Big Bend National Park was established in 1944 and is the 7th largest national park in the contiguous United States. Because Big Bend is one of the most remote parks in the lower 48, it is also one of the least-visited. And let me tell you, it’s worth the visit!
How to Get To Big Bend:
Located along the Rio Grande as part of Texas’s southern border, Big Bend is a little bit of a trek to get to! Here’s how far you’ll travel from some nearby cities with airports:
El Paso – 4.5 hours
El Paso is the shortest drive into Big Bend National Park, but keep in mind that you’ll have a 30-60 minute drive inside the park to get to your final destination. You’ll pass through Marfa, which is a fun place to stop and check out some of the museums and art around town.
Austin – 7 hours
If you’re coming from Austin, Johnson City is a fun town to drive through. We enjoyed the ‘wild west’ look to some of the store fronts. The Science Mill museum looked like an amazing stop for kids if we weren’t pulling our trailer. The LBJ Presidential Library is located in Austin, but Johnson City has several other historical site related to the president, including his boyhood home.
Between Johnson City and Fredericksburg, you’ll drive past dozens of beautiful wineries. On the edge of Fredericksburg, you’ll find the Texas Rangers Heritage Center and the Historic Fort Martin Scott. In the center of town you’ll find the National Museum of the Pacific War and Japanese Garden of Peace as well as the Marktplatz von Frederickburg city park. Many of the buildings in Fredericksburg have a German feel. If you have time to stop for a few hours, there are so many cool things to explore.
San Antonio – 6 hours
Take route 90 on the way there and route 10 on the way back for a unique drive. Stop at the Judge Roy Bean Museum in Langtry. Del Rio is the largest town you’ll drive through on route 10, so that would be the best option for lunch or a grocery stock up.
Amarillo – 7 hours
Coming from Amarillo, San Antonio, or Austin, you’ll drive through Fort Stockton, and we recommend an overnight stop to prep for your visit to Big Bend National Park. At the very least, you’ll want to load up on groceries at the Walmart before leaving town. Big Bend has a couple of camp stores, but selection will be very limited and nearly everything they have will be nonperishable. While you’re in town, check out Historic Fort Stockton and take a picture with the giant road runner statue Paisano Pete.
Where to Stay in Big Bend:
Camping in Big Bend
If you like to camp, Big Bend National Park is a great place to visit. There are several 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.
Find more information about backcountry camping in Big Bend, check out our blog post on off-roading in the park.
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.
Things to Do in Big Bend:
We’ll go over a long list of specific trails and activities in Big Bend National Park, but here are some things that you can do just about anywhere in the park:
Go for a drive – Big Bend is a huge park (bigger than the state of Rhode Island!), so driving through the park is one of the best ways to enjoy the landscape. Small exhibit areas and overlooks are scattered throughout the park. And keep an eye on the plant life and terrain. We noticed so much variety around the park and were amazed at how different one desert can look! The colorful cacti were a favorite of mine.
Look for signs of wildlife – Learn about the tracks and skat of animals you might see in the park and be on the lookout. The Chisos Basin Visitor Center has exhibits on animals and birds you might see in the area.
Birding – Approximately 450 species of birds visit the park throughout the year. Look for areas with water and vegetation like the Rio Grande, the Chisos Mountains, and desert springs around the park.
Watch the sunset – With a park of this size, you have numerous options for watching the sunset. Many primitive campsites offer their own lovely sunset views as well.
Learn about desert plant life – Bring along a guidebook or visit Panther Path to learn about the plants you’ll find in the park.
Picnicking – You’ll probably be doing a lot of driving in Big Bend, you bringing a picnic lunch (or a bunch of snacks) is key! Wherever you enjoy your picnic, be sure to take your trash with you, and don’t leave any food behind for animals!
Stargazing – Big Bend is an International Dark Sky Park, which means there is very little light pollution here, and you’ll see so many more stars than you would at home! Park Rangers offer a few different night sky programs to help visitors enjoy this unique aspect of the park. One quick tip: the phase of the moon will greatly affect how dark it is while you’re visiting and therefore how visible the stars are.
