Planning the perfect Big Bend National Park itinerary?
At Big Bend, giant mesa cliffs soar above the Rio Grande, the Chihuahuan Desert gives way to the Chisos Mountains, and the term “Wild West” feels more present than past. Visiting this remote and rugged park takes some serious effort, but once you’re there, you’ll understand why this is absolutely one of my all-time favorite National Parks.
This itinerary guide covers everything you need to start planning your epic Big Bend adventure, including an action-packed 2-3 day itinerary, tips for how to get there, where to stay, and what you absolutely cannot miss in this incredible park!
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Quick Look at Your Epic 3 Day Big Bend Itinerary
Here’s a quick look at your epic 3 day Big Bend Itinerary.
Day 1: Chisos Mountains
- Lost Mine Trail or Windows Trail
- Fossil Discovery Exhibit
- Balanced Rock from Grapevine Hills
Day 2: Maxwell Scenic Drive & Desert
- Sam Nail Ranch
- Sotol Vista Overlook
- Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff Trail
- Tuff Canyon
- Santa Elena Canyon
Day 3: Rio Grande Village
- Boquillas Canyon Trail
- Boquillas Crossing and Boquillas Del Carmen, Mexico
- Hot Springs
This guide covers each of these incredible sights in detail, below. I’ve also included my favorite Big Bend tips and must-know information for planning your 3 day trip to Big Bend National Park.
Only have 2 days in Big Bend? Have 4, 5 or more days to spend here? Check out “More Things to Do in Big Bend” below!
Want to take this itinerary to go? The printable Big Bend Itinerary Guide PDF ebook has your perfect 1, 2, or 3+ day Big Bend trip completely planned for you! With over 20 pages of detailed hiking guides, printable daily itineraries, lodging and dining suggestions and more, you can spend less time stressing and more time making epic memories! Check it out, here.
About Big Bend National Park
If you haven’t heard of Big Bend National Park, you aren’t alone. This park is one of the least visited in the continental United States, but its popularity is quickly rising.
In 2011, the Park welcomed 381,000 visitors. In 2021 they had 581,220 visitors. Even as visitor numbers increase Big Bend is still relatively unknown compared to other Southwest parks like Arches (1.8 Million visitors) and Zion (over 5 Million visitors in 2021!).
Even though we visited during the Park’s peak season of March, we still found parking at the most popular trailheads and often felt like we had the vast wilderness to ourselves.
Perhaps it’s the deadly desert heat, venomous snakes and scorpions, bears, mountain lions, or the rugged terrain and remote location that keeps visitors away? But anyone who dares to travel here will tell you, a trip to Big Bend is an adventure of a lifetime, and one of my absolute favorite National Parks.
Where is Big Bend National Park?
Big Bend National Park is located in far west Texas along the Rio Grande River. The nearest town to Big Bend is Terlingua, Texas.
Entrance Fees & Reservations in Big Bend National Park
Big Bend charges an entrance fee of $30 per vehicle (Credit / Debit card only – no cash). Your entrance fee permit is valid for 7 days. There are no reservations or timed-entry permits required to visit Big Bend.
Entrance fees are included if you purchase an America the Beautiful National Parks Pass. This annual pass costs $80 and includes entrance fees to all 63 National Parks and NPS managed sites.
Planning on backpacking, wilderness camping, or a multi-day river trip in Big Bend? A wilderness permit is required. Learn more about backpacking permits and regulations here.
Is Big Bend Kid Friendly?
Big Bend is a great park for kids and family trips. There are several easy to moderate hikes, as well as non-hiking activities. Be aware that many of the moderate hikes involve steep inclines and cliff exposure. There are also bears, mountain lions, and venomous reptiles throughout the park. Watch your children closely here!
Is Big Bend Dog Friendly?
Big Bend is not dog or pet friendly. Pets are not permitted on any trails, unpaved-roads, or on the river. Do NOT leave pets unattended in your vehicle at any time.
How Many Days Should I Spend in Big Bend National Park?
Big Bend is vast and there are nearly unlimited things to do here. To really experience Big Bend, try and spend at least 3 full days inside the Park.
That said, you could easily spend 5+ days exploring Big Bend. When we visited, we stayed for 3 days and it wasn’t nearly enough time. If you’re looking for more hiking recommendations, don’t miss 15 Best Hikes in Big Bend National Park.
Only have 1 or 2 days? It’s possible to see some of the highlights of Big Bend, even on limited time. I’ve included some short 1 and 2 day itineraries in this post, below.
Are you a hiker or backpacker? Consider staying longer and exploring some of the more advanced hikes like Emory Peak, the South Rim or combine both on an overnight backpacking trip. Check out “More things to Do in Big Bend” for ideas, below.
Important Tips for Planning Your Trip to Big Bend
Before setting off, here are a few important tips to know about planning the perfect trip to Big Bend National Park.
