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What to Do in Big Bend National Park

In typical Texas fashion, Big Bend National Park is massive. Over 800,000 remote acres are tucked into the western section of the state, much of it just across from the Mexican border. Elevation ranges run from 2,000 feet at the Rio Grande River to nearly 8,000 feet at the top of Emory Peak. Massive canyons, vast expanses of desert, forested mountains and 118 miles of river frontage along the Rio Grande make up Big Bend National Park.

Choosing what to do in Big Bend, with so much country to explore, can be problematic, especially if you’re short on time. The park is twice the size of Rhode Island so there’s obviously a lot to see. Hiking is excellent with over 150 miles of trails, including the South Rim Trail, one of the best in America.

The birding and wildlife viewing is fabulous. Over 450 bird species have been recorded in the park. Seventy five mammal species, many nocturnal because of the heat, and 31 species of snakes have also been cataloged.

It was a treat to visit the park – though interestingly we didn’t find many Texans on our trip. But then again you don’t find many people. The ones we did run into were from all over the world. In fact we heard more French spoken then we ever do at home in western Canada.

What to do in Big Bend - visit Santa Elena Canyon
Santa Elena Canyon

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How much time do you need in the park?

If you’re going to make the effort to do a trip to Big Bend National Park, then allow a minimum of two days and up to a week. It could easily be part of a larger road trip that starts and finishes in El Paso with stops in Terlingua, Marfa and Marathon.

Here’s what you can do on a trip to Big Bend 

More than 200 miles of hiking trails are available to explore. Some are short 0.25 mile hop in and out of your car affairs while some like the 25 mile round trip Telephone Canyon Trail in the Ernst Basin require endurance and route finding skills.

There are three main sections of the park to explore – Panther Junction and Rio Grande Village, The Chisos Mountains and the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.

Because distances are large between sections AND the speed limit is only 45 mph it’s worth picking the hiking trails off one section each day to make the most use of your time.

Beautiful views on any hikes you do in Big Bend National Park
Beautiful views on any hikes you do in Big Bend National Park
The hazy view to Mexico on the South Rim Trail
The hazy view to Mexico on the South Rim Trail

Go birding in Big Bend National Park

It’s a birdwatcher’s paradise with more than 450 bird species sighted. You can’t miss seeing the turkey vultures riding the thermals and if you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse of a roadrunner.

The vermilion flycatcher was my new favourite but the Mexican Jay was the one that didn’t mind being photographed.

A Texas Treat: A Trip to Big Bend National Park
Mexican Jay

Drive the  backroads

Exploring 200 miles of backcountry roads is possible if you have a high clearance vehicle. In the off chance that it rains (it hasn’t since last June!!!), exercise caution when crossing dry river beds. These can be prone to flash floods.

Check out the flora in the park

If you like plants then you’ll find plenty to interest you. Over 1000 species of plants are found in the park – many with spines to protect them from animals that might want their water.

We found several species of desert cactus blooming and lots of agaves with their fantastically long flower stalks. The agave lechguilla is in fact the indicator plant for the Chihuahuan Desert.

Agave and ocotillo
Agave and ocotillo
Claret cup cacti in bloom
Claret cup cacti in bloom
Wasps pollinating prickly pear cacti
Wasps pollinating prickly pear cacti

Check out the Rio Grande

The Rio Grande defines the park boundary and is easily identified by the wide ribbon of green on either side of it. The river in its present state is underwhelming.

Unfortunately a whopping 95% of the Rio Grande’s water is diverted so the 5% available now doesn’t support even a rafting trip. But the good news is that you can still canoe sections and see parts of the park that would otherwise be out of reach.

A Texas Treat: A Trip to Big Bend National Park
Canoeing through the Saint Elena Canyon on the Rio Grande would be a lot of fun
A Texas Treat: A Trip to Big Bend National Park
Canoeing out of Santa Elena Canyon with the US-Mexico border down the middle of the Rio Grande

Driving the main roads of the park, especially at sunset is also worth doing.

A Texas Treat: A Trip to Big Bend National Park
Dramatic sunsets in Texas

Big Bend National Park Precautions

Big Bend is a long ways from any major center. It’s not a place where you want to have problems.

Make sure your car is tuned up before you go. Carry a spare tire. Fill up with gas before you enter the park though you will find a gas station at the Panther Junction Visitor Center.

Bring lots of water (1 gallon per person is a good idea) and keep extra in the car.

Daytime temperatures in mid April were above average – over 100°F by 2 PM. Hike early in the day. Bring a sun hat and lots of sunscreen.

Afternoon temperatures in Big Bend National Park
Afternoon temperatures in Big Bend National Park

Pay attention to warnings about mountain lions and bears. It’s been estimated that there is a population of about 24 mountain lions and 15 – 20 black bears. Most sightings are from the roads but occasionally encounters occur on trails.

