If you’re looking to be one with nature, totally surrounded in wilderness and completely self reliant this is perfect for you!
Staying Outside the Park
The closest town to Big Bend National Park is Terlingua Ghost Town. They don’t call it a ghost town for nothing! There are hardly any people living there. In 2020 the population was a whopping 110 people! Even with that small of a population there are several really unique places to stay in Terlingua. Some of the most popular are:
- Big Bend Resort and Adventures- There are hotel rooms and rv sites available and the best part is that it’s less than 2 miles from the park entrance. There is a gift shop, small grocery store, restaurant, laundry, and great wifi available.
- Base Camp Terlingua- You’ve probably seen this place all over Instagram. They offer several different unique options such as a multi-room bubble tent with a clear roof perfect for star gazing, luxury teepee’s, and even an abandoned boat parked right in the middle of the desert.
- Lajitas Golf Resort- Located right in between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park this resort is the perfect setting for your big bend adventure. With over 27,00 desert Texas acres to explore it also offers
READ NEXT: OVERLANDING THE COMPLETE BEGINNERS GUIDE
Big Bend National Park: Top Things to Do
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
If you only have one day in the park I recommend you do this drive if nothing else. Gorgeous views of the entire park including the Chisos Mountains and several areas to pull off and explore multiple trails.
Santa Elena Canyon
The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive will take you right to the trailhead of the Santa Elena Canyon. This is one of the top rated hikes in the park and you’ll want to add it to your must-do hikes while visiting. The hike is a nice and easy 1.8 mile in and out trail with a small elevation gain. The canyon walls are absolutely stunning and reach height of up to 1,500 feet.
Grapevine Hills Trail to Balance Rock
This is another relatively short and easy hike with a total distance of about 2 miles. The majority of the trail is flat with a little bit of rock scrambling toward the end of the trail. Once you climb up you’ll follow the signs to balance rock surrounded by 360 views. Another iconic and must do hike while visiting.
Fossil Discovery Center
This is a fun stop as you’re coming in to the park. Big Bend is known for the dinosaur fossil discoveries made in the park. There is a covered patio with dinosaur bones and history of the park that is a really neat learning opportunity and great for kids and adults alike.
Lost Mine Trail
This is a slightly more strenuous trail with a total distance of 4.9 miles and 1,100ft of elevation gain. It is located in the Chisos Mountains and offers up absolutely gorgeous 360 views of the park. Use caution approaching the top as there are some big drop offs. When we were in the park they had the road open only during certain hours so be sure to check on that before you arrive. To ensure availability, arrive to the trailhead before 7am.
In 2012 Big Bend National Park was awarded full status as an International Dark Skies Park. It is one of six International Dark Sky Parks in Texas, including the nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park.
How To Stay Safe in Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park and be a hot and dry place especially during the summer months. Flash flooding can be a threat from June through October and March sees high winds. Here are some tips to avoid unnecessary dangers in the park:
- The National Park Service recommends one gallon of water per day per person while in the park. Spring can be unreliable regardless of what the map says
- Wear a hat, long pants, and a long sleeved shirt while hiking to avoid burning in the Texas sun and avoid hiking mid day during summer
- During summer, swimming in the Rio Grande can seem like a good idea. However, the river can be hazardous even if it appears calm. Strong currents, deep holes, and sharp rocks all are issues you could run into swimming in the river
- Water born micro organisms can occur in the river and cause serious illness
- Be aware of wildlife like bears, coyotes, and javelins. If you encounter a black bear or a mountain lion do not run away but face the animal and back away slowly until you’re out of their range. If you feel threatened wave your arms, throw stones, shout and appear large; never run.
- Be aware of venomous snakes, spiders, scorpions, and centipedes. Carry a flashlight at night and be aware of where you’re stepping