Big Bend Itinerary Essentials: Scenic Drives and Breathtaking Hikes 2023
Planning your Big Bend Itinerary can be exciting and overwhelming at the same time. With over 1200 square miles of natural beauty to explore, you may be wondering where to start.
If you are like us, missing a beautiful vista or scenic outlook is non-negotiable. Although we only had a few days, we covered most of the park. This article will help you plan your Big Bend itinerary so that you can discover the splendid isolation Big Bend offers.
As full-time travelers, we never skip an opportunity to visit our National Parks. We’ve made it our mission to visit as many parks as possible, from the iconic Yellowstone to the Everglades. With curious spirits, we hike trails, marvel at majestic waterfalls, and soak in the tranquility of pristine lakes. From witnessing wildlife in their natural habitats to camping under starlit skies, we’ve experienced so much.
Robb and I are thrilled to share our insights, tips, and stories with you, so you too can embark on your own incredible Big Bend National Park journey.
Welcome to Big Bend: A natural wonderland awaits!
Table of Contents
Big Bend Itinerary Essentials: Scenic Drives and Breathtaking Hikes
Planning Your Big Big Bend Itinerary
How Many Days do you need in Big Bend National Park?
First things first: Allow Plenty of Time!
While some people have the freedom of an open schedule, others, like us, have time constraints. In other words, we must carve out time to discover these natural wonderlands.
We suggest planning at least 3-days to explore inside Big Bend. Even for non-hikers, like us, the park is fascinating. Because this park is so vast, even scenic drives require a several-hour time commitment.
In order to maximize our time, we divided Big Bend into three driving segments, each with a short easy hike, some scenic overlooks, and miles of nearly deserted beautiful drives.
For avid and more advanced hikers, you will find Big Bend a paradise of natural spaces. There are hiking trails for every level of experience.
Likewise, Big Bend provides visitors with a variety of off-road vehicle adventures. Many of the unimproved roads require 4WD and high-clearance vehicles.
Always refer to current advisories and conditions before embarking on your journey. If you have questions be sure to ask the rangers, they always have the latest information and will definitely provide some detailed insight to help with your experience.
Keep in mind Big Bend National Park is extremely remote with very little cell reception. Once inside the park, you can easily be hours away from emergency service.
While there are plenty of hikes and off-road opportunities in Big Bend, assessing your physical limits and those of your equipment is imperative.
Big Bend Itinerary: Day #1
Panther Junction & Chisos Basin
Panther Junction Visitor Center is worth a quick stop. Inside you can find out about ranger-led programs, must-do points of interest, and road closures. You can grab a paper map, browse the bookstore and even take a short walk around Panther Path.
Panther Path is an easy 50-yard loop that will help you get familiar with the Big Bend terrain. This informative trail is designed to help us identify the bountiful plant life, desert flowers, and cacti throughout Big Bend National Park.
This short trip around the visitor center really added to our experience as we were better able to identify the different plants and flora throughout the park.
Tornillo Flat and Dinosaur Fossil Exhibit
Quite literally, the Dinosaur Fossil Exhibit is in the middle of nowhere. From the Panther Junction Visitor Center, you will travel 26 miles to the tranquil and expansive desert area known as Tornillo Flat. With its wide-open spaces and sparse vegetation, it offers a sense of peace and serenity. Against the backdrop of the majestic Chisos Mountains, the play of light and shadows creates a mesmerizing sight.
Although the area may appear barren, Tornillo Flat is teeming with life, including jackrabbits, roadrunners, and reptiles that have adapted to the harsh desert environment. It’s a perfect place for quiet reflection, connecting with nature, and finding solace amidst the beauty of Big Bend.
The Dinosaur Fossil Exhibit is both fascinating and informative. Get up close and personal with a T-Rex replica skull. However, if pressed for time, you won’t be disappointed if you walk off on this stop for a more exciting trail such as Dog Canyon.
This is a 4-mile round trip with a moderate hike. Hiking through a relatively flat area or wash features beautiful views of the desert and Devil’s Den, a narrow slot canyon.
Grapevine Hills Road
Grapevine Hills Road is an unimproved 8-mile road to the Grapevine Hills Trail. Although 4WD is not required, it is highly suggested. This road is brutal but doable. There is a parking lot at the end.
