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Inside Big Bend National Park: Where Mountains Meet Desert in Texas

Tucked in a remote corner of southwest Texas, chiseled mountain peaks meet the bone-dry Chihuahuan Desert in the vast wilderness of Big Bend National Park. Adventure comes in many forms in this 1,252-square-mile reserve. You can hike to the top of lofty peaks, go paddling on the Rio Grande River, soak in hot springs, and observe wildlife amid the park’s diverse habitats. Beyond the park, there are ghost towns to visit, scenic drives to experience, and magnificent night skies to admire. In fact, the stargazing is so impressive that Big Bend was named an International Dark Sky Park back in 2012. Given the logistical challenges of getting here, you’ll want to stick around a while to make the most of your stay.

Here’s what you need to know on where to find the best that Big Bend National Park has to offer.

The Lay of the Land

Sunset at "The Window" near Chisos Mountain Lodge at Big Bend National Park.
Photo by Robbie, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Flickr Robbie / Flickr

Big Bend National Park has two main visitor centers: One at Panther Junction, near the south end of Highway 385; and another at Chisos Basin, where you’ll also find the Chisos Basin Campground and the Chisos Mountains Lodge. Three other visitor centers open seasonally from November to April.

There’s no public transport in the park, so you’ll need a car. If you plan to explore some of the backcountry roads, make it a high-clearance SUV.

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Getting To Big Bend National Park

The Rio Grande River winding out of the Santa Elena Canyon with the Chisos Mountains in the background, at Big Bend National Park.
Photo by Yinan Chen, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia Image used with permission by copyright holder

This park is far from Texas’ and the American Southwest’s major urban areas, and that’s honestly part of Big Bend’s allure. It’s about a nine-hour drive from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and it’s about a ten-hour drive from Tucson, Arizona. Even if you live in Texas, you’ll be up for a serious drive: It’s over seven hours from Austin, about nine hours from Dallas, and about ten hours from Houston. The nearest airports are in Midland (220 miles northeast of the park) and El Paso (315 miles northwest).

What to Do

The Chisos Mountains at Big Bend National Park in Texas.
Photo by Ken Lund, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Flickr Image used with permission by copyright holder

The national park has over 150 miles of trails, from short jaunts to multi-day backpacking adventures. One of the best full-day hikes is the ascent up Emory Peak, a roughly 10.5-mile roundtrip hike that affords magnificent views from atop the park’s highest summit (7,825 feet). For something shorter but no less rewarding, hike the 1.7-mile Santa Elena Canyon Trail, which takes you through a steep-walled canyon along the edge of the Rio Grande.

Speaking of the Rio Grande, this life-giving river in the desert offers a wide range of aquatic adventures. If you’re not packing a canoe, sign up for a river trip with a park operator like Far Flung Outdoor Center, which is based in Terlingua. Going strong since 1976, this outfitter offers river trips ranging from half a day to three- and four-day trips, camping in pristine spots along the way. For DIY adventures, Far Flung also hires out gear, including canoes and an open-topped Jeep Wrangler.

While you’re in the Big Bend area, be sure to pay a visit to Terlingua, a former mining town that went bust in the 1940s. You can check out a desert graveyard and the ruins of old buildings, some of which have been revitalized into newer restaurant and lodging options. Basically, if you’re looking for any urban amenities, you’re most likely to find them in Terlingua. Otherwise, Big Bend is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive away from Marfa.

Wherever you roam, be sure to leave some time at the end of the day for a soak in the park’s hot springs. Set along the Rio Grande on the southeast side of the park, the hot springs are reachable via an easy half-mile hike, and the 105-degree (Fahrenheit) waters offer a delightful cap to the day’s adventures.

Where to Stay at Big Bend National Park

The Chisos Mountain Lodge at Big Bend National Park.
Photo provided by the U.S. National Park Service Image used with permission by copyright holder

Big Bend has three campgrounds within the park, as well as a lodge. Everyone’s favorite campground is the centrally located Chisos Basin, which has mountain views from the simple campsites (grills, picnic tables, plus bathrooms and running water nearby). You can also get far from the crowds by overnighting in the backcountry. The park has 42 designated backcountry sites.

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Your best bet if you’re staying outside the park is in Terlingua, which is a roughly 45-minute drive from the Chisos Basin. You won’t find any multinational chain hotels or sprawling five-star spa resorts here, but you will find a handful of lodging options, including motels, a golf resort, and even an unusual glamping option — staying in a Sioux-style tipi at Buzzard’s Roost.

Chisos Mountains Lodge

The Chisos Mountain Lodge at Big Bend National Park.
Photo provided by the U.S. National Park Service Image used with permission by copyright holder

The Chisos Mountains Lodge is your only option to sleep in the park if you want a roof over your head. Well-placed near key hiking trails in the Chisos Basin, the lodge has 72 rooms that cater to a variety of budgets. The best option is staying in one of five Roosevelt Stone Cottages, which are well-equipped with three double beds, attractive furnishings, small kitchen areas (fridge, microwave, coffee pot), ample natural light, and stone floors. Less expensive lodge units are also adequately equipped, while the motel units are comfortable but less roomy.

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La Posada Milagro

La Posada Milagro (The Miracle Inn) in Terlingua, Texas.
Photo provided by La Posada Milagro Inn Image used with permission by copyright holder

Set among the ruins of the Terlingua ghost town, this guesthouse breathes new life into the region. Colorfully decorated adobe-style cottages are set with rustic furniture, handcrafted doors, and Mexican tiles. The cottages open onto small terraces with views of the Chisos Mountains, and the cottages even have air conditioning and Wi-Fi internet. It’s about a 48-minute drive from the guesthouse to Big Bend’s main visitor center, and it’s a short hop to additional restaurants in Terlingua.

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How to Plan for a Trip to Big Bend National Park

Bluebonnet flowers grow near the road at Big Bend National Park in Texas.
Photo by Adbar, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia Image used with permission by copyright holder

Book lodging or campsites (and a rental vehicle if you need one) months in advance. Bring appropriate gear — bring layers for cool mornings and evenings, which you can peel off as the blazing mid-day sun arrives. The free park maps are decent for day hikes, but if you’re heading into the backcountry, pick up a good topographic map like one published by National Geographic. Fuel up and get cash before you head into Big Bend: Panther Junction has gas and an ATM.

The heat is no joke here, so come prepared. Wear a hat, use strong sunscreen, and bring four liters of water per person per day on full-day hikes. Be mindful of desert critters (scorpions, snakes, spiders): Shake your shoes out before putting them on your feet. Keep in mind that cellphone reception is poor in the park; help is a long way off (the nearest hospital is 100 miles away in Alpine) so don’t go beyond your limits.

Best Time to Visit Big Bend

The trees near the mountains at Big Bend National Park in West Texas.
Photo provided by Max Pixel Image used with permission by copyright holder

The summer is blazing hot, with temperatures regularly surpassing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The most pleasant times for hiking, camping, and other activities are in the spring (March to April) and fall (October to November). Winter can be fairly cold, and the region even experiences some occasional snowfall, but it’s rarely enough to prevent hiking. As long as you have adequate winter clothing, it might actually be a great time to visit without the larger crowds.

The cover photo was taken by Yinan Chen, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Pixabay.

Andrew Davey
Andrew Davey is a writer who has spent a long time in "hard news" journalism, but who has also pursued interests in food and…
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