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When we first started planning our visit to Big Bend National Park, I felt completely overwhelmed. To be fair, I suppose planning a first visit to most anywhere is overwhelming, but this seemed worse that normal. Grant did have some basic information about the park and knew he wanted to get off the main roads and onto the primitive (unpaved) roads a bit. But, I am the planner and I knew nothing!
So, I did what I always do and started searching Pinterest and Google to see what I could find. Most of what I found was one- or two-day itineraries that focused just on the main sites, which is fairly typical. We, however, are not the typical National Park visitors, so I knew we would need at least three or four days.
Ultimately, four days ended up being just about perfect for us, though we could have easily spent more time in Big Bend. So, here is our four-day itinerary that will get you to all the major sites, on the primitive roads and even into a backcountry campground!
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Day 1 – North Side of the Park and Chisos Basin
Let’s face it, just getting to Big Bend NP is half of the adventure. Located in West Texas, at least several hours from the nearest reasonably-sized town, Big Bend is not a place you stumble upon accidentally. You could fly to El Paso, San Antonio or even Midland, but you’re still going to be driving several hours. Unless you’re driving overnight or getting a VERY early start, don’t expect to arrive before about noon.
There are two roads into the park, one from the north and one from the west. We came in the North entrance (after visiting Amistad National Recreation Area in Del Rio the day before), reaching the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center right around 12:30. After a quick stop to show our Annual Pass, talk to a ranger and get a map, we were off to explore. If you don’t have a pass, the entrance fee is $25 for a private vehicle which is good for seven days. The fees are going up $30 on June 1, 2018.
Dagger Flat Auto Trail
Our first destination after the Visitor Center was unpaved, but somewhat improved, Dagger Flat Auto Trail. While the road was a little rough, overall it was in good shape. Most any SUV or truck should be able to handle it (or anything with a little bit of ground clearance).
In terms of vegetation, this was one of the better roads. While there were a lot of Yucca trees up and down the entire 7-mile road, the second half was home to the blooming plants, which was the real highlight of the drive.
We spent about an hour driving down and back, including several stops for pictures.
Fossil Discovery Exhibit
As you continue along the main road, headed into the park, you’ll reach the Fossil Discovery Exhibit, one of Big Bend’s newest additions. The open-air exhibit center highlights the various fossils that have been discovered in the park over the years.
The exhibit includes several amazing finds, including the femur of an Alamosaurus, one of the largest dinosaurs ever to exist. This upper leg bone alone was taller than me! Granted, I’m only 5’4” but that’s still crazy big!
As cool as dinosaur fossils are, honestly the uniqueness of the exhibit center itself might have been our favorite part! The construction was done very well to maximize the shade but still allow desert breezes to blow in, keeping it cool even without air conditioning.
Panther Junction Visitor Center
Before continuing into Chisos Basin, be sure to stop at the Panther Junction Visitor Center, especially if you did not stop at Persimmon Gap. Here you will find the bookstore, a few small exhibits and the 20-minute informational movie.
If you want to do any backcountry camping, you’ll also need to visit Panther Junction to get the required permit. Alas, you can only get permits one day in advance, so depending on your schedule, you may need to return later.
Panther Junction serves as the Headquarters for Big Bend NP. Other services here include a Post Office and a gas station with a small convenience store. You MAY also find cell-service here, which is extremely limited within the park. Wi-Fi is also available at the Visitor Center.
Chisos Basin could be described as the heart of Big Bend. Located in the North-Central part of the park, this is where you will find the lodge and restaurant, a campground, a Visitor Center and small store. Additionally, the higher elevation keeps temperatures mild, which makes for much more comfortable hiking!
We spent our first night in the park at the lodge. In hindsight, I should have scheduled the hotel room AFTER three nights of tent camping, but oh well. Chisos Basin was a great place to start our visit, so I can’t complain too much.