Arrive early. Arrive in the Park as early as possible, ideally before 7AM to make the most out of your day and avoid the crowds.
Parking is limited. Because Big Bend isn’t (or wasn’t) a hugely visited Park, most trailhead parking lots only fit a few cars, especially the Lost Mine trailhead in the Chisos Mountains. Arrive early and be prepared to park some distance from the trail and road walk if necessary.
Bring plenty of water! This is a desert park and hikes are dry and hot, even in the winter. Bring more water than you think you’ll need, at least 1 Liter for every hour you plan on hiking. Make sure to refill your water bottles frequently at visitor centers there are no natural water sources on the trails.
Carry an extra supply of water and emergency essentials, like emergency blankets, water, and salty snacks in your vehicle. This is a remote park and rescue or a tow truck may be hours away if your vehicle breaks down.
Always remember to practice Leave No Trace, stay on designated trails, and respect historic and native sites. Big Bend is the ancestral home of many Native people, including the Chiso and Jumanos tribes.
3 Day Big Bend Itinerary
Big Bend is huge. At 1,252 square miles it can take over an hour to drive from one end of the Park to the other. The Park is roughly divided into 3 main areas: the Chisos Basin; Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive; and Rio Grande Village.
To avoid endless hours of driving and backtracking, this 3 day Big Bend itinerary spends 1 day in each area of the park. You can do this 3 day Big Bend itinerary in any order.
Make sure to bring plenty of water, pack your hiking essentials , and bring a lunch and some snacks! There is only one restaurant in Big Bend, at the Chisos Mountain lodge.
Day 1: Exploring the Chisos Basin
Today you’re exploring the Chisos Mountains in the central part of the Park. The Chisos are unique in that the are the only mountain range this sits entirely within the borders of a National Park.
You might be surprised to see bears, mountain lions, pine trees, and even snow in the desert here! Thanks to its high elevation and winter snow, the Chisos Mountains can support a huge biodiversity. Speaking of bears, while sightings are rare, bears and lions do roam these trails. Keep a close eye on kids and never let them out of your sight here.
Drive to the Chisos Basin
If you’re staying at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, like we did, or Chisos Basin Campground, you can roll out of bed and head straight to the trails.
If you’re driving from nearby Terlingua or one of the other campgrounds, make sure to head into the Park by sunrise today. It takes about 1 hour to get from Terlingua to the Chisos Basin Visitor Center.
Hike the Lost Mine Trail
4.8 Miles / 1,200′ elevation gain / 2-3 Hours / AllTrails
This moderately difficult trail ascends steeply through the Chisos Mountains through forests of oak and juniper pines to stunning views of the Chisos Basin, Juniper Canyon and surrounding mountains.
This was our favorite hike in all of Big Bend, and I highly recommend it! The parking lot here is super small, so arrive early or prepare to hoof it from roadside parking to the trailhead. We arrived at about 8am in March and had to park on the side of the road, about 1/4 mile away.
If you don’t want to hike all the way to the peak, there are some spectacular viewpoints starting about a mile up the trail. Here you can enjoy views of the Chisos range and into the desert below.
Once you make it up the 2.4 miles, there is some short and easy rock scrambling to the top for the best views. Enjoy a mid-morning snack before heading back down.
While this is a moderate trail, most kids with some experience hiking a trail of this length and elevation will be fine. We saw plenty of families with kids on our hike here.
Other Hikes in the Chisos Mountains
Looking for a different hike than the Lost Mine trail? There are tons of hikes in this area to enjoy, from strenuous peaks to easy family hikes.
For another moderate hike, check out the Window Trail. For an easy walk to see the peaks of the Chisos from below, use the Chisos Basin Loop Trail.
Looking for a strenuous all-day hike? Emory Peak and the South Rim are all day hikes leaving from Chisos Basin. Learn more about these hikes in Best Hikes in Big Bend.
Window Trail (5.6 Miles / 950’ Gain / 3 Hours/ AllTrails ) This moderately difficult trail descends through Oak Creek Canyon to the aptly named “Window” formation, a dry creek bed that overlooks the vast Big Bend desert below. The last ¼ mile involves some moderate scrambling.
Chisos Basin Loop Trail (1.8 Miles / 450’ Gain / 1 Hour / AllTrails) This easy trail makes for a great family-friendly option, or for anyone getting a late start and wanting to skip the harder hikes on this list. The Loop trail begins behind the Chisos Basin visitor center and winds through the Mountain juniper forests with views of the surrounding Chisos Mountains.
Lunch in the Chisos Basin & Visitor Center
After your hike, head the central hub of the Chisos Mountains, the Chisos Basin Visitor Center and Chisos Mountains Lodge.
Stop by Chisos Basin Visitor Center and pick up some stickers, souvenirs, and of course get your National Parks passport stamped. The Basin Convenience Store next door has camping basics, some more souvenirs, and (sometimes) to-go food and snacks. You can enjoy your lunch at the picnic area just outside.
