Julie United States 1 Comment

If you are planning a trip to Big Bend National Park, one of the first things you might ask is “how many days do I need?” Three days in Big Bend gives you just enough time to visit all three sections of the park, go hiking, and day trip into Mexico. In this Big Bend itinerary, we cover everything you need to know plan your perfect visit.

 

IMPORTANT: The US – Mexico Border is closed due to COVID-19 so you will not be able to visit Boquillas del Carmen. Also, there was a recent fire in  the park so several hiking trails are closed. As you plan your trip, and right before your visit, check the National Park Service website for updates on park conditions.

Overview of Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is located in southwestern Texas right along the border with Mexico. For 118 miles, the Rio Grande forms the boundary between Mexico and Big Bend National Park.

Due to its remote location, it takes at least four hours to drive to Big Bend National Park from the closest airport. Since it takes so much time to get here, this is not the type of national park that can be visited on a quick day trip. Plan to spend at least 2 days in Big Bend, although more time is better.

This is a fairly large national park with three distinct areas: the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive region, Chisos Basin, and the sights in and around Rio Grande Village. Most of the things to do fall within these regions, with a few outliers here and there. The best way to spend 3 days in Big Bend is to spend one day in each of these three areas of the park.

Big Bend National Park

View from the trail to Emory Peak

How to Get to Big Bend National Park

The closest airport is Midland International Air and Space Port in Midland-Odessa, Texas. It takes between 3.5 and 4 hours to drive to Big Bend, with a distance of 220 miles.

El Paso is a farther away but might be a better option, since it is a larger airport with more flight options. It takes 5 hours to drive to Big Bend, with a distance of 315 miles.

We flew into El Paso and drove to Big Bend National Park. It is somewhat of a monotonous drive, on a mix of multi-lane highways and two-lane roads. The speed limit is high (usually around 70 mph) so you can cover a lot of distance quickly.

San Antonio is another option. From here, it takes just over 6 hours to drive to Big Bend National Park.

Best Time to Visit Big Bend National Park

Fall and spring are the best times to visit Big Bend National Park. Temperatures are mild during the day and cool at night. March is one of the busiest months in the park, because of the great weather conditions and the influx of spring break travelers. There is more rainfall during the autumn months, so if you want clear skies, spring is a slightly better time to visit Big Bend.

Summer and winter are the off seasons in the park. From May through September it can get very hot in Big Bend National Park. During the winter months, expect cold temperatures with near freezing conditions at night.

We visited Big Bend National Park the first week of March (in 2020…just before the COVID-19 lockdowns). This was just before the start of Spring Break. Many hotels were completely booked and crowds were quite large in the park. However, if you have visited the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone at peak season, Big Bend will still feel empty in comparison.

3 Days in Big Bend Itinerary

With 3 days in Big Bend, I recommend spending one day in each of these sections of the park: the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive region, Chisos Basin, and the Rio Grande Village. You can do these days in any order.

Big Bend Itinerary Day 1: Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is a 30-mile road through some of the most beautiful landscapes in Big Bend National Park. Even if you never get out of your car, this is still one of the top experiences in the park.

However, I highly recommend getting out of your car. With numerous overlooks, short hiking trails, and one of the most iconic views of Big Bend National Park, there is a lot to keep you busy today.

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive starts at Panther Junction Road. It ends 30 miles later at Santa Elena Canyon. Here are the recommended overlooks and hikes along the drive.

Note: All driving routes in this Big Bend itinerary start in Terlingua, since this town has several hotels and restaurants, making it one of the most popular places to stay on a visit to Big Bend National Park. 

How to Use This Map: Click the tab in the top left hand corner of the map to view the layers (places to go and the driving route). You can click the check marks to hide or show layers. If you click the icons on the map, you can get more information about each point of interest.
 
If you click the star next to the title of the map, this map will be added to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu button, go to “Your Places,” click Maps, and you will see this map on your list.

Sotol Vista Overlook

This overlook is worth the quick stop. From here, you get almost panoramic views of the park and can see the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive twisting and turning through the Chisos mountain range.

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

Sotol Vista Overlook

Lower Burro Mesa Pour-Off

Distance: 1 mile | Difficulty: Easy | Time: 45 minutes

This quick and easy hike takes you through a large canyon, ending at the base of a giant cliff. At the end of the trail, you are standing at the base of Burro Mesa and the spot where the water pours off of the cliff during rainstorms.

