Must See Highlights of Big Bend National Park

While Big Bend is one of the most remote national parks in the lower 48 states, it’s also one of the largest. It offers some of the most diverse landscapes, the darkest night sky, and a wide range of activities for you to enjoy. Kris and I visited in February of 2021 and we quickly fell in love. The added bonus is that because it’s remote, there are few annual visitors and little congestion so there’s plenty of space to explore without being surrounded by other tourists!

To make planning your trip a little easier, Big Bend can be broken up into three regions, the River, Desert, and the Mountains. While I’d recommend giving yourself at least a week to explore the park and neighboring towns, you can get a sense of most of what Big Bend has to offer in as few as three days if your time is limited.

Below, you’ll find my top recommendations for each region, broken down by must sees and additional recommendations so that if you do only have a few days to visit, you can get in the best highlights. As a side note, the mountains region was by far our favorite part of the trip, so if you plan to spend extra time anywhere I would do it there! You will also find some recommendations for activities outside the national park, when to go, where to stay and how to get there. Enjoy!


What to Do in Big Bend National Park

Mountains, Chisos Basin
Must Sees

Lost Mine Trail

This was hands down my favorite hike in the park! The views the entire way to the top were extraordinary and the end of the trail is incredibly rewarding. There is a small parking lot at the trail head which fills up very quickly so definitely get here early so you don’t miss out!

  • 4.9 Miles
  • 1,135 ft Elevation Gain
  • Out & Back

Window View Trail

It’s probably not fair to call this a trail, since it’s such a short distance, but this is absolutely a must do in the park. We ended up spending several days in the Chisos Basin area and walked this trail every day, both during the day and during sunset, as the iconic “window” view never gets old!

  • 0.3 Miles
  • 13 ft Elevation Gain
  • Loop

Window Trail

We had so much fun on this hike down to the base of the “window,” which leads to a dramatic drop off into the valley of the park! If you start from the campground it also is supposed to shave some of the total distance off the hike. We added on a short distance to the end for a completely different and unobstructed view of valley that didn’t seem to be well known and I’d highly recommend it. Once you get within 0.25 miles of the end of the window trail, there is a fork in the road and one trail leads to the end of the Window Trail (definitely do this), but the other is worth doing on your way back, which points to “Oak Spring Trail”. The sign will tell you that Oak Spring is another 2 or so miles, however, we only followed that trail another quarter mile up to an overlook that is completely worth the extra distance and felt like a hidden secret because we were the only ones up there!

  • 5.2 Miles
  • 948 ft Elevation Gain
  • Out & Back

Additional Recommendations

Emory Mountain

This is one of the more challenging but popular trails, which leads to the highest peak in the park and took me about 6 hours to complete, with a long break at the end to explore. The trail is gorgeous and I saw more wildlife on this hike than anywhere else in the park. There were actually thousands of ladybugs on the rocks leading up to the top, so keep your eyes peeled once you get there! They very top of the peak requires a challenging scramble, and to be honest, I only found my way to the top and back down because there was someone else trying to figure it out with me at the time, so brace yourself and don’t be afraid to make friends who might be able to help you if you’re hiking alone like I was.

  • 10 Miles
  • 2,513 ft Elevation Gain
  • Out & Back

Desert, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

The drive is 30 miles one way and leads to the iconic Santa Elena Canyon
Must Sees

Blue Creek River Trail, Homer Wilson Ranch

This brief trail leads down to the historic Homer Wilson Ranch which is fun to walk around and imagine what it might have been like to live here!

  • 0.7 Miles
  • 68 ft Elevation Gain
  • Out & Back

Lower Burro Mesa Trail
We stumbled upon this trail and were pleasantly surprised by the dramatic rock wall at the end. It was an easy walk through the sandy gravel trail and we had the entire hike to ourselves!

  • 1 Mile
  • 144 ft Elevation Gain
  • Out & Back

Santa Elena Canyon Trail

This is one of the most popular and must see highlights of Big Bend National Park! The trail leads into the mouth of the canyon, scaling along the US wall, and there is an entry point into the shallow water at the end where you can walk to the middle of the Rio Grande to be in two countries at once!