Mountain lion warning
Mountain lion warning

There are venomous snakes and scorpions in the park. Wear shoes or boots and inspect shoes and sleeping bags.

Javelinas are pig like looking animals that weigh 40-60 pounds. They are developing a reputation of raiding campsites for food. Keep food in your car and pack away your tent in the morning.

Big Bend National Park – what you need to know

Entrance fees for a single vehicle are $US 30, a motorcycle $US 25 and the pass is valid for 7 days.

Closest towns with accommodation include Terlingua, Marathon, Alpine and Marfa.

In Marathon check out the Gage Hotel or the colourful Eve’s Garden Bed & Breakfast.

In Terlingua the Lajitas Golf Resort rated fabulous would be a treat.

In park accommodation is available at Chisos Mountains Lodge.

Closest airports to the park are El Paso, Midland, San Antonio, San Angelo and Midland….and none are less than a three – four hour drive away.

Click on the photo to bookmark to Pinterest.

A Trip to Big Bend National Park in Texas

Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 61,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 26 Comments

  1. Great tips and information! Seriously, Big Bend looks awesome. I didn’t know anything about this park before reading your post, but now I really want to go. I really love the diverse environment of the American southwest. You guys did a fantastic job of showcasing the beauty of this national park.

    1. Thanks Randy for the compliments. One of my readers put Big Bend on my radar screen last fall. He sent me a two page email with everything I should do in the area – where to hike, where to stay… It was great advice and I’m so glad we went. Sunsets there are truly magnificent and its sunny 350 days of the year! Plus it’s super cheap and there’s lots of history. And last week the National Park entrance fees were waived.

  2. I hiked Big Bend when I was in high school over 20 years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed it and intend to go back. There are some great tips here along with some beautiful pictures.

    1. The only downside to the hiking this year is that it was much hotter than normal (10-20F hotter for April) so many of the hikes could only be done in the morning or you’d burn up.

  3. Lovely flowers! That Octillio blossom is stunning & that claret cup blossom is brilliant. Never knew cactus had red flowers. Thanks for capturing this extremely interesting topography.

  4. I never think of national parks when I think of Texas but Big Bend looks like an amazing place and hiking in Texas looks really interesting.

  5. Like Lauren said, never thought of a National Park when thinking of Texas. Thanks for bringing our attention to it! So many places to visit and so little time 😉 Also the Santa Elena Canyon photo!

    1. Big Bend despite its size certainly doesn’t have the name recognition that a lot of parks do. On the other hand it’s nice for the visitor because there aren’t many people. I was surprised at the number of French and Belgium people we met though.

  6. I’ve always wanted to visit Big Bend National Park because it’s off-the-beaten-path as national parks go. Since I’m not a camper, so it’s good to know about Chisos Mountains Lodge. Great information and excellent tips.

    1. I wouldn’t want to camp in Big bend either – especially with so little water around to get cleaned up. The Gage Hotel in nearby & charming Marathon is well worth a stay – upscale with a super restaurant. Marfa also has a few good places to stay – the Thunderbird Hotel and Hotel Paisano. It also has some hopping restaurants & cool little galleries – not bad for a town of under 5000.

  7. Wow, thank you so much for taking the time to respond and let me know. Sounds like you really got your feet wet in this Great park. I’ve seen Vermilion Flycatchers there too, cool birds. I love Santa Elena Canyon and Lost Mine Trail, great spots. I agree, I’ve always met more Europeans than Texans.

    Great blog and glad you loved the park. It’s a special place. Yeah, it’s been particularly hot this year.

    I miss the days when you could take a row boat across the River to Boquillas, and grab a beer and Taco in Mx. You caught the cactus in bloom more than I ever have! You should check out Guadalupe Mountains in the Fall next.

    1. I trust your suggestions so I will work in a trip one fall to the Guadalupe Mtns & combine it with a trip to the Santa Fe area which I love so much. What a shame about not being able to go to Boquillas and I understand the fine if you do go in an unauthorized manner is somewhere in the order of $5K. It’s a real loss for the folks on the Mexico side.
      Thank you BILL so much for your suggested itinerary.

  8. I know it’s probably cliche and uninformed, but the desert country inspires thoughts of heading on a country western type trek. Looks so hot in April though that it gives me chills.

  9. Wonderful post, Leigh. Honestly, my chances of making it to Texas are slim. However, your beautiful photos make it tempting.

    1. Maybe your chances are slim now but as you get older & perhaps start thinking about warmer climates in the winter, your memory bank might remember an old post about Big Bend and voila – you make it. Never say never.

  10. I read this post as part of your seven links campaign to give it some attention as this park is one of my favorites. I was reading the comments and lo and behold there was one from me. Glad to see I was one of the people who gave it the attention it deserved when it was originally posted.

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