From an elevation of less than 1,800 feet along the Rio Grande to nearly 8,000 feet in the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend includes massive canyons, vast desert expanses, forested mountains and an ever-changing river. With only 300,000–350,000 visitors annually, it is one of the least-visited national parks in the lower 48 states.
In June 2016, I made my trek to Big Bend National Park with a 10 hour drive from Houston. If you can pick the time of year, I would not suggest visiting during the summer when temperatures in the park average 90+ degrees. For me, though, I needed to build the trip into my July 4th break. If you have to travel during the summer months, there are a few tips that I will outline for you in another post.
Here’s my recap of the trip to help you plan your Big Bend adventure:
Where to Stay
If you are going to stay in the park and would like to camp, I recommend reserving a spot at the Chisos Basin campground. It’s generally a few degrees cooler than campgrounds in the rest of the park. On July 4th weekend, the Chisos Basin campgrounds were all booked, so we camped at Cottonwood. As a first time camper, this wasn’t the ideal spot. The only showers in the camp were located across the park in Rio Grande Village, there were pit toilets that unleashed an awful smell over the entire campsite and there were swarms of mosquitoes that were the size of small birds. The two positives to this campsite are that 1) it is located close to the Santa Elena Canyon trail and 2)you can see some great wildlife staying at the campground. Javelinas and jackrabbits were plentiful.
I also recommend spending at least one night in either Terilingua or Marathon. Big Bend Holiday Hotel in Terilingua is a great place to crash for a night or two. Catch a shower there, then walk over to The Starlight Theatre for some food that will really hit the spot and live music entertainment.
- Big Bend National Park Campgrounds
- Chisos Mountain Lodge
- Big Bend Holiday Hotel (Terilingua, Tx)
- Gage Hotel (Marathon, Tx)
Trails to Hike
Since one of our days was spent on a one-day river tour, it only left a day and half to hike. These are the hikes that I completed and the ones on my list for my next visit.
- Lost Mine Trail (Difficulty: Moderate; Distance: 4.8 miles round trip)
- The Window Trail (Difficulty: Moderate; Distance:, 5.6 miles round trip)
- Santa Elena Canyon Trail (Difficulty: Moderate; Distance: 1.7 miles round trip)
Lost Mine Trail – If you have time to do one hike in Big Bend National Park, make it this hike. You’ll experience an incredible variety of plants and animals and some of the most breathtaking views of Casa Grande and Juniper Canyon. Take care to watch out for mountain lions (the only one I saw in the park was as I was driving to this hike), bears and rattlers.Lost Mine Trail
The Window Trail – The Window, an unbeatable view that frames the Chihuahuan Desert below, is your reward for a particularly grueling hike. The hike to The Window from the Basin Trailhead is 5.6 miles roundtrip with a 980 ft. decrease in elevation. If you want to save a few steps, start at the Basin Campground, which reduces the drop in elevation to 500 ft. There isn’t a ton of shade on this trail, so avoid setting out on a mid-day hike when it’s hot outside and remember to save your energy for the uphill hike back from The Window.
The Window (Don’t forget your camera. A phone camera clearly doesn’t capture the view like a DSLR)
Santa Elena Canyon – Some of the most impressive views of the U.S.-Mexico border are at Santa Elena Canyon. The hike is easy and can be completed in just a few hours. If the river isn’t too low, as was the case on my trip, you can take a river tour through the canyon.
Santa Elena Canyon
Next Hikes on the List
- Emory Peak
- Marsical Mine Trail
- South Rim Trail
- Casa Grande
Staying in Terilingua for a few nights helped us meet some locals who where able to give us great recommendations for additional activities. I can’t recommend Desert Sports highly enough for their river tours and advice on other activities in the area.
- River Tours
- Mountain Biking