Big Bend National Park
Earth : North America : United States of America : Texas : Big Bend Country : Trans-Pecos : Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park  is vast, rugged, and one of the least visited national parks in the continental U.S. With three distinct ecosystems, endless views, and powerful landscapes, Big Bend may leave you feeling like you've stumbled onto a well-kept secret.
Big Bend National Park is named for the huge left-turn the Rio Grande makes as the river snakes its way through the Texas desert — creating a natural boundary with Mexico and giving the state its distinctive bottom shape. Covering 801,163 acres (324,219 hectares) but with only 300-350 thousand visitors a year, Big Bend is one of the largest national parks in the lower 48 states yet one of the least visited. Most of the park is backcountry — the brunt of activity is clustered around the few developed areas. Even during the busiest times, hitting a desert trail or backroad is all that's needed to find solitude; the rest of the year is so uncrowded, you'll feel like you have the park to yourself.
The busy season is from mid-November through the first of week of January (especially Thanksgiving weekend and the weekends near Christmas and New Year's Day) and again during Spring Break, when local college students get a week-long break (usually mid-March through April). Unless you're already in the area, Big Bend does not make a good day trip; the distances are just too vast. Ideally, plan on spending at least one full day in the park, though there is more than enough here for longer stays.
Pets are not allowed on trails, off the road, or on the river; there are no kennels in the park and the temperatures and wildlife can be hazardous — consider leaving Fido at home.
Big Bend National Park has an unusually rich history, the effects of which are present everywhere you look. The landscape is living testament: shaped over millions of years by volcanism, erosion, and enormous seismic events, it also still holds untold numbers of dinosaur fossils and sea creatures from when the area was engulfed by an ancient ocean.
Humans have inhabited the park for more than 10,000 years — first were Native American tribes such as the Chisos, about which little is still known and, more recently, the Comanche and Mescalero Apache; all of whom have left their mark in the form of rock art, mortar holes, and shelters. Mexicans and Anglo settlers would establish a presence later, building homes, farms, ranches and mines (some of which persisted until as recently as the 1960s), of which many ruins can still be found.
Lobbying from locals and other admirers of the area (notably frontiersman Everett Townsend, the "father of the Big Bend National Park") convinced the state of Texas to set aside land for the park in 1933 (originally named "Texas Canyons State Park"). 1944 marks the formal establishment of Big Bend National Park, and it has been slowly growing ever since — thousand-acre tracts are still being purchased, including the Harte and Fay Ranches in 1989 and 1994. There are tentative plans to integrate the park with its neighbor to the west, Big Bend Ranch State Park, including trails that may connect the two.
The park's geography can be categorized into three distinct environments: desert, mountain, and river. The majority of Big Bend National Park encompasses Chihuahuan Desert, crisscrossed by arroyos (dry creek beds), washes and the occasional spring; wherever water exists, small oases of green vegetation flourish. Sprouting from the desert are numerous hills, mountains, and rock formations — most of which are limestone but others are of volcanic origin.
The Rio Grande (Spanish for "Big River", although in Mexico it's called Rio Bravo del Norte or just Rio Bravo, meaning "Wild River") flows south and east from its origin in Colorado and eventually passes through the park before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico after a journey of 1,885 mi (3,034 km). Here the river forms the 118 mi (190 km) long southern boundary of the park, passing through three major canyons (Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas) and through the desert, where green stands of trees, tall grasses and other riparian life cling to its banks.
Flora and fauna
Big Bend National Park is blessed with an exceptional array of plant and animal life. In the desert grow succulents such as lechuguilla (a type of agave), yuccas like the impressive giant dagger species, numerous types of cacti such as prickly pear, and abundant grasses and shrubs such as ocotillo, candellila, and sotol (all of which have numerous practical uses), as well as the famous century plant (or Havard agave), which only blooms once in a lifetime and then dies. The best time of year to see the gorgeous cactus blooms is March and April and the mountains are another great place to see wildflowers. In the mountains and near the water grow pleasantly surprising stands of juniper, ponderosa pines, piñon pine, douglas fir, Texas madrone, quaking aspen, the unique Chisos Oak (one of five Oak species here), and many others.
Big Bend is one of the best bird-watching areas in the country, as many birds pass through here along migratory routes — more than 450 species. Big Bend is the only place in the U.S. where you can spot the Colima Warbler (check Boot Canyon along the South Rim trail from mid-April to mid-September). The Chisos Basin is a great place for birdwatching in general, but the best place is considered to be along the river, such as near Rio Grande Village and Cottonwood Campground. Among the countless species you may spot include roadrunners, woodpeckers, cardinals, quail, flycatchers, herons, hummingbirds, cliff swallows, owls, hawks, golden eagles, vultures, and peregrine falcons.
