Isolated, remote, wild, rugged…this is Big Bend National Park. Located on the southwestern corner of Texas, within the Chihuahuan Desert, is an extraordinary mountain range that is a haven for hikers, backpackers, and outdoor enthusiasts. In this post, learn about the best things to do in Big Bend National Park with tips to help you have the best experience.
Interesting Facts about 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.
Big Bend National Park gets its name from the prominent bend in the Rio Grande along this border.
This is one of the largest, most remote, and least visited national parks in the United States. In 2019, only 460,000 people visited the park. It might sound like a lot, but compare that with the 4 million people who visited Yellowstone and the 12.5 million people who visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
Big Bend officially became a national park on June 12, 1944.
Due to its remote location and low level of light pollution, Big Bend was designated as an International Dark-Sky Park in 2012. Measurements have shown that Big Bend has the darkest skies in the lower 48 states. Gazing up at the night sky is one of the best things to do in Big Bend National Park.
Best Things to do in Big Bend National Park
Big Bend is a fairly large national park with three distinct areas: the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive region, Chisos Basin, and the Rio Grande Village. Most of the things to do fall within these regions, with a few outliers here and there. This list is organized by geographical location.
Best Things to do along Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
Cruise down 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, there is a lot to do as you drive along this road. Scenic overlooks, hiking trails, and short strolls will keep you busy as you drive along this road.
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive starts at Panther Junction Road and ends at the beautiful Santa Elena Canyon.
You can drive out and back along Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive or you can drive one direction along Old Maverick Road. This is a dirt road that connects Santa Elena Canyon with the Maverick Junction entrance into Big Bend National Park (the west entrance near Terlingua). Old Maverick Road can close due to flooding.
Hike Santa Elena Canyon
Distance: 1.7 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Time: 1 to 2 hours
Hiking Santa Elena Canyon is one of the best things to do in Big Bend National Park. It’s short, it’s easy, and this is the best up-close experience with the Rio Grande.
For most of this hike, you walk along the edge of the river. There is one brief climb but it’s worth it…the views over the Rio Grande are breathtaking (check out the cover photo for this post). The trail ends at a beautiful view into the Santa Elena Canyon.
Santa Elena Canyon Overlook
I heard great things about this overlook, but in my opinion, it did not live up to the hype. The view is nice but it doesn’t come close to what you see if you hike into Santa Elena Canyon.
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.
Distance: 0.75 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Time: 30 minutes
This super easy stroll offers views of Tuff Canyon. You can walk the short loop to overlooks of the canyon, or, take the spur trail and walk through the canyon.
See the Mule Ears
The Mule Ears are a unique rock formation that looks like 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. This trail ends a spring, so it does not take you all of the way to the Mule Ears.
HIKING STATS FOR THE SPRING TRAIL: 3.8 miles long. Moderate. Allow 2 to 3 hours
Hike the Lower Burro Mesa Pour-Off
Distance: 1 mile | Difficulty: Easy | Time: Allow 45 minutes
This pretty little hike wanders 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.
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.
Best Things to do in Chisos Basin
Chisos Basin was our favorite area of the 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.
Watch the Sunset at the Window
Distance: 0.3 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Time: 20 minutes
The Window View Trail is a paved, flat trail leads to a viewpoint of the Window, a cut-out in the Chisos mountain range that is one of the best sunset points in the park.
Hike the Window Trail
Distance: 5.6 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Time: 3 to 4 hours
Not to be confused with the Window View Trail, the Window Trail is a moderately strenuous hike that ends at the Window. From here, you have stunning views of Big Bend National Park.
Hike the Lost Mine Trail
Distance: 4.8 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Time: 2.5 to 3.5 hours
The Lost Mine Trail is one of the most popular hikes in the 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.
Hike the 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. If you have plans to hike to the South Rim or Emory Peak, the hike will start on this same trail. Beware of bear and mountain lion.
Emory Peak, the Highest Point in Big Bend
Distance: 10.4 miles | Difficulty: Strenuous | Time: 5 to 7 hours
Emory Peak is the highest peak in the Chisos Mountains and Big Bend National Park. It’s a tough hike but the view over the park is unbeatable.
