Everything you need to know about Big Bend National Park hikes and travel guide
Welcome to Big Bend National Park, one of Texas’s two national parks.
As one of the larger, and definitely one of the more remote and less-visited, national parks, Big Bend offers a wide variety of plant and wildlife due to large changes in elevation, differing climates (both hot desert and cool mountains), and the fertile Rio Grande River area.
Big Bend gets its name from the big bend, imagine that, in the Rio Grande River that forms the park’s boundary. The river pulls double-duty too, serving as the international boundary between the US and Mexico for about 120 miles.
Though somewhat difficult to get to, Big Bend is worth a trip and has it all: great hiking, a lengthy scenic road, sweeping vistas, canyons, cacti, wildlife, rivers, mountains, and even (legal) border crossings.
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The best time to visit Big Bend National Park is the fall and winter seasons. But given Big Bend’s southern location, you can feasibly visit year-round. Fall brings cooler temperatures and the winters are typically mild.
The summer can bring temperatures well over 100 degrees in the desert, but will be slightly cooler throughout the higher-elevation Chisos Mountains.
Yes. The biggest dangers in Big Bend National Park are wildlife and dehydration. The largest animals are black bears, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes. Oh My!
As with any national park, stay a minimum of 100 yards from bears and lions and stay on the path to avoid any unexpected rattlesnake encounters (having experienced this on a hike in North Dakota, we can confidently say it scared us shit-less).
As for the weather, the desert brings a dry heat (which, by the way, is still hot) and the human body quickly uses its water reserves. It’s suggested that each person carry a minimum of 1 gallon (4.5 liters) with them, especially when hiking.
And although it may sound counter-intuitive when talking about heat and dehydration, don’t forget your lightly-salted snacks too as these can help stave off some of the symptoms of salt depletion, including nausea and cramping – because there is nothing worse than a calf cramp while climbing a mountain!
Lastly, Chris wouldn’t be the son of a dermatologist if he didn’t remind you about your sunblock, hat, and sunglasses. Dad would be proud.
The closest airports to Big Bend National Park are El Paso International Airport and Midland International Airport in Odessa, TX. While they are the closest, you’ll need to adjust your expectations on what that means in Texas. Remember that saying about “Everything’s Bigger in Texas?”
From El Paso International Airport, you’ll need to rent a car and drive 290-ish miles, or about 4.5 hours, to get to the north entrance station.
From Midland International Airport, you’ll need to rent a car and drive the remaining 200 miles, or about 3 hours, to get to the north entrance station.
As we previously mentioned, you’ll need to plan on several days in the park to make the journey worth it.
Whether you’re a native Texan or taking a road trip to Big Bend National Park, tighten your bootstraps and be prepared for an epic adventure.
Approximate drive times/miles by car:
- San Antonio to Big Bend National Park: 7 hours / 450 miles
- Austin to Big Bend National Park: 7 hours 45 minutes / 475 miles
- Dallas to Big Bend National Park: 9 hours / 575 miles
- Houston to Big Bend National Park: 10 hours / 600 miles
In conclusion, Texas is big.
Photo Credit: Chisos Mountain Lodge Facebook
Despite its vast size, Big Bend National Park only has a few options if you want to physically stay inside the park.
Chisos Mountains Lodge
Tucked away in the Chisos Basin around 5,400 feet in elevation, the Chisos Mountain Lodge is the top choice for visitors. With a variety of options as well as onsite dining, this lodge is the ONLY option when you want to stay in the park (and not camp).
The upside to staying here is you are seriously close to some of the best trails and with the higher elevation, it’s typically cooler.
The only downside is you’ll pay more to stay here with rooms starting in the range of $180 a night. While you’ll pay more for a room, you’ll probably spend just as much in gas getting in and out of the park from a cheaper option, so it might end up being a draw. Do your math.
Chisos Basin Campground
Just down the mountain from the lodge, Chisos Basin Campground offers partial RV hookups and tent sites. From this campground, you are close to the most popular trailheads as well as the lodge which has a dining room and store.
With charcoal grills, bear-proof storage, and bathrooms nearby, this is a great option when looking to be centrally located within the park.