A great variety of animals make their home here, such as pig-like javelinas (pronounced "have a LEE nah" — and they're thought to be more closely related to hippopotamuses), mule deer, jackrabbits, skunks, raccoons, rock squirrels, kangaroo rats, coyote, foxes, and, in the mountains, rare black bears, mountain lions (AKA "panthers"), and white-tailed deer. They are all mostly shy, but you have a good chance of seeing them along roadways or even in the developed areas, especially starting at twilight. You may also glimpse snakes such as the "red racer" (western coachwhip), huge bull snakes (which have a tail like a rattlesnake but are not dangerous), and a small variety of venomous snakes. Lurking among the rocks are lizards: common whiptails, crevice spiny lizards, and earless lizards, along with the rare Texas horned lizard and large leopard and collared lizards. Around the river live turtles such as the Big Bend slider, amphibians such as the leopard toad, and mammals such as beavers. The endangered Mexican long-nosed bat is found only in the Chisos Mountains in the United States, while the entire world's population of Big Bend mosquitofish (or Gambusia) is found in one pond, near the Rio Grande Village.
As with most deserts, expect the weather to be mostly hot and dry, with low humidity and cooler nights. July through October is the rainy season, where sudden downpours — and consequently flash floods — are possible; though rain usually doesn't last long and the water drains away quickly. Thunderstorms make for an epic spectacle and may lead to rare sights, such as Pine Canyon Falls. The weather here can be significantly different from nearby areas; it might be overcast and rainy in nearby Alpine but clear and sunny in the park, so don't get too discouraged by local conditions. The park provides a weather hotline at +1 432 477-1183.
Big Bend National Park is one of the most remote parks in the United States — it can be a challenge to get to since it's not really near anything (which is really half of the adventure).
Services between towns range from limited-to-nonexistent and distances are vast, so stock up on gas, water, and other essentials beforehand and re-stock whenever possible. However, roads are in good condition and points of interest are well-marked (qualities generally shared throughout the Texas highway system). Although the roads here can be extremely lonely, don't get lulled into thinking it's safe to speed — the area is regularly patrolled by cops. The roads are also scenic and sometimes quite curvy, so it pays to take it slow.
All major roads into the park now have Border Patrol checkpoints, although they are not always manned. If there is a flashing light posted outside, you'll have to stop and you may get asked a few questions or inspected. It's generally not a hassle.
There are two entrances to the park and three main routes to reach them:
There are no landing strips in the park. The largest commercial airport is at El Paso; the rest are smaller, local gateways. Once you've arrived, you'll need to drive the rest of the way to the park. The nearest commercial airports are:
By public transportation
There is no public transportation into the park, so you'll need to provide your own.
The entrance fee will get you a seven-day pass, in the form of a paper slip which you attach to your vehicle's windshield. The park gates are always open; if you arrive after hours you can get your pass in the morning from the Panther Junction Visitor Center.
Depending on your planned activities, you may need to obtain a backcountry permit. Camping at developed sites and day hiking do not require a permit. Certain types of day-use, such as floating the river or traveling by horse, necessitate a permit but it's free of cost. For any overnight backcountry use, the required permit is $10. There's no reason not to get one; it goes to a good cause (maintaining the backcountry for future visitors) and helps keep you safe. The park will record your itinerary and other information, such as your shoe print — all of which will make you easier to find in case of an emergency — plus they'll give you critical information on current trail and road conditions.
Backcountry permits are good for up to 14 consecutive nights. The permit can be obtained up to 24 hours in advance at any park visitor center during business hours (for the main center at Panther Junction, the hours are 8AM-6PM — other visitor centers have variable hours). If you arrive after business hours, you are not permitted to camp in the backcountry. In addition, they can only purchased in person, on-site. If you arrive by car, you must have a license plate.
There is no public transportation within the park; the car is by far the most common option for area travelers and it's a good way to negotiate the vast expanses. The signage throughout the park is excellent and the paved roads are well-maintained.
There are two main roads in the park: TX-118, which travels from the park's west entrance near Maverick Junction eastbound 23 mi (37 km) until it meets the other main road, US-385 at Panther Junction, where there is a gas station and park headquarters. From here TX-118 continues southeast, ending after 20 mi (32 km) at Rio Grande Village, where gas can also be purchased. Back at the junction, US-385 begins here and heads northwards for 26 mi (42 km) to the north entrance, near Persimmon Gap. These two roads form the shortest route through the park.
The park speed limit is 45 mph (72 kph). Drivers will encounter not only steep grades and blind curves, but also share the road with the occasional bicyclist or wildlife (deer and javelina, in particular, lurk on or near the road starting at dusk) — so be sure to follow the speed limit. Surprisingly, the number one cause of fatalities in the park is drunk drivers — don't become one yourself and add to the statistic. The park's network of unpaved backroads contain some routes suitable for any car, but some require a high-clearance or 4WD vehicle to drive safely. All vehicles must be street-legal and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) are not allowed in the park.
For traveling the park at a more relaxed pace, totally immersed in your surroundings, nothing beats a bike. No mountain biking is permitted but you have free access to all park roads, both paved and unpaved. Good options for novices are the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and the road from Panther Junction to Rio Grande Village; both of which are downhill — make sure to have a shuttle waiting at the other end unless you're prepared for the strenuous trip back up. The backroads offer the real adventure — the Old Ore Road is a good choice for more experienced bikers. Biking is not common in the park yet, so most drivers will not be expecting you; be cautious on curves and after dark. Be sure to check your tires and bring a repair-kit, a good level of fitness, and plenty of water. Desert Sports offers bike rentals, tours, and shuttle services.
