Big Bend National Park has been on our bucket list for a long time, but due to its remote location in southwestern Texas, we did not know when we would be able to make it out there. Finally, the opportunity arose last year when we decided to do a road trip from our home in Minnesota to Texas! Below is a suggested itinerary for traveling in Big Bend, as well as a camping gear guide.
Day 1- Getting to Big Bend
Since Big Bend is in remote South-West Texas, situated along the Rio Grande, you will need to rent a car and drive from the airport to Big Bend. The most accessible airport to Big Bend is El Paso International Airport. From El Paso, it is about a 4.5 hour drive to Big Bend. Or, if you have more time like we did, you can choose the road trip route, and drive from your location.
Once you arrive in Big Bend, you will want to drive to your campsite. I would recommend booking your campsites in advance, to make sure that there is availability when you arrive. Big Bend releases campsites 6 months in advance, so if you are planning ahead, that would be the best option to assure that you get sites. We did not plan our trip that far out, so we had to wait until two weeks before our trip until they released more sites. Luckily we were able to secure some!
We decided to camp in Chisos Basin, which we chose because it is situated in a valley surrounded by mountains. There are also campsites along the Rio Grande as well. When we arrived in Chisos Basin, we set up our camp, and made dinner. Since we had a long drive, we decided to relax at our campsite for the evening. At night, we did a little stargazing. Big Bend is a Night Sky Sanctuary, so I would highly recommend taking some time at night to look up at the sky. It was a clear night for us, and there were stars everywhere! It was incredible!
Gear Tip: Camping in the Chisos Basin can be windy! We had pretty high winds every night that we were here! Since we are from the midwest plains, we were not equipped for this, and brought a box tent. This was an issue, because since the tent is vertical, the wind went right through it, and it kept falling over! I would recommend bringing a low-pitched tent that is closer to the ground.
Day 2- Chisos Basin and Rio Grande Village
On our first full day in Big Bend, we woke up early and drove to the start of the Lost Mine Trail. If you are traveling with your dog, unfortunately dogs are not allowed on any of the trails in Big Bend. This is situated near the Chisos Basin campsite. I would recommend starting this trail early because it does get busy. When we left, the parking lot was overflowing! Also, it gets hot, so choosing hikes in the morning is a good idea.
The Lost Mine trail is 4.8 miles round trip, 1,100 feet. The average time to complete this trail is about three hours, so you want to allot enough time for this. While it does take some time, it is definitely worth it! At the end of the trail, there was a beautiful viewpoint overlooking Chisos Basin, with the mountains in the background. This is a great spot for a photo-op to prove that you made it to Big Bend! Make sure that you bring plenty of water and snacks for this journey.
After a quick lunch of sandwiches (on road trips, we always keep sandwich supplies in our car, so that way we don’t need to go back to our campsite), we drove over to the Rio Grande Village area. On the way, we stopped along the side of the road, and took pictures of the desert cactus and plants. In the Rio Grande Village, we drove to the Boquillas Canyon Overlook, where had a good view of the Rio Grande! It was very exciting to see this river for the first time!
If you are looking to go on another hike, there are a couple of more options in this area of the park. You could try the Boquillas Canyon trail which is 1.5 miles long, and takes about an hour to complete. This trail takes you along the Rio Grande, and to the entrance of a gorge that splits the Sierra del Carmen Mountains.
If you are looking for a longer hike, you could go on the Daniels Ranch / Hot Springs loop which is a 6 mile trail. This trail takes you along the Rio Grande, and through the rocky Texas terrain. One highlight of the hike is that it takes you to a hot spring that you can swim in!
If you want to visit the hot spring but are not up for the hike, there is a parking lot nearby, and you can take a short walk to the springs. Unfortunately, we did not make it to the hot springs, but I heard that it is worth the stop.
After spending some time in the Rio Grande Village, we headed back to our campsite in Chisos Basin for dinner. After dinner, we were relaxing at our site, and a big mule deer came tearing through our site! He turned and trundled off into the tall grasses by our site, but it was a cool experience to be three feet away from him!
In the evening we went over to the Window Overlook, which is still in the Chisos Basin. If you are not staying in Chisos Basin, I would recommend doing this after the Lost Mine hike, since they are near each other. It is a super short and flat walk to the Window Overlook, where you get to see the window. This is a great sunset destination, which is when we went here. I would recommend getting here a little bit before sunset to get a good spot.
If you want to get closer to the Window, you can opt for the Window Trail which is 5.5 miles round trip, and takes around 2 and a half hours. The way down is an easy descent, but the way back ascends 900 feet, and can be challenging. Like the other hikes, you want to make sure that you bring water, and snacks, and avoid hiking in the middle of the day.