After checking in to the lodge, we grabbed a cold beverage from the store, kicked up our feet and enjoyed the views off our balcony. We opted for an early dinner, so we could get in a short hike right at sunset.
After much consideration, we chose to do the Chisos Basin Loop Trail. The views along the 1.8-mile trail were amazing, especially with the warm glow of sunset. After completing the loop, we continued on to the paved 0.3-mile Window View Trail (which is at the same trailhead). This short and easy trail is one of the best places in the park to enjoy the sunset. This is also the only trail in Chisos Basin that is described as “easy” on the NPS Web site.
Day 2 – West Side of Big Bend National Park
Lost Mine Trail
The best way to follow up an amazing sunset is to search for an equally amazing sunrise! Thankfully, in early April the sunrise isn’t until about 7:30/7:45, so it wasn’t too early of a morning.
We chose Lost Mine as our first hike of the day. Overall, this moderately difficult trail is 4.8 miles round trip and gains about 1100 feet in elevation. Since we were on a bit of a time-crunch needing to get backcountry camping permits, we followed the advice of the Hiking Big Bend National Park guide book and only did the first 3/4 mile, to the Juniper Canyon overlook.
If hiking at sunrise, be sure to look back over your shoulder as you hike up the trail to admire the amazing colors and views. Even with stopping for pictures, we reached the saddle of the mountain, at the Juniper Canyon overlook, in about 30 minutes.
Admittedly, I kind of feel like we cheated with only hiking a portion of the trail, but we still got some amazing views and had tons of time left in our day for many other stops!
Pro Tip: The parking area at Lost Mine is fairly small. Arrive early to assure you get a spot.
Backcountry Permits at Panther Junction
As I mentioned earlier, backcountry camping permits are only written one day in advance. If you are camping for several consecutive days, you can get all permits at one time. But, permits are written no sooner than the day before your first day of camping.
Thus, we were back at Panther Junction our second morning to secure our backcountry permits. The process was painless, taking us only about 10 minutes, though I suspect if you are visiting in the busy season, which is fall/winter, that you might have more difficulties.
Stay tuned for more information on choosing a campsite and securing a permit in an upcoming article on camping and lodging within Big Bend NP.
Grapevine Hills Road and Balanced Rock
Located just west of Chisos Basin is 7.7-mile unpaved Grapevine Hills Road. The conditions here were not bad at all. Based on our experience, most any car should be able to handle this drive. That said, rain can affect road conditions greatly, so always check with the rangers before heading out on the unpaved roads.
At the end of Grapevine Hills Road is the one-mile trail to Balanced Rock. The vast majority of the trail is flat and easy, following a sandy wash through the desert. The last 1/4 mile, however, has you climbing up and over rocks. While most anyone in reasonably good shape should be able to handle this hike, the end does require a certain amount of agility.
Be sure to watch for signs pointing you in the right direction as you wind up and over the rocks. You’ll know when you’ve arrived at “Balanced Rock.”
The drive and hike took us about two hours total.
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
The paved road through the west side of Big Bend is known as Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. There are several stops along the road, including a couple of short hikes to old ranch sites, a couple of overlooks and some longer hiking trails.
As it was nearing lunch and we still needed to secure a campsite at Cottonwood Campground for the night, we only made a couple of stops while driving south.
Our first stop was at the Sam Nail Ranch site. The short loop only took us about 15-20 minutes but was very interesting. It is amazing how much difference just a small amount of water can make in the desert!
Also be sure to stop at Sotol Vista for some amazing views and a pit toilet. With my tiny little bladder, I am always on the lookout for a bathroom.
Cottonwood Campground and Castolon
We made it to Cottonwood, in the Castolon area at the south end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, right around lunchtime. This is the smallest of only three developed campgrounds in the park. When we arrived, just before 1:00, there were still several campsites available, but most of the shaded ones were already claimed.
Thankfully, the volunteer made her rounds just as we were choosing our site and gave us some great advice. Our mistake was just looking for a tree. Be sure you are considering where the sun sets and which direction the shade will actually fall!