Although there are currently no outfitters that rent them, you can bring your own horse (yes, B.Y.O.H.) — but also make sure to get a (required) backcountry permit and to be prepared. Horses are restricted to the backcountry, which means paved roads, developed campsites and trails, and much of the Chisos Mountains are all off-limits. Grazing is not permitted, so food has to brought in. A good camping spot is at Government Springs (Hannold Draw), which has a corral (large enough to accommodate 8 horses) and lies about 5 mi (8 km) north of Panther Junction.
Aside from hiking trails, traveling the park by foot as your primary mode of transportation should only be attempted by those who are extremely well-prepared and fit.
Big Bend National Park is a land of seemingly endless landscapes of rolling desert, punctuated by rock outcrops, canyons, and foreboding mountains; all framing the ever-present green ribbon that is the Rio Grande. However, anyone picturing some sort of fantasia-in-stone like Utah's national parks or an austere desolation like Death Valley may come away disappointed. Although Big Bend's dominating landscape may leave one feeling in awe and a bit humbled, the real magic of the park lies in its hidden treasures — rounding a corner and finding an oasis of life, diverse and vibrant, where you least suspect it; gazing at endless vistas from your own private viewpoint; or stumbling upon a striking formation of ancient rock, wondering if maybe you're the first person to have ever laid eyes upon it.
You could squeeze in all the major sights in a full day of driving, but that would be missing the point; Big Bend rewards the patient traveler. It is well worth the effort to hang around a bit longer, venture off the paved roads, and let the grandiosity of it all sink in. For those on a tight schedule, the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and Chisos Basin Road are popular itineraries that can be seen in a day with some stops. With more time, it is worth exploring Rio Grande Village and the rest of the park further, as well as partaking in other activities such as hikes or floats down the river.
North Entrance to Panther Junction
This route begins on US-385 at the north entrance, near Persimmon Gap, and heads south along a gentle, downward slope 26 mi (42 km) to Panther Junction. Persimmon Gap is literally that; a natural opening between the otherwise wall-like Santiago Mountains. Very shortly after passing through it you'll find the north entrance station and the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center; there are also picnic tables here.
On the southern face of the mountains to the east is a very noticeable section that looks like it was blown out by dynamite; this is the result of a natural rock slide that occurred in 1987. A few miles south is an exhibit on Dog Canyon, which is visible as a distant notch in the mountains to the east. As you continue through the shrub-filled landscape, you'll see the Rosillos Mountains far to the west and the steep Sierra Del Carmens forming a seemingly impassable barrier to the east. Much of the huge swaths of land to the west was purchased from the Harte Ranch or is owned by the still-operating Rosillos Ranch, although there is not much to see from the road.
About midway through you'll find the east-bound turn-off for the Dagger Flat Auto Trail and, further south, an interesting fossil bone exhibit. Along the way you'll cross the Tornillo Flat, a noticeably elevated (and flat) geological feature intertwined with usually-dry creek beds. As you approach Panther Junction, the mighty Chisos Mountains, initially appearing quite puny in the distance, slowly dominate the view.
West Entrance to Panther Junction
Although this route mainly serves as a major artery to other notable roads, it is also arguably the more grand approach into the heart of Big Bend National Park. Beginning on TX-118 at the western edge of the park, this leisurely route passes through relatively gentle desert landscape 23 mi (37 km) to Panther Junction. Your first encounter is the Maverick Entrance Station (unlike the north entrance, there is no visitor center here). After entering, you'll pass through endless fields of cacti and other desert flora; there are several road-side exhibits explaining the ecosystem and wildlife you may see, as well as plenty of opportunities to stop, walk around, and admire the vast views and expanses.
Soon after the entrance is Maverick Junction, where unpaved Maverick Road wends its way south. Continuing on, you may notice some of the many distinctive peaks and rock formations that characterize Big Bend. To the south, the landscape slopes downhill revealing the Mesa de Anguilla in the distance. In the midst of it all stands Tule Mountain, the top of which looks a bit like a slanted mohawk. Far off to the southwest you may spy a distant notch in the mountains: this is Santa Elena Canyon. To see it up-close, follow the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive — the junction for which you'll encounter 10 mi (16 km) from the entrance.
To the north are rolling hills and distant mountains, such as Croton Peak, which looks like it has a tooth sprouting from its top. You can spy it from the Croton Spring Road junction, followed soon after with turn-offs for Paint Gap Road and Grapevine Hills Road — all of which are unpaved and lead to backcountry camp sites, a worthwhile hiking trail (for the latter road), and more views. Along the way, appearing from seemingly nowhere are the impressive, looming Chisos Mountains. The road sidesteps them by curving north before reaching the Chisos Basin Road junction, a total of 20 mi (32 km) from the west entrance. Continue down the road another 3 mi (5 km) to reach Panther Junction.