The Chisos Mountain Lodge Restaurant is open for lunch and has basic offerings like burgers and sandwiches that are served with views of the Basin.
Fossil Discovery Exhibit
Next, Kids and anyone interested in the ancient history of Big Bend should check out the Fossil Discovery Exhibit. The Exhibit is located on Persimmon Gap Entrance Road, about 25 minutes from the Chisos Basin.
The recently build exhibit houses fossils found inside the Park and information about the geologic history of the area, which once looked very different than it does today. 130 Million years ago, an ancient sea bed covered this desert. As the sea retreated, this desert became a massive swamp, where dinosaurs roamed, leaving behind fossils found right in this area.
The Fossil exhibit parking lot is not suitable for trailers and RVs.
Optional: Balanced Rock and Grapevine Hills Trail
2.2 Miles / 250′ Gain / Easy to Moderate / AllTrails
Your last stop today is the iconic Balanced Rock on the Grapevine Hills Trail. This hike is only accessible via the Grapevine Hills road, a dirt backcountry road. A high-clearance vehicle and four wheel drive may be necessary, depending on conditions.
Not sure if your car can make it? The NPS suggests you don’t attempt this road in a sedan or oversized vehicle like an RV or van. Check with rangers at any visitor center before heading out and ask about conditions!
It’s an easy hike to this unique rock formation, although some scrambling is required at the end of the trail. Make sure to wear proper hiking shoes here. Rescues for injured feet and ankles are common here.
After exploring, head back to your lodging inside the Park or in Terlingua and enjoy a hearty dinner. Check out “Where to Eat in Big Bend” below for suggestions!
Day 2: Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
Today it’s time to jump back in the car and explore the Park’s vast desert. Drive from your lodging to the beginning of the Park’s signature scenic drive, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.
It takes approximately 45 minutes, one-way, to drive the scenic road, without stops. Depending on your energy and interest, consider visiting some or all of these favorite stops along Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive:
Sam Nail Ranch
0.3 mi / 15 min / Easy
Explore the modest ruins of a frontier ranch, about a 5 min walk from the parking area.
Sotol Vista Overlook
Enjoy views of the vast Chihuahuan Desert and spot massive Santa Elena Canyon in the distance. This spot has one of the few bathrooms along the Scenic Drive.
Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff Trail
1 mi / 30 Min / Easy / AllTrails
A short trail twists between the volcanic hills that define the desert area of the Park. The trail ends in a small canyon that is dry most of the year but becomes a roaring river during summer.
Avoid this area during heavy rain as flash floods are possible.
4.6 Miles / 2 Hours / Moderate / AllTrails
A moderate out-and-back trail that captures the essence of Big Bend’s vast desert. Take in wide vistas, desert plants, volcanic rock formations, and even Native American petroglyphs etched high on the rocks.
There is little to no shade on this desert hike. Plan to arrive early when temps are low, and bring plenty of water.
Mule Ears Overlook
A paved 0.5 mile road off the Scenic Drive with distant views of the striking Mule Ears Peaks, a pair of distinctive volcanic spires that look like, you guessed it, mule ears.
Castolon Visitor Center
The Castolon Visitor Center is closed in the Summer.
The Castalon Historic district houses various historic structures from the Park’s long history of settlers, ranchers, military camps, Texas Rangers and Wild West bandits. In 2019 a fire destroyed several buildings including the Visitor Center. A temporary visitor center and restrooms are now housed in an adjacent building while the Park determines how to restore and preserve the site.
1mi / 1 Hr / Easy / AllTrails
Look down into this relatively small, but interesting canyon, or explore the canyon from the bottom along the Tuff Canyon Trail. This 1 mile out-and-back trail follows the sandy, rocky wash of the canyon before a dead end, takes about 1 Hour to complete, and is kid-friendly.
Update: As of February 2023, the Tuff Canyon trail closed indefinitely due to a rockfall. You can still look into the Canyon from the overlook at the parking area. Check Park updates and trail info, here.
Santa Elena Canyon
Ross Maxwell scenic drive ends at Santa Elena Canyon, one of the most iconic spots in the park and an absolute must-see on any Big Bend itinerary.
1.4 Miles / 200′ Elevation Gain / Easy / AllTrails
A short dirt and boardwalk trail leads from the parking area to the mouth of the canyon where the Rio Grande has carved a massive canyon, 8 miles long and 1,500 feet deep.
A short but steep series of stone switchbacks ascend part-way up the canyon before gradually descending to the water’s edge. The trail follows the shady and lush river’s edge, until the canyon walls meet the water.
When water levels are low, adventurous hikers continue upriver from here, using the river as a trail. Be very careful as river currents can be deceptively strong, and swimming here is not permitted. At the very least, bring a pair of water-sandals and dip your toes into this iconic river the defines the park.
