🏜 Big Bend National Park Ultimate 2024 Guide + Photo Tips

"Big Bend National Park: Everything You Need to Know" blog cover image.  Text overlaying an image of cactus and mountains at sunset.

Big Bend National Park may not be the most heralded of our National Parks, but it is home to a uniquely beautiful desert ecosystem and a wide array of photography opportunities for those who know where, and when, to look.

There is a lot you need to know before you visit Big Bend NP. The searing climate, prickly vegetation, lack of shade, and sheer scale of the park are all factors to be carefully considered.

During my spring visit, I fell in love with the wide variety of cactus and wildflowers, as well as the Chisos Mountains that turn gold in the evening and glow red at sunset.

My favorite feature, however, is the incredibly dark night skies. I cannot remember ever seeing stars as bright as those in Big Bend, earning the park the distinction of being an International Dark Sky Reserve.

In this guide, I will explain everything you need to know for your first visit to Big Bend National Park. This includes the best trails, things to do, where to stay nearby, and more.

🧐 Quick Facts About Big Bend National Park

Interesting clouds over a desert hoodoo from Exhibit Ridge in Big Bend National Park.
  • Location: Texas, USA
  • Established: June 12, 1944
  • Size: 801,163 acres (1,251.8 sq mi; 3,242.2 km2)
  • Annual Visitors: 393,907 (2020)
  • Visitor Centers: Panther Junction (year-round), Chisos Basin (year-round), Castolon (November – April), Persimmon Gap (November – April) and Rio Grande (November – April)
  • Entrance Fee: $30 per vehicle; $25 per motorcycle; $15 per individual; $80 Interagency Annual Pass

🌡 Big Bend National Park Overview

Whether you’re visiting Big Bend as part of a bigger Texas road trip, or as its own trip, it’s helpful to first understand the layout of the park.

The best way to think about Big Bend is as 5 distinct regions. These regions, ranked by popularity, are:

  1. Chisos Basin:
    Includes most of the parks most-popular trails, great sunset views, and beautiful mountain-scapes.
  2. Santa Elena / Ross Maxwell: The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is known for its dramatic vistas, and is also the main route to the popular Santa Elena Canyon Trail which takes you through part of the Rio Grande.
  3. Exhibit Ridge:
    Home to interesting “hoodoos” and the Dinosaur Fossil Exhibit.
  4. Rio Grande Village:
    The best camping in the park, access to the Rio Grande, and (usually) access to the popular border town of Boquillas in Mexico.
  5. Grapevine Hills:
    A rough road brings you to the blood-orange Grapevine Hills, known for the iconic “Balanced Rock” feature.

πŸ—Ί Maps of Big Bend National Park

Official Big Bend National Park Map

Below is the official park map. You can find a downloadable version of this map and others for Big Bend on the NPS website.

Interactive Google Map of Big Bend

We’ve also put together an interactive Google Map of Big Bend, featuring all of the sights and places we mention within this blog post. Click here or on the image below to open the map in a new tab.

Map of Big Bend National Park


πŸ“Έ Best Places to Visit in Big Bend NP

Each region of Big Bend has its own unique brand of beauty and all are worth a visit.

This list describes all of the best places to visit in Big Bend National Park, as well as the best time to photograph each of them.

πŸš— 1. Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

The Chisos Mountains glow red in the evenings on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.
The Chisos Mountains glow red in the evenings on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.

About Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

Popular Photo Spots: Sotol Vista Overlook, Tuff Canyon Overlook, Mile Marker 2/3/4

Cruise through a desert valley nestled amongst rock mountains on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. This 30-mile jaunt is dotted with photogenic pull-offs and viewpoints, but the most popular features are Mule Ears and Homer Wilson Ranch.

The best views are from the roadside pull-offs at Mile Markers 2, 3, and 4. The mountains serve as beautiful backdrops for photos, particularly in the evening golden hours.

You will end your journey at the Santa Elena Canyon trail, where you may be tempted to go for a dip in the Rio Grande. In other words, be sure to bring a swimsuit and sunscreen! If the water level is low, you can even choose to wade upstream through the narrow canyon as far as you want to go.

When the water levels are high, an elevated trailed is available for dramatic views of the towering canyon walls surrounding the green waters of the Rio Grande. Many choose to explore via kayak as well.