Chisos Basin Road
Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930's, this steep, curvy road climbs for 6 mi (10 km) into the Chisos Mountains before ending in the Chisos Basin, providing sweeping views of the mountains and deserts along the way. This road is not recommended for trailers longer than 20 ft (6 m) or RVs longer than 24 ft (7 m). The Chisos Basin Road junction is located off of TX-118 near the center of the park; 20 mi (32 km) east of the west entrance, 10 mi (16 km) east of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive turn-off, and 3 mi (5 km) west of Panther Junction. From there, the road heads southwards and immediately begins its ascent into the Chisos, the third tallest range in Texas (the meaning of "Chisos" is unclear — usually said to be either an American Indian word for "ghost" or "spirit", or derived from an old Castilian word for "enchanted").
The initial, hilly stretch of the drive passes through Green Gulch, known for its (rare) mountain lion sightings. As you climb, it seems as if you're entering a different world as the cacti and shrubs are slowly augmented and then replaced by forests of pines, oaks, and other trees that seem quite out-of-place in the desert. As the road gets steeper, you will pass the parking lot that serves as the trail-head for the excellent Lost Mine Trail. As you near the highest point at Panther Pass, the road becomes especially curvy and steep (nearly 10% grade at points); exercise caution. The road then drops into the Chisos Basin: a huge forested depression at an elevation of 5,400 ft (1,646 m) surrounded by mountain peaks and chock full of breathtaking views.
Past a turn-off to the campgrounds, the road finally ends in the Chisos Basin developed area, where you'll find the Chisos Mountains Lodge and the visitor center, as well as dining, lodging, and numerous trail-heads. This is a good place to get out, hang around awhile, and gawk at your surroundings. Immediately noticeable to the northeast is a large V-shaped gap in the mountains, providing a magnificent view of the desert miles below (and sunsets, occasionally); this is called The Window. The Window View Trail is a good introductory hike, providing what its title describes. Face due south and a bit to the east to spot Emory Peak, the highest point in the park at 7,832 ft (2,387 m). One of the most distinctive mountains is Casa Grande, Spanish for "Big House" (you'll know it when you see it). Closer at hand are several impressive rock pinnacles, including a particularly tall one very close to the Lodge area.
Panther Junction to Rio Grande Village
This 21 mi (34 km) route traverses from the center of the park to its southeastern corner, through sweeping desert landscapes towards the Rio Grande. Beginning at its junction with US-385, TX-118 skirts the massive Chisos Mountains before heading southeast, gently descending around 2000 ft (610 m) in elevation along the way. The distant mountains to the north and east are the Sierra Del Carmen and the Sierra Del Caballo Muerto (Dead Horse Mountains). Looking to the west, the road continues to follow the Chisos until it slowly peals away from them, although other isolated peaks stand out along the way, such as flat-topped Chilicotal Mountain (named for the plant which dots its slopes). There are many turn-offs to various unpaved roads along the way; offering access to many backcountry campsites, views, historical sites, and hiking trails, though you may need a high-clearance vehicle to enjoy some of them; be sure to check individual listings.
The delicate nature of the desert ecosystem is on display early along the route, where the landscape is dominated by vast fields of rather stunted grass — the victims of overgrazing from ranching that ended more than a half-century ago but is still in the process of recovering. As the route descends further, more traditional desert flora take over. Not far from Panther Junction are two turn-offs for unpaved roads; one is a short ride to the K-Bar backcountry campsite to the east, and the other is for Glenn Springs Road (where Nugent Mountain towers directly to the west). Soon after is the turn-off for Dugout Wells; a short, unpaved drive where you'll find the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail, a nice picnic area, and a sort of mini-oasis in the desert, thanks to the water pumped from the wells by an old-style windmill built here (making this a decent bird watching spot).
Much further along you'll encounter more turn-offs leading to unpaved roads, including one for the River Road, another for Hot Springs Road, and finally Old Ore Road. Continuing on through a short tunnel through the rock, you'll come across a stop for the Rio Grande Overlook which peers down towards Rio Grande Village and the river beyond. Next is a junction that leads either southwards to the end of the drive at Rio Grande Village, or eastbound for 4 mi (6 km) more towards the mountains and Boquillas Canyon; the longest canyon in the park. On the latter route towards the canyon, soon there is a turn-off for the Boquillas Canyon Overlook; continuing on the road leads to a parking lot and the trail-head into the canyon itself. Although impressive, it is perhaps slightly less awe-inducing than Santa Elena Canyon; Boquillas can be a less-crowded alternative or a good build-up if you plan on seeing both, but is worth seeing either way.
Back at the junction, choosing south will lead shortly to Rio Grande Village, which is not actually a village but rather a developed area set against the river amidst pleasant stands of trees and lush grasses. The short Rio Grande Village Natural Trail showcases the riparian (river) ecosystem here. In addition, you'll find campgrounds, a store, and a visitor center (all of the same name), as well as the remaining structure of Daniel's Ranch a bit to the west along the river. Picnic areas can be found at both the campgrounds and near the ranch. This used to be a popular area for taking short excursions across the river into Mexico to visit the small villages such as Boquillas Del Carmen; however, it is illegal to cross into or from Mexico from anywhere within Big Bend National Park. The penalties can be steep for doing so, including fees and jail time.