  • 1.5 Miles
  • 610 ft Elevation Gain
  • Out & Back

Along the Drive

Be sure to stop at some of the scenic overlooks along the way for stunning views and great pictures, particularly Sotol Vista Overlook and Mule Ears Viewpoint!

As a side, we also took the very popular 4-mile round trip trail to Mule Ears Spring and were fairly disappointed by an over vegetated and hardly visible spring at the end of a hot and unshaded walk through the desert. That being said, many people recommend the hike, so don’t let this deter you if you’ve had it on your bucket list!

Additional Recommendations

Tuff Canyon

This is a fun and easy trail that leads above and through a canyon wash and is worth at least a stop on your scenic drive!

1 Mile
98 ft Elevation Gain
Out & Back

Old Maverick Road

This is a 14-mile scenic dirt road that is said to be the easiest off-road road in Big Bend. The road begins right at the end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, near the Santa Elena Canyon and leads back to Panther Junction Rd, right near the western park entrance. It’s definitely a faster way to get back to Terlingua from the Ross Maxwell and enables you to complete the drive in a loop, rather than taking the paved 30-mile road out and back.

River, Rio Grande

Must Sees

Boquillas Canyon

This beautiful canyon has an overlook that faces the Mexican town of Boquillas, where we were actually able to wave at some of the locals across the river who were looking at us through their binoculars (not in a creepy way)! There’s also a short and easy trail that leads into the mouth of the canyon along the Rio Grande, which is absolutely worth doing. There were Boquillas locals along the trail who had crossed the river and were selling trinkets and tamales, so bring some small bills if that interests you!

1.2 Miles
229 ft Elevation Gain
Out & Back

Boquillas Hot Spring

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to visit the hot springs during our visit as this was one of the few attractions that were closed due to Covid. However, everyone who has been able to soak in the relaxing natural waters of Big Bend highly recommends it, so we definitely plan to do this on our next visit!

Nature Trail

We were the only ones on this unpopulated trail during our mid-day visit and it ended up being a highlight for us! We especially enjoyed the viewing the natural border the Rio Grande creates between the US and Mexico and the wildlife that we encountered. We saw beautiful birds and even watched a road runner eat a frog right in front of us! We of course felt bad for the frog, but it was fascinating to see the circle of life unfolding right in front of us out in the wild.

1 Mile
121 ft Elevation Gain
Loop

Additional Recommendations

Boquillas Mexico

Once again, we unfortunately didn’t get to take advantage of the easy trip across the border that’s typically available to visitors due to Covid. However, if you do visit once the restrictions are lifted and are in the mood for a quick international get away, there is a very inexpensive boat ride you can take across the Rio Grande to the local town where you can grab a bite to eat and check out the small river front town.
*The locals of this town survive off of the tourism from Big Bend National Park and have been hit extremely hard during Covid. Many of the local Mexican families have set up small unmanned “shops” of handmade trinkets along several of the river front trails, with milk or coffee cans to accept donations and purchases. If you’re feeling generous, bring some small bills with you to help in any way you can.

Grapevine Hills Trail (Balanced Rock)

This is one of the most popular and recommended trails in the park and leads to a remarkable balancing rock in the middle of the desert. The trail head is centrally located in Big Bend, so this can be tacked on to any day’s itinerary, but I recommend adding it to your visit to Rio Grande visit because the river hikes are quick and easy, so you’re likely to have extra time in your day.
*We attempted to do this hike during our visit but we unfortunately weren’t prepared for the 7 mile rough, unpaved road we needed to take to get there, so after bouncing around in the ProMaster for about 2 miles we decided to turn around and skip the hike. That being said, we did see Sprinters and other vans taking the road so it is doable, we just didn’t want to put our already worn tires through the unnecessary stress.