This trail may be impassable after intense rain. Check with Rangers about current conditions, particularly if you are visiting in Summer or Fall.
If you are staying in Terlingua, take the road back to town for dinner and well-deserved drinks (and maybe Karaoke!) at the Starlight Theatre Restaurant in Terlingua (see “Where to Eat in Big Bend” below).
You can return the way you came, via Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, or return via unpaved Old Maverick Road. This 14-mile dirt road is accessible for most cars, although low-clearance vehicles should be especially cautious. RVs and oversized vehicles are not permitted. The road winds through the Terlingua Badlands, passing several historic structures and desert vistas.
The road takes approximately 1 hour before joining the paved road out of the park at Maverick Junction.
Visitors staying at the Chisos Mountains Lodge are in for an absolutely spectacular sunset by hiking the short, paved Window View Trail from behind the Visitor Center.
Day 3: Rio Grande Village and Boquillas Del Carmen, Mexico
On Day 3 of your Big Bend Itinerary, you’re exploring the Rio Grande Village area of the park, soaking in some hot springs, and even heading south of the border!
In order to enter Boquillas Del Carmen, you must have a valid passport. Entering Mexico from anywhere other than the Boquillas Port of Entry is illegal.
From the Chisos Basin, drive 45 minutes to the Park’s eastern side, following signs for Rio Grande Village . From Terlingua, the drive is about an hour.
Boquillas Canyon Overlook & Trail
1.2 Miles / 200′ Elevation Gain / Easy / AllTrails
Like Santa Elena Canyon trail, the Boquillas Canyon Trail follows the banks of the Rio Grande into a wide limestone canyon.
To get here, drive to the end of Boquillas Canyon Road which ends at the trailhead.
The trail starts and ends with a steep climb. Once you reach the top, take a look at the view of the river and desert below. From there, the trail winds, mostly flat, along the banks of the river. The trail dead ends at the water’s edge.
After returning to the trailhead, drive back on Boquillas Canyon Road and make the first left on Boquillas Canyon Overlook Road.
From the Overlook you can see views of the river and in the distance, the Mexican village of Boquillas Del Carmen – your next stop.
Visiting Boquillas Del Carmen Through Boquillas Crossing
The Rio Grande river is Big Bend’s defining feature, but it is also the international border between the US and Mexico.
The Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry is the only international border crossing within a US National Park. From here you can legally and easily cross the river and get lunch in the sleepy village of Boquillas Del Carmen, Mexico.
Established as a mining town in the 19th century, the small town has a population of about 200. After 9/11, the border was closed and the town’s economy collapsed. In 2013, the crossing was reopened with a Port of Entry sub-station and new passport requirements.
The town relies on Park tourism and most residents are employed at one of the town’s two restaurants or making handicrafts to sell to tourists.
Enjoy lunch at one of the 2 restaurants in town, which are both clean, friendly and appear to serve the same menu. We enjoyed a lunch of tamales and tacos, served with rice and beans, chips and salsa, and a couple of very refreshing cervezas (beer).
Other than the restaurants, there is a bar, 2 simple churches and not much else.
Residents make and sell handicrafts on the main road and from their front yards. Take a while to shop, explore and say hi before returning across the river.
Visitors returning from Mexico are interviewed over the phone by an agent in the El Paso CBP office, which will also review your documents. After processing through the Port of Entry, return to your car and back into the United States.
Getting to and from Boquillas Del Carmen
Most visitors take the “official” rowboat across. The cost is $5 per person, in cash round trip, and the whole trip takes about 30 seconds, at most. When the water is low, it is possible to walk across the river.
Once you’ve arrived in Mexico, you will immediately be greeted by a dozen or so residents offering you a ride to town on a burro, horse, or in the back of a truck for a small fee.
Otherwise, we opted to walk the 0.5 mile on the dirt road (you can’t get lost, don’t worry) into town. The walk is hot, sunny, and dusty, so come prepared with water.
Visiting Boquillas Del Carmen, MX from Big Bend was one of our favorite activities in Big Bend, but there are a few things to know before attempting a visit:
- You will need a valid US passport to cross. The area is jointly managed by the Park Service and CBP and they WILL check your documents upon your return.
- Keep an eye on the clock. The US border usually closes at 4pm. Check with the Park or CBP to confirm the time before leaving and DO NOT miss it. Otherwise you will have to spend the night in Mexico!
- US currency is accepted everywhere in Boquillas, including transportation, restaurants, and for souvenirs.
- Be prepared that you will almost certainly be approached by children selling small handicrafts – and small dogs begging for some of your rice and beans. How you react is up to you, but we found everyone to be extremely kind and appreciative of our visit.