Pour Off

Lower Burro Mesa Pour-Off

Mule Ears Viewpoint

The Mule Ears are a unique rock formation that looks like, you guessed it, mule ears. You can see the Mule Ears from an overlook along Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive but for a closer view, hike the Spring Trail (3.8 miles, moderate, 2 to 3 hours).

Mule Ears Big Bend

Mule Ears

Tuff Canyon

Distance: 0.75 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Time: 30 minutes

We really liked this. It’s a short, easy stroll to a viewing platform where you can look into Tuff Canyon. The upper trail makes a loop to overlooks of the canyon. If you want to explore more, take the spur trail and walk through the canyon.

Tuff Canyon

Tuff Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon Overlook

You will drive right by this viewpoint as you approach Santa Elena Canyon, so if you are curious, it only takes a few minutes to stop and take in the view.

In my opinion, it’s not all that impressive. What you are about to see next is much more thrilling. So, if you skipped anything on this drive, the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook would be the thing to skip.

Santa Elena Overlook

Santa Elena overlook

Santa Elena Canyon

Distance: 1.7 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Time: 1 to 2 hours

This is one of the big highlights of the day. When you see photos of Big Bend National Park, this is what you commonly see…the mighty Rio Grande River coursing through this canyon.

This short, easy hike takes you right alongside the Rio Grande River. There is one brief climb but it’s worth it…the views over the Rio Grande are breathtaking. The trail ends at a beautiful viewpoint of the Santa Elena Canyon.

Rio Grande Overlook

The view from the top of the climb

 

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon

Optional: Canoeing on the Rio Grande

One of the best ways to experience the Santa Elena Canyon is to float through it on a canoeing trip. Big Bend River Tours offers a guided canoeing trip on the Rio Grande in Santa Elena Canyon. Learn more about this one day tour here.

Return to Terlingua

There are two ways to return to Terlingua. You can either retrace the driving route on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive or you can drive Old Maverick Road.

Old Maverick Road is a 14-mile improved dirt road that is suitable for most vehicles. Depending on road conditions, the national park service warns that this can be rough and washboarded. Old Maverick Road starts near the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook and heads north towards Terlingua. It takes an hour to drive this road and goes past several historic sites.

By now it is around early to mid-afternoon, if you opted not to go canoeing on the Rio Grande. You can spend the remainder of the day exploring Terlingua or visiting Big Bend Ranch State Park. Or, add on the quick and easy hike to Balanced Rock.

Big Bend Ranch State Park

Hiking the Closed Canyon Trail in Big Bend Ranch State Park

Big Bend Itinerary Day 2: Chisos Basin

If you are a hiker, this just might be your favorite day in Big Bend National Park. Rugged, jagged mountains rise up from the desert, creating a wonderland of hiking trails and beautiful landscapes. This is where you will find some of the most exciting and challenging hiking trails in Big Bend National Park.

There are several great trails that start in Chisos Basin. Take your pick from the list below. I recommend getting an early start because the parking lots do fill up fast during peak season.

Lost Mine Trail

Distance: 4.8 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Time: 2.5 to 3.5 hours

The Lost Mine Trail is an extremely popular hike in Big Bend National Park. Most of the hike is an unexciting, steady uphill walk, with occasional views across the Chisos mountain range. However, once at the top, the views really open up. Your reward is a panoramic view over the mountains and valleys of Big Bend National Park.

Lost Mine Trail

Lost Mine Trail

Emory Peak

Distance: 10.4 miles | Difficulty: Strenuous | Time: 5 to 7 hours

If you want to stand on the highest peak in the Chisos Mountains and Big Bend National Park, put Emory Peak on your list. This is a tough hike but the views over the park are awesome. Learn more in our Guide to Hiking Emory Peak.

Emory Peak Big Bend Itinerary

Emory Peak

South Rim Trail

Distance: 12.6 miles | Difficulty: Strenuous | Time: 6 to 8 hours

Starting in the Chisos Basin, you will steadily climb up to the South Rim, where jaw-dropping views of the Chihuahuan Desert await. This hike is done as a loop and you have the option to add on Emory Peak. Learn more in our Guide to the South Rim Trail.

South Rim Trail Big Bend itinerary

South Rim Trail

Emory Peak + South Rim Trail

Distance: 15.6 miles | Difficulty: Strenuous | Time: 7.5 to 9.5 hours

This is the ultimate hiking experience in Big Bend National Park. Hike the complete South Rim Trail and top it off with the climb up to Emory Peak for unbeatable views of the Chisos Mountain Range and Chihuahuan Desert. Learn more in our Guide to the South Rim Trail.