Grapevine Hills Trail to Balanced Rock
Grapevine Hills Trail to Balanced Rock is about a 2 mile round trip. The first part of the trail is fairly easy however the final part involves crossing steep and rough rock surfaces before reaching Balanced Rock.
Navigating through a challenging terrain filled with large rocks at dusk is not my idea of a good time. Knowing my personal capabilities and the limited daylight left, we did not hike the whole trail.
Looking back, we should have stopped here and hiked out to Balanced Rock first before going out to Tornillo Flats.
Chisos Basin Road
From most points inside the park, the Chisos Mountains are a focal point. Against the flat desert landscape, the Chisos are mysterious and captivating.
The scenic drive to the top of the Chisos Basin delivers on all points. As the sun begins to set, the mountains change from browns, reds, and greens to magnificent golden hues.
Window View Trail
For a non-strenuous walk, the level path from the lodge parking lot leads out to a spectacular view of the window trail. There are benches to enjoy the sunset and everchanging scenery.
This trail is a moderate 5.6-mile round trip to a scenic vista view for those that enjoy a little more challenging hike. Although the hike starts with a downhill slope, the 900-foot elevation change can be challenging on the return uphill trek.
More Chisos Basin Hikes for the Adventurous:
The Lost Mine Trail: Moderate 4.8-mile round trip.
South Rim: Strenuous 14-mile round trip.
Boot Canyon Trail: Strenuous 23-mile round trip.
Take added precautions while in the Chisos Basin. This is bear country, stay alert and never approach wildlife. Just a few weeks before we arrived, the Chisos Basin area was closed due to heightened bear activity.
Stay Bear Aware!
Big Bend Itinerary: Day #2
Rio Grande Village and Boquillas Canyon
A quick stop at the Rio Grande Village may be necessary. Inside there are restrooms, showers, and a convenience store. Additionally, this region encompasses two of the four campgrounds in the Big Bend National Park.
If this is your first stop of the day, we suggest checking for ranger-led programs, as well as alerts or closures in the area you are exploring.
Rio Grande Village Nature Trail
The boardwalk leads to an easy .75-mile round trip walk through the wetlands. This is a great place for birdwatching and listening to the sounds of nature.
Boquillas Canyon Hike
Boquillas Canyon Hike is a moderate 1.4-mile round trip, which was a highlight of our time in Big Bend.
The trailhead starts at the parking lot and leads up a rocky path to the top of the hill, then down to the river below. Follow the trail out and along the Rio Grande for amazing canyon views. The colorful walls tower above you from the floor of the canyon.
Because this is a popular hike, the trail can get noisy with chatter. If you prefer quiet and serene hikes, go early in the morning. Don’t be startled by the “singing Mexican” across the river or the mountain lion prints in the sand. Both will be there lurking in the shadows.
Did you know you can take the “International Ferry” to Mexico from inside Big Bend National Park? For $5, the ferry captain will row you across the Rio Grande into Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico.
From the shore, Boquillas is about a mile up the dirt road. It is easy enough to walk, however, you can ride into town as well. For an additional fee, you can select, a donkey, a horse, or the back of a pick-up truck to take you to town. Spend a few hours, shopping at local artisanal shops, eating authentic Mexican dishes, and drinking some locally distilled Sotol.
Just make sure you make it back across the river before the US Customs offices close for the day.
Hot Springs Historic District
Visiting the Hot Springs Historic District is like stepping back in time to the year 1909. Travelers from far and wide made their way to the healing waters of the hot springs.
J.O. Lankford was in dire need of physical healing from a long bout of malaria. Once he heard of the natural springs, he and his family made the 12-day journey from Alpine TX, to stake their claim.
As his health improved, he constructed the Hot Springs District which included bathhouses, a motor court, a post office, and a store. Some of the rock buildings still stand as well as the remaining palm trees. The Boquillas Hot Springs are just a short walk and still open to the public.
Boquillas Hot Springs and Lankford Hot Springs
If the weather permits and the trail is open, treat yourself to a soak in the geothermal hot springs in Big Bend. The natural tub is about a ½ mile walk from the parking lot. Follow the signs and take caution. The water can reach 105 degrees.
Enjoy soaking your aches and pains away as the Rio Grande flows beside you. The beauty of Big Bend and the healing waters are a special combination.