1.9 Miles
232 ft Elevation Gain
Out & Back


Recommendations for Outside the Park

Kayak the Rio Grande
There are a handful of tours from the town of Terlingua, but after getting pricing from each we found Big Bend Boating and Hiking Company to be the most affordable. We took a half day tour through the Big Bend State Park (completely different from the National Park) and we had a blast! The company owner, Erin was on our tour and did an incredible job keeping the group engaged and navigating through the waters of the Rio Grande. We also got to pull over on our tour to stop on the Mexican side of the river and take pictures, which seemed to be a novelty to everyone, especially during Covid times when international travel for most has been exceptionally limited.

Visit Big Bend Ranch State Park

As I said, we visited the park through our tour of the Rio Grande however, there are plenty of hiking trails, including a slot canyon, and remote campgrounds worth exploring!

Visit Terlingua

Even if you’re not staying in town, Terlingua is worth a visit! This small former mining town may illicit a love it or hate it response because it’s pretty much just dirt and sand, but after driving from the western park entrance to our campground we quickly grew to love it’s quirky and unique charm. The highlight from Terlingua was walking around Ghost Town, where you can grab incredible breakfast burritos at Espresso Y Poco Mas and venture around some of the old, abandoned miners’ homes and Starlight Theatre.

Visit the Nearby Small Towns

If you fly into El Paso and drive down to Big Bend (which you should), you will likely pass Marfa, Alpine and Marathon, in that order. Each of these towns are adorable and worth a quick stop if you have the time. Marfa is the most well-known, particularly for the Prada store art installation (which actually isn’t in Marfa, but outside Valentine). We spent the most time in Alpine at the highly recommended Lost Alaskan RV Park, and had fun walking around town to view all of the street art. I’d also recommend the popular Alicia’s Mexican Drive through for breakfast burritos and a stop by the historic Holland Hotel. In Marathon, we stayed at the Marathon Motel & RV Park, which has its own telescope to encourage visitors to take advantage of the dark sky, and communal campfires in the evenings! Be sure to also stop by the Gage Hotel for a drink in town!

 


When to Go

You can visit Big Bend anytime between the Fall and Spring, while the temperatures are fairly moderate. We visited in February, which I would highly recommend as the weather was perfect and it was right before busy season (March – June) when all of the spring break crowds show up.

Where to Stay

In the Park

Camping: There are three established campgrounds within the park and if you plan to stay at any one of them, be sure to book your reservations in advance because they all book up during busy season! The Chisos Basin campground with 60 sites is most centrally located and, in my opinion, is the most beautiful and provides convenient access to some of the most popular hiking trails! The largest campground is the Rio Grande Village with 100 tent sites and 25 RV sites, however, this is located in the most remote location of the park, so if you want to spend most of your time elsewhere then keep that in mind. The Cottonwood campground is the smallest with 24 sites and is located near Santa Elena Canyon, which is one of the more popular destinations.

Chisos Basin Lodge: This lodge is the only hotel in the park and is located right next to the Chisos Basin Visitor’s Center. I’d highly recommend booking this well in advance if you’re not into camping and want to avoid a long drive into the park each day.

Terlingua

Terlingua is the closest town to the park entrance and has a ton of different lodging options, including campgrounds, motels, casitas, and tipi rentals! We stayed at Rancho Topanga Campgrounds, which were about 15-20 minutes from the Western park entrance and built for tents or vans (RVs are not recommended but there are a few spaces that can accommodate). While the campground was a bit further than most others, we were pleasantly surprised by how much of a hidden gem this place was and we would absolutely stay here again! There are well built bath houses with showers and hot water. There is also a short hill next to the sites that we had fun hiking with our chairs to enjoy one of the most beautiful desert sunsets we’ve seen!

 

How to Get There

We of course drove our camper van to Big Bend, but everything I read leading up to the trip for normal travelers recommended flying into El Paso, renting a car, and making the 4 hour drive down to the park. There are a few airports that are closer, but are also much smaller and often require a connection, with very little room for flight delays, weather challenges, etc.

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