Reservations are required. No First-come First-served camping.
RVs and Trailers – due to the incredibly windy road and steep elevations, it’s not recommended for trailers over 20 feet and RVs over 24 feet try to access this campground. We were in a 30-foot RV, so we only took our small Ford Fiesta, and we still felt a little uncomfortable on some of the hairpin turns.
We highly suggest NOT risking it. You won’t have anywhere to pull over once you start your ascent up the winding road. Please think twice.
Rio Grande Village Campground
Rio Grande Village Campground is the second of two camping options in the park. It’s a 100% RV park with no tent camping allowed. Located just off the Rio Grande, this campground is a solid hour drive from the north entrance with minimal elevation gain.
If you were looking at traveling into Mexico, this will be the closest campground for this. However, if you are looking to do the hikes in Chisos Basin, you’ll also be driving 45 minutes to get to the trailheads.
This campground offers full hookups and all the sites are back-in. There is no size restriction to access this campground. A small store is on site with laundry and showers.
Hotels/Cabins Near Big Bend National Park
If you don’t want to stay in the park or couldn’t get a reservation because you procrastinated too long, there are a few more options just outside the western entrance to the park. It’s not many, but you can check them out here.
If you haven’t stayed with Vrbo, then you haven’t experienced a home away from home. We love staying at unique places with them since you usually get a more local feel for a place.
To see what’s available near Big Bend, click this link for Vrbo and search for “Big Bend National Park”.
Campground and RV Parks Near Big Bend National Park
We personally stayed at Stillwell Ranch Store & RV Park near Big Bend National Park when we visited. To get to it, you go down a 5 mile long dirt road that has some small hills. For RVs, this campground offers full and partial hooks up and a wide selection of DVDs (since cell service and WiFi are pretty much non-existent in this remote part of the country). There are tent camping sites as well.
There isn’t much shade and not much grass (if any), so just know you’ll be here for sleeping, while spending most of your day in the park.
It’s only 10 minutes from the park entrance gate, but it is about an hour drive to get to Chisos Basin. Did we mention this park is massive and you’ll need several days to see it all?
Study Butte RV Park
On the western side of the park, Study Butte RV Park is a few minutes from the west entrance. They do NOT have a website so you’ll need to call them to check availability. According to their Facebook, they offer full hook-ups and tent camping sites as well. Their phone number is (432) 371-2468.
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- Distance: 4.8 miles round trip miles round trip, out and back
- Elevation gain: 1,100 feet elevation gain
- Trailhead: Basin Road, mile 5 near the pass
One of our favorite hikes in Big Bend was the Lost Mine Trail.
Not only is it a great hike, the story behind the name of the hike is also a great story. Legend has it that Spanish explorers discovered a silver mine high in the Chisos Mountains. They enslaved Native Americans to mine the precious treasure – but the Native Americans revolted, killed their overlords, and sealed the mine so it would remain lost. Forever.
Well, it worked. Pretty well, in fact, as the mine was never to be found again.
Today, the hike weaves alongside a mountain’s ledge through trees and alpine terrain until eventually reaching the peak with a beautiful aerial view of the park below.
This hike starts with a decent ascent in the woods and at just one mile in, you get sweeping views of the valley below. If you can, get here just before sunrise and enjoy the beauty and peacefulness.
Past this point, you’ll continue to climb a consistently steep trail and for the last 5 minutes or so of this hike, it becomes a steep ascent on rocky gravel. Once you plateau (and stop to catch your breath), keep walking another minute on top of the ridge with near-360 degree views of the valley below.
Our favorite of the Big Bend National Park hikes was worth every steep step. We’ve talked about it and it definitely makes the top 15 list of our favorite hikes of all time. Be mindful that black bears and mountain lions love this part of the park, so remember to make noise and stay at least 100 yards away if spotted.
This is the end of the Window Trail
- Distance: 5.2 miles miles round trip
- Elevation gain: 950 ft elevation
- Trailhead: Chisos Basin Trailheads (near the Basin store)
The Window Trail is what we call a “reverse summit” hike meaning you descend down (instead of up) to reach the viewpoint. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a different type of hike since you’ll have to ascend on your trek back.
