Big Bend National Park Overview | Nature | Panther Junction | Chisos Basin | Big Boquillas + Rio Grande Village | Santa Elena + Castolon | Persimmon Gap | Camping & Lodging | Backcountry Use | River Trips | Weather | Pets
It is an unforgiving desert, a dusty borderland, and a rugged wilderness, but it is actually full of variety, life, and culture--which you can discover only by venturing to this far corner of the Southwest. Big Bend is a national park quite unlike any other. Within one day you can hike through scorching open desert, feel the cold wind on a mountaintop, soak in a hot spring, float a free-flowing river gazing up at sheer canyon walls, and cross it to enter a different country. Nowhere else offers such a combination of possibilities.
The namesake of the park is the "big bend" taken by the Rio Grande, where the river flows southward out of New Mexico and turns southeast, then east, then northeast to form the elbow on the west arm of the state of Texas and also the international border with Mexico. The border means nothing to the original inhabitants here, however. Plants and animals from north and south blend together across the river, and desert species meet highland species on the sky island of the Chisos Mountains. Humans have been here for a long time, as well. Spanish explorers of the 1500s were incorrect when they named this place "El Despoblado"—the unhabited because it was actually home to a secretive and little-understood civilization of Native Americans who lived off the harsh land on either side of the river. Traces of them can still be found as artifacts and artwork hidden on the landscape. Today, areas on both sides of the river are protected by their respective countries so that plants and animals of the natural community can move freely through their territory and human visitors can enjoy unhindered views over a desert domain that knows no bounds.
Shielded by the vastness of West Texas, Big Bend is a very far drive from just about anywhere, so it doesn't get the visitation it deserves. Many Texans know the trip is well worth it, however, and an increasing number of travelers are finding motivation to make the journey from elsewhere in the country, so parts of the park stay rather crowded. In true Texas form, though, this place is bigger than you might think, and plenty of highlights are typically overlooked. In addition to the many trailheads and overlooks along paved roads, the park's expansive backcountry holds many more treasures that can only be reached by long four-wheel drive roads, which are also open to mountain bikes.
If you're committing to the journey to reach Big Bend, you might as well commit to spending a few days to properly experience the park's wealth of activities. Things to do are more or less clustered with many miles of road in between. Each major area has its own visitor center and certain other amenities like campgrounds and stores, so you can choose one base camp to focus your trip around, or you can plan to branch out and try to see more. Use this overview to learn the options in each area and decide what itinerary might be best for you.
From low to high, from wet to dry, prehistory to modernity, this landscape and its inhabitants beautifully blend many contrasts in space and time. Sediments of ancient seabeds layer the sun-soaked mesas of today, and volcanic eruptions have frozen into peaks that now claw the sky. The rocks that took so long to build up are slowly brought down by rain and wind, crumbling into sand that fills the valleys. The seasons bring scorching heat, freezing cold, brutal drought, and torrential rain, but life here thrives on the extremes. The Chihuahuan Desert is already surprisingly rich in species for an arid system, and Big Bend is its densest hot spot of diversity thanks to the dramatic elevation gradients that harbor multiple life zones as well as its geography at the margin between distinct northern and southern regions of the Chihuahaun. Then there is, of course, the river, which provides a rare aquatic ecosystem year round.
This region supports more species of cactus than any other desert on the planet, but cacti are only a portion of the more than 1,500 plants species in Big Bend National Park. From lowland grasses and shrubs like creosote to montane conifers like Douglas fir, there is a niche for almost any Southwest plant here. Living among them are 75 species of mammals, 69 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 40 species of fish in the Rio Grande. Big Bend is especially well known for birds because it is a stopover for migratory species and the northernmost limit of some that are more typical of Mexico. More than 450 species have been spotted in the park, with the most variety found in the Chisos Mountains.
Notable residents of the park are predators that are very rare elsewhere in Texas. These are black bears and mountain lions, both of which maintain healthy populations in the Chisos Mountains. Sightings are not uncommon, but conflicts with humans are rare aside from bears occasionally stealing a snack from careless campers. You must always practice proper food storage overnight to deter bears and other hungry and crafty desert dwellers.
This is the main visitor center and park headquarters. It is the point from which three main roads diverge to different areas: to the north entrance at Persimmon Gap, to the west entrance as well as Chisos Basin and Castolon, and to Rio Grande Village. Panther Junction is one of only two visitor centers in the park that are open year round (the other is Chisos Basin). The rest are open November to April only. If you arrive in Big Bend unsure of where to go first, follow signs to Panther Junction and make that your starting point. Though there is not a whole lot to do in the immediate vicinity of this visitor center, it is the most central location to all destinations in this extensive national park.
Located in the center of Big Bend, the Chisos Mountain Range forms the craggy crown of this desert domain and includes the park's highest point, Emory Peak, at 7,825 feet. With more than 4,000 feet of relief above surrounding lowlands, these mountains enjoy surprisingly lush forest and cool temperatures, making them a haven for plants and animals that are otherwise rare in the region. The Chisos are understandably a welcome retreat for humans as well. During summer, when temperatures soar well into the triple digits in the Chihuahuan Desert, the thermometer rarely breaks into the 90s in this high-elevation realm. The mountains have some of the park's most popular trails due in part to their tolerable climate and equally because of their stunning beauty. The Chisos Basin is a circular valley in the heart of the range, and it is rimmed by peaks and rock pinnacles. Most of the mountain trails begin from here, where there is also a ranger station, store, and campground.
This region of the park holds one of the highest concentrations of activities: A hike into one of the Rio Grande's canyons, a campground by the river, hot springs, and an international border crossing are just a few of the highlights. This is also a starting point for river trips through Big Boquillas Canyon. Boquillas is the town just across the river, and with a passport you can cross the river to shop and eat in Mexico. Wade across the river and walk into town for free, or pay for a boat to burro shuttle. The port of entry has limited hours, so plan accordingly.
