I first started researching Big Bend National Park a few years back when a friend and I were looking for a destination for a desert camping trip. That year we ended up at another Texas park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, about four hours to the northwest of Big Bend.
The following year, Big Bend National Park was suggested to my then-boyfriend and me as we were planning our vacation. However, when researching vacations the year before I was not really impressed with the park. I love big mountains and rugged terrain, and all the pictures I had seen of Big Bend were the flat desert around the Rio Grande. But after taking a national park quiz on Facebook last year, I realized there was more to Big Bend. Much more. I had a week of vacation to take in the winter, which so happened to be the season for the park. I called Crystal and said we should go.
Because Big Bend National Park is located 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 of the year. The website also states that winter visitors must prepare for a variety of conditions, and we found that to be true.
Getting to the park
Big Bend National Park is located in south Texas on the Rio Grande, the border between the United States and Mexico. It’s aptly named after the big bend in the river. You’ll want to exit off I-10, at Fort Stockton and head south to Marathon on Highway 385. From Marathon, there are no more towns before the road will end at the park. Crystal and I were surprised to still have two more hours of driving from Fort Stockton, but we are not from west Texas and not used to wide open spaces.
Three parks in one
Big Bend National Park is a great place to visit to see how nature and terrain shape a place. Its diversity also will not leave you bored. Big Bend is really three parks in one; the river, the mountains, and the desert. Located in the Chihuahua Desert, the river shapes its habitats with the water it provides. However outside the river’s reaches, the desert is dry and water is scarce. The elevation of the mountains provide cooler temperatures and more water. With each area the vegetation and animals differ.
Nighttime at Big Bend National Park
After we arrived at the main entrance of the park, we still had a ways to go before we arrived at our campsite. The first two nights we stayed at the Chisos Basin Campground. The sun had set about the time we were leaving Marathon and I was disappointed we couldn’t see the vast landscape around us. As we began to snake our way into the Chisos Mountains, I was again disappointed I could not see the mountains. However, when I stepped out of the car and looked up to see a blanket of stars like I never had before, I knew the night was going to be just as beautiful.
Big Bend is known for its night sky because it is so far from any light pollution. Even with the lights on in the bathrooms and lodge, we could see countless clusters of stars. Nighttime in the park is definitely just as spectacular to see as daytime.
Lost Mine Trail
The first hike Crystal and I did was the Lost Mine Trail. With a total distance of 4.8 miles round trip we felt this was a good trail to warm up on. The trailhead is located on the road just before getting to Chisos Basin Campgrounds.
As we began to make our way up the mountain, the scenery opened up and we could see far and wide. I loved seeing the rugged terrain of the mountains with the desert floor stretching out beneath it.
As we got to the top, the trail flattened out along a narrow ridge and we could see deep valleys to our right and our left. We never found the lost mine, but we could see how easy it was to lose one.
South Rim Trail
For our third night in the park, we backpacked the South Rim Trail. About a 12-mile round trip from the Basin Trailhead, we chose backcountry campsite SE-1, which was right about halfway. For a more detailed account of the backpacking trip, check out the Besties Big Bend Backpacking Trip blog post.
We ascended the trail via the Laguna Meadows Trail, and descended via the Pinnacles Trail.
The first stretch of the trail I knew was going to be booger because it climbs 2,000 feet, but is well worth it. One thing I loved about hiking in the desert is with the elevation gain, the vegetation noticeably changes. The higher we got, the thicker the forest became. I also loved the tall grass understory.
When the trail rounded toward the south rim of the Chisos Mountains, we could see glimpses of the promised view. But of course, I loved looking through the valleys and seeing the rugged terrain of the Chisos too.
The trail climbs a little further and then you are given a view of a steep valley to the east before it takes you to the edge of the rim.
You can see miles and miles from the rim. We were there as the sun was low in the sky and the view took my breath away. We could see glints of light in the distance that told us where the river was, and we knew we were looking into Mexico.
We loved our backcountry site. Our tent was nestled under the trees and it was very serene. In the morning I woke up at sunrise and made a quick walk to the rim to take in the beauty. I then woke Crystal so she could see it.
After the long and strenuous climb to the rim, our descent hike was much easier and faster. We traveled along a beautiful stream, which did have water but doesn’t always. We then came into an amazing canyon. This side of the trail is steeper than the first day’s hike of the trail, so were were happy we chose to come down the Pinnacles and go up the Laguna Meadows.
You have the option to summit Emory Peak, the highest point in the park, however we chose not to make the extra climb.
After passing the spur trail to the peak, Crystal and I sat a bit for lunch. A man, whose name we learned was Trip, came walking by and after conversation we discovered he was from Arkansas. The three of us later shared a hike.