Day 3- Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
On our second full day at Big Bend, we drove along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. There are lots of stops along this drive, so I would allow plenty of time for this.
We stopped at the Sam Nail Ranch which is a short hike that takes you through an old ranch. You can see an old windmill and an old rusted shack. I enjoyed the vibe of this hike.
We also stopped at the Blue Creek Ranch Overlook which provides you with a view of the Homer Wilson Ranch. We chose to go on the short hike that takes you close to the Ranch. It was cool to see the building up close, and you could actually go inside of it.
Then we went to the Castolon Historic District, where we saw the remains of a cotton farm. We were able to get up close to the old buildings and equipment.
These three stops were super interesting to me, because it brought to attention the livelihoods that were here before Big Bend became a protected area.
After another quick lunch of sandwiches, we went on the Santa Elena Canyon Trail, which is at the end of the Scenic Road. This trail is 1.6 miles roundtrip, and takes about 1 hour to complete. This is a beautiful trail that takes you right along the Rio Grande, through the Santa Elena Canyon. At the end of the trail, there is a very pretty viewpoint of the river and the canyon. This is another great photo-op! It is absolutely beautiful walking through the canyon, and this was my highlight of the Scenic Drive.
After our busy day of hikes and sightseeing, we drove back along the Scenic Drive to the Chisos Basin. Since we had an active day, we decided to relax at our campsite with dinner and Uno.
Gear Tip: Since Big Bend is situated in a desert, you are not allowed to burn wood in the park. I would recommend bringing a propane camp stove, so that way you can still prepare your favorite camp foods. We like to bring our food and stove with us when we go out for the day, so that way we can still make our meals, even if we happen to not be at our campsite.
Day 4- Balanced Rock and Terlingua Ghost Town
Today we got up super early to go on the Grapevine Hills Trail, which takes you to Balanced Rock. We wanted to be at the Balanced Rock for sunrise, so we did the trail on the way there when it was still dark. Even if you are not interested in going for sunrise, I would still recommend getting an early start to avoid crowds on the trail.
This trail is situated at the end of Grapevine Hills Road, which is a high-clearance vehicle road. While there were signs warning us of this, we really wanted to do this hike so we ignored the signs. While our car was able to make it there and back, we did find after that one of our tires was punctured and slowly leaking, and had to fix it on our way out of the park! So in retrospect, especially if you have a rental car, I would not recommend this trail unless you have a high clearance vehicle.
Grapevine Hills Hike is 2.2 miles roundtrip, and takes between 1-2 hours to complete. The last section requires you to scramble up some rocks, and it can be unclear where to go, so make sure you pay attention to the signs. At the top of the hill, you have a view of Balanced Rock, which is a cool rock formation. You can get right up to the rock if you want to, which is, you guessed it, another great photo-op!
Hiking back from the rock, we saw road runners and big horned sheep, which we enjoyed watching as they roamed on the hillside.
After lunch and a break at our campsite, we headed over to the town of Terlingua, which is located just outside the Western side of the park. Terlingua is a ghost town, and you can walk through the ruins of the old buildings.
Right next to the ruins, is a cemetery where people leave the deceased items that they liked during their lifetime. This was interesting, and one of my highlights!
Just up the road from the ruins and cemetery, is a strip of shops and restaurants. This would be a good spot to check out for souvenirs. They had a big variety from your basic touristy t-shirts to locally made Mexican goods.
If you are looking to have a meal here, there are only a couple of choices. We chose to eat at the Starlight Theatre. It was pretty busy, so I would recommend getting here early. They served local West Texas fare. I had chicken fried antelope, and Trent had Quail cooked in Tequila. We both had prickly pear margaritas. The food was really good, and it was nice to have a change from cooking dinner. After dinner, we drove back to our campsite at Chisos Basin.
Day 5- Leaving Big Bend
Since today was our last day, we packed up our campsite and headed out of the park.
We had the good fortune of going in the springtime when the Bluebell flowers were in bloom. At the park entrance, there was a whole field of flowers, so we stopped for one last photo-op.
From here, you could either head back to El Paso for your flight home or continue on to another region, if time allows. We chose to drive to San Antonio, which was also incredible!
We had a great time exploring Big Bend’s natural landscape and wildlife! My highlight was the Ross Maxwell Drive with the hikes and stops along the way. Trent’s highlight was hiking the Santa Elena Canyon. I hope you also enjoy exploring this beautiful and remote area!