Other area trails:
Hot Springs Canyon Trail: Moderate 6-mile round trip along the Hot Springs Canyon that provides beautiful views of the mountains and river below.
Big Bend Itinerary: Day #3
Castolon and Santa Elena Canyon
On the far western border of Big Bend is the beautiful Santa Elena Canyon. The road winds toward the canyon bringing the canyon wall into view. The scenery is spectacular.
Normally, we suggest stopping at the Visitor Center before exploring or hiking, especially if this is your first day in Big Bend. Trail closures and advisories are common in National Parks. However, if you are like us, you’ve already done your homework and are getting a head start on your day.
Santa Elena Canyon Hike
From the parking lot, walk down the boardwalk path to the river and creek crossing. Even if you don’t plan to hike Santa Elena Canyon, the views are worth the short walk.
The Santa Elena Canyon Hike is a moderate 1.7 mile roundtrip. To hike into the canyon, you will have to cross the Terlingua Creek bed. At times, the creek may be impassible, so don’t be disappointed.
Unfortunately, for us, the creek water was extremely high and we couldn’t cross. From another crossing point, we watched more seasoned hikers traverse up and across the rocky hill, before making their way to the canyon trail.
Although we like to push our limits, the access to the canyon trail was just too scary and tough for me. Instead, we explored the area along the river and creek before heading out.
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
Unless you are an experienced off-road explorer and have a high-clearance vehicle, you will exit Santa Elena Canyon on the same road you came in on, The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.
With 30 miles of brilliant colors, mountain walls, and never-ending scenery, this road is not to be missed. There are several stops with vista outlooks and canyon overlooks along the way. For hikers, there are a few places of interest as well.
Castolon Visitor Center
The Castolon Historic District holds significant historical value and has been officially recognized by being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This designation highlights the district’s importance in preserving and showcasing the rich heritage of the area. Exploring the Castolon Historic District allows visitors to immerse themselves in the stories and remnants of the past.
In 2019, a fire devastated the Castolon Historic District. While the efforts to restore the area continue, most of the buildings are closed. During the winter months, the Visitor Center is open.
The park store is open year-round. River permits for boat access into Santa Elena Canyon are available here as well.
With three outlooks, visitors can get a great perspective of the canyon below. For the energetic, you can take a short walk down to the canyon floor while exploring the canyon walls and rock formations.
Tuff Canyon is particularly fascinating and a little unnerving. It resembles a wash area with 100-foot canyon walls. Although I don’t know why, I just imagine a 60-foot wave rolling in to overtake me. Too many sci-fi movies, I guess.
As you make your way back to the main road, check out the Mule Ears Viewpoint, Carousel Mountain, and Sotol Vista.
Other Area Hikes and Trails
Lower Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail: This 1-mile round trip is an easy hike through gravel drainage ending in a box canyon with a 100ft pour-off.
Mule Ears Spring Trail: A 3.8 Mile round trip moderate hike leading through the foothills of the Chisos Mountains.
Upper Burro Mesa Trail: This moderate 3.8 mile round trip trail leads to the top of the 100 ft pour-off. Be prepared to climb down large rocks.
Chimneys Trail: Another moderate 4.8 round trip hike to the famous Chimneys rock formation and Chimney Arch.
Best Time to Visit Big Bend National Park
Big Bend is best enjoyed when you have a bit of time to explore. Being aware of weather patterns, increased crowds, and nearby events can help you decide the best time to visit Big Bend National Park.
The best time to visit Big Bend National Park is when the daytime temperatures are warm and the nights are cool. Hiking and sightseeing are much more enjoyable when the weather is mild.
Big Bend Spring
Springtime in Big Bend is beautiful. The mountains and desert come alive with bluebonnets, cactus blooms, and desert flowers. People flock to Big Bend to witness the desert wake up after a long winter’s nap. However, the crowds can be massive during spring break.
Big Bend Fall
Fall is fantastic in Big Bend. With warm days and cool nights, visitors get the best that Big Bend has to offer. However, late summer rains can affect the river flow and trail access.
Crowds will increase during special events such as the annual Terlingua Chili Cook-Off and Dia de Los Muertos-Day of the Dead Celebrations that take place in nearby Terlingua.
Big Bend Winter
Winter attracts tourists to the park due to its mild climate and clear night skies. Big Bend winter daytime highs often reach 70 degrees while nighttime lows can be below freezing.