The trail opens to glorious meadows with several backcountry sites for those not wanting to backpack a long trail.
This was my favorite trail we did in the park. The scenery was magnificent.
Chihuahua Desert and Saint Elena Canyon
After we came off the trail, we drove to the west to explore the desert and see the Rio Grande for the first time. We had reservations to camp near Boquillas Canyon to the east the next day.
The drive through the desert was very interesting. We pulled over to see many information markers about the desert and its life. The visitor center near Saint Elena Canyon provided a wealth of information about life on Rio Grande.
I was so wrong about Big Bend National Park, not only does it have mountains but it also has exquisite canyons along the river. Saint Elena Canyon is very narrow with straight high walls and is definitely something to see in person. Photos cannot do it justice. I suppose the Grand Canyon is the same way, but I have not been there yet.
We walked along the river and felt like we were in a large city encircled by its buildings. As I looked across the river as the straight wall, I tried to imagine looking down from the top. I wanted to walk across the water and touch Mexico, but we did not want to break the law and it was too cold.
After returning, we stayed our last night in the Chisos Basin campgrounds. We knew the weather was not going to be great the next day, and we woke to a very fine mist. We opted to eat breakfast in the lodge instead of cook in the rain. The mist was so thick our visibility was very limited. We may not have had a view, but that was one of the best tasting breakfasts I have ever had. The food was delicious, but also I was getting tired of oatmeal.
Boquillas Canyon and Rio Grande Village
After breakfast we explored the park to the east on our way to Rio Grande Village Campground, where we had our last two nights reservations. We did a short hike, the Chihuahua Desert Nature Trail, along an old settlement. It was interesting to read about the life of the desert. A windmill still stands, and it was neat to see the trees that had been planted by the settlers. In the distance we could a see high rock wall and plateau.
When we set up our tent, the wind was blowing so hard we had to move to another campsite that was sheltered by the trees. After we were set up, we went to explore Boquillas Canyon.
We had read that there were no border crossing within the park, so I did not bring my passport and Crystal did not have one, however, here there was a border crossing. Our new friend Trip told us, that we could have crossed the river in a boat and explored the town of Boquillas, Mexico. Next time, we’ll know to bring passports.
As we hiked into Boquillas Canyon, the wind blasted us with sand. I’m not sure how hard the wind was blowing, but its gusts could knock us off our feet. When we would get sandblasted we quickly turned around to avoid the sand hitting us in the face. I had sand in my ears for a week I think, and I still have some in the pockets of my coat. But like Saint Elena Canyon, it was narrow and beautiful, and it was worth getting blasted by sand.
We found the store at Rio Grande Village to have not only showers but WiFi. Neither one of us brought shower supplies, so we were a little disappointed. But because it was cold and miserable outside we sat in the car and reconnected with society on our phones.
The rains came that night, and it snowed in the Chisos. We were glad our trip’s plans happened to work with the weather.
Hot Springs Canyon Trail
A hot springs on the river lies about three mile from Rio Grande Village. We chose to take the Hot Springs Canyon Trail from Rio Grande Village to see the springs and turn-of-the-century old buildings. We ran into Trip at the trailhead and decided the three of us would do the trail together.
To the right we could see the Chisos Mountains rising above the desert into a fog from the snow. Hiking in the desert is something different from hiking in the forest. Several times we lost the trail and had to search for a wide path in the rock. There are no trees to mark the trail, nor to gather your bearings. The trail follows the river pretty closely though.
When we got to the springs, which had man-made walls to make a pool a long time ago, Crystal and I soaked our legs in the pool. But Trip, who had prepared before with a swimsuit, submerged himself in the water.
A motel and post office, built by J.O. Langford in the 1900s as part of his health spa, can still be seen today and are quite interesting.
The motel and post office were of rock construction instead of adobe. It was neat to walk around and look inside and imagine a life long ago.
From there we doubled back on the trail to Rio Grande Village. After our hike, Crystal and I drove back to the Chisos to see the desert in the snow.
We went to bed early because we had to leave the next morning and had a long drive.
About 30 minutes outside the park there is a border crossing. The sun was coming up before we got to it, and I asked Crystal to pull over so I could get a picture of the sunrise. When we pulled into the Border Patrol station, the guards questions why we pulled over. I asked them if they wanted to see my pictures, but I think they were silently laughing at us.
Definitely want to return
One aspect that we did not do was float the Rio Grande. I can only imagine how amazing it would be to float through those narrow canyons. On our return trip, we will do this.
I fell in love with Big Bend National Park. Never did I imaged how lovely it was until I went there. And I was so glad Crystal and I had to choose a place for a winter camping trip and we happened to chose Big Bend National Park. I most definitely will be returning.