Big Bend National Park is an incredible national park that so many people miss out on because it’s not easy to get to! If you love deserts, lush mountains, or canyons, this isn’t a park to skip!
How to Get to Big Bend National Park:
From El Paso – 4.5 hours
El Paso is the shortest drive into Big Bend National Park, but don’t forget that it takes 30-60 minutes to get from the park entrance to most of Big Bend’s camping and lodging options. Check out the art and museums in Marfa on your way to the park.
From Austin – 7 hours
If you’re coming from Austin, check out Johnson City and its Lyndon B Johnson historical sites. Then you’ll drive through Texas wine country and the German town of Fredericksburg.
San Antonio – 6 hours
Route 90 and route 10 are pretty equal in travel time, so coming from San Antonio, you can have a unique drive each way.
Amarillo – 7 hours
Routes from Amarillo, San Antonio, and Austin will all go through Fort Stockton, and we recommend stopping overnight to prepare for your visit to Big Bend National Park. Big Bend’s camp stores have very limited groceries, so stocking up at the Walmart here is crucial. While in town, drive through Historic Fort Stockton and take a picture with Paisano Pete, a large road runner statue.
Where to Stay in Big Bend National Park:
Camping in Big Bend
Big Bend National Park is ideal for camping and has a handful of options for both RV and tent camping.
Chisos Basin Campground – Located in the center of the park, in the basin of the Chisos Mountains. This campground is close to the Chisos Mountains Visitor Center as well as the only dining in the park, the Mountain View Restaurant inside the Chisos Mountains Lodge. Trailers under 20 feet and RVs under 24 feet.
Cottonwood Campground – Located on the west side of the park, near the Santa Elena Canyon and the end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. No generator use.
Rio Grande Village Campground – Located on the east side of the park, near the Boquillas Canyon. Generators can only be used in certain campsites.
Rio Grande Village RV Park – For RVers who want full hookups. Located on the east side of the park.
Big Bend has 64 primitive roadside campsites along the park’s backcountry roads. Many can only be reached with a high clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle, but some are appropriate for RVs and trailers. Small trailers will have more flexibility than larger rigs or motorhomes. Generator use in the backcountry is prohibited.
More backcountry camping details are in our Off-Roading Big Bend post.
Hotels in and Around Big Bend
Chisos Mountains Lodge – the only lodging inside the park, offering both rooms and cottages. The lodge is located in the center of the park, in the basin of the beautiful Chisos Mountains. The Lodge also contains the only dining option in the park: the Mountain View Restaurant.
Several hotels are located outside the park in the town of Terlingua.
What to Bring to Big Bend National Park:
Food supplies – Big Bend only has one restaurant, so unless you’re planning to have all your meals there, so you should bring all your food into the park with you. The park’s camp stores have very limited supplies of nonperishable food.
Full water bottles and jugs – The park asks visitors to conserve water inside the park as much as possible, so we recommend bringing in full water jugs and having several gallons of water on hand at all times.
Hat and sunscreen – Sun protection in the desert is very important even in winter.
Boots – Hiking boots will be very helpful and if you’re planning to hike the Santa Elena Canyon Trail, we’d recommend hiking appropriate water shoes. Alternatively, you could plan to take off your footwear for the creek crossing.
Safety gear – Bring flashlights and head lamps for every member of your party as well as a robust first aid kit.
A high clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle – If you’d like to see as much of the park as possible, you’ll want to bring a vehicle that can handle the backcountry roads. We saw a small camper bus on one of the more maintained backcountry roads, and let me tell you, they were not having a good time.
Best Time to Visit Big Bend:
Big Bend National Park gets incredibly hot even in the spring and fall months. There is very little shade in the park, and it can be hard to stay hydrated. It gets so hot in the summer that they even close some of the visitor centers and limit capacity at some of the campgrounds. We highly recommend going in the winter. It will be easier to avoid sunburn and camping will be more comfortable in more moderate temperatures. In addition, dangerous wildlife like snakes, scorpions, and spiders will be less of an issue.
