In the southwestern corner of Texas, you will find the rugged, untamed, remote Big Bend National Park! This National Park, chiseled out of the jagged Chisos Mountains range, which rises abruptly from the Chihuahuan Desert, is an outdoor enthusiast’s sanctuary, full of exhilarating hikes, secluded camping, and other outdoor adventures!
Here are the best things to do in Big Bend National Park and what you need to know to get the most out of your visit.
Need to Know Before You Go
- Hours: Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year
- Entrance Fees: $30 per vehicle (good for seven consecutive days)
- Park Alerts: On the park’s main website, you can get updated park alerts, including potential closures.
- Lodging: In addition to camping inside the park, there is lodging at the Chisos Basin Lodge in the Chisos Basin.
- Camping: There are four developed campgrounds in Big Bend National Park, which can be reserved online.
- Nearest Cities: The nearest small town is Terlingua, about 15 minutes from the west entrance, with amenities, restaurants, and lodging. Also, be sure to check out Terlingua Ghost Town while there! Other closest towns include Lajitas, Marathon, Alpine, and Marfa.
- Nearest Airport: Midland International Airport is a 4-hour drive to Big Bend National Park. El Paso International Airport is a larger airport and is a 5-hour drive.
- Pet Policy: Pets are only allowed on roads and in developed campgrounds. Pets are not allowed on trails.
Best Time to Visit Big Bend National Park
Fall to spring are the best times to visit Big Bend National Park. Summer can get extremely brutal with the Texas heat. Winters are usually mild, though nighttime temperatures can get near or at freezing for those campers visiting Big Bend.
Fall and spring are great shoulder seasons to visit. The excellent news about Big Bend National Park is that, unlike some National Parks, there is not a “peak” season in terms of dealing with lots of crowds. Big Bend National Park’s annual averages hover around 500,000 visitors a year. Compare that to numbers in the millions when discussing other National Parks in the United States, like Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or Smoky Mountain National Parks. So, no matter when you go, you will likely have much more Big Bend to yourself!
Best Things to Do in Big Bend National Park
You can have many outdoor experiences in Big Bend National Park, including hiking, boating, hot springs, night sky viewing, scenic drives, and camping.
Texas sometimes gets a bad rap for being flat and dull, but one visit to Big Bend National Park will change your perspective on that immediately. Thanks to the resident Chisos Mountains, just one of the best mountain ranges in Texas, there are many superb hiking trails to check out, each highlighting a different ecosystem, environment, or characteristic of this park. Here are a few of the best hikes in Big Bend National Park.
#1: The Window Trail
The Window Trail is a favorite due to its namesake natural “window” formation at the termination of this trail. Not only that, but this trail mesmerizes visitors as it winds through a diverse region of the park, including high desert shrubbery, rough canyon walls, and rock “stairways” and “staircases” that all ultimately lead to the “Window.”
- Length: 5.2 miles roundtrip
- Rating: Moderate
- Elevation Gain: 948 feet
- Parking: There is a moderate amount of parking at and/or near the trailhead.
- Facilities: There are bathrooms near the trailhead.
*Insider Tip: Thanks to its unique notch, the Window Trail is one of the most beautiful sunset and sunrise backdrops!
#2: The Lost Mine Trail
The Lost Mine Trail highlights another aspect of Big Bend National Park: its higher altitude switchbacks, summits, and panoramic views! This short, sweet day hike packs a lot into a relatively short hike. And the payoff is breathtaking – an expansive summit that stretches over the horizon, providing unparalleled views overlooking all of Big Bend National Park, including some nearby landmarks, like the Casa Grande!
- Length: 4.8 miles roundtrip
- Rating: Moderate
- Elevation Gain: 1,131 feet
- Parking: Parking is limited at the trailhead, so it is recommended to arrive early
- Facilities: There are no bathrooms at the trailhead
#3: The Emory Peak Trail
This difficult hike takes visitors to the highest point in Big Bend National Park, so you are guaranteed some breathtaking views from this summit! This high point reigns at 7,832 feet high!
- Length: 9.8 miles roundtrip
- Rating: Difficult
- Elevation Gain: 2,493 feet
- Parking: There is a large parking lot at the trailhead, but it tends to fill up early.
- Facilities: There are pit toilets on the trail.
*Insider Tip: This trail’s last 25 feet or so involve a minor rock scramble up a wall.
#4: The South Rim Trail
This trail sums up almost everything in Big Bend National Park, thanks to its lengthy distance and a healthy sampling of views! The South Rim Trail also includes Emory Peak if you want to knock out the South Rim Trail and Emory Peak on the same trip. This is one of the most challenging hikes in the entire park, so make sure that you are prepared physically and with the right gear and plenty of water!
- Length: 12.7 miles roundtrip
- Rating: Difficult
- Elevation Gain: 2,421 feet
- Parking: There is a large parking lot, but keep in mind that several trails are accessed from this parking lot, so it fills up early.
- Facilities: There is a composting toilet.
#5: The Boquillas Canyon Trail
This trail runs for a large majority along the Rio Grande River. It has a healthy mix of both challenging uphills and flat portions of river views. If you look closely, you may even be able to spot fossils in the canyon walls from a prehistoric time when the canyon was underwater! The Boquillas Canyon is also a popular spot for water activities as well!
- Length: 1.2 miles roundtrip
- Rating: Easy
- Elevation Gain: 229 feet
- Parking: There is limited parking for about a dozen vehicles at the trailhead
- Facilities: There is a pit toilet at the trailhead (but also flush toilets at the nearby Visitor Center).
