Exploring Big Bend National Park in Texas

JUAN MARTINEZ

August 19, 2020

Exploring Big Bend National Park in Texas

Remote, desertic, hot and adventurous. The Big Bend National Park is a jewel in Texas and the perfect place to disconnect from modern life

Known as one of the last remaining wild corners of the United States, the Big Bend National Park is too far to simply drive by, too isolated to live nearby and too big to explore in a single day. Located in Texas, right at the border between Mexico and the United States, Big Bend offers a different kind of adventure. It is a desert in which time and life seems to be nonexistent on a first sight. However, the longer you explore and experience, the more you discover how alive and thriving it is.

Full moon at Big Bend national Park
Full moon at Big Bend National Park

With Eight hours away from any major city, you can even say Big Bend is the ultimate adventure road trip in the United States. It’s a place where the sun is hot enough to kill you, the wildlife you encounter is likely venomous and dangerous, and its area is so remote, that if something bad happens, it would take a helicopter to rescue you. Then why people like to explore this apocalyptic landscape?

Some would say the scenic views of the Chisos Mountains, others say is the clean air and starry night sky. No matter what the answer to this question is, one thing is for sure. Anyone who comes to Big Bend, ends up wanting more and more before they go.

Sunset at Big Bend
Scenic views at Big Bend National Park in Texas

A road trip to the US frontier

I visited Big Bend during a 10 day trip to Texas back in 2018. I was visiting some friends in Austin and Dallas, and after exploring the most popular nature getaways around the city, we realized that if we  really wanted to be in the middle of nature, we had to take a car, drive 8 hours southwest and explore the Big Bend National Park.

I must confess, it was not an easy ride. Landscapes in Texas are monotonous and roads are long and exhausting. For someone coming from Germany, I was not used to these very long rides through ghost towns of 20 houses and a small market. Luckily, good friends, great stories to share and fun games to play in the car made the journey more comfortable.

On the other side, once we entered the premises of the national park everything looked different: Scenic views of the mountain range in the background, giant boulders next to the road and dozens of types of cacti perfectly situated for a photograph at sunset were the first views I got from the park. From this very first moment, Big Bend captivated me.

Road Trip Texas - Big Bend
Road Trip Texas – Long highways on our way to Big Bend National Park in Texas

Where to Stay in Big Bend National Park

Without any backpacking hostel dorms,  hotel rooms or airbnbs to rent, the best (and almost) only option is staying in a camping site. Inside the Big Bend National Park there are two different types of camping and both options are good for anymore: Developed Campgrounds and Backcountry Camping.

Developed Campgrounds

If you are looking for a more standard camping ground and basic facilities, a developed campground inside Big Bend is the place to go. Flush toilets and dump stations are available in all four camps (Chisos Basin, Cottonwood, Rio Grande Village and Rio Grande RV) and with prices starting 16 USD (14 EUR) a night, these camps are super popular among visitors and tend to get booked months in advanced.

Backcountry Camping

As a more basic option, a backcountry camping is the adventure experience most travelers are looking for. There are more than 100 sites inside the park and all of them offer a cleared gravel location to park your vehicle and set up your tent. They are perfect for a 2-3 night stay inside the national park and they are the closest you can get to nature without breaking the rules.

Some camps are even located at most isolated and remote sections of the park. To get here, travelers need to use 4×4 vehicles and ask for a permit in advance. Overnight stays are available for 10 USD (9 EUR) per night and just like for the developed campgrounds at the national park, some of these locations get fully booked weeks or even months in advance. If you forgot book, don’t worry, some of these spots use the first come-first served method.

Chisos Mountains in Texas
View of the Chisos Mountains during sunset

How to Obtain a camping permit:

According to the official website of the National Park Service, permits are required for any overnight backcountry camping, river use, and stock use. They can be obtained from the Panther Junction and Chisos Basin Visitor Centers.

More information:

  • Some sites will be available for reservations 6 months in advance on Recreation.gov or by phone at 877-444-6777.
  • Permits can be written for up to 14 consecutive nights from the first day of backcountry use, and can be modified but not extended.
  • Backcountry use is subject to rules and regulations regarding sanitation and minimal impact practices that must be agreed to in order to obtain a permit.

Also, if you fancy something better than a camping spot, Chisos Mountain Lodge is the only lodge inside the park. With simple stone cottages, a restaurant, and a basic shop, this lodge is not lavish at all, but the location is perfect as a base camp for full day treks into the Chisos Mountains.