What to Bring to Big Bend:
Food supplies – Unless you are planning to eat frequently at the park’s only restaurant, you’ll need to bring all the food you expect to consume into the park. The park has a couple of camp stores, but they have very limited food supplies. We recommend stocking up before entering the park.
Full water bottles and jugs – The park asks visitors to conserve water inside the park as much as possible, so it would be wise to bring in full water jugs and plan to have several gallons of water on hand at all times.
Hat and sunscreen – Sun protection in the desert is very important.
Boots – If you’re planning to hike the Santa Elena Canyon Trail, you might also want to bring hiking appropriate water shoes or expect 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 – A significant portion of the park is only accessible via 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.
An extra gas can for your vehicle – Gas pumps are only available at a couple of different locations around the park. We recommend having an extra 5 gallons with you for emergencies and refueling as often as possible.
Prepare to be out of cell service during your entire visit to Big Bend and about the first hour of your drive when you leave. Wifi is available at a few of the visitor centers if you need to make a call or send a few texts.
Best Time to Visit Big Bend National Park:
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.
Big Bend National Park with Kids
Read About Big Bend Before Your Trip
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I find that our kids are more engaged with a place if we’ve already read about it. It gives them context and they’re much more interested in learning more in person than when we read about it later and say ‘remember, we’ve been there!’
Who Pooped in the Park – A popular national park book series detailing the tracks and skat of animals found in each national park. The books can be very similar to one another, so just one involving a desert landscape is probably ideal.
Big Bend Is Not In London – A short chapter book about two children and the mystery they solve in the Chisos Mountains.
The Three Little Javelinas – A fun retelling of the Three Little Pigs that will introduce children to javelinas as well as the desert landscape.
Adventures in Big Bend National Park – A story about a boy who explores the park with his family and dog.
Junior Ranger Program
Pick up a Junior Ranger book at one of the visitor centers. Be sure to get this at the beginning of your trip. Unlike the state park books we’ve done, the activities in this book are specific to different areas of the park, so you’ll want to complete them as you move through the park.
Short Hikes in Big Bend:
Santa Elena Canyon – The entire trail is a 1.4 mile out and back hike, but you can do as much or as little of it as you would like. After crossing Terlingua Creek, the trail a bit with stairs and switchbacks before going further into the canyon. Wear water shoes or be prepared to take off your boots if the water levels are high. We were able to step partway across on some rocks but there was a section that would have been over our hiking boots and we were attempting to carry our children across, so we enjoyed the canyon opening and didn’t go further. Whether you plan to do the hike or not, be sure to stop here and get an up close view of the canyon.
Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail – This .5 mile loop starts at Dugout Wells, which is a great spot for picnicking and bird watching. Exhibit signs educate about the local habitat.
Panther Path at the Panther Junction Visitor’s Center – This short nature trail is a great way to identify the plants you’ll see throughout the park. It’s also one of the activities in the Junior Ranger book. Wheelchair and stroller friendly.
Tuff Canyon – This hike is marked as a 1 mile out and back, but make this a shorter hike if you would like. After descending a pathway with stairs, we wandered through the canyon to the opening that you can see from the parking area. I think we went about 2/3 of the way.
Lower Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail – This mostly flat 1 mile out and back hike follows a gravel drainage into a box canyon to the base of a 100-foot pour-off. Our boys enjoyed exploring the base of this usually dry waterfall when we reached the end but didn’t find the hike as interesting as the others we took. It was a cold morning, so that probably played a big role in the amount of whining we experienced.
Ernst Tinaja – This 1 mile out and back trail was one of our favorite hikes. The boys were in ‘explore mode’ the entire time, from the wall to the left at the beginning of the path, to the large limestone rocks you come to in the middle, to the tinaja itself at the end. Ryan is very comfortable hiking with the boys and guiding them through dangerous areas safely, so use your best judgement with your kids around the natural rock pool. I am the more cautious/nervous parent, so I originally thought we’d take turns exploring the tinaja and keep the children farther away, but it ended up being a great opportunity for them to follow careful instructions and learn how to hike safely. We hiked this trail in the afternoon but I think we should have tried for a little closer to sunset to get shade on the entire tinaja.