Learn more about visiting Boquillas and Port of Entry hours, here. https://www.nps.gov/bibe/planyourvisit/visiting-boquillas.htm
Rio Grande Hot Springs
After a long day of exploring Big Bend, you’ll have time for one last activity. Thankfully, one that involves a little relaxation.
From the Boquillas Port of Entry, drive 20 minutes to the Hot Springs Historic Trailhead.
This is a narrow, unpaved, dirt and gravel road to the trailhead. Sedans and front-wheel drive vehicles are permitted but drive carefully and slowly.
Change into your swimsuit and grab your water sandals (I used my favorite Tevas for the easy hike and swim).
River flooding will occasionally close this trail and the Hot Springs. Check with a Park Ranger and NPS website for current conditions.
Walk the short 0.25 miles to the ruins of a historic bathhouse located right on the Rio Grande. The natural geothermal springs heat the water to approximately 105 degrees.
Relaxing in the water and enjoying the river views make the perfect ending to your epic 3 days in Big Bend National Park.
Want to take this itinerary to go? The printable Big Bend Itinerary Guide PDF ebook has your perfect 1, 2, or 3+ day Big Bend trip completely planned for you! With over 20 pages of detailed hiking guides, printable daily itineraries, lodging and dining suggestions and more, you can spend less time stressing and more time making epic memories! Check it out, here.
More Things to Do In Big Bend National Park
If you have more time to spend in Big Bend, consider one of these two adventurous options:
Rio Grande Rafting Tour
See Big Bend from a completely different perspective during a full-day river trip. Several guide operators offer full day tours (and overnight river trips) through Santa Elena Canyon, Boquillas Canyon, Big Bend Ranch State Park and other stretches of the river.
Most day-tours are beginner-friendly and offer private as well as larger group tours. Day-trips depart Terlingua around 8 or 9 a.m. and return in the late afternoon, depending on your tour operator.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to take a river tour during our visit, but its at the top of my list the next time we go back!
More Hiking in Big Bend
Check out more hiking trail details in this guide to the Best Hikes in Big Bend.
Visitors who just didn’t quite scratch their hiking itch on Day 1 can forgo the river trip in favor for some of the Park’s longest, and most rewarding all-day hikes. Both of these trails are all-day hikes, taking between 7 to 8 hours. Start as early as possible, before 7AM, and pack at least 3 liters of water.
As always, I suggest sharing your plans with a Park Ranger, confirming trail conditions and discussing your route. The Chisos Basin Visitor Center next to the Lodge can offer great help.
Emory Peak (10.6 Miles / 2,500’ Gain / 7-8 Hours) Emory Peak, the highest mountain in Big Bend, towers over the Chisos Basin. The trail climbs steadily before reaching the base of the Summit. Experienced hikers with nerves of steel can climb to the true summit via a 25 foot rock scramble that requires no technical climbing, but does involve some exposure. Hikers are rewarded with 360-degree views, said to be the best in the Park!
South Rim Trail (12 – 14.5 Miles / 2,500’ Gain / 7-8 Miles) A strenuous hike that is also a popular backpacking route, views from the South Rim stretch across Big Bend and into Mexico. Ascend via the shorter, but more challenging Pinnacles Trail, or the longer but more gradual Laguna Meadows trail.
Stargazing: Half the Park is After Dark
Big Bend is recognized as an international Dark Sky park, and its nighttime sky is considered the clearest in the continental US!
Set an alarm for early in the morning and drive to any number of roadside turnoffs, away from the campgrounds, lodges and Terlingua for the best views. Seeing the Milky Way above us and, literally, billions of stars was one of the highlights of our trip – and absolutely worth the lack of sleep to go see it!
Packing for your Big Bend itinerary? Don’t miss my complete National Park Packing Lists + Printable Guides!
What to See if You Only Have 1 or 2 Days in Big Bend
If you’re short on time and only have a single day, these 1 and 2 Day Big Bend itineraries highlight the best of what this incredible Park has to offer (even if you’re short on time!).
One Day in Big Bend Itinerary
Big Bend is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, so its unlikely that you’ll find yourself in Big Bend with only 1 day to spare. BUT if you do only have one day in Big Bend, you can use this itinerary to make the most of your time!
Arrive early and head straight to the Chisos Mountains area and hike the Lost Mine Trail, which should take about 2 to 3 hours.
After getting your fill of the mountains, it’s time to jump back in the car and explore the park from lower elevations. Drive from Chisos Basin to the beginning of the Park’s signature drive, Maxwell Scenic Drive.
There are dozens of trails and stops along this 30-mile scenic drive through the heart of the Big Bend desert. It takes approximately 45 minutes, one-way, to drive the scenic road, without stops. With limited time, you’ll have to pick and choose your stops.
Stop at the Sotol Vista Overlook, Mule Ears Overlook, Tuff Canyon, and ending with a hike through Santa Elena Canyon.