Chisos Basin Loop

Distance: 1.8 miles | Difficulty: Easy to moderate | Time: 1 to 2 hours

This loop hike weaves its way through the Chisos Basin valley. You will hike in and out of a forest of oak, juniper, and Mexican pine with occasional views of the mountains that surround the basin.

The Window Trail

Distance: 5.6 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Time: 3 to 4 hours

The Window Trail is a moderately strenuous hike that ends at the Window. From here, you have stunning views of Big Bend National Park.

Window View Trail

Distance: 0.3 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Time: 2o minutes

Not to be confused with the Window Trail, the Window View Trail is a paved, flat trail leads to a viewpoint of the Window, a cut-out in the Chisos mountains. This is a popular sunset destination in Big Bend National Park.

The Window Big Bend

View from the Window View Trail

For more information about these hikes, check out our Guide to Hiking in Big Bend National Park.

Afternoon

Depending on which trail(s) you chose to hike, you could be finished anywhere from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. If you still have plenty of time left in the day, consider hiking the nearby trail to Balanced Rock, visiting the Fossil Discovery Exhibit (great if you are traveling with kids), soaking in the hot springs near Rio Grande Village (just note that it will be a very long drive to get back to Terlingua or Lajitas), or exploring Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Best Hikes in Big Bend

Balanced Rock

Big Bend Itinerary Day 3: Rio Grande Village

Rio Grande Village is located in the eastern section of Big Bend National Park. There are a few hiking trails and scenic overlooks, but the big draw are the hot springs and the chance to cross the border to visit the Mexican town Boquillas del Carmen.

Before heading right to the Rio Grande Village, I have an optional side trip to recommend. Hiking to Ernst Tinaja was our favorite experience in Big Bend National Park.

Optional: Ernst Tinaja

Distance: 1.6 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Time: 1 to 1.5 hours

Ernst Tinaja is a series of water holes that are tucked away in a remote canyon. With its colorful limestone rocks and canyons, this area looks much different from the rest of Big Bend National Park.

Hikes in Big Bend

To get here, you will drive Old Ore Road, a rough, primitive dirt road. The national park service recommends having a high-clearance 4WD vehicle for this drive.

Once at the trailhead, it is a short, easy hike through a slot canyon to get to the water holes. Those looking for a little more adventure can continue the hike past the water-filled pools and rock scramble their way to the back of the canyon.

Boquillas Canyon Trail

Distance: 1.6 miles | Difficulty: Easy to moderate | Time: 1 to 1.5 hours

Drive to the end of Boquillas Canyon Road. This road dead-ends at a parking lot and the trailhead for Boquillas Canyon.

This hike is similar to Santa Elena Canyon in that it follows along the edge of the Rio Grande. The first part of the hike is the most challenging, a steep but brief climb up and over a good-sized hill. The view from here is very nice, as you look out over the Rio Grande River, and honestly, it’s better than the view you will have from the nearby Boquillas Canyon Overlook (next on this itinerary). Then, it is a mostly flat and scenic walk along the river.

How Many Days in Big Bend

View from the top of the first climb

 

Rio Grande Big Bend Itinerary

Boquillas Canyon

Boquillas Canyon Overlook

Drive back down Boquillas Canyon Road just a short distance until you reach the Boquillas Canyon Overlook. This view isn’t quite as good as the view you just had from the Boquillas Canyon Trail, but it’s still worthwhile. From here, you look out over the Rio Grande and off in the distance you can see Boquillas del Carmen in Mexico.

Boquillas Overlook

Boquillas Canyon Overlook

Visit Boquillas del Carmen

Boquillas del Carmen is a very small town in Mexico. To get here, you will cross the Rio Grande by row boat. Spend the afternoon drinking margaritas, eating Mexican food, and shopping.

In order to do this, you will go through Border Control, so you must have your passport.

Park at the Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry. You will pass through the Port of Entry building and then walk a short distance along the Rio Grande to the river crossing.

There are several men operating row boats to shuttle visitors back and forth across the river. Once on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, you pay your fee ($5 per person, cash only, round trip), are given a ticket, and you will show this at the end of your visit, when you are ready to cross the Rio Grande again.

Crossing the Rio Grande

Rowboats crossing the Rio Grande

To get into town, you can walk or you can ride a donkey or a horse. We chose to walk, and from what we saw, it takes about the same amount of time, since the donkeys and horses do not move very fast.

It is a 0.6-mile walk (one-way) along a sandy road. The road is covered with donkey poop and the trucks that drive back and forth kick up dust into the air, making this very unpleasant, whether you are walking or riding a donkey.