Given its central location, this trail is one of the most popular Big Bend National Park hikes. The first half of the hike descends into the canyon valley to get to the window pouroff, which is an opening in the rock that water flows through to pour into the valley.
The descent down is completely unshaded until you hit the canyon which then gives you a much needed reprieve from the sun.
The view at the top of the trailhead is the same view you’ll have the whole way down. The most interesting part of this hike is when you get to the canyon. The walk in the canyon involves some minor creek hopping and some rocky terrain until you get to the “window”.
If you are scared of heights, getting to the edge of the “window” can be a bit intimidating as it’s a pretty steep drop off and the wind rushes through the canyon at an intense speed.
Once you’ve reached the window and dare-deviled your way to the pouroff, you’ll turn around and walk back up the same way you came, just this time it’s uphill and still in the sun.
This is the view from the trailhead aka The Window View
Our unpopular opinion: the window isn’t as grand as the viewpoint from the lodge area. We were slightly letdown that this ended with the first picture referenced.
If you are tight on time, skip this hike for the Santa Elena Canyon or the Lost Mine Trail.
As one of the more popular Big Bend National Park hikes, we think that the view from the Window View (referenced below) is sufficient, but it’s up to you to decide.
- Distance: .3 miles round trip, out and back
- Elevation gain: none
- Trailhead: Chisos Basin Trailheads (near the Basin store)
This is the easiest of all the Big Bend National Park hikes. This hike is level, paved, and handicap accessible and takes you to the Window View spot.
From the View, you’ll get a scenic view of the basin below and the perfect place to watch the sunset in the park.
- Distance: 11 miles round trip, out and back
- Elevation gain: 2,400 feet
- Trailhead: Chisos Basin Trailheads (near the Basin store)
One of the more strenuous Big Bend National Park hikes, Emory Peak will take you to the tallest peak in the Chisos Basin. This hike is a big commitment but will reward you with epic views. The Emory Peak trail isn’t really shaded so you’ll need to bring sunscreen, a hat, and lots of water.
This trail has a series of switchbacks and the last 30 feet has a technical rock scramble you’ll need to climb up. Arguably the best summit views in the park, this trail will take several hours, so be sure to pack the correct gear.
A shorter alternative to this hike is to take the turn off to Boot Spring Trail toward Pinnacle Peak, which cuts this hike down to 8.6 miles roundtrip and only 2,000 feet of elevation gain.
The advantage to this is you’ll miss the rock scramble at the top, but you’ll also miss the highest point in the park. If you’re short on time, but want to do a portion of the Emory Peak hike, this could be a good alternative.
- Distance: 2.4 miles round trip, loop
- Elevation gain: 350 feet
- Trailhead: Chisos Basin Trailheads (near the Basin store)
The Basin Loop is a fun, quick hike that can accommodate most skill levels. It’s shorter so it can serve as a good warm up for a longer hike. This trail is partially shaded, though still mostly sunny, as are many of these Big Bend National Park hikes.
If you walk it clockwise, you’ll come back down from the Laguna Meadows with some beautiful views.
If you are into bird watching, this has relatively easy terrain with just a few turns and a mildly steep incline on one side. The Basin Loop is considered one of the best Big Bend National Park hikes for kids, seniors, and beginners.
- Distance: 1.2 miles round trip, loop
- Elevation gain: 145 feet
- Trailhead: End of Hot Springs Road (unpaved)
One of the most popular Big Bend National Park hikes, the Hot Springs Trail is a quick and easy stroll that features hot springs where you can take a dip! You’ll walk past many historic sites until you reach the water.
Due to its popularity, the Hot Springs trail can be crowded and the actual hot springs might be too since it’s a small area. The springs average 105 degrees year-round, but the trail and area are subject to flooding throughout the year. Check with the ranger station before venturing out.
As with the majority of Big Bend National Park hikes, this path isn’t really shaded so bring sun protection and water with you.
