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Guided tours
Yes
Backcountry camping
Yes
Lodging
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Big Bend National Park Overview | Nature | Panther JunctionChisos Basin | Big Boquillas + Rio Grande Village | Santa Elena + Castolon | Persimmon Gap | Camping & Lodging | Backcountry Use | River Trips | Weather | Pets

Big Bend National Park Overview

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. 

Nature

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.

Panther Junction

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.

Chisos Basin

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.

  • Lost Mine Trail: A steep 4.8-mile out-and-back leads to one of the park's most spectacular viewpoints. Atop the rocky ridge of Lost Mine Peak is a 360-degree view of the Chisos Mountains and a vantage across the desert to distant ranges.
  • Chisos Basin Loop: An easy 1.8-mile hike that gives a nice taste of the Chisos Mountains environment, including a good chance at spotting wildlife.
  • Window Trail: Hike down a creek in Chisos Basin that sometimes flows with water to a dramatic overlook of the desert below that is framed by a notch in the mountainside called The Window. The out-and-back trek of 5.6 miles is all downhill to the overlook, then uphill on the way back.
  • Pinnacles Trail to Emory Peak: The Pinnacles Trail leads 3.5 miles steeply upward through the mountain forest to a saddle and trail junction. Boot Canyon Trail leads from here to the South Rim, and the Emory Peak Trail reaches the park's highest point in another mile, guarded at the very end by a steep rock scramble to the summit.
  • South Rim Loop: The park's most popular mulit-day trek, also doable as a long day hike, is a loop around the Chisos' South Rim. The huge views across the desert to Mexico are hard-earned by more than 2,000 feet of elevation gain and a minimum of 12 sunny and windy miles. 

Big Boquillas + Rio Grande Village

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.

  • Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail: This is an easy half-mile loop for nature viewing and birdwatching, as well as learning a bit about the area's humany history. Benches and picnic tables in the shade of cottonwoods make a nice spot to rest.
  • Hot Springs Historic Site: A narrow dirt road leads to the site of an old hot springs resort, where you'll find abandonded buildings along the Rio Grande along with the hot springs. What was once a spring-fed spa is now only a foundation, but this fills with hot water to the brim and sits beautifully right on the bank of the river, which is perfect for a scenic soak.
  • Hot Springs Canyon Trail: A 6-mile round-trip hike in the vicinity of the hot springs that climbs to great views over the Rio Grande and panoramas of the mountains all around.
  • Marufo Vega: A strenuous 12-mile hike through open desert and steep terrain. The trail leads up onto the mesa then down into Boquillas Canyon, for a rare look at the Rio Grande, where it flows between huge limestone walls.
  • Boquillas Canyon Trail: This easy 1.4-mile out and back leads up a rocky rise for a great view over the Rio Grande and the town of Boquillas in Mexico, then descends into the head of Big Boquillas Canyon, where the river suddenly carves into a huge mesa and disappears around a sheer-walled bend.

Santa Elena and Castolon

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.

  • Grapevine Hills Trail: An easy 2.2-mile out-and-back hike from Grapevine Hills Road, near Panther Junction, that leads to a peculiar balanced rock formation on a hillside with great views. There are many other rounded boulders that kids will enjoy scrambling on.
  • Sam Nail Ranch: An easy half-mile loop through a historic ranch site, where part of the house and two windmills, along with other relics, still stand.
  • Upper Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail: A 3.8-mile out-and-back hike through a bouldery wash to the top off a 100-foot pour-off where water cascades off the mesa during flash floods.
  • Lower Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail: Easier than the Upper trail, this 1-mile out-and-back leads from the Burro Mesa Spur Road through a wash to the base of the 100-foot pour-off. The two trails do not connect because of the steep cliff between them.
  • Chimneys Trail: From the trailhead along Ross Maxwell Scenic drive you can easily spot a hilltop spine of jagged rock. A 4.8-mile out-and-back across the desert leads to this volcanic formation where you'll find natural arches, Native American rock art, and elevated views of the landscape.
  • Mule Ears Overlook and Spring Trail: The Mule Ears are a pair of volcanic necks that look like a mule poking its head above the horizon. You can see them well from this overlook along Maxwell Scenic Drive. The Mule Ears Spring Trail, a 3.8-mile out-and-back hike, begins here and leads to a green oasis of ferns and cattails where water seeps out of desert rocks.
  • Tuff Canyon: An overlook on the Ross Maxwell Scenic drive gives a good view of this chasm made of solidified volcanic ash. A 0.75-mile hike leads down into it.
  • Santa Elena Canyon Trail: An easy 1.7-mile hike down to the Rio Grande and the international border at the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon. The river emerges spectacularly between vertical cliffs. You can hike only a short distance into the canyon before the walls close in completely on the water. A small beach is perfect for wading and swimming.
  • Santa Elena Canyon of the Rio Grande: Canoeing or rafting the whitewater rapids that flow through the canyon is the only way to access its walled-in interior. River trips, which require a special permit, can travel upstream and back from Castolon or one-way from Lajitas outside the national park.