There are two different ways to do this hike. The quickest and most direct way is to hike out-and-back to Emory Peak from the Chisos Basin Visitor Center. Option #2, a full day adventure, is to hike the South Rim Trail and add on the detour to Emory Peak.
LEARN MORE: How to Hike to Emory Peak
Hike the South Rim Trail
Distance: 12.6 miles | Difficulty: Strenuous | Time: 6 to 8 hours
The South Rim Trail is one of the best ways to experience Big Bend National Park. Starting in the Chisos Basin, you will steadily climb up to the South Rim, where jaw-dropping views of the Chihuahuan Desert await. Add on the short but steep climb up Emory Peak for an even more epic experience.
LEARN MORE: How to Hike the South Rim Trail
Best Things to do near 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 and visit the Mexican town Boquillas del Carmen.
Rio Grande Hot Springs
Distance: 1 mile | Difficulty: Easy | Time: Allow 30 minutes for the hike, longer to relax in the hot springs
Soaking in the hot springs is one of the best things to do in Big Bend National Park. The Hot Springs Historic Trail is a short, easy trail that takes you to 105°F hot springs.
Visit Boquillas del Carmen
Cross the Rio Grande into Mexico and visit the small town Boquillas del Carmen. This is a very popular thing to do in Big Bend National Park.
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.
View of the rowboats on the Rio Grande, photo taken from Mexico
To get to Boquillas del Carmen, 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 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.
The small town 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.
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 5 pm or you will be spending the night in Mexico. If you plan to spend the night in Mexico, you will need a temporary visa.
To get back into the park, return to the Rio Grande, 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.
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.
About Our Experience: This was one of our least favorite experiences in Big Bend. The walk to get to and from the town was annoying and the town was very touristy and lacked any real charm. I guess a few margaritas would have made it more worthwhile, but Big Bend National Park is such a beautiful place that we would rather explore the trails by day and have those drinks later, once the sun set.
Planning a visit to the US national parks? Visit our Guide to the National Parks to learn more about the parks, with important travel planning tips, sample itineraries, advice on when to go, where to stay, and more.
Rio Grande Village Nature Trail
Distance: 0.75 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Time: 30 minutes
This short hiking trail loops through a marshy area on the edge of the Rio Grande. This is a great place for wildlife viewing, with the chance to see fish and birds.
Boquillas Canyon Overlook
For a view of the Rio Grande, pop out of your car at this overlook. Below is the view you can expect. It’s OK, but if you want a better view, and you don’t mind a little hiking, drive a little farther to the Boquilllas Canyon Trail.
Hike the Boquillas Canyon Trail
Distance: 1.6 miles | Difficulty: Easy to moderate | Time: 1 to 1.5 hours
This trail is similar to Santa Elena Canyon in that it follows along the edge of the Rio Grande. The start (and end) of this hike is the most challenging, with a steep but brief climb up and over a good-sized hill (enjoy the view…it’s a better view than what you get at the nearby Boquillas Canyon Overlook). Then, it is a mostly flat and scenic walk along the river.
Rio Grande Overlook
This is skippable, but I am including it just to be thorough, since it is a popular viewpoint. It’s called the Rio Grande Overlook, although you really are nowhere near the river at this viewpoint. If you plan to visit the Boquillas Canyon Overlook, hike the Boquillas Canyon Trail, or cross the river into Mexico, you will have much better views of the river than from this viewpoint.
Distance: 1.6 miles long | Difficulty: Easy to moderate | Time: 1 to 1.5 hours
This was our favorite experience in Big Bend National Park.
This is a short, easy trail through a slot canyon, featuring a series of waterholes located within colorful layers of limestone rock. 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.
Getting here can also be an adventure. The Ernst Tinaja trail is located on Old Ore Road, a rough, gravel road that is only suitable for high-clearance vehicles with four-wheel drive. So, in order to do this hike, you will need a 4WD vehicle.
LEARN MORE: How to Hike the Ernst Tinaja Trail
More Things to do in and around Big Bend National Park
Fossil Discovery Exhibit
Journey through 130 million years of geologic time and learn about the plants and animals that once called this area home. In this exhibit, you can see the fossils of sea creatures (from a time when a shallow sea covered this area), dinosaurs, and mammals.
