Let’s Define Our Terms:
By off-roading, I mean off-pavement. Big Bend refers to any of their unpaved and minimally maintained high clearance 4-wheel drive trails as backcountry trails. Visitors should not drive off the designated trails or damage the backcountry with their driving in any way. While I’ll use the term off-roading throughout this post, please be a responsible visitor to Big Bend and help preserve the park for everyone to enjoy.
I will also use the term dispersed camping to mean camping in the backcountry in an open space (usually) away from other campsites. All camping in Big Bend must be done in marked campsites and with a permit. Big Bend National Park calls this primitive camping or backcountry camping and does not allow overnight camping in any undesignated areas or overnight camping without permits. You will need to book campsites online ahead of time or get a permit in person at the Panther Junction Visitor Center.
Camping in Big Bend National Park
If you’re tent camping in Big Bend National Park, you have a lot of flexibility of where to stay. Rio Grande Village, Chisos Basin, and Cottonwood Campgrounds are all great choices for tent camping, but you also have the full range of dispersed campsites available as well. Map out what areas of the park you’d like to spend the most time in and find campsites that work well with those. Big Bend is a big park, so you’ll want to move camp multiple times to avoid a 90 minute drive across the park for a hike.
Keep in mind that some of the most popular campsites are booked 6 months in advance on Recreation.gov while others are 24 hour advance permits obtained at the Panther Junction Visitor Center. (And some of this has changed in the last few years.) Be sure to note which sites are which as you’re building your own itinerary.
Best Primitive and Backcountry Campsites in Big Bend
We were not able to drive past all the (more than 60!) backcountry campsites in Big Bend, but here are the ones that stood out most to us.
Grapevine Hills 1 – a group site and accessible to some RVs; beautiful mountain views.
Terlingua Abajo – beautiful views of the Santa Elena Canyon; the access road is a challenging drive.
Nugent Mountain – accessible to some RVs.
Pine Glen Canyon – sites 4 and 5 have incredible views of the Chisos Mountains. Site 1 is also a nice mountain view.
Buenos Aires – Overlooking the Rio Grande and very close to where we saw all the wild horses
Paint Gap 2 – accessible to some RVs
Ernst Tinaja – to be able to hike Ernst Tinaja at sunrise or sunset (or maybe both!)
Before reserving any campsites, make sure your vehicle (and RV) are able to handle the backcountry roads. Some primitive roads are more maintained than others and some are specifically marked as high clearance only. Also, note that generator use is prohibited in all backcountry primitive sites and then only ‘amenity’ you’ll have at your site is a bear box for food.
Developed Campgrounds in Big Bend
You may find a night or two at one of the park’s 3 developed campgrounds is necessary to refill water or take a shower (only available adjacent to the Rio Grande store). It also might be a good way to start the trip so you can get your backcountry permits.
Chisos Basin Campground – In the center of the park.
Cottonwood Campground – Between Santa Elena Canyon and River Road West in the southwest area of the park.
Rio Grande Village Campground – On the east side of the park near River Road East and Old Ore Road. The only dump station of the park is located here as well as the only showers and laundry.
Off-Roading in Big Bend National Park
Driving the backcountry roads is one of the best ways to see wildlife in Big Bend National Park. Over our two days of backcountry driving, we saw wild horses, two coyotes, a few cows, and many birds. The only animals we saw while on the main roads of the park were javelina in and near the Rio Grande Village Campground.
Another thing I loved about driving through the backcountry was how vastly different the various areas of the park were from one another. We saw cacti in just about every color ranging from green to purple to fuchsia and even orange. And the rocks and desert landscape was just as varied.
As I said above, these roads are minimally maintained and most require high clearance 4-wheel drive vehicles. Be prepared to handle any issues you may come across, bring plenty of food and water, and have more gas than you think you’ll need. If you choose to air down your tires, you’ll need a way to pump them back up. The Rio Grande gas station has a coin operated air compressor. Find more information on preparing for backcountry driving from NPS here.
Best Backcountry Roads in Big Bend:
If you want to spend the day driving around Big Bend, these longer off-road trails are for you. You can also reserve campsites along these roads to take a more leisurely pace on your tour of the park.
Old Maverick Road
This road starts out as washboard, but it gets more interesting. There were several dry riverbed crossings, and you’ll see the Santa Elena Canyon frequently as you drive that way. We also enjoyed getting a different perspective of the Chisos Mountains, Mule Ears, and other things you will see on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The access road to the Terlingua Abajo campsites was also a fun drive. Stop at the Santa Elena Canyon hike as well as the overlook. You can take Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to complete the loop if you’re not camping in this area.
River Road West begins on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive near Tuff Canyon and stretches 50 miles across the southern portion of the park to River Road East and ending at Park Route 12 about 5 miles from the Rio Grande Visitor Center. We were not camping along this road, so we took it in sections, missing a large portion of the middle. First, we drove River Road West, coming across wild horses and coyotes and ending at the ruins of Johnson Ranch. Another day, we drove River Road East past Mariscal Mine, then took Black Gap Road up to Glen Springs Road and back to the pavement. We chose not to explore the area around the Mariscal Mine because the National Park Service warns against handling any bricks or other objects around the mine which might contain poisonous concentrations of mercury. They also warn against the possibility of unfenced mine shafts in the area.
Black Gap Road
Black Gap has a few fun obstacles and is more challenging and rocky than the other roads in this loop. There is one steep hill climb (or descent if you start from Glen Spring) that as the passenger with mild fear of heights I did not really enjoy.
Glen Springs Road
After driving River Road East and Black Gap, we finished our loop with Glen Springs Road. We spent just over 3 hours on this loop, driving 15-30 mph most of the time.
Old Ore Road
Old Ore Road is one of the roughest roads in the park and the rangers note that the northern half is significantly worse than the southern half. If you’re looking for a true challenge, this is probably where to find it. We only drove the southern portion of Old Ore Road to and from the Ernst Tinaja trail.
Shorter Drives on Big Bend Backcountry Roads:
Paint Gap Road – The first portion of paint gap is in fairly good condition but gets very rocky at the entrance to the gap. Drive to the end to enjoy the view of Paint Gap Hills, Dripping Spring, and an old ranch site.
Pine Canyon Road – This road gave another perspective of the Chisos Mountains and ends at Pine Canyon Trail.
You’ll also find yourself driving primitive roads to access the hot springs or Grapevine Hills trail.
When you buy something using the links in our posts, we may earn a small commission at no additional cost to you.