Persimmon Gap

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.

  • Dog Canyon: A 4-mile round-trip hike across flat, open desert to a stark canyon that cuts through a low mountain range. Stand between towering walls and look for fossils of aquatic life in the rocks.
  • Devil's Den: A longer and more strenous 5.6-mile alternative to the Dog Canyon Trail that leads up the mountain to a razor-cut gorge. You can walk along the rim or scramble boulders through the bottom and witness a diversity of Chihuahuan Desert vegetation.
  • Dagger Flat Auto Trail: A scenic drive or mountain bike ride along an improved dirt road that reaches a sheltered valley full of giant dagger yucca plants.
  • Fossil Discovery Exhibit: A shade structure featuring newly updated exhibits of dinosaur and sea life fossils and highlighting the geology and ecology history of the Big Bend region. This is an easy and fun roadside stop while driving between Persimmon Gap to Panther Junction.

Camping and Lodging

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.

  • Chisos Mountains Lodge: Located in Chisos Basin, this is the only lodge in the park and is run by a concessionaire. It has a variety of room types and cottages, all of which should be reserved in advance.
  • Chisos Basin Campground: This campground is more tolerable in summer than the rest because it's at the high elevation of the Chisos Basin. It contains 60 sites, 26 of which are reservable. It accomodates small RVs and trailers only.
  • Rio Grande Village Campground: Near the bank of the Rio Grande, this is the lowest-elevation campground in the park, and it is therefore hot much of the year, but large cottonwood trees do shade many of the sites well. It has 100 sites, 43 of which can be reserved.
  • Cottonwood Campground: This is a small and well-shaded campground near Santa Elena Canyon and Castolon. It has only 24 sites, all of which are first-come, first-served. It has no dump station, and generators are not allowed.
  • Primitive Roadside Campsites: Most of the park's dirt rods have drive-up sites along them. These have gravel pads but no amenities. Staying at any of these requires a backcountry use permit, which are issued at ranger stations in-person only, and are first-come, first-served.

Backcountry Use

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.

River Trips

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:

  • Santa Elena Canyon: Drifting the depths of this 1,500-foot-deep gorge with whitewater rapids can be done as a one-way float from Lajitas outside the park or an up-and-back from the mouth of the canyon inside the park.
  • Boquillas Canyon: Begin at Rio Grande Village to float between the walls of Big Boquillas for two to three days on easy whitewater.
  • Mariscal Canyon: The shortest but most difficult to access river canyon of the three, Mariscal makes a rewarding one or two-day float with some whitewater.

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.

Weather

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

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.

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)

Winter
Spring
Summer
Fall

Congestion

Moderate

Parking Pass

Park entrance fee

Open Year-round

Yes

Pros

Large and unique national park at the international border. Diversity of environments and activities. Dark night skies.

Cons

Summer heat. Some areas crowded. Long drive between some destinations. Limited campgrounds.

Features

ADA accessible
Family friendly
Guided tours
Flushing toilets
Dump stations
Potable water
General store
Picnic tables
Covered picnic areas
Wi-Fi
Near lake or river
Backcountry camping
Historically significant
Geologically significant
Native artifacts
Old-growth forest
Big vistas
Wildflowers
Wildlife
Big Game Watching
Bird watching
Fishing
Bicycling

Location

Field Guide

Nearby Lodging + Camping

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