Hike to Balanced Rock
Distance: 2.2 miles | Difficulty: Easy to moderate | Time: 1 to 2 hours
This short, relatively easy hike is one of the best things to do in Big Bend National Park. There is a brief section of rock scrambling that is fun for kids and adults and it features one of the most unique rock formations in the park.
To get here, you will drive 6.3 miles on a well-maintained gravel road named Grapevine Spring. This road starts on Gano Springs Road, near Chisos Basin and Panther Junction.
LEARN MORE: How to Hike to Balanced Rock
Go on a Rio Grande Canoe Trip
Floating along the Rio Grande is one of the best experiences in Big Bend National Park. Your options range from half-day excursions to multi-day canoeing trips along the river. Learn more on the national park website.
Go Star Gazing
With the least amount of light pollution than any other national park in the lower 48 states, Big Bend is one of the best places to view the night sky. Keep your fingers crossed for clear skies and then enjoy the view of constellations and even the Milky Way.
Terlingua Ghost Town
Located just outside of Big Bend National Park is the Terlingua Ghost Town. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Terlingua was home to a thriving mining company. That eventually came to an end, the miners left, and this became a ghost town.
People began returning in the 1960’s. Now, Terlingua hosts a famous Chili Cook-Off, which put it back on the map.
Spend an hour wandering through the town. There is an old graveyard and numerous shops and restaurants. The best thing to do here is to have dinner at the Starlight Theatre Restaurant (get here early and expect to wait in line to get in).
Visit Big Bend Ranch State Park
It might be hard to pull yourself away from the amazing hiking trails and landscapes in Big Bend National Park, but right around the corner is the just as beautiful and much less crowded Big Bend Ranch State Park. With short hiking trails, slot canyons, and another gorgeous scenic drive, this is worth at least a few hours of your time.
READ MORE: Big Bend Ranch State Park: Best Things to do with Limited Time
10 Best Things to do in Big Bend National Park
From everything on this list, here are our top 10 experiences to have in and around Big Bend National Park.
1. Hike the Ernst Tinaja Trail
2. Enjoy the view from Emory Peak
3. Hike the South Rim Trail
4. Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
5. Hike Santa Elena Canyon
6. Hike to Balanced Rock
7. The Lost Mine Trail
8. Big Bend Ranch State Park
9. Go star gazing
10. Soak in the Rio Grande Hot Springs
Best of Big Bend on a Map
How to Use This Map: Click the tab in the top left hand corner of the map to view the layers (things to do in Big Bend). 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.
How to Get to Big Bend National Park
Big Bend has a very remote location. To get here, expect to do a lot of driving.
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.
How Much Time do You Need in Big Bend?
If you want to explore all three areas of the park (Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, and along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive), you will need a minimum of three days. More time is better, as this allows you to go on longer hikes, visit Big Bend Ranch State Park, and thoroughly explore the park without feeling too rushed.
When to Go to Big Bend
Fall and spring are the best times to visit Big Bend National Park. Temperatures are mild during the day and cool at night. There is more rainfall during the autumn months. March is one of the busiest months in the park, because of the favorable weather conditions and spring break travelers.
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, 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, even during peak season.
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.
Map of Big Bend from the NPS website.
About Cellular Service
Cell service is extremely limited in the park. We had no service at the Rio Grande Village, near Santa Elena, and on the majority of the hiking trails. We did have a low signal near Panther Junction and Chisos Basin. Don’t rely on cellular service while you are in the park.
Outside of the park, cellular service is not much better. We could get a signal in Terlingua, but it wasn’t reliable. Outside of that, even in Lajitas and other small towns, we had very little cellular service. If you think you will need cellular service or an internet connection, stay in a hotel that offers reliable WiFi.
Where to Stay
We stayed at two different locations 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
Like the idea of staying in a yurt? This is not any old yurt. This feels like a cross between staying in a 4-star hotel and camping in a remote location.
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.
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.
In 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. The very colorful Eve’s Garden B&B also gets rave reviews.
More Information about Big Bend National Park
- ITINERARY: 3 Days in Big Bend: The Perfect Itinerary
- 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 the best things to do in Big Bend National Park, let us know in the comment section below!
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If this is part of a bigger road trip through the USA, visit our United States Travel Guide for more inspiration and travel planning tips.
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