1 Day Big Bend National Park Itinerary
Assuming you’re staying just outside the park, so you can spend a full day in Big Bend, here’s what I would recommend if you only have about 12 hours in the park.
Start at the Panther Junction Visitor Center and learn about native plants on the outdoor Panther Path. Then take Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive south to the Rio Grande River and Santa Elena Canyon. As time allows, we’d recommend doing both the 1.4 mile round-trip canyon trail and the overlook, as well as the scenic drive overlooks.
End the day by driving into the Chisos Mountains. Window View Trail is a .3 mile paved loop with a nice sunset view. Chisos Basin Loop Trail covers 1.8 miles, and the Window Trail is an out and back trail totaling 5.6 miles.
If you’d like to do some stargazing before leaving the park, drive to the Fossil Discovery Exhibit and climb the hill for a beautiful view of the sky.
2 Day Big Bend National Park Itinerary
Since this national park is so rural and will take so long to get to, 2 days in Big Bend is the minimum I would recommend. If you’re staying inside Big Bend for a 1 night, 2 day trip, I would recommend staying at either Chisos Basin Campground or Chisos Mountains Lodge. You’ll follow a similar itinerary to the 1 day.
Stop at Panther Junction Visitor Center on your way in and walk the Panther Path to learn about the plants you’ll see around the park. Spend the evening in the Chisos Mountain Basin, doing the Window View Trail, the Chisos Basin Loop Trail, or Window Trail. The Window View Trail has a lovely sunset view.
The next day, take Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, stopping at the many overlooks and ending at Santa Elena Canyon.
3 Day Big Bend National Park Itinerary
With a third day in the park, we recommend expanding your day 2 drive by taking Old Maverick Road to Santa Elena Canyon if you have a high clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle. This road starts out as washboard and gets more interesting as you drive, but it is not a difficult drive. We crossed several dry riverbeds on the road, and you’ll see the Santa Elena Canyon frequently as you drive towards the Rio Grande. We also enjoyed getting a unique perspective of the Chisos Mountains, Mule Ears, and other things you will see on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Stop at the Santa Elena Canyon hike as well as the overlook.
Then, return via the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, stopping at overlooks and hikes as desired. We enjoyed hiking Tuff Canyon and the Lower Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail and would recommend a stop at Sotol Vista Overlook. If you time it right, this overlook is a great sunset spot as well.
Then spend your third day driving to the East side of the park for the Hot Springs Trail and Boquillas Canyon Overlook. Then if you’re up for a challenging backcountry road, hike Ernst Tinaja and enjoy the unique formations of the natural rock pool. Finish the day on the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail to watch the sunset over Mexico and the Rio Grande River.
4 Day Big Bend National Park Itinerary
For 4 days in Big Bend, we would add the Balanced Rock Trail. Balanced Rock, also called Grapevine Hills Trail, is a moderate 2.2 mile round-trip hike ending in a steep climb and bouldering to reach the top.
Afterwards, wander the Fossil Discovery Exhibit. There’s a kids’ climbing area on the left with fun dinosaur facts. The main exhibit building has a really unique indoor/outdoor design and is equipped with solar panels and a slanted roof designed to collect rain which allow the building to be completely ‘off the grid’ and self-sustaining.
This is how that would all look for a 4 day Big Bend Itinerary:
Day 1 – Walk the Panther Path at Panther Junction Visitor Center. Drive to Chisos Mountain Basin and hike the Window View Trail, the Chisos Basin Loop Trail, or Window Trail.
Day 2 – Drive Old Maverick Road to Santa Elena Canyon. Then return via the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Hikes we’d recommend along this road are Tuff Canyon and the Lower Burro Mesa Pour-Off Trail. Sotol Vista Overlook would be a great sunset spot if the timing works out.
Day 3 – Spend the day in the east side of the park. Walk the Hot Springs Trail and stop at Boquillas Canyon Overlook. If you have a high clearance vehicle, hike Ernst Tinaja and enjoy the unique formations of the natural rock pool. Watch the sunset over Mexico and the Rio Grande River on the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail.