Balanced Rock via Grapevine Hills
- Distance: 2 miles round trip, out and back
- Elevation gain: 250 feet
- Trailhead: Grapevine Hills Road – about 6.5 miles down
Balanced Rock via Grapevine Hills is another one of the easy Big Bend National Park hikes. You’ll walk down the sandy desert wash until you reach the boulder field and then a fun rock scramble will take you to the balanced rock. The last quarter-mile is listed as “steep” to get to the balanced rock, but the effort is well worth it.
The road to this trail really requires a high clearance vehicle, preferably with 4WD or AWD, to get through the bumps and potholes.
- Distance: 1.6 miles round trip
- Elevation gain: 150 feet
- Trailhead: Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (at the end)
Start at sunrise. The Santa Elena Canyon Trail starts near the canyon opening and ascends up to magnificent views of the Terlingua Creek and canyon below.
Continue along the trail to continue deeper into the canyon. The trail, which runs parallel to the creek, does have some elevation gain and steps at the beginning but does flatten out as you continue into the canyon. Surrounded by bamboo, the trail winds along the canyon until it abruptly ends at a massive rock formation with no other way forward.
This trail easily floods and you’ll want to bring water shoes during the rainy season. Also of note, the road to get to the trail can flood easily and will become impassable, so be sure to check with the Ranger station for road conditions before heading out.
On our list of Big Bend National Park hikes, this was the first one that we did and it was one of our favorites!
We did it at sunrise and it was well worth the views.
Tuff Canyon trail
- Distance: 1 miles round trip, out and back
- Elevation gain: 100 feet
- Trailhead: Tuff Canyon Overlook
The Tuff Canyon trail descends into a short canyon hike. While there aren’t sweeping views from inside the canyon, you can stroll through the dry creek bed which is buttressed on either side by towering rock formations.
If you aren’t up for the descent into the canyon, you can get a view from 3 different overview points. While it’s quick and easy, if you are pressed for time, skip the hike, and just look down from the various viewpoints.
Mule Ears Spring
- Distance: 4 miles round trip, out and back
- Elevation gain: 400 feet
- Trailhead: Mule Ears Road off of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
From this parking lot, you can do 2 different trails, Mule Ear Spring Trail (4 miles) and Spring Creek Trail (7 miles). Depending on the time of year, the small spring could be dried up. If you don’t mind not seeing the spring, this is a moderate desert walk with an interesting history.
The peaks on this hike are named “mule ears” which can be explained by just looking at them.
During the 1930s, Army Air Corps pilots used to fly airplanes through the mule ear peaks as flying practice. While they are no longer practicing between them, this is another on the list of Big Bend National Park hikes with a cool story.
As with every other trail on this guide, guess what? There isn’t shade (shocking, we know).
One of the most unique things to do in Big Bend National Park is the opportunity to cross the border into Mexico. This particular port of entry is run and managed by the National Park Service and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
You’ll need a valid passport to cross in from the park and you’ll also pay an entry fee. You’ll be required to check in with Mexican immigration officers on the other side too.
In the park, you’ll park at the Boquillas Crossing lot and will be ferried across the Rio Grande in a small row boat. Once across, you’ll have the option to walk a quarter-mile to a small village or pay to ride a donkey, horse, or something super new-age…a vehicle.
The town has 2 small restaurants, 1 bar, and residents will have local arts for sale on tables. They will accept the U.S. dollar, but be advised to take smaller denominations of bills with you.
Buying local art at Boquillas Canyon Overlook
Don’t do it. It’s that simple. While we were in Big Bend, we saw a man on horseback illegally cross the border to set up a local art stand on the overlook. The souvenir stand offers a lot of cute crafts, but it’s ILLEGAL to purchase any items.
They are considered contraband and you could be detained and your item seized.
Ask a local park ranger how and where to support the local town of Boquillas – the legal way!
Overall – Big Bend National Park hikes and guide
The Big Bend National Park hikes offer some amazing desert trails and views. From short and quick to long and challenging, hiking in Big Bend is diverse and there are many options for all types of skill levels.
If you are making the journey to Big Bend National Park, we suggest anywhere from 2 to 5 days to be sure you get to explore this vast park.
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We are Samantha & Chris and we are Boozing Abroad (literally). Both stateside and overseas, we are connecting people with local cultures through local booze!