If you’re staying in Terlingua, head back to town and enjoy dinner at the Starlight Theatre. If you’re staying in the Park, enjoy dinner at the Chisos Mountain Lodge Restaurant and sunset on the short, paved. Window View Trail.
Two Days in Big Bend National Park Itinerary
If you only have 2 full days in Big Bend, make the most of your time with this activity-filled itinerary. These are two long days, so bring lunch, snacks, and plenty of water.
On Day 1, start early and head to the Chisos Basin. Hike the Lost Mine Trail or Windows Trail. After your hike, jump in the car and drive to Rio Grande Village. The drive takes about 45 minutes.
If you have a valid passport, cross to the town of Boquillas Del Carmen, Mexico through the Boquillas Port of Crossing and get lunch in town! The process of crossing, getting lunch, and coming back, takes about 4 hours.
Afterwards, check out the Boquillas Canyon Trail, or drive the dirt road to the Hot Springs Trail, before returning to your lodging for the night.
On Day 2, drive Maxwell Scenic Drive to Chimneys Trail, Sotol Vista Overlook, Burro Mesa Pouroff Trail, and Tuff Canyon. End your time in Big Bend National Park with exploring Santa Elena Canyon, before returning to your hotel or campsite. If you haven’t yet, make sure to stop at Starlight Theatre in Terlingua for dinner and music.
How to Get to Big Bend National Park
Big Bend is remote. Like, seriously remote. So, figuring out how you will get to and from the Park will be a major factor in your Big Bend itinerary.
Flights to Big Bend
Unless you live in the Southwest United States, most visitors to Big Bend will want to fly into a nearby airport, rent a car, and drive to the Park.
The nearest airports to Big Bend are:
Midland International Air and Space Port is the closest airport to Big Bend national park, approximately 220 miles, or 3 Hours 45 Minutes, away.
El Paso Airport: 5 Hours / 315 Miles
San Antonio Airport: 6.5 Hours / 435 Miles
Austin-Bergstrom International Airport: 7.5 Hours / 460 Miles. We flew into Austin for our trip. While it is a long drive, it was the cheapest airport to schedule flights into and rent a car. Austin is a fun and vibrant city to spend the night before driving to Big Bend the next day.
Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport: 8.5 Hours / 550 Miles
Rental Cars and Driving in Big Bend
Having a car is essential to a successful Big Bend itinerary. But remember how I said Big Bend was a remote and rugged park?
Well, many of the Park’s roads are unpaved, narrow, and many require a high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicle to traverse.
Only 3 roads in this itinerary involve driving on dirt / gravel roads – Hot Springs, Balanced Rock and Old Maverick Road. Weather permitting, your average front-wheel drive sedan can access all these roads except Grapevine Hills Road to Balanced Rock.
A high-clearance vehicle is required to drive Grapevine Hills Road, and four-wheel drive may be required during and after rain.
Be prepared to take it slowly and carefully on all the unpaved roads in the Park.
All said, a four-wheel drive high-clearance vehicle is not required for a trip to Big Bend. However, renting a four-wheel drive vehicle will make your trips along these bumpy and unpaved roads much more pleasant, and is required for some roads in the Park.
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Where to Stay in Big Bend National Park
Lodging and campgrounds are available inside Big Bend, as well as the nearby towns of Terlingua and Lajitas. Reservations are strongly recommended, and can fill up months in advance. When possible, try and stay inside the Park to maximize your time in Big Bend. The Chisos Mountains Lodge is an excellent choice, and our pick when visiting the Park.
I strongly advise booking your hotel or campground reservations as far in advance as possible, especially if you want to stay inside the park.
Camping in Big Bend National Park
There are 3 developed tent campgrounds, 1 RV Park, 42 designated backcountry campsites, and 64 primitive roadside sites accessible by off-road vehicles in Big Bend.
Rio Grande Village Campground : Open Year Round. Located on the Rio Grande in the southeast corner or the Park. Flush toilets, water, camp store, charcoal grills, and dump station nearby. Showers and laundry available at the Village Store.
Cottonwood Campground : Open November – April. This is a quiet, no-frills campground between Castalon Historic District and Santa Elena Canyon on Maxwell Scenic Drive. There is potable water, but no RV or electric hookups, and generators are not permitted.
Chisos Basin Campground : Open Year Round. Located in the scenic Chisos Mountains basin, this campground has the best views and central location. Reservations are required year-round. Trailers and RVs over 20 feet not recommended.
Flush toilets, water, and dump stations are available at the Chisos Basin and Rio Grande Village campgrounds. Basic food and camp supplies at the Chisos Basin and Rio Grande Village stores.
Showers and laundry facilities are available at the Rio Grande Village Store. Laundry is available at the Chisos Mountains Lodge, near the Chisos Basin campground. There are no laundry, shower, or dump station facilities at Cottonwood.