After a couple of loops around the grounds, we finally chose a site, ate some lunch and set up camp. Again, look for more information on our camping experiences soon!
Once we had our campsite all set up and ready, it was time for more exploring. Next stop was the Castolon Visitor Center.
The Castolon Historic Area really showcases the human history at Big Bend. Here you will find several old buildings, including the oldest known adobe structure in the park, and several exhibits about the history of the area.
While this is an interesting area, we just made a quick stop at the ranger station and store. There are also quite a few covered picnic tables here if you are looking for a little shade.
The Mule Ears View Point is located on the southern end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. At the parking area, there is a trail leading to a couple of springs and the Smokey Creek Trail.
Normally, we would not even consider hiking in the desert in the afternoon. But, the day was overcast and only in the low 80s, so we felt ok heading off in search of Mule Ear Spring, about two miles from the trailhead.
Unfortunately, not long after we started hiking, the clouds began to thin and the sun started peaking through. The sunshine was ever so slight, but without a single drop of shade, it was certainly enough to cook us.
Even loaded up with a full Camelbak of water, the hike just wasn’t enjoyable. Additionally, the spring we were headed to was likely dry (it is the desert, after all). Thus, after about 1.25 miles, we decided to turn back. The decision to abandon the hike was not an easy one, but it did feel like the right one.
While the temperatures were still in the 80s (much better than the mid-upper 90s of the preceding days), it was enough to convince us to spend some time doing some more scenic driving.
Terlingua Ghost Town
You may have heard of Terlingua, a mining town in the late-1800s and early-1900s, located just west of what is now Big Bend National Park. The peak of the mining occurred during World War I, but by the start of World War II, the mining company had filed for bankruptcy and Terlingua was deserted.
While I had heard of Terlingua, I honestly didn’t know why I had heard of it. But, it seemed like a place we should visit, especially since we had some time. So, we headed west of out Big Bend and into Terlingua.
While some people may find this one-time ghost town that is now inhabited quirky and unique, I did not. Actually, I thought it was a little scary. Everything seemed dilapidated and not at all inviting. We drove through “town” and Grant took a couple pictures. That was about it.
Seek it out for yourself if you have a particular interest, but don’t go just because other people say you “should,” which is a lesson we learned long ago.
Old Maverick Road
To get back to the campground, we chose to drive yet another unpaved road. Grant definitely does love these rare opportunities to truly get some dirt on the tires!
Old Maverick Road skirts the western edge of Big Bend. Like Grapevine Hills, the road was in pretty good condition, but remember that conditions change quickly with just a little rain!
The most interesting stop along the way is Luna’s Jacal. This tiny house/shelter is just about four feet tall and very rustic!
Allow about an hour to drive the 13-mile road.
Dinner and Sunset
At this point, we headed back to the campground, where we enjoyed an easily-prepared and tasty meal of Mountain House Chicken Fajita Bowl. After many years of tent camping with inadequate dish-washing facilities, we decided to keep it simple with freeze-dried backpacker meals for this trip.
This was our first freeze-dried meal and I have to say it was super easy and tasty! To prepare, we just had to mix in some boiling water. A bottle top propane stove was easy to use and transport. Just make sure you get down into the corners when stirring in the water.
Following dinner, we quickly headed west on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to the small Desert Mountains Overlook. Look for the road sign, because it isn’t identified on the park map! We round only a couple of other people here and enjoyed a nice quiet sunset with some fabulous color.
Day 3 – Exploring the Southern Part of Big Bend NP
The southern portion of Big Bend NP is crossed by several primitive dirt roads. The primitive dirt roads are generally even rougher than the improved dirt roads we drove the past two days. The conditions along these roads are considerably rougher and a high-clearance vehicle with four-wheel drive is typically a necessity.
River Road is the longest of these unimproved roads and the only road across the southern end of the park. Due to the generally higher temperatures in this area of the park and the complete lack of facilities, we chose to enjoy a lazy morning at the campground.