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
Specially designed by geologist (and the park's first superintendent) Ross Maxwell to show off Big Bend's rich geological history, this curvy 30 mi (48 km) road descends through desert down to the Rio Grande past vistas, mountains, and historical sites before ending at spectacular Santa Elena Canyon. The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive begins from TX-118 on the western side of the park, about 13 mi (21 km) west from Panther Junction and 10 mi (16 km) east of the west entrance and meanders further south and west to the border; figure on about a 45 minute-to-1 hour trip one way, not counting stops. The terrain on this side of the park is particularly jumbled and rugged; many of the distinctive rock formations here and throughout the park owe their existence to millions of years of erosion and volcanic activity. In particular are "hoodoos", which look like thin chimneys or columns of piled rock, and groups of straight ridges on the side of mountains, called "dikes".
The route starts by heading south, shadowing the mighty Chisos Mountains to the east. A few miles in, if you look up you can see the large V-shape of The Window, framing the Chisos Basin miles beyond. After about 4 mi (6 km) comes the first turn-off: Sam Nail Ranch, one of the many abandoned structures in the park from the old days when it was settled; now you can find trees, benches, and a windmill in this peaceful setting. Down the road another 4 mi (6 km) is the turn-off for the Blue Creek Ranch Overlook, which peers down at the old Homer Wilson Ranch house; there's also a trail-head here which will lead you there and beyond. Very soon after is the Sotol Vista Overlook turn-off; stop here for a grand view of the desert spread out below and the mountains behind you. Far off in the distance to the west, Santa Elena Canyon is visible as a large gap in the mountains. Unfortunately, sometimes views in the park are hampered by haze, the frequency and degree of which is increasing with time — surprisingly this air pollution is blown all the way here from refineries in Mexico and East Texas, along the Gulf Coast.
After a brisk descent, the next stop, about 3 mi (5 km) away, is the turn-off for the trail-head to the Burro Mesa Pour-off. Continue on about another 3 mi (5 km) for a stop that serves as the starting point for the Chimneys Trail and then, near the Blue Creek crossing, a roadside exhibit for Goat Mountain: a peak of volcanic origin. You may catch some early glimpses of the subject of the next stop: Mule Ears Viewpoint, which showcases this perfectly named rock formation. After a total drive of about 20 mi (32 km), just before the junction that serves as the western terminus of the River Road, is the stop for Tuff Canyon; formed of ancient compressed volcanic ash and then slowly carved by water, this striking white-walled canyon offers several viewpoints from the top as well as a trail that descends into it.
After a 22 mi (35 km) drive you'll reach the Castolon Historic District, where exhibits describe how it served as a gathering place for settlers in the early 1900's, just as it still does today. Here you'll also find restrooms, picnic tables, the Castolon Visitor Center, the Cottonwood Campgrounds, and La Harmonia Store. Built in 1920, La Harmonia — together with the original store, the Alvino House (built in 1902, making it the oldest complete adobe structure in the park) — served local communities as a hardware store, bank, jail, and whatever else was needed. Today, you can still buy limited groceries and supplies year-round. There are also other adobe ruins scattered about the area, as well as two cemeteries.
After stretching your legs, continue the final 8 mi (13 km) to reach Santa Elena Canyon. This section of road, in particular, is susceptible to flooding after heavy rains. Even if there is a seemingly small amount of water on the road, do not cross — it is always safer to wait it out, and floods usually drain away quickly in the park. Along the way you'll also pass the junction with the southern end of unpaved Maverick Road. Once at the parking lot at the end of the drive, a short path through the brush will lead you to a full view of the canyon. With the Rio Grande flowing beneath limestone walls 1,500 ft (457 m) high (the Mesa de Anguilla constitutes the U.S. side, the Sierra Ponce the Mexican side), Santa Elena Canyon is often regarded as the most beautiful of the Big Bend's canyons and is perhaps the park's most well-known site; there is no substitute to seeing it face-to-face. There is a worthwhile trail here that leads into the Santa Elena; floating the river through the canyon is another popular activity.
The park visitor centers are a great place to start your visit at the park, providing such essentials as maps, permits, park news, and advice. They're also a great place to learn more about the park; they all provide exhibits on aspects such as park history, geology, and wildlife (some also have movies); each center also has a bookstore.
All visitor centers provide public access to restrooms, water, and pay phones.
You may hear it again and again from locals and Big Bend National Park veterans: the best way to truly experience the park is to step out of the car and do something. And it's true! Seeing the park by car gives you some broad impressions, but it's not until you stop, take a breath, and let your surroundings engulf you before Big Bend's true beauty reveals itself. There are activities for any age or fitness level and to make things really easy, you can go on a (free!) daily ranger-led program or arrange a guided tour with any of the excellent local outfitters. The important thing is to get out there!
Driving the backroads
Here, sometimes driving Big Bend's network of rugged, unpaved backroads is an adventure unto itself. They can take you to historical sites, trails, and other remote areas of the park that are otherwise inaccessible. No matter which road you take, expect a bumpy ride; come prepared and be sure to take it slow. Road signage is generally very good in the park.