Ready to book your Big Bend reservations? Check out my Tips for Planning an Epic National Parks Road Trip for the best tips on booking lodging and planning your vacation!
Backcountry Camping in Big Bend
The stunning Chisos Mountains are a popular backpacking destination inside the Park. Backpackers in this area must reserve one of 42 designated backcountry sites and obtain a permit. Water sources are scarce and unreliable in this area. The Park strongly advises to carry and/or cache all water you will need.
Most desert areas of Big Bend National Park are open to dispersed wilderness backpacking with a permit. Given the harsh terrain, lack of water, and difficult navigation, only experienced backpackers should attempt overnight trips into the desert.
All backcountry and river camping in Big Bend requires a permit. Learn more about backpacking permits and regulations here.
64 primitive roadside campsites are available for those with an appropriate four-wheel drive vehicles looking for true solitude. The roadside sites have no amenities, and the use of generators is prohibited. Learn more about roadside primitive camping here.
Lodging Inside Big Bend National park
The Chisos Mountain Lodge, where we stayed, offers basic yet comfortable motel-style accommodations at the only lodging inside the Park. The Lodge is located in Chisos Basin, in the heart of the Chisos range in the center of the Park. The Lodge is a great jumping off point for many popular trails, including the Window Trail and Lost Mine trail. The lodge is located in the center of Park and makes for a great base of operations to explore the other areas on your Big Bend Itinerary.
The Lodge has a small general store where you can buy basic camping supplies and some food. The Chisos Basin Visitor’s Center, a gift shop, and the Park’s only restaurant and bar are located in the same complex.
Learn more about the Chisos Mountains Lodge and make reservations on their website, here. When possible, I always prefer to stay inside a National Park. While accommodations were simple, I would re-visit the Chisos Mountains Lodge in a heartbeat.
Hotels Outside Big Bend National Park
Visitors who are looking for a little more comfort, or can’t snag a reservation inside Big Bend can stay in the nearby towns of Terlingua and Lajitas.
Terlingua is approximately 10 minutes from the entrance to Big Bend, and about 30 minutes – 1 hour from most of the attractions on this Big Bend itinerary. Lodging options in Terlingua range from motels to luxurious glamping. There are no chain hotels in the immediate area, but vacation home rentals, like VRBO and Airbnb are popular, as well as glamping resorts, casitas and cabin rentals, and a few hotel options.
The key to finding good lodging near Big Bend is to manage your expectations.
This is a remote area with limited services at even at the best hotels on this list. Most hotels are older and could generously be described as “rustic”.
Remember, Big Bend is a remote and rugged park. Your hotel is simply a good place to lay your head at night. When planning where to stay in Big Bend, make sure to look up exactly how far the property is from the stops on your Big Bend itinerary. Some hotels will bill themselves as “minutes from” Big Bend – when really they are over an hour away!
Some of the best places to stay near Big Bend include:
Lajitas Golf Resort. This 4 Star boutique resort property is located on the Rio Grande, between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park. There are two restaurants on property (open only to guests of the resort and co-owned Maverick RV resort next door) as well as a bakery and a small convenience store.
As one of the few full-service resorts in the area, Lajitas is a popular pick for a good reason. Beat the heat at the pool, relax after a day of hiking at the spa, or yes, even play a round of golf in the middle of the desert! The Red Rock Outfitters store inside the resort has camping supplies and hiking gear for purchase.
The resort can also arrange a number of unique activities including shooting, horseback riding, river trips, stand up paddle boarding, mountain biking, and Ziplining in Quiet Canyon.
>> If you’re traveling with kids who need a little more entertainment than just hiking and sightseeing, or want the “resort” style experience during your Big Bend itinerary – the Lajitas Resort is your spot!
A number of unique glamping options are popping up in Terlingua and Lajitas. Check out the Buzzard’s Roost tipis and casita, or the glamping tents, bubble domes and casita cottages at Basecamp Terlingua.
Or stay in an ultra-chic luxury Yurt on The Local Chapter’s 400 acres of private land, located just a few minutes from the entrance to Big Bend. Each yurt is equipped with air-conditioning, king bed, mini fridge, microwave and coffee maker as well as a private outdoor fire pit.
Vacation home rentals are also a popular choice for in Terlingua and Lajitas. >> Explore vacation home rentals, here.
Posado Milagro Guesthouse : This historic 6 room guesthouse is built right into the hillside above Terlingua. The rooms have cozy West Texas decor and sweeping views of the Park. In the morning, head next door to the coffee shop and grab a breakfast burrito before heading out on your Big Bend itinerary. 4 of the 6 rooms have a private bath, and a shared bath for the other 2. This quiet property is pet-friendly and best for couples or small families.
Willow House. Built in 2019, Willow House describes itself as a “12 casita desert retreat” located on over 250 acres of private land. Each casita has air conditioning and views of the surrounding mountains. All rooms can access the communal “Main House” with a kitchen for cooking, patio for grilling and stargazing.