Although snow is rare in Big Bend, the area had record snowfall in 2023, showing us all that weather patterns can turn on a dime.
Big Bend Summer
Summer months in Big Bend can be brutal. With daily temperatures reaching triple digits, hiking past mid-morning is highly discouraged. The visitor centers and campgrounds have limited access.
However, the best time to go to Big Bend is whenever you can. Just be aware of the nuances of the season you are visiting and your personal limitations.
How To Get To Big Bend National Park
Where is Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park is situated in the southwestern part of Texas, near the border with Mexico. It occupies a vast area of approximately 801,163 acres, making it one of the largest national parks in the United States.
The park is nestled within the curve of the Rio Grande, which forms the natural international boundary between the United States and Mexico. The park’s proximity to Mexico lends it a unique cultural and geographical significance.
In terms of neighboring areas, Big Bend is surrounded by vast stretches of desert landscapes and rugged mountains. To the east, you’ll find the city of Marathon, and further northeast is the city of Alpine. To the west, the park borders the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, and the small town of Boquillas del Carmen, which offers a crossing point into Mexico.
There is no public transportation to Big Bend or inside the National Park. Unlike some of the more popular parks like Zion or Grand Canyon, there are no shuttles or buses for visitors. Even the most avid hiker would agree, that driving is essential within the park.
Closest Airports to Big Bend National Park
While Big Bend itself doesn’t have its own airport, there are a few options for flying into the vicinity.
The closest commercial airports to Big Bend National Park are:
- Midland/Odessa, Texas 235 miles
- El Paso, Texas 330 miles
Both airports serve most major airlines. With convenient car rentals nearby, travel to Big Bend National Park is accessible for everyone.
Remember to allow for travel time to and from the airport when planning your Big Bend Itinerary.
Going to Big Bend and need a rental car? Consider a Jeep 4×4 or similar vehicle with 4WD. Although a convertible may be tempting, the hot sun may have you reconsidering your choice. From sports cars to SUVs, you can find affordable rental vehicles without the hassle.
Where To Stay In Big Bend National Park
Staying overnight or for a few days in Big Bend can be the opportunity of a lifetime. Lodging inside Big Bend National Park is limited, but there are a few options:
Camping In Big Bend National Park
Camping in Big Bend is a dream come true for many. The dark skies give way to the most amazing stargazing experience. However, there are limited options, with few amenities. Reservations are required.
Rio Grande Village Park: Located on the eastern end of the park. Reservations are required. There are no hookups, but generators are permitted during daylight hours. Rio Grande RV Park is open all year. There is an adjoining tent area which is suitable for group camping.
Rio Grande Village RV Park: Located on the eastern end and operated independently from the National Park Service. The entire RV park is an asphalt parking lot with full hookups. It’s not the most luxurious but you are right in the park and surrounded by its beauty.
Cottonwood Campground: Located between Santa Elena Canyon and Castolon Historic District. There are no hookups and generators are prohibited. The campground is quiet and remote. Reservations are required. Cottonwood Campground closes for the summer May 1-Oct 31.
Chisos Basin Campground: Located at the top of the Chisos Basin. These sites are restricted to smaller units under 24 feet. The Chisos Basin Road is steep, winding, and narrow. The campground is open all year long with the exception of high bear activity.
There is some backcountry and primitive camping available with a permit. However, within the park boundaries dispersed camping and boondocking are prohibited.
Big Bend National Park Lodging
Chisos Mountain Lodge: Located at the top of Chisos Basin Road. The lodge offers rooms and cottages. There is also a dining hall and gift shop for your convenience. Chisos Mountain Lodge is the only lodge within the park.
Have you ever considered renting an RV?
Renting an RV offers the ultimate freedom and flexibility to explore at your own pace. With an RV, you have the ability to embark on unforgettable adventures, experiencing the beauty of nature while enjoying the comforts of home on wheels. It’s an opportunity to create lasting memories, go off the beaten path, and truly immerse yourself in the wonders of the open road.
We recommend Outdoorsy for reliable and convenient RV Rentals.
Lodging Near Big Bend National Park
Terlingua Ghost Town
Although staying inside Big Bend is appealing, it is not always easy. With limited lodging options inside the park, most visitors find a variety of accommodations in the nearby towns. Terlingua Ghost Town is only a few minutes from the Maverick Junction entrance on the west end of the park.