Santa Elena Canyon
Before starting our drive across River Road, we hiked Santa Elena Canyon, a must-see at Big Bend. For those with limited time or mobility, be sure to at least stop at the overlook near the intersection of Ross Maxwell Scenic Road and Old Maverick Road. If you have the time, the hike into the canyon is well worth your time and energy.
The hike does require a short, but steep, uphill climb before gradually descending back down to the river. Overall, however, this is an easy hike that the majority of visitors can and should do. The views throughout the hike are amazing, both looking down into the canyon and looking back across the desert mountains.
While temperatures can be quite high, the canyon does offer a good amount of shade. The first part of the trail crosses a drainage, which is usually dry. Be aware, though, that the trail may be impassable after a rain.
We spent about an hour hiking, enjoying the views and taking lots of pictures.
We started our drive across River Road around 12:45, from the west side. Since we were camping on the east end (at Solis), we tried to time it out so that we were arriving at the campsite in the late afternoon. Expect to travel about 10-15 mph along River Road and any other unimproved roads.
The west end of River Road is undoubtedly more rough than the east end, but conditions really were not bad when we were there. We did switch into four-wheel drive a few times, but more as a precaution than a necessity.
If you are driving any of the unimproved roads, especially River Road, I encourage you to pick up the Road Guide to Backcountry Roads of Big Bend National Park. We found this booklet at the Panther Creek Visitor Center for less than $5 and it was very helpful. The Road Guide provides landmarks, history and some general road conditions for all the dirt roads in the park.
As you drive, you wind closer and farther away from the Rio Grande. Stop and enjoy the river views at Black Dike (but don’t crash the campsite if you don’t have a permit). The most notable stop along River Road is the Mariscal Mine Historic District, the best-preserved mercury mining site in Texas. We made a quick stop here but were hesitant to do too much exploring since it is a hazardous area.
We arrived at Solis, about 40 miles from the west end of River Road, about 4:30. The road guide indicates that the side road at Solis can be difficult to drive, but we didn’t have any problems at all. If you can, you should drive the road down to the Rio Grande and relax for a few minutes.
If you’re in search of some shade, you will definitely find it here, along the river. In fact, we spent a couple of hours relaxing by the river, reading and watching the wild horses cross back and forth from Mexico. This was truly was one of our most enjoyable afternoons in the park!
We stayed at Solis #2, which was about as perfect as we could expect. This campsite is very remote, well off River Road, and even back off of the side road. By the time we set up camp around 6:30, the sun was low enough that we created our own shade with the truck and enjoyed the solitude.
Read more about our experience backcountry camping in our upcoming article on camping and lodging in Big Bend National Park.
Day 4 – The East Side of Big Bend NP and Mexico
After a wonderfully relaxing night under the bright Texas stars, it was time to head back to civilization. The remainder of the drive east along River Road was uneventful and definitely not quite as rough as the west end of the road.
The first stop off River Road on the east side of Big Bend is Hot Springs. Here you find a naturally warm spring right on the Rio Grande. In the 1920s, a private landowner built a resort/health spa here, complete with a motel, post office and trading post.
As you approach the Hot Springs parking area, be sure to stop at the marked spot if you have an RV, trailer or wide vehicle. I have to be honest, the narrow, winding road was a little scary in a couple of spots!
From the parking lot, it is just a quick and easy 5-10 minute walk to the hot spring. While the view is wonderful, the old “tub” itself it not very appealing at all! We opted to skip the soak in the hot spring and instead continued hiking. About a quarter-mile past the spring, the trail turns back, up the hill.
The hike uphill is a bit steep, but really not bad. The views from the top are certainly worth the effort! Continue along the bluff for a while, enjoying both river and mountain views, before dropping back down to the parking lot.
The complete one-mile loop shouldn’t take you more than 30-45 minutes, depending on how long you stop for pictures and great views.