Day 4 – Hike the Balanced Rock Trail. Learn about the history of fossils in the park at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit.
Itinerary for 5 or more days in Big Bend:
With five days or more in Big Bend, we recommend splitting the park in sections. Choose the activities that most excite you and then decide how many days you’ll spend in each area of the park. If you’re camping, this will allow you to book campsites in separate areas of the park and spend less time driving back and forth.
Central Things to Do:
Panther Junction Visitor Center
Fossil Discovery Exhibit
The northern end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive – Sam Nail Ranch and Upper Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail
Drive backcountry roads like Paint Gap
Chisos Mountains Visitor Center
Hikes like Balanced Rock Trail, Window View Trail, Chisos Basin Loop Trail, and Window Trail
Central Places to Stay:
Chisos Mountains Lodge
Chisos Basin Campground
Primitive campsites like Grapevine Hills, Paint Gap, Nugent Mountain, Pine Canyon, and others
West Things to Do:
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive – many overlooks and trails including Tuff Canyon, Mule Ears, Sotol Vista, and Homer Wilson Ranch
Santa Elena Canyon – overlook or trail
Float the Rio Grande in a canoe or kayak
Drive backcountry roads like Old Maverick Road to see Luna’s Jacal
West Places to Stay:
Primitive campsites like Terlingua Abajo, Buenos Aires, and others
East Things to Do:
Rio Grande Visitor Center
Drive backcountry roads like River Road East, Glen Springs Road, and Old Ore Road
Hikes like Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail, Hot Springs Historic Trail, Boquillas Canyon Trail, or Rio Grande Village Nature Trail (a great sunset spot). Or if you can handle a more difficult backcountry road, Ernst Tinaja Trail.
Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry – if you’d like to visit the Mexican village of Boquillas del Carmen
Overlooks like Rio Grande and Boquillas Canyon
East Places to Stay:
Rio Grande Village Campground
Primitive campsites like Gravel Pit, La Clocha, Candelilla, Camp de Leon and others
Rio Grande Village RV Campground (for full hookups)
Our 7 Day Itinerary for Big Bend National Park:
We purchased our national parks pass for the year. After setting up our campsite at Grapevine Hills 1 (a beautiful backcountry site that is RV appropriate), we drove into the Chisos Mountains to do the Window View Trail at sunset. That evening, we did some stargazing at our campsite.
We intended to get our son’s junior ranger book right away, but the visitor center was already closed, so we went to pick it up the second day.
We took Old Maverick Road to Santa Elena canyon. We did the first portion of Santa Elena Trail and stopped at the overlook, before returning via Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. We stopped to hike Tuff canyon and view Mule Ears Overlook.
My husband and son did Balanced Rock Trail in the afternoon while our youngest napped.
Then we watched the sunset at our campsite which has beautiful views of the Chisos Mountains and that side of the park. We did a little more stargazing this evening, but the moon was getting brighter each night and we couldn’t see as many stars.
We drove part of River Road West (and saw wild horses!) and watched the sunset at Sotol Overlook.
We hiked Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail before moving camp to Rio Grande Village Campground. We watched the sunset from the top of Rio Grande Village Nature Trail.
We drove more backcountry roads: River Road East to Black Gap and Glen Springs. (Read more about that here.) In the evening, we did the Ernst Tinaja hike off of Old Ore Road.
We scheduled a lot of time in the center of the park and not as much time in the Rio Grande area, so we had to cut a few things over here. We chose the Hot Springs Trail over the Boquillas Canyon Trail and drove to the Boquillas Overlook before moving camp one final time to Nugent Mountain. In the evening, we visited the Fossil Discovery Center.
We returned to the Panther Junction Visitor Center to get our son’s junior ranger badge. It was cold and windy so we decided to do a little more driving instead of a hike. We drove Paint Gap Road and Pine Canyon Road and checked out some of the backcountry sites that were not accessible to our RV.