Background landscapes at BigBend National Park
Background landscapes while driving at the Big Bend National Park in Texas

What to do in a day at Big Bend?

With dozens of marked trails at all levels of difficulty, hiking is the number one activity to do for visitors inside the national park. Some of these routes can take several hours, while others are just simple walks to get a glimpse of the flora and fauna of the park.

As I mentioned before, temperatures in Texas are hot and hyperthermia while hiking in the middle of the day happens more often than you think. During my visit in Big Bend we took that into consideration and planned all of our long hiking routes early in the morning before sunrise. Later, we spent the day at the area surrounding Rio Grande and enjoyed the hottest hours swimming in the river.

Hiking routes at Big Bend National Park -Road trip Texas
Hiking routes at the National Park early in the morning

If you are short in time and a road trip lover, the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive will give you fantastic views of the Chihuahuan Desert landscape and will lead you to the Rio Grande, where you can also take a swim at midday. This is the most scenic drive in Big Bend and the best welcome to the national park.

Kayaking is also a very popular activity. Even though there are no kayaks to rent inside the park premises, anyone bringing their own raft or canoe can jump into Rio Grande and explore some of the hidden canyons only reachable with one of these.

Read more: Planning a trip to Nova Scotia – Canada’s eastern frontier

Road Trip-Big-Bend-Texas-Santa Elena Canyon between Mexico and USA
Santa Elena Canyon between Mexico and USA – Left side is Mexico, right side USA

I visited Santa Elena Canyon, one of the best-known and most beautiful canyons in Big Bend. The best way to see it is by raft or canoe and it is accessible by either Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive or the Old Maverick Road. Even though we didn’t have a kayak, we swam until reaching a quiet spot to have a break and simply enjoy the view.

NOTE: Crossing to Mexico is only allowed at one spot inside the park (Boquillas border). However, Rio Grande is located right between the two countries and you could swim from one side to the other without a problem.

But wait, once you get to the Mexican side, a 300 meter cliff will prevent you in some sections to go further south and additionally, stepping into Mexican land and coming back to the United States is a serious offense that could carry a $5,000 fine or up to a year in jail.

Night photography and stargazing

Big Bend National Park is one of the most isolated places in the United States and pollution is almost nonexistent in this part of the country. As someone who is used to see and photograph the dark sky from the national parks in Europe, I never realized how much pollution Europe has until I visited Texas.

Additionally, in 2012 the park was designated an international dark-sky park by the International Dark-Sky Association. The association recognized the park as “free from all but the most minor impacts of light pollution.”

Here, you don’t need to witness a meteor shower to feel amazed. The skies in this area are so clear, that spotting one shooting star flying is not difficult at all. Photographers from whole USA come here to photograph the milky way, as well planets and distant galaxies. Additionally, yearly events like a supermoon become a very good reason to visit the national park and do a night walk.

Other activities like birdwatching and wildlife safaris are also possible. Although, you should get in contact with the local authorities regarding necessary permits and possible obligatory guides.

Read more: How to photograph the milky way while traveling abroad

Milky way in Texas
Milky way during a dark night with zero pollution

Basic Information for a visit in Big Bend

Entrance Fees (valid for 7 days)

  • Private, non-commercial vehicle 30 USD
  • Motorcycle 25 USD
  • People entering without vehicle 15 USD per person

Visitor Centers

Panther Junction and Chisos Basin Visitor Centers are open year-round. Rio Grande Village, Persimmon Gap, and Castolon Visitor Centers are open November–April.

Additional Information

  • Any kind of fires are strictly prohibited throughout the park. Only gas stoves and charcoal contained in a grill may be used.
  • Visitors can stay in the park up to 14 consecutive nights with a limit of 28 total nights in the park in a calendar year.
  • There is no phone signal inside the park. Download maps of the area in Google Maps or get a map of the national park in any of the visitor centers.
  • Either you are a US citizen or not, carry your passport with you. Due to its proximity to the US-Mexico border, there are several controls in the area where they might ask for your documentation (especially if you have an accent or you are not caucasian).

Read more: Worst YELP reviews at U.S. National Parks

Rio Grande roadtrip Texas
Rio Grande divides Texas and the United States

Anyone who visits Big Bend falls in love in it and I was not the exception of that rule. Now, each time I watch Boyhood, or see any reference about this park on a magazine or a website, I have to think about the beautiful experience it was and how traveling to the edge of the United States was worth every moment.

Big Bend is a place for adventurers and anyone interested in wildlife, nature and disconnecting from the city life, should visit this place at least once in a lifetime.

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