If you grew up in any other state besides Texas, you definitely know someone from there that is beaming with Texas pride. They’ll wear Texas shaped charms around their neck, fly the Texas flag from the window of their lifted truck, put on cowboy boots to go to the grocery store, etc. I’ve driven through Texas many times, and never truly understood the hype. That is, until I spent a week in the small towns of the West Texas desert. I got to experience what true Texas is all about, and I have to say – I’m a believer now. This part of the country is not easy to get to, but trust me, it’s more than worth the trip.
Getting to Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park is nestled in the southern border of Texas, about 200 miles south of I-10 between El Paso and San Antonio. The park sits on the Mexican border, where the Rio Grande meets the Chihuahuan Desert. Most visitors come in on Highway 385 or 118. Gas stations and food options become more scarce as you get off I-10 and start heading south. Be sure to keep your tank full on your way into Big Bend.
The drive into Big Bend is insanely gorgeous. It’s a two-lane highway that meanders through cattle ranches and small desert towns. If you pass a local butcher or ranch selling their meat, you’d better stop and grab some ribeyes to cook over the campfire in Big Bend. We stopped at the Sul Ross Meat Market in Alpine, TX and picked up some of the most delicious cuts of beef I’ve ever tasted.
Try to plan the last leg of your drive into Big Bend while the sun’s still out. There are deer, rabbits, loose cattle, falling rocks and all kinds of hazards that make nighttime driving a bit more dangerous on these highways. Plus, the mountain views are crazy and you’ll want to pull over to take some scenic pics while the sun hits the Chisos Mountain Range.
Staying in Big Bend National Park
Campgrounds inside Big Bend fill up quickly during peak season (April – November) and there are no first-come first-serve campgrounds inside the park. If it’s already too late to book a place inside the park, don’t fret. There are several private campgrounds outside of the park that take no more than 30 minutes to drive to from the park entrance. We stayed on a ranch in Terlingua, TX which is an incredible little town with a ton of culture, history, art galleries, RV parks, glamping sites, motels and short-term housing rentals. Hipcamp, Airbnb or a quick google search for hotels in the area will provide lots of campsite and lodging options. Book early if you plan on going during a holiday, especially Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years.
Hiking/Backpacking in Big Bend National Park
Emory Peak Loop via Pinnacles Trail: This is the most popular hike in the park, and for good reason. It’s the tallest peak in Big Bend and on the way up to the 8,000 ft high summit, you hike through several different biomes providing a huge diversity of vegetation and wildlife. The rock scramble at the end of this hike is a ton of fun, and well worth the panoramic views of the desert mountains. Start your hike early in the morning to avoid foot traffic. If you’re backpacking on this trail, get your camping permits ahead of time.
River trips in Big Bend National Park
Given the size and scope of Big Bend, you could easily spend a week in this park. And you’d be missing out if you didn’t spend at least one day floating on the Rio Grande. You can literally paddle down the Mexican border while taking in some of the most stunning canyon views with striking red rock formations. If you have your own canoe or kayak, there’s a river access point on the west side of the park near the Santa Elena canyon. This is a great spot to drop your boat in and take in the sights of Big Bend without hitting too many rapids (again, make sure you get a permit for the day you’re looking to take your boat out). There are tons of river guides and float trip charter companies outside of the park that can take you on a guided river trip down the Rio Grande. For years, Big Bend visitors would paddle across the river to the town of Boquillas, Mexico to grab a drink and shop for souvenirs. Security regulations stopped these visitors for a while, but if you bring your passport, there are ways to explore Mexico while you’re in the area.
Overlanding in Big Bend National Park
The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive in Big Bend takes you through some intense desert landscapes and winds through several different historical sites. If you have a jeep or a high-profile vehicle, unhitch your towable for this jaunt. There are sections that require 4WD, especially after a rainstorm. The Sam Nail Ranch is a great spot to pull over and see the ruins from an early homestead built in 1916. Further down the road you’ll hit the Mule Ears Overlook, take that side road to the Mule Ears Spring Trail. The two mile hike up this trail is well worth it for views of the iconic rock formation as well as a peaceful desert tributary. The road will eventually take you through the Santa Elena canyon where you can see a different perspective of these 2,000 ft high bluffs. Hop on Old Maverick Road to make this route a nice loop. If you don’t have 4WD, take 170 west from the park to catch the views from this smooth, but scenic highway. There are plenty of great pullovers on 170 where you can stop and take in the beauty of Big Bend and the Rio Grande.
When to visit Big Bend National Park
Spring and Fall are the best times to visit Big Bend as the Chihuahuan Desert can bring extreme temperatures in the Summer and Winter. While most don’t think of south Texas as a cold climate, Big Bend has been known to get some bad snow storms during the winter months and these desert roads get icy and dangerous very fast. Summer in Big Bend can reach temps over 100 degrees and bringing enough water for outdoor activities can be a challenge. Thanksgiving is a popular time for tourists to visit, so plan your Fall and Spring trips to Big Bend accordingly.
What to bring on your trip to Big Bend National Park
Check out our ultimate camping trip packing guide for a comprehensive list. But also, here’s an additional list of items that I would recommend bringing to this specific region:
- Plenty of sunscreen, lotion and chapstick for that hot, dry Texas sun
- Dusters, rags and brooms for your rig – the desert dust will find its way in one way or another
- Plenty of cold weather, water-proof gear – this area gets some random intense rainfall and chilly nights that you’ll want to be prepared for
- Extra gas can and a well-stocked cooler – depending on where you camp, fuel and food can be tough to come by
- Tire patch kit because falling rocks are all over these roads
- Passport and cash – because MEXICO, of course
You could spend a month in this part of the country exploring the trails in Big Bend Ranch State Park, visiting the hip art galleries in the west Texas town of Marfa and getting lost in the several breathtaking canyons and overlanding routes that this region has to offer. There are very few places in this country quite as vast and unique as southwestern Texas. Next time you’re out and meet a dude wearing a Texas flag trucker hat, you might just have a little more appreciation for this land and those who are proud to call it home. I know I do.