The town is fascinating and there is plenty to see and do. Whether you want to watch the sunset from the Terlingua Cemetery or have dinner in the Starlight Theatre, a detour to Terlingua is worth it.
Terlingua has plenty of lodging options available from dome tents, to full house rentals. Enjoy stargazing, amazing sunrises, and sunsets in the dark skies that surround the area.
Glamping, Bubble Tents, and Mirror Domes are just a few unique lodging options near Big Bend. Relax in comfort while taking in the views and the night sky.
Terlingua Ranch offers comfort with outstanding views of the night sky. Cool off with a dip in the pool before heading over to the Bad Rabbit Cafe for music and burgers.
For luxury accommodations, consider Lajitas Golf Resort. On-site, you can relax, play a round of golf, or enjoy a meal. Indulge yourself in a spa treatment after a long day of hiking or sip a cocktail by the pool.
While in town, take a minute to stop by and meet the Mayor of Lajitas. He likes a cold beer now and again.
Your luxury accommodations await at Lajitas Golf Resort.
Big Bend State Ranch Park
To wind up your Big Bend National Park adventure, the drive on the River Road from Lajitas to Presidio is spectacular. The road is winding and perfect for a motorcycle ride or a leisurely Sunday drive.
For hikers, there are plenty of pull-offs and short to moderate hikes. We loved the Hoodoo Trail and Closed Canyon.
Is Big Bend Safe?
Relatively speaking, Big Bend is safe to visit as long as you take proper precautions. The few deaths that have occurred over the years are due to extreme heat and environmental issues.
Our National Parks are full of natural beauty. Unlike Disney or curated parks, many of the walkways, trails, and viewing overlooks have no guardrails. The trails can be steep and uneven. Know your limits and never hike alone.
Although the Rio Grande River may look calm, it can be deep and rapid in some areas. Crossing the river into Mexico is tempting, but illegal except at the Port of Entry.
Big Bend Safety Tips
Hydrate: Bring plenty of water with you, especially if you are hiking the trails. Plan on 1 liter of water per hiking hour. Dehydration and heat stroke are the primary causes of death in Big Bend.
Wildlife: There is an abundance of wildlife in Big Bend’s Chisos Basin. Bears become quite territorial during the mesquite bean season. Javelinas and mountain lions lurk in the canyons and mountains. Meanwhile, snakes, spiders and scorpions can be hiding in plain sight! Stay aware!
Footwear: I can’t tell you how many times I have seen people hike up rocky trails in flip-flops, only to slip and twist an ankle. Besides the rocks, Big Bend has scorpions, rattlesnakes, and prickly cactus. Always wear proper hiking footwear.
Souvenirs on the trails: Sometimes the Mexican vendors and artisans will cross over into Big Bend illegally to sell their wares. Buying these items only encourages illegal crossings. Buy from reputable vendors, inside the park stores, or over in the town of Boquillas.
Unpaved Roads: If a road has a “high clearance vehicle required” warning, it means it. Taking a regular passenger car or motorcycle can lead to a miserable and costly situation. It is not uncommon for tires to blow or vehicles to get stuck. Since there is no cell service, your only options are to walk or wait for another vehicle. Don’t take unnecessary chances in the backcountry.
Big Bend Itinerary Essentials Conclusion
Like many of you, Big Bend National Park was a bucket list adventure for us. The stunning scenery is like no other park we’ve visited.
Mountains, deserts, canyons, and river views blew us away. Our only regret was not having more time to spend in the area.
Planning your Big Bend itinerary should include time relaxing while taking in the raw beauty that nature provides. The dark skies will give you ample opportunity to stargaze or even catch a falling star.
With hiking trails, scenic drives, and plenty of wide open spaces, there is something for everyone in Big Bend National Park.
As you plan your visit to Big Bend National Park, we wish you incredible adventures, breathtaking vistas, and unforgettable experiences in this remarkable natural wonder.
Travel Safe and Adventure Often!
Maureen Wright and Robb Strobridge
Entrepreneurs, Wanderlusters, Constant travelers, and Full-time RV Nomads since 2016. We are fueled by life, love, and the pursuit of all things good. Thanks for joining our journey and we hope to see you down the road!