Rio Grande Village
Continue east into Rio Grande Village, where you will find a large campground, gas station, store, showers and laundry. Our first stop was the campground, where we picked out our site for the night and set up camp.
A note for those traveling in a camper or RV, hookups are not available at Rio Grande Village Campground. Hookups are available at Rio Grande Village RV Campground. However, the label “RV Campground” is a bit misleading, as it truly is just a paved parking lot. Unless you need hookups because you are traveling with a pet or for medical reasons, the “regular” campground is definitely the better option!
Boquillas Del Carmen
After setting up camp, it was time to travel to Mexico! As much as we love our National Parks, international travel is exciting as well. Combining the two…even better! So, be sure to bring your passport (or at least a passport card) on this National Park visit.
When we first entered the Boquillas Crossing checkpoint station, a Big Bend park ranger briefed us on the actual crossing, things to do in town and the process of returning to the US. The short explanation was extremely helpful and made everything super easy and enjoyable.
Since water levels were low, crossing the river on foot was possible, but we opted for the “international ferry” (i.e. rowboat for about four people). Once on land in Mexico, you can walk the short quarter-mile or so into town. If you prefer, you can hire a burro, horse or truck ride.
While we generally prefer to walk, we chose the burro because…well…how often do you get to ride a donkey? A burro or horse ride into town will also land you a “guide” who works for tips. Unfortunately, our guide spoke limited English, so it was not super helpful, but it was nice to know there was someone who could somewhat help us if we needed it.
Tacos and Margaritas
In town, we checked in with immigration, then headed to the real attraction…food and drinks! Boquillas is a small town of just about 300 people. It is very isolated, with the nearest town (in Mexico) being 160 miles away. Yep, 160 miles from a true grocery store and gas station.
This town thrives on tourism from Big Bend, so we were happy to visit both restaurants and wander a bit. As you enter town, Boquillas Restaurant (on the right) is known for its potent margaritas and goat tacos. The restaurant on the left, Jose Falcon’s, dates back to the 1970s and has great views and a larger menu.
Choose whichever restaurant speaks to you or, follow our lead and try both! Before and/or after lunch, spend some time wandering, purchase (or at least admire) the handmade goods and enjoy the laidback atmosphere of this tiny, remote town.
We spent a couple hours in Boquillas before heading back across the river to the US. Back in the checkpoint station, you’ll use the kiosk to scan your passport and talk to immigration officials in El Paso, who officially admit you back to the US.
If you’re looking for another stamp in your passport, this is a great way to get it without a pricey flight!
More Primitive Roads
By the time we were back in Big Bend, the temperatures were soaring into the 90s. And, while its is a “dry heat,” that doesn’t make it any less hot! So, we opted to spend our afternoon driving few more dirt roads and enjoying the air conditioning.
We first took the main park road towards Panther Junction, then headed southwest on Glenn Spring Road. Again, road conditions were reasonably good and we did not have any major issues.
While the scenery is not that dissimilar to that of the main park road or River Road, we never tire of the solitude and fabulous views. There is just something about being “off the beaten path” that makes it that much more interesting and exhilarating.
It took us about two hours to drive south on Glenn Spring Road, then east on River Road back into Rio Grande Village.
Sunset and Camping
Nestled in the back of the campground, the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail winds over a pond before a small climb offers great sunset views. You can’t go wrong by ending your day here watching the sun dip below the mountains.
Back in camp, we quickly understood why Cottonwood described itself as “the quiet campground.” We were situated between a few large groups who apparently did not realize that campsites don’t come with walls. While a bit annoying, we do understand that is sometimes part of the camping experience.
Day 5 – Headed Home
Our original plan for our final morning at Big Bend was to check out Ernst Tinaja, a natural rock waterhole. Unfortunately, we picked up a large lag screw in one tire somewhere along the way and just didn’t feel comfortable driving another dirt road under those conditions.