In optimal conditions, these dirt roads are passable to any vehicle. Weather can significantly degrade their condition, sometimes making them impassable to sedans and the like; always be sure to ask about road conditions before setting out.
Primitive dirt roads
For true adventure, driving the more remote and less maintained "primitive" dirt roads are the way to go — with the right vehicle and preparation. These roads are rough, bumpy, sandy, rocky, or worse and require a high-clearance vehicle; sometimes four-wheel drive (4WD) is also required (and is always optimal). Like the Improved Roads, weather can significantly degrade their condition, sometimes making them impassable for any vehicle; always be sure to ask about road conditions first.
Floating the river
One of the quintessential Big Bend experiences is floating the Rio Grande through one of its marvelous canyons, whether it be on a raft, by canoe, or by kayak. Side canyons and hikes await for the adventurous, and a variety of trip lengths are possible, from half a day to more than a week. You can bring in your own equipment or rent from a tour operator. For novices and those who don't want to bother with the logistics, a guided river trip is very convenient. Travelers of any age can participate; with raft tours, they all do the work while you sit back and relax. Self-paddled kayaking and canoeing are easy enough here for even first-timers to pick up and offer satisfying freedom. Expect to pay from around $65 for a half-day trip up into the $1000s for week-long (or more) adventures.
Be sure to have essential safety equipment: life vests, extra oars/paddles, first aid kit, and patch kit/pump (for inflatable watercraft). Tour operators provide most or all of these for free. Water levels affect what is possible on your trip, so be sure to inquire about it at the park or with your tour company. Generally, the higher the water level is, the faster the river is flowing and certain sections may become rougher. Low levels might make it impractical to float by raft, for example, but make paddling upriver (so-called "boomerang" trips) a possibility. Generally the river is at its highest summer through early fall and lowest during winter. A backcountry permit is also required for any river-use; they can be obtained at the Panther Junction Visitor Center. There are many park guidelines to be followed and certain take-outs are on private land and require permission, so be sure to inquire ahead.
Hiking is one of the best ways to experience Big Bend National Park; many sights are not accessible by any other method. Try to work in at least one trail from each of the environments — desert, mountain, and river — to get the full scope of what the park has to offer. For those short on time or of limited mobility, try one of several short "nature trails", such as the Window View, Chihuahuan Desert, and Rio Grande Village trails. For something a bit more involved, the Lost Mine and Window Trails are very popular (allow 3-4 hours), as is the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. Although a bit trickier to reach, the Grapevine, Pine Canyon, and Ernst Tinaja Trails are also popular desert treks.
Trail maps and topographical maps (for backcountry hiking) can be purchased at any visitor center. For $1 or less, certain popular trails have detailed booklets that can be purchased from visitor centers or little boxes near the trail-head. The paths of some desert hikes are marked by rock cairns (piles). Most of the trails offer minimal to no shade, so dress smartly and always bring plenty of water!
Other desert hikes
Soaking in the Hot Springs
A reminder of the park's past volcanic turmoil, the Langford Hot Springs (or just "hot springs"; everyone will know what you're talking about) is a small, jacuzzi-sized pool of naturally occurring 105°F (41°C) water from deep below the earth. The spring had been long known locally for its supposed healing powers and became somewhat of a tourist site in the early 20th century due to the entrepreneurial efforts of one J.O. Langford. All that's left is the foundations, but it still makes for a fine place to soak after a long day (especially underneath the stars).
The springs lie in the southeastern region of the park off of TX-118 near Rio Grande Village. There are two ways to reach it: Hot Springs Road or the Hot Springs Canyon Trail; both involve at least some hiking, so be sure to come dressed appropriately. The springs are literally right next to the Rio Grande and can be completely engulfed by the river if it floods, filling it with sand and other debris. The spring waters contain several trace elements from its source underground — although the healing powers of the spring are often attributed to this fact, it is probably best not to drink any and some even find that their skin is sensitive to it.
For Big Bend novices or anyone who doesn't want to deal with the hassle, try going with a local tour operator. They each have years of experience and not only love their jobs, but also the Big Bend region. They can show you places and give you factual tidbits that only locals would know. For tours, it's good to inquire ahead as far in advance as possible, especially about what supplies they provide (safety equipment and meals are a definite) but also what you should bring along. Not only can tours be arranged but also equipment rentals and shuttle services to just about any destination, for those with an independent streak.
In addition, the park provides daily ranger-led programs for free, which can include a variety of activities and topics. The schedule is constantly changing and usually you're required to bring a flashlight (one can be purchased at the park if need be). You can also hire a park ranger for a personal tour, although you must arrange transportation yourself. The going rate is $35/hour with a 4 hour minimum and reservations must be made in advance at +1 432 477-1108.
Park-related books and knick-knacks can be purchased from all visitor centers. Supplies and groceries, though available, are often limited in selection. The nearest town with chain retailers is Alpine.
Expect gas in the area to be pricier than the national average. Always remember to fill up before setting out as distances between services are large.