Planning a trip to Big Bend National Park? The Big Bend Itinerary Guide has your perfect 1, 2, or 3 day Big Bend trip completely planned for you! With over 20 pages of detailed hiking guides, printable daily itineraries, lodging and dining suggestions and more, you can spend less time stressing and more time making epic memories! Check it out, here.
Where to Eat in Big Bend National Park
Like all services in West Texas, food near Big Bend can be hit-or-miss. Store/restaurant hours hardly ever align with what is posted online (if you can even find them online), so its best to call ahead. As with lodging, manage expectations and have a plan B.
Big Bend Travel Tip: I strongly recommend bringing a cooler with ice and stocking up on groceries and snacks in a larger city before driving to Big Bend.
Dining Inside Big Bend
Snacks and a small selection of groceries and camp supplies are available at the Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, Castolon, and Panther Junction stores.
The only in-park dining is at the Mountain View Restaurant in the Chisos Mountain Lodge. The Restaurant is open 7 days a week for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. While the food is nothing to write home about, you can’t beat the views or the convenience! Make sure to arrive EARLY to get your name on the waitlist! The restaurant does not accept reservations. While you wait, order a “Ranch Water” (the local favorite drink made with tequila and Topo Chico) at the bar and enjoy the sunset.
Dining in Terlingua and Sturdy-Butte
You can’t miss the Starlight Theatre Restaurant in Terlingua. This converted-movie theatre turned bar and restaurant is the social center of the town. Get there early or prepare to wait for a table. When we arrived in March, the bar was hopping with a mix of locals (including the Sheriff) and tourists performing karaoke.
The atmosphere was lively and fun, and the chili delicious. After driving 8 hours from Austin, stumbling into the Starlight felt like a surreal mirage. It’s still one of my favorite memories from our trip and visiting is a must for any Big Bend itinerary! (Yes, my husband did trick me into doing Karaoke, but I’ve deleted all the video evidence 😜)
The High Sierra Bar & Grill serves cocktails, beer, and arguably the best burgers in town. It also has a few vegetarian options (a rarity in this area) and is one of the few spots usually open for lunch.
Not far from the historic Terlingua cemetery and ghost town, DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ slings good ol’ fashioned pulled pork, brisket and ribs and cold beer to be enjoyed on the patio.
Around the corner, Taqueria El Milagro serves authentic Mexican tacos and plates on their roadside patio.
The breakfast spot in town is Espresso y Poco Mas. Located at the La Posada Milagro Guesthouse, this small café offers coffee, fresh juice, and Tex-Mex breakfast favorites. For coffee on the go, stop by Canyon Brew Coffee – a small hut serving coffee and pastries, open daily 7AM to 11 AM at the Far Flung Adventures offices.
Dining in Lajitas
Inside the Lajitas Golf Resort, the Thirsty Goat Saloon offers upscale western saloon bites and a hearty selection of wine, beer, and cocktails. Candelilla offers texmex staples alongside steak, seafood, and salads.
Update: As of May 2023, the Thirsty Goat Saloon and Candelilla are open to registered guests of the Lajitas Golf Resort and Maverick Ranch RV Park due to high demand and limited staffing.
The Best Time to Visit Big Bend National Park
Spring (March, April)
Thanks to the mild temperatures and low rainfall, spring is considered the “best” time to visit Big Bend.
But the “best” conditions make for the “worst” crowds. Spring, especially mid-March, is by far the most crowded time of the year at Big Bend National Park. Book park lodging reservations well in advance and arrive early at trailheads to avoid crowds.
Temps range from the 30’s at night (especially at higher elevations like Chisos Basin) and into the mid-80’s or 90’s during the day.
Summer (May, June, July, August, September)
Big Bend is a desert park. Summer brings temperatures so scorching that many areas of the park remain closed during this season. The desert floor temps are often well above 100 degrees during the day. Plan hikes for early morning, bring plenty of water, and stay OFF the trails during the afternoon! Summer thunderstorms and flash floods are common from May to September.
Hikers have died of heat-related illness in this park – so don’t let it be you!
Fall (September, October, November)
Fall brings cooler temps back to the park, like Spring, but with more precipitation. If you aren’t afraid of a little rain, Fall makes for an excellent time to plan a Big Bend itinerary
Temperatures average in the 90’s to 40’s, and the rainy season continues through September. Visit in October for a chance to see some fall foliage in the Chisos Mountains!
Winter (December, January, February)
Winter is mild in Big Bend, although snow and freezing conditions are possible, especially in the Chisos Mountains.
Visitors should be prepared for all possible weather conditions when visiting during winter. Temperatures range in the 30’s (or lower in the mountains) to 70’s.
Christmas and Thanksgiving breaks see high visitation numbers, so book your lodging well in advance!
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