National Parks are huge. But sometimes you only have a short period of time to spend in them. That is why I am writing a series of blog post with suggested itineraries if you only have two days. Big Bend National Park is really three parks in one. But if you only have 48 hours in Big Bend National Park, you can see all three different ecosystems.
Big Bend National Park is located on the U.S./Mexico border in south Texas. It is aptly named for the big bend in the Rio Grande river.
The Rio Grande brings life to the barren desert and provides a unique ecosystem. A little further to the north in Big Bend are the Chisos Mountains. The Chisos stretch high into the sky and having the higher elevation presents another unique ecosystem. The third type of ecosystem in the park is the desert.
Because Big Bend is in the desert, the best time of year to go is November through April. The park’s website states that fall and spring can be warm and pleasant, with May and June being the hottest months of the year. The website also states that winter visitors must prepare for a variety of conditions. I found that to be true because it snowed on me while I was there. I visited the park in the month of January.
Staying in the park
The park is not in close proximity of any town. It truly is a remote and wild area. You can either camp at the park or stay in the lodge.
The lodge at Big Bend National Park is in Chisos Basin.
You’ll want to get an early start if you want to hike in the both the canyon and the Chisos Mountains when only spending 48 hours in Big Bend National Park.
River and desert
Begin Day 1 on the west side of the park near the Castolon visitor center and Cottonwood Campground. There you can gather information about the park as well as about the history of the area.
It is an eight-mile drive from the visitor center to Santa Elena Canyon.
The Santa Elena Canyon Trail is a 1.7-mile roundtrip trail into the canyon. The canyon is narrow with smooth high walls. It is definitely something to see.
After visiting the river area, it is a 38-mile drive to the Chisos Basin visitor center. Along this drive there are many pullouts and beautiful views.
There are some excellent short day hikes around the Chisos Mountains. However, because this is a blog post on what to do with only 48 hours in Big Bend National Park, I’m going to suggest to not hike to the South Rim. That hike is a 12-mile round trip.
You can still get a taste of the Chisos Mountains with sweeping views of the desert if you hike the Lost Mine Trail.
With a total distance of 4.8 miles round trip, the Lost Mine trail is an excellent day hike in the Chisos. The trailhead is located on the road just before getting to Chisos Basin Campgrounds.
As you begin to climb up the mountains, the scenery opens up and you can see far and wide. I loved seeing the rugged terrain of the mountains with the desert floor stretching out beneath it.
At the top, the trail flattens out along a narrow ridge and you can see deep valleys. When I hiked it I never found the lost mine, but I could see how easy it was to lose one.
This hike should take between two and three hours. Be sure to know when the sun sets so you have enough time to get back to the trailhead.
If you spent too much time on the river, you can hike the Chisos Basin Loop Trail, a 1.8-mile long loop that gives you a taste of the Chisos Basin.
For a list of hikes in the mountains, click here.
Nighttime at Big Bend
You can either camp in the Chisos Basin Campground or stay in the lodge for the night. Big Bend National Park is amazing at night. It is a wonderful place to view the stars because it is so remote and far from any towns. I was more than amazed my first night in the park at how many stars I could see.
For your second half of spending 48 hours in Big Bend National Park, you are going to leave the Chisos Basin and drive to the east side of the park along the river to the Rio Grande Village visitor center.
Along the 29-mile drive there are many pullouts with beautiful scenery. The Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail is a half-mile interpretive loop. It will be about halfway along your drive at the Dugout Wells area. Here you can see the remains of an old homestead.
Hot Springs Canyon Trail
There is a store at the Rio Grande Village that has WiFi, showers, and laundry, which is really nice. The Hot Springs Canyon Trail is a six-mile round trip from Daniel’s Ranch, near the Rio Grande visitor center.
The trail takes you along the Rio Grande, and you get amazing views of the river, the desert, and the Chisos Mountains in the distance. The terrain is fairly easy to hike. However it can get hard to spot the cairns that mark the trail in some areas.
Once you get to the hot springs you can soak in the man-made pool if you wear your swimsuit under you hiking clothes. Or you can just soak your feet.
You can also tour a motel and post office, built by J.O. Langford in the 1900s as part of his health spa.
From there you can double back to the Daniel’s Ranch.
Crossing into Mexico
There is a border crossing in this section of the park, but when I visited the park I did not bring my passport. Instead of hiking the Hot Springs Canyon Trail you may want to consider going into Mexico. However, because I did not do that, I cannot advise you on what to do.
If you have crossed the border here, or if you do, please let me know in the comments and tell me how it is!
48 hours in Big Bend National Park
Because Big Bend is so far from many places, you may have to spend a little longer than 48 hours in Big Bend National Park.
At the end of Day 2, you can camp at the Rio Grande Village Campground. This is what I did and then left at 6 a.m. the next morning. Or you can go back to Chisos Basin and camp or stay in the lodge.