Outside of the park
Gas and limited supplies can also be purchased from Study Butte-Terlingua, just outside the western entrance of the park.
There are no bars as such in the park, however alcoholic beverages can be purchased at the Chisos Mountains Lodge Restaurant, the Chisos Basin Store, La Harmonia Store, and the Rio Grande Village Store. However, open alcoholic beverages are not permitted on their premises (except for inside the restaurant) or their parking lots. They are similarly not permitted at visitor centers or in the Langford Hot Springs area.
Outside of the park, there is at least one bar in the nearby Study Butte-Terlingua area.
Lodging and campsites are literally packed during the busy season (Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year's weekend, and during Spring Break) — all but the most remote backcountry camp sites are filled up. Reserve ahead as far in advance as possible (at least several months beforehand) if you plan on staying during that time.
Camping at developed sites or in the backcountry is limited to 14 consecutive days, with a maximum of 28 days in any given year (but no more than 14 nights in any given site). Wood and ground fires are not permitted in the park, as they would totally wreak havoc in this parched desert ecosystem. Be mindful of cigarettes and any portable heat sources, such as grills.
The Stillwell Store, just outside of the park's north entrance, offers full RV-hookups or cheap primitive camping (with amenities on-site); expect to pay around from $5 for a primitive campsite up to $19 for an RV hook-up.
While there is only one hotel option within the park (see below), there are several nice lodging options in the nearby Study Butte-Terlingua area, including some secluded getaways, as well as luxury accommodations in Lajitas (the poshest place to stay in the area); all of which are relatively very close to the park.
If you don't mind the drive, your lodging options expand even more if you consider staying in the larger towns of Marathon, Alpine, Presidio, Marfa, or Fort Davis. Expect to add at least an extra hour of driving time one-way if basing yourself in one of these locations (except Marathon, which is about a 40-50 minute drive).
Traditional "family style" campsites are available for a self-pay fee of $14/night. During the "reservation season" (Nov 15-Apr 15), a limited number of these sites are reservable (up to 180 days in advance) — 26 at Chisos Basin and 43 at Rio Grande Village, with a limit of 8 people per campsite. For groups of 9 or more, there are a very limited number of designated "group" campsites at all three locations; these are by reservation only (up to 360 days in advance) and with a rate of $3/night. Those with a Senior Pass or Access Pass get a 50% discount on camping fees.
Reservations must be made at least 4 days before your arrival date and are not made through the park, but rather at +1 877-444-6777 or online . Parking is limited, so there may be a bit of a walk from your vehicle to your actual site during the busy season. 10PM to 6AM are designated "quiet hours". Check in is 1PM and check out time is noon.
To really get away from it all, get off the paved roads and into the backcountry. There are two types of backcountry camping — at one of many designated sites in the Chisos Mountains or "zone camping" for everywhere else. A backcountry permit is required for any overnight park use; also be sure to observe the backcountry regulations, put in place to preserve the park for everyone's enjoyment.
When you obtain your permit, you must choose which site or zone you plan on staying at; the park provides very helpful maps or booklets that lay out your options (the one for the Chisos Mountains, in particular, is chock-full of campsite descriptions, maps, and trip tips). In the Chisos Mountains, backcountry camping is permitted only at designated sites — these are 42 sites and they tend to be the most popular backcountry spots. Hiking in is the only way to reach them and you'll have to bring in all supplies. The Chisos is bear country, so be sure to store all food, liquids, and anything else odoriferous in the storage lockers provided at all sites, and don't leave food unattended.
If you plan on doing some backcountry hiking in the desert or are just craving the maximum amount of freedom, you can actually camp anywhere in the park (again, except for the Chisos). There are also about 30 primitive roadside camping sites scattered throughout the park, accessible along the Rio Grande and from the many unpaved backroads — some of which may require a high-clearance (possibly 4-wheel drive) vehicle. Big Bend is divided into 5 zones: North, East, South, West, and Central, each of which is further divided into sub-zones (nearly 40 in all). When obtaining your permit, it is simply a matter of choosing which one to stay in. There are some limitations to this freedom: you must stay at least 1/2 mile (800 m) away from roads (and out of sight of them), and 100 yards (90 m) away from trails, water, cliffs, and structures. Groups are also limited to a maximum of 15 people (any larger, and you have to split up), and cannot camp in zones that are adjacent.
The number to call in an emergency is the general park dispatch at +1 432 477-2251. Do NOT depend on cell phones for communication; coverage is spotty to non-existent. Always have someone you can trust (outside of your group) who knows where you're going and can contact authorities in case you don't arrive at your destination as expected. Failing that, leave a note describing your itinerary with the park staff or on your car dashboard. Public phones are located at all visitor centers and developed campgrounds.
The isolation and ruggedness that makes Big Bend appealing for some also brings with it a potential for danger — for those who are not prepared. The vast majority of trips go off without a hitch but taking a few simple steps of precaution can make a huge difference should the unforeseeable occur. Prepare equally no matter what your itinerary is — even for short hikes or if you don't plan on getting out of the car. Bring plenty of water; too much is better than not enough. The minimum requirement is at least one gallon a day, although if you're active, it's much more. Thirst is a notoriously unreliable indicator of your body's water needs, so drink regularly.