As with many of the trails in the park, a high clearance vehicle is required to get down the access road. Old Ore Road was one of the more difficult roads in the park. We love driving off-road trails in our Tacoma, so this was nothing concerning to us. We drove in without airing down, which made for a much bumpier ride. We aired down on the way out which was much better.
Rio Grande Village Nature Trail – The trail starts at the back of the campground next to site 18. If you’re not staying in the campground, it will be a little bit of a walk from your car through the campground. It’s marked as a 1 mile loop, but the trail has a few options. We followed the path through the marsh and then took the switchbacks up to the overlook instead of circling around. Beautiful sunset spot.
Hot Springs Historic Trail – Take the full 1.2 mile loop or keep to the right (towards the river) and do the short walk to and from the hot springs. If you don’t do the full loop you’ll miss the Langford House (#6) but you’ll see everything else on the way to the hot springs. The old hot springs resort buildings have screens in many of the doorways so you can look inside, and this was the only place in the park that we saw pictographs, so I’m really glad that we did this hike, even though there were several other groups at the hot springs. Go early if you want to have the hot springs to yourself without having to worry about your kids stirring up the water for everyone else.
Window View Trail – First of all, the drive into the Chisos Basin is stunning and unlike anything else you’ll see in the park. Window View Trail is a .4 mile paved loop next to the Chisos Basin Visitor Center. We did this trail at sunset one evening. Wheelchair and stroller friendly.
Sam Nail Ranch Trail – Located on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, a short trail leads to the former homestead of Sam Nail. See part of the adobe walls of the home and walk through the orchard oasis of pecan and walnut trees.
Moderate Hikes in Big Bend:
Boquillas Canyon Trail – This trail is a 1.4 mile out and back hike climbs to overlook the Rio Grande and then continues down into the canyon.
Chisos Basin Loop – A 1.8 mile loop climbing through the Basin area. You can go in either direction, but counterclockwise is the easier option.
Lost Mine Trail – 4.8 miles climbing through the forest of the Chisos Mountains with views of Pine Canyon. Or hike only a mile to marker 10 for views of Casa Grande and Juniper Canyon.
Grapevine Hills Trail – Also known as Balanced Rock, this trail is 2.2 miles and ends in a steep climb over a landscape of boulders.
Activities to Do in Big Bend National Park:
Scenic Drives – Ross Maxwell and Chisos Basin Road are two key roadways in the park and also a relaxing way to enjoy the scenery of Big Bend.
Hot Springs – Enjoy the 105 degree water at the historic hot springs. A small ledge around the top of the hot spring results in very shallow water and cooler temperatures for young children to stand in. You’ll pass pictographs, a homestead, and abandoned resort buildings on your short walk to the hot springs.
Fossil Discovery Exhibit – If your kids love dinosaurs as much as mine, the Fossil Discovery Exhibit is a must-see. Walk through the semi-enclosed building and learn about Big Bend’s ancient history and fossil records. Across the parking area of the exhibit building is a shaded picnic area and a fossil themed climbing area for children to explore.
Canoe or kayak the Rio Grande – Obtain a river permit from Panther Junction or Chisos Basic Visitor Center and make sure you have all of the required gear (personal flotation devices, extra paddles, and a patch kit for inflatable vessels). Additional gear is required for overnight boat trips.
Watch the sunset – Drive to Sotol Vista or Mule Ears overlook. Hike the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail or the Window View Trail. Or climb the path at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit for a view of the hoodoos and stay to stargaze there as well. If you’ll be spending some time in the backcountry, the hill at McKinney Springs on Old Ore Road offers a beautiful sunset view. Our favorite sunset spot of the trip was the Sotol Vista overlook. No hike required. Some people followed a little trail down the front of the overlook, but we stayed on the sidewalk and got a great view of the sun setting over the Santa Elena Canyon.
Stargazing – Peek up at the stars from your own campsite or climb the hill at the Fossil Discovery Center. Using binoculars can also be helpful for a closer look.