Not getting to visit Ernst Tinaja is truly our biggest regret, but we know we made the right decision. Thankfully, our tire held pressure just fine until we made it to Abilene, the first place we could find a Ford Quick Lane.
Nearby National Park Sites
While the 59 National Parks tend to get the most notice, there are more than 400 units administered by the National Park Service. The National Historic Sites, Battlefields, Recreation Areas and other types of parks are typically just as interesting and offer an often overlooked glimpse into America’s history.
Two of these sites, Amistad National Recreation Area and Fort Davis National Historic Site, make great stops on your way to or from Big Bend National Park.
Amistad National Recreation Area
Located in Del Rio, about four hours southeast of Big Bend NP, Amistad NRA preserves the US portion of the International Reservoir. After more than 17 hours of driving, we were excited to get out on the trail for a couple of hikes. Unfortunately, the Visitor Center was closed the day we were there (Easter Sunday), so we didn’t get a chance to talk to a ranger or get a lot of information.
Our first hike: the green and blue loop trail at Diablo East, near the boat ramp. The 1.3-mile trail took us near the reservoir and thru the desert landscape. The trail was well-marked with little to no incline. We enjoyed the water views and small bursts of color on the prickly pear cactus.
For our second hike, we started out on the 1.5-mile Sunrise Trail. This trail runs east from the Visitor Center, ending at Spur 454, which is where we started. Unfortunately, I did not look at the map close enough, as I expected us to be hiking near the water line, with great water views. Instead, we had views of the floodplain. As the views were not what we were expecting, and it was extremely hot, we turned back pretty quickly and just headed to the hotel.
Sadly, Amistad NRA was a bit of a disappointment for us. Like most National Recreation Areas, it is geared more towards boating. Still, I would encourage you to stop if you have time, as it is a good place to stretch your legs. You probably won’t need more than about an hour, if that.
Fort Davis National Historic Site
About two hours northwest of Big Bend, you find Fort Davis National Historic Site. The fort is one of the best surviving examples of an Indian Wars’ frontier military post in the Southwest. As we have visited MANY military forts and trading posts within the National Park Service, this stop was similar to many others.
Perhaps most interesting to us was the personal connection to this site. Fort Davis was home to the 10th Cavalry Regiment, also called “Buffalo Soldiers,” which was an all-black cavalry units which fought in the Indian Wars. Second Lieutenant Henry Flipper was one of the soldiers stationed at Fort Davis.
Born into slavery in Thomasville, GA (where Bonnie was born), Flipper became the first African-American graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, which Grant attended. Sadly, Flipper was court-martialed for embezzlement. While he was he was found not guilty of embezzlement, he was convicted of making a false statement and other charges and dishonorably discharged from the Army.
In a happy turn of events, the case was reviewed in 1976. In February 1999, President Clinton posthumously pardoned Second Lt. Flipper and records were updated to show an Honorable Discharge.
The site consists of many buildings, some in better shape than others, around the parade ground. We spent about an hour watching the movie and touring the grounds.
Planning Your Itinerary
This itinerary for Big Bend worked very well for us. If you have the right vehicle and the time, I recommend this or something similar. If you need to avoid the dirt roads, you could shorten your visit by a day or two.
While there are only three big areas of Big Bend, they are spread out in a triangle with only one road connecting them. I suppose it is possible to see the park in a single day, but I would recommend a minimum of two days. Three days allows you more time to relax and enjoy the sites, visit Mexico and explore the dirt roads.
As you plan, remember that the weather is a very important factor. If visiting in the summer, which I would not recommend, expect the temperatures to be almost unbearable. I would not advise spending a lot of time hiking or exploring the backcountry that time of year.
Rain will greatly affect road conditions, especially on the dirt roads, likely making them impassible. Even the paved roads are subject to flooding, especially on the west side. Trails are also likely to be impacted by rain.
Big Bend National Park has a surprising amount to offer. However much time you have, we hope that you will plan a visit…we know you will enjoy it! If you can stop at Amistad or Fort Davis coming or going, even better.