Dressing properly is an important way to beat the elements and is just as important as water. Plan for both hot and cold; temperatures here can shift dramatically (especially during winter), depending on the time of day, the weather, and your current elevation — it is cooler in the mountains and warmest near the river. Dressing in layers is best; you can peel off layers when you get too warm or maybe even don a jacket if it gets nippy. Forget shorts and t-shirts; the best way to beat the desert heat is to wear light-colored, loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts and pants — breathable fabrics such as cotton are best. Also wear a hat (wide-brimmed is best), sunscreen, and practical footwear — definitely closed-toed; ideally sturdy hiking boots.
The final component, but equally important, is having the right equipment. Have the right maps, whether it be road maps, trail maps, or topographical maps and a compass for backcountry exploration. For cars, make sure your tires are properly inflated (don't forget the spare tire!) and bring a jack; also consider extras such as coolant, oil, and fuel. Always have a first-aid kit, a flashlight, blankets, and an emergency signaling device of some sort — a whistle is a cheap example (three blows is standard for emergencies) but flares or a signaling mirror are alternatives. Know how to use your equipment, otherwise they're useless. And of course don't forget your camera!
When bad weather does come, it's often in the form of thunderstorms. Even moderate amounts of rain can cause flash flooding, washing out roads or leaving them otherwise impassable — especially the unpaved backroads and sections of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, where flood gauges are often present. A car can be swept away in as little as one foot of water; if there is even the slightest doubt if it's safe to cross, wait it out — water drains away quickly in the park. Be careful when hiking in washes and pour-offs — flash floods can occur even if it's not raining nearby; never camp in these areas. Rain in Big Bend is often accompanied by lightning — if you're caught outside, stay low, try to get indoors or in your car, and stay off of hills and ridges and away from trees.
Park water sources
Bring in all the water you will need for your trip; fresh water is a rare and precious resource in the park. Springs and other natural water sources are not reliable — never stake your life on them. Water fountains can be found at all park visitor centers or purchased from stores. If you must drink naturally-occurring water, boil it or use another reliable purifying method to kill any microorganisms. Drinking from the river is never safe; it contains pollutants and other nasties that can make you seriously ill, no matter how much you filter it. The water here is shared among all life in this harsh environment, so take care not to contaminate water sources in any way — no swimming, wading, soap, or trash.
Big Bend is a wonderful place to see a wide variety of wildlife but keep in mind they really are "wild". Never try to touch or feed an animal; not only will it make them unnaturally habituated to human contact, but they are also potentially dangerous. Some, such as deer or javelina, can cause you serious physical harm (javelinas, cute as they may be, have very sharp tusks). Others, such as raccoons, rodents, or bats, may carry nasty diseases. Poisonous snakes, scorpions, spiders, and centipedes also live here though are usually active at night. They often seek safety in dark places; check inside unattended shoes and sleeping bags before using them and watch where you step and place your hands — they like to hide in holes, crevices, and under rocks. Be wary of spines and thorns from cacti and other plants — sturdy shoes and pants offer some protection.
The Chisos Mountains is mountain lion and black bear country. They're a very rare sight and most visitors consider themselves lucky if they see them (if you do, be sure to report it to a park ranger). Black bears almost always run from humans; to avoid surprising one, make noise while you travel. Although smaller and less aggressive than the brown bear, they can be just as dangerous. Never get between a mother bear and her cubs. If you see a bear nearby and it hasn't already run away, do not approach it, instead calmly back away. Always properly dispose of your trash using the bear-proof disposal bins found throughout the area. At camps, use the numerous provided food storage lockers and keep everything else with strong odors sealed air-tight.
Mountain lions (often called "panthers" around these parts) are an even rarer sight; they tend to be active at night and keep to themselves, although a few attacks have occurred in the past (although less than you count on one hand). Stay close together in groups if traveling through an area known for mountain lion activity — there are usually signs posted. If one approaches you, make yourself seem as big as possible, yell in a commanding voice, throw rocks and sticks, and generally raise as much hell as you can. If one does actually attack, fight back with all your might; do not run or play dead. It's worth reiterating, however, that the chances of even seeing a bear or mountain lion in the park (let alone being attacked) is extremely low.
Swimming or even wading in the river is strongly discouraged; the murky waters hide large rocks and branches, sudden drops, and strong currents. More visitors have lost their lives swimming or wading here than by boating.
The chances of being a victim of crime of any sort in the park are very low but not unheard of; if it does happen, it's usually in the form of unattended cars getting broken into (such as when parked in remote areas). Use common sense and you'll be fine; hide valuables from view or in the trunk or, better yet, leave them home.
There have been reports of illegal crossings from the Mexican side and other illicit activities such as stolen items and car break-ins near the River Road West area. This area is little-traveled by casual visitors (you need a high-clearance vehicle to reach it) and most who stay there have no problem, but if there's any cause for discomfort or alarm, consider staying in another area and be sure to report anything illegal or suspicious to park dispatch at +1 432 477-2251.