Popular hikes along Ross Maxwell

The most popular hikes along the scenic drive are:

  • Mule Ears Springs
  • Homer Wilson Ranch
  • Chimneys Trail
  • Lower Burro Mesa
  • Ward Spring Trail

When to Visit Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

The best time to drive Ross Maxwell road is in the evening golden hour. The mountains turn to gold during the latter stages of the day, while adding some shadow play and texture.

πŸ§— 2. Santa Elena Canyon

Using a "depth stick" to navigate the Rio Grande in the Santa Elena Canyon.
Using a “depth stick” to navigate the Rio Grande in the Santa Elena Canyon.

About Santa Elena Canyon

Popular Overlooks: Desert Mountain Overlook, Santa Elena Canyon Overlook

Wade through the Rio Grande surrounded by towering, 1500-ft limestone walls on the Santa Elena Canyon Trail! This may be the most popular natural feature in the entire national park, and for good reason.

The walk in to the river is a couple minutes at most, but when the water is low you will have a choice to make. You can either grab a walking stick (to check depth) and begin wading up the river on foot, or take to the elevated trail and stay dry. The total trail length is 1.5 miles roundtrip.

Many people choose to canoe or kayak up the river, which is a great option for those who have the time and interest! It should also be re-stated that you will only be able to wade the river when the water is low.

Popular Hikes in Santa Elena Canyon

The only hike mike visitors come for is the trek Santa Elena Canyon Trail directly up the Rio Grande.

The Dorgan House hike is also available for those with an interest in the history of the area.

When to Visit Santa Elena Canyon

Midday / Night is the best time to go to Santa Elena Canyon. Since you will be in between towering cliffs most of the day, midday actually provides the nicest light. There is also a neat effect when the light is split creating a dividing line between the two halves of the river.

Of course, shooting the scenery under starlight has become quite popular as well!

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πŸŒ… 3. Chisos Basin

First light kisses the rock formations of the Chisos Basin.
First light kisses the rock formations of the Chisos Basin.

About Chisos Basin

The Chisos Mountains are the natural feature that set Big Bend National Park apart from the rest of West Texas.

While you will encounter beautiful desert-scapes in many regions of the Southwest, finding them nestled amidst looming, fossil-laden mountains like the Chisos is a rarity.

Most of Big Bend’s most popular trails and views are in the Chisos Basin. In particular, The Window Viewpoint is perhaps the most iconic vantage point for sunset, and the Lost Mine Trail is widely considered the best hike in the park.

When to Visit the Chisos Basis

A skyfire sunset through "The Window" in the Chisos Basin of Big Bend National Park.
A skyfire sunset through “The Window” in the Chisos Basin.

The Window View is accessed in less than 5 minutes on a short trail from the Chisos Basin Visitor Center. During some months, the sun will set directly into a natural rock frame that forms a V shape, but not always. Similar views can be found from the road that may align better. You can actually hike to The Window itself, but it is a long and strenuous hike in the heat.

As mentioned, many consider the Lost Mine Trail to be the best hike in Big Bend, particularly for sunrise. The full hike is 5 miles roundtrip, but the best view comes after just the first mile.

From a large clearing, you will discover sweeping views of the Chisos Basin in the direction of Southeast. At sunrise, the first light kisses the mountains with angular light and puts on quite a show. Be sure to get there very early, however, as parking is very limited.

🌡 4. Rio Grande Village

Popular Hikes: Rio Grande Village Nature Trail, Boquillas Canyon Trail, Hot Springs Trail, Marufo Vega Trail
Popular Overlooks: Boquillas Canyon Overlook

Enjoy a day on the beach in the aqua waters of the Rio Grande from the Boquillas Canyon Trail.
Enjoy a day on the beach in the aqua waters of the Rio Grande from the Boquillas Canyon Trail.

About Rio Grande Village

Located in the remote Southeast corner of Big Bend National Park is the Rio Grande Village. While this region is host to some really special hiking trails, many of them tend to be closed as often as they are open, or are inaccessible for non-4WD capable vehicles.

During my visit in April of 2021, the Hot Springs and Boquillas crossing were both closed, and the Ernst Tinaja trail was inaccessible. When these are unavailable, a very short day trip is all that is needed.

Kayakers navigate the Rio Grande river in this photo from the Rio Grande Nature Trail.
Kayakers navigate the Rio Grande in this photo from the Nature Trail.

The Rio Grande Village Nature Trail provides a stunning view down the Rio Grande for sunset, and the Boquillas Canyon Trail delivers you to a sandy beach for a nice day in