InBig Bend, Destinations, National Parks, Texas

Ultimate 3 Day Big Bend Itinerary Guide

At Big Bend National Park, 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 Big Bend is absolutely one of my all-time favorite National Parks!

If you’re planning a trip to Big Bend, this itinerary guide covers everything you need to start planning your epic adventure, including an action-packed 3 day itinerary, tips for how to get to Big Bend, the best time to visit, lodging in Big Bend, and insider tips of what you absolutely cannot miss in this incredible National Park!

Disclosure: This page may contain affiliate links where I earn a small commission from any purchase – at no extra cost to you. This commission helps keep Brooke In Boots up and running. As always, all opinions are 100% honest and my own!

Quick Look at Your Epic 3 Day Big Bend Itinerary

Here’s a quick look at your epic 3 day Big Bend itinerary. This action-packed 3 day plan includes my favorite things to do if it’s your first visit to Big Bend National Park. I’ve also included some suggestions at the bottom of this post for additional exciting things to do when visiting Big Bend.

Day 1: Chisos Mountains

  • Hike the 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, Mexico

  • Boquillas Canyon Trail
  • Boquillas Crossing to 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 visit to Big Bend National Park.

Take this info to-go! 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.

About Big Bend National Park

Big Bend is one of the least visited National Parks in the 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.

The Chisos Mountains in Big Bend / 3 Day Big Bend Itinerary

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.

Learn more about which National Parks require a reservation, here.

Traveling to more than 2 National Parks or National Forests this year? Purchase an America the Beautiful National Parks Pass for $80, which covers entrance fees at all National Parks and NPS managed sites.

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.

Is Big Bend National Park Safe?

Big Bend National Park is generally safe for visitors, and we personally never felt unsafe while visiting Big Bend, or across the border in Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico.

But like all National Parks, it’s important to be mindful of the natural hazards present in the desert environment. The park is home to diverse wildlife, including bears, mountain lions, and venomous reptiles, so it’s essential to follow safety guidelines and be vigilant when hiking or camping!

Additionally, visitors should be prepared for the remote and rugged terrain, and always carry sufficient water and emergency essentials while exploring the park.

Finally, Big Bend is located on the United States border with Mexico. Despite what you see on the news, Big Bend is not overrun with drug traffickers, human smugglers, and bandits. Like San Diego or El Paso, it is a relatively safe area with some unique issues.

Although rare, illegal crossings and drug smuggling does occur from time to time. If you see anything that looks suspicious, keep away, note the location, and call 911 or alert NPS and CBP staff when possible. Learn more about visiting a border area, here.

If you see people in distress, especially anyone injured or asking for water, immediately contact authorities. Lack of water is a life-threatening emergency in the desert.

Overall, with proper preparation and by staying aware of your surroundings, I believe visitors can have a safe and enjoyable experience at Big Bend National Park.

Hiking in Big Bend is tough but rewarding / Visiting Big Bend National Park

How Many Days Should I Spend in Big Bend National Park?

Big Bend is vast and there are nearly unlimited things to do here. On our first trip, we visited Big Bend for 2.5 days, which was just enough time to hit all the “must see” sights on this list, but I definitely wished we could have stayed for 4 or 5 days.

If you’re planning your first trip here, try and spend at least 3 full days inside Big Bend National Park.

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, and don’t miss The Best Hikes in Big Bend National Park.

How to Get to Big Bend National Park

If you plan on visiting Big Bend National Park, you’ll first need to figure out how to get there. Big Bend is remote. Like, seriously remote. Unless you are already in West Texas or the Southwest, you’ll need to fly to a nearby airport, rent a car, and drive to Big Bend.

You can learn more about how to get to Big Bend and the closest airports in this in-depth guide, here.

Flying to Big Bend

The closest airport to Big Bend National Park is Midland-Odessa International Air and Space Port. >> Click here to book flights to Midland-Odessa. Midland isn’t a particularly big airport, so flights here can be pretty pricy.

It’s often cheaper flying into one of the closest international airports to Big Bend, either El Paso International Airport or San Antonio International Airport.

>> Click here to book flights to El Paso and San Antonio.

My pick for the best airport when planning a Big Bend itinerary is Austin – Bergstrom International Airport.

Austin had the best choice of reasonably priced flights, affordable rental car options, and plenty of affordable lodging. Austin is also a fun town in it’s own right and well worth spending a day or two to visit before and after your Big Bend itinerary.

>> Click here to book your flight to Austin.

Still, none of these airports is really that “close” to Big Bend, and you’ll still have to drive several hours to the Park, no matter where you land. Here’s a quick look at the driving time to Big Bend from the closest airports:

AirportDistance to Big Bend
(Panther Junction Visitor Center)
Midland International Air & Space Port220 Miles / 3 Hours 45 Minutes
El Paso Airport315 Miles / 5 Hours
San Antonio Airport435 Miles / 6.5 Hours
Austin-Bergstrom International Airport460 Miles / 7.5 Hours
Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport550 Miles / 8.5 Hours

The closest major city to Big Bend National Park is El Paso Texas, approximately 315 miles away. Several smaller cities, such as Marfa, Alpine, and Marathon Texas are about 100 miles from the Park Visitor Center.