#6: The Ernst Tinaja Trail
This short trail winds through a fascinating Big Bend National Park slot canyon. The striated and colorful layers of rock in this canyon also house namesake waterholes and pools, another surprising feature to find in the middle of the desert! This is just another example of the rich diversity that can be witnessed when hiking the trails in Big Bend.
- Length: 1.1 miles roundtrip
- Rating: Easy
- Elevation Gain: 111 feet
- Parking: Unpaved parking area.
- Facilities: There are no bathrooms at the trailhead.
*Insider Tip: The road to the Ernst Tinaja Trail is rough, and it is recommended to have a 4WD vehicle to access the trailhead.
#7: Balanced Rock (Grapevine Hills Trail)
The Balanced Rock formation is precisely as it sounds – an intriguing balancing act among several large boulders that form one of the most memorable sights in Big Bend. There is a small amount of rock scrambling on this trail, which should be cautiously approached, especially with hikers accompanied by children.
- Length: 2 miles roundtrip
- Rating: Moderate
- Elevation Gain: 246 feet
- Parking: A dirt parking lot with space for about a dozen vehicles.
- Facilities: No restrooms at the trailhead (stop at the nearby Visitor Center).
#8: The Santa Elena Canyon Trail
There are several ways to explore this most recognizable canyon in Big Bend. From this humble perspective, you can take a short stroll from the trailhead to the shore of the Rio Grande River and appreciate the mouth of the 1,500-foot-tall Santa Elena Canyon. Or, you can boat or kayak from the trail into Santa Elena Canyon itself! Thirdly, you can hike the Santa Elena Canyon Trail further as it climbs the canyon wall for an epic viewpoint! Keep your eyes open, as you might even spot some kayakers navigating the river below!
- Length: 1.7 miles roundtrip
- Rating: Easy
- Elevation Gain: 209 feet
- Parking: There is plenty of parking at the trailhead.
- Facilities: There are bathrooms at the trailhead.
#9: Boating at Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park has a border with the mighty Rio Grande River, separating it from neighboring Mexico. This means Big Bend has great hiking opportunities and fantastic boating adventures!
You can boat the Rio Grande River or hire a tour guide, such as a guided kayaking tour. One of the most popular boating spots in the park is at Santa Elena Canyon. This iconic and recognizable canyon is home to one of the best hikes listed above and a common “put-in” spot for boating and kayaking. It is used by many of the tour guides operating in the area. Check in nearby Terlingua for local kayaking, canoeing, and boating tours.
You can choose a multi-day boating experience or a day one. Either way, traversing beneath the towering canyon walls looming over the Rio Grande is an unforgettable and unique way to experience Big Bend National Park.
*Insider Tip: Many tour guides will take care of permits for you, but if you plan an independent boating trip on the Rio Grande, get a required permit.
#10: Soak in Hot Springs
You may not expect to find hot springs in the middle of the desert, but that is precisely what makes this region so unique! The Rio Grande Hot Springs is the most popular place in Big Bend National Park to enjoy local hot springs.
These natural hot springs, which stay a consistent 100+ degrees Fahrenheit, are accessed by a short trail in the Rio Grande Village, in the eastern part of the park. The Hot Springs Trail is just over a mile roundtrip, but the hot springs are only about a quarter-mile walk down the trail. Once there, not only can you enjoy a soak in the thermal springs, but you can view prehistoric artwork and pictographs, as well as the historic ruins of the Langford bath house.
#11: Night Sky Viewing in Big Bend National Park
Thanks to its isolated and remote location, Big Bend National Park is one of the best spots in the country to do some night sky viewing, thanks to the extremely low amount of light pollution! In 2012, it was awarded International Dark Sky Park status. Under suitable conditions, you can even spot the Milky Way! A perfect way to end a full day of activities in Big Bend National Park and the perfect bonus to a stellar night of camping!
#12: Take a Scenic Drive on the Ross Maxwell Highway
The most famous scenic drive in the park is the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. This 30-mile-long drive highlights the beautiful and ever-changing scenery of Big Bend. There are plenty of places to stop along the way if you choose. Viewpoints, like the “Mule Ears” landmark, hiking trails, and the beautiful Santa Elena Canyon, are located at the end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.
#13: Camping in Big Bend National Park
There are four developed campgrounds in Big Bend National Park, plus backcountry camping opportunities. Reservations can be made for the developed campground in Big Bend National Park.
Backcountry camping is also allowed within the park, including overnight river trips on the Rio Grande. Permits are required for all backcountry camping, including river trips.
What Else is Near Big Bend National Park?
Big Bend National Park is close to a wide variety of other outdoor opportunities in this part of Texas, making it a prime addition to any road trip to southwestern Texas! Want to complete a road trip to both National Parks in Texas? Check out the best things to do in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, only three and a half hours away.
Tack on a THIRD National Park with a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, only 4 hours away! Did you know there are sand dunes in Texas? Get in touch with your inner child at Monahans Sandhills State Park, only 2 hours away from Big Bend!
Looking for another unique state park to explore? You can scuba dive in its pristine blue depths at Balmorhea State Park, just 2 hours from Big Bend! At just over 2 hours west, you can visit the similarly named Big Bend Ranch State Park, home to some of the same epic hiking and outdoor adventures as its big sibling, Big Bend National Park!
This article originally appeared on Wander With Alex. Featured Photo Credit: [@CCStockMedia/DepositPhotos]
Kristen Czudak is the author and adventurer behind Yonderlust Ramblings. If you are looking for a different kind of vacation, active travel is the answer! Discover just how far your own two feet can take you!