Of the three dramatic river gorges in the park, Santa Elena is the most frequently witnessed. As with the others, no trail reaches its interior because of impassable vertical walls. The river is the only corridor by which to explore it, and this section of the Rio Grande is the most popular for float trips. Access is near the Castolon Historic District, where there is a boat ramp as well as a hiking trail leading to the mouth of the canyon and the water's edge. The paved road to get there is the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which has many other trails and points of interest along its 30-mile length.
Persimmon Gap is the northernmost ranger station in the park and the typical entrance for those coming through Central Texas to Big Bend. Activities are not as densely clustered here as in other areas, but the scenic drive from Persimmon Gap to Panther Junction gives a nice visual introduction to the landscape. Upon entering, one will notice the solid ridgeline of the Santiago Mountains directly west, which seem imposing enough, but the distant peaks looming to the south come into true form as they get closer. These are the Chisos Mountains, and they dominate the horizon from Panther Junction. Most people make the drive from Persimmon Gap simply to get elsewhere in the park, but there are few destinations worth stopping for along the way.
Big Bend National Park has some of the starriest skies to be found in the entire country. This is due to its remoteness from urban light pollution combinged with clear, dry air. The best way to experience the cosmos is to camp out on a moonless night, and camping tends to be especially pleasant in Big Bend. Temperatures cool dramatically when the sun sets, but they rarely get uncomfortably cold, and the desert environment makes wet or cloudy nights rather unlikely.
Camping is somewhat limited in Big Bend, as there are only three developed campgrounds and one lodge. Reserve far in advance if possible. All sites offer basic amenities (picnic tables, grills, toilets, and potable water), but none have hookups. Another option, however, are the primitive roadside campsites scattered throughout the park that you can use with a backcountry permit. Outside of the the park, commercial campgrounds are available in nearby Terlingua—a good option if you don't mind the extra drive to get into the park.
In between the roads and frequented attractions of Big Bend are vast wilderness areas that scarcely feel human footsteps. The obvious explanation for their emptiness is the unwelcoming harshness of the desert. Countless sights unseen invite all challengers to cross scorching sand and sharp rock to reach them, but few are up for it. Trails and dirt roads so cross portions of the landscape, but other parts are completely untracked. Hikers and horseback riders can travel trails and cross country (for experts only). Mountain bikers can ride four-wheel drive roads, some of which travel very far into remote corners of the park.
The highest concentration of backcountry trails are in the Chisos Mountains, where high-elevation conditions are less hostile to survival. Several trails are popular with backpackers, and campsites are well established. The South Rim Loop and Outer Mountain Loop are two classic routes, but many variations are possible. The Mesa de Anguila, though quite isolated from the rest of the park, is another area with relatively well-traveled backcountry trails and campsites. Whether backpacking, bikepacking, or horsepacking, overnight stays anywhere outside of developed campgrounds require a backcountry use permit and a specified itinerary as well as adherence to applicable regulations.
As a singular river across the landscape and a bold line on the map, the Rio Grande is a preeminent fixture of Big Bend. It is an oasis in parched desert home to species found nowhere else nearby, a carver of canyons through immovable stone, an international boundary, and it makes the avenue to explore it all. A float trip is the only way to reach the interior of the park's three river canyons, and a float trip also provides unique acess to seldom-seen stretches of open desert in between. Various river access points inside and outside the national park create multiple options for river trip distance and difficulty. Day trips as well as multi-day expeditions are popular. Here are the sections commonly done:
Trips of any length through the park require a backcountry use permit and adherence to river regulations. At this time, no passport is required, but river permits are not authorization to enter Mexico. For the duration of your trip you will be floating along the line between the two countries, which is technically the river channel at its deepest point. As such, floating the river can be a cultural as well as a wilderness experience. Much of the land on the Mexico side is protected as a natural area as well, but grazing is allowed in addition to recreation activities, and some small towns are located rather near the river. Thus, you are likely to see horses and cattle crossing the river freely. You may meet ranchers working or people simply camping out, fishing, picnicking, or otherwise enjoying the outdoors on the Mexico side.
Big Bend is usually as you would expect: sunny and hot. However, differences in elevations bring more variability than you might anticipate. For example, air temperature in the Chisos Mountains can be more than 20 degrees cooler than in surrounding lowlands, and rain is more common at these high elevations as well. It can even snow in the winter.
Spring is the most popular time to visit Big Bend, and for good reason. The weather is relatively stable, with sunny warmth nearly every day. June through August is the hottest time of year, when temperatues in the low desert regularly exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but this is also during the region's rainy season (May through September) when afternoon showers and thunderstorms are not uncommon, especially in the mountains. Come prepared for intense heat and sun but also for potentially bad weather. Fall brings cooler and drier weather and is again a great time to visit the park. Winter is especially variable. Rain, wind, and freezing can occur, though pleasant and sunny is still the norm. Diurnal temperature fluctations are particularly strong in winter, when nights can be more than 50 degrees colder than days. Winter holidays are nonetheless popular times to visit the park, and this is an especially good time to feel the shifting moods of the desert.
Pets are permitted anywhere your car can go (along roads and in campgrounds), but nowhere else. They must not go on trails or anywhere off the roads because they can disturb sensitive wildlife or be injured by wildlife or painful plants. Leaving them in your car is not a good idea, either, because temperatures and sunlight are too extreme for most of the year here. For these reasons, pets are not recommended in Big Bend if you plan on doing any hiking. No kennel services are available in the park. If you do bring pet, it must be on a leash no longer than 6 feet at all times, and you must always clean up after your pet.