CityDistance to Big Bend (Panther Junction Visitor Center)
El Paso, Texas318 Miles / 5 Hours
San Antonio, Texas437 Miles / 6.5 Hours
Austin, Texas463 Miles / 7.5 Hours
Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas560 Miles / 8 Hours

The closest town to Big Bend National Park is Terlingua, Texas, located between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Getting to Big Bend isn’t easy but its worth it! / 3 Day Big Bend Itinerary

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.

The Best Time to Visit Big Bend National Park

Big Bend is a desert, which means that you’ll probably want to visit late Fall – early Spring, and whatever you do avoid visiting during peak summer heat! The weather in Big Bend changes dramatically by the season.

Learn more about the weather each month in Big Bend to help you plan ahead, here.

If it’s your first visit to Big Bend National Park, I recommend visiting in Spring (March – April). Thanks to the mild temperatures and low rainfall, spring is considered the “best” time to visit Big Bend. It’s also the most crowded time to visit Big Bend, so make sure you book your lodging reservations well in advance. During spring, temperatures range from the 30’s at night and into the 80’s and 90’s during the day.

Summer (May, June, July, August, September) in Big Bend is long and hot. Temperatures usually spike well above 100 degrees during the day. Plan hikes for early morning, bring plenty of water, and stay OFF the trails during the afternoon! Thunderstorms and flash floods are also common from May to September.

Hikers have died of heat-related illness in this park – don’t let it be you!

If you aren’t afraid of a little rain, Fall (September, October, November) makes for an excellent time to plan a Big Bend itinerary. Daytime are back in the 80’s and 90’s, and the rainy season continues through September. Visit in October for a chance to see some fall foliage in the Chisos Mountains!

Finally, winter (December, January, February) is mild and another best time to visit Big Bend National Park. Snow and freezing conditions are possible, especially in the Chisos Mountains. If you visit during winter, be prepared for all kinds of conditions, from snowstorms to sunny 70 degrees!

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Important Tips for Planning Your Big Bend Itinerary

Before setting off, here are a few important tips to know about visiting 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.

Hiking the Santa Elena Canyon Trail / 3 Day Big Bend Itinerary

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.

The Chisos Mountains from the Lost Mine Trail / 3 Day Big Bend Itinerary

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.

Sunset in Chisos Basin / Big Bend Itinerary

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 built 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.

Balanced Rock / Big Bend Itinerary

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 & Santa Elena Canyon

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.

You can get more details on driving this epic scenic drive on my in-depth guide to driving Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, here.

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.

Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff Trail / Big Bend Itinerary

Chimneys Trail

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.

The vast desert from the Mule Ears Overlook / Big Bend Itinerary

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.  

Tuff Canyon

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. This was our second favorite spot in Big Bend (after the Lost Mine Trail).

1.4 Miles / 200′ Elevation Gain / Easy / AllTrails

Santa Elena Canyon / Big Bend Itinerary

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.

Rio Grande Village / Big Bend Itinerary

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.

Boquillas Canyon Trail / Big Bend Itinerary

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.

Get tons of details on visiting Boquillas del Carmen in my blog post: How to Visit Boquillas Del Carmen Mexico from Big Bend National Park

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.

The town of Boquillas Del Carmen

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.  

Waiting for the boat crossing to Boquillas / Big Bend Itinerary

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 60 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  

Enjoying a cold cerveza in Boquillas Del Carmen / Big Bend Itinerary

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.

Relaxing in the Rio at the Hot Springs

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 day itinerary in Big Bend National Park.

Take this info to-go! 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.

More Things to Do In Big Bend National Park

If you have more time to spend in Big Bend, consider adding these 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.

Learn more about Rio Grande river tours, including contact information here.

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!

Boaters Preparing to Enter Santa Elena Canyon

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.

Emory Peak / Big Bend Itinerary

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!

Learn more about stargazing in Big Bend, including Ranger-led stargazing programs, here.

Visit Big Bend Ranch State Park

Most visitors come to the Big Bend region for the National Park, but there is another often overlooked gem right next door, at Big Bend Ranch State Park. Like Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park has desert views, great hikes, and access to the Rio Grande River.

You can easily spend half a day to a full day exploring Big Bend Ranch, which is the largest state park in Texas. Don’t miss driving the River Road (Camino del Rio) the scenic drive through the Park with tons of places to stop for viewpoints and picnic areas. Hike the Closed Canyon Trail, the Hoodoos Trail, or the Cinco Tinajas Trail.

To reach Big Bend Ranch State Park from Terlingua, take State Highway 170 West, which leads directly to the Park entrance. It takes about 20 minutes to reach Big Bend Ranch State Park from Terlingua.

The cost to enter Big Bend Ranch State Park is $5 cash only.

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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.

For even more suggestions on where to stay near Big Bend, check out Best Lodging Near Big Bend National Park: Hotels, Camping, & More.

I strongly advise booking your hotel or campground reservations as far in advance as possible, especially if you want to stay inside the park.

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.

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.

>> Book Rio Grande Village Campground

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.

>> Book Cottonwood Campground Here.

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.

>> Book Chisos Basin Campground Here

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.

The Rio Grande from Santa Elena Canyon

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.

Take this info to-go! 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.

Starlight Theatre Restaurant, a must visit with 2 days in Big Bend

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 Chisos Mountains / Big Bend Itinerary

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