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

The Window in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park.

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, soak in hot springs or look for wildlife amid the park’s diverse habitats. Beyond the park, there are ghost towns to visit, scenic drives, and magnificent night skies — the stargazing is so impressive, in fact, 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.

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The Lay of the Land

Chisos Basin Visitor Center at Big Bend National Park.

The 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.

Getting There

Scenic mountain road at Big Bend National Park.

This park is far from everywhere, which is part of Big Bend’s allure. Even if you live in Texas, you’ll be up for a serious drive: It’s over seven hours from Austin. The nearest airports are in Midland (220 miles northeast of the park) and El Paso (315 miles northwest).

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What to Do

Man Exploring the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park.

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 based in Terlingua. Going strong since 1976, this outfitter offers river trips ranging from half a day to three- or 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.

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 waters offer a delightful cap to the day’s adventures.

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Where to Stay

Chisos Mountain Lodge at Big Bend National Park.

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). Book well in advance online. You can also get far from the crowds by overnighting in the backcountry. The park has 42 designated backcountry sites. Book them online.

Your best bet if you’re staying outside the park is in Terlingua, about a 45-minute drive from the Chisos Basin. There you’ll 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

Chisos Mountains Lodge in Big Bend National Park.

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 some 72 rooms catering 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.

Posada Milagro

La Posada Milagro guest house at Big Bend National Park.

Set among the ruins of 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, and open onto small terraces with views of the Chisos Mountains. It’s about a 48-minute drive from the guesthouse to Big Bend’s main visitor center, and it’s a short hop to other nearby eating and drinking options in Terlingua.

How to Plan for a Trip

Silhouette of a rock climber at Big Bend National Park.

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

Woman hiking in Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA.

The summer is blazing hot, with temperatures regularly above 100 and even reaching 110. 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 chilly, bringing occasional snowfall, but it’s rarely enough to prevent hiking. As long as you have adequate clothing, it can be a great time to visit without the crowds.

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