Boquillas del Carmen has a few restaurants that have terraces with views of the Rio Grande. There are also several small souvenir shops. Many people who come here love hanging out at one of the restaurants, eating Mexican food, and having drinks.

Boquillas del Carmen

To return to Big Bend National Park, cross the river by rowboat and go through the Port of Entry. Your passport will be scanned and then you will be on your way.

From November 2 through April 30, the Port of Entry is open Wednesday through Sunday 8 am to 5 pm. From May 1 to November 1, the Port of Entry is open Friday through Monday from 9 am to 6 pm. Get updated hours on the national park service website before you go. 

Important Note: The Port of Entry closes at 5 pm (6 pm during the summer months) so you cannot come here for dinner. You need to make sure you are back at the Port of Entry no later than closing time or you will be spending the night in Mexico. If you plan to spend the night in Mexico, you will need a temporary visa.

Planning Your Visit: This will take about 4 hours of your time, if you do a little shopping and have lunch in town. The shops and restaurants accept US dollars and it is helpful to have small bills. Confirm the closing time of the Port of Entry so you know when you must cross back to the US side of the Rio Grande.

Rio Grande Hot Springs

If you still have time and energy after your visit to Boquillas del Carmen, visit the Rio Grande Hot Springs.

To get to the hot springs, it is a 1-mile easy walk (one-way) on the Hot Springs Historic Trail. This takes about 2 hours, including time for the hike and time in the hot springs.

Where to Stay

We spent 4 nights in Big Bend, splitting our time between two different properties, simply because there were two accommodations that looked great and we had a hard time deciding between the two.

Lajitas Golf Resort

Located just outside of Big Bend National Park, this 4-star hotel has a golf course, multiple onsite restaurants, and an equestrian center. Some rooms can accommodate up to four people.

We spent two nights here and really enjoyed our stay. The property offers free WiFi. It worked great around the main lobby and the Boardwalk area of the resort. However, farther out, near Calvary Post, we were not able to get a signal. If you think that you will need WiFi during your visit, request a room in the Lajitas Boardwalk area of the resort. By the way, there was very limited cellular service here so don’t depend on this as a back-up.

The Local Chapter

Three yurts, each one secluded from its neighbors, sit along a plateau and from here, you have outstanding views of Big Bend National Park. The owners went above and beyond, furnishing the room with plush towels, a very comfortable bed, and even a telescope to peer into the night sky. When you lay in bed, you can stare up at the stars through the skylight in the ceiling.

Big Bend Yurt

We loved staying in the yurt and we recommend it. However, our only complaint is that it can be noisy if it is a windy night. On our second night a storm rolled through the area and it sounded like the yurt would blow away. The noise of the wind rattling the yurt was so loud that we could not sleep until the storm passed. If you are a light sleeper, you might want to look elsewhere.

Learn more about the Local Chapter here.

Terlingua Ranch Lodge

If you are looking for a budget place, Terlingua Ranch Lodge gets decent reviews. It is located in Terlingua, so it is not far from the entrance into Big Bend National Park and you will have easy access to restaurants, a grocery store, and a gas station.

Inside the Park

Inside of Big Bend National Park, you can stay at the Chisos Mountains Lodge, which has a great central location in Chisos Basin. There are also campgrounds at Rio Grande Village, Chisos Basin, and on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (Cottonwood Campground). 

Marathon, Texas

Marathon, a small town that is about a 45-minute drive north of Big Bend, also has several highly rated hotels to consider. The Gage Hotel is a historic and very highly rated hotel. It has received numerous accolades, such as the #1 Small Hotel in Texas, “Best Hotel Bar” in Texas, and it was voted the #1 hotel in Texas by the readers of Conde Nast Traveler. 

Practical Information

Park Hours: Park entrances are open 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.

Park Fee: $30 per vehicle, valid for 7 days

Get updates on trail closures and park conditions on the national park service website as you plan your trip and just before your visit. 

More Information about Big Bend

BEST OF BIG BEND: 10 Great Things to Do in Big Bend National Park
BEST HIKES: 15 Great Hikes in Big Bend National Park
ERNST TINAJA TRAIL: How to Hike the Ernst Tinaja Trail
EMORY PEAK: How to Hike to Emory Peak
SOUTH RIM TRAIL: How to Hike the South Rim Trail
BALANCED ROCK: How to Hike to Balanced Rock Hike


If you have any questions about this Big Bend itinerary or how to spend 3 days in Big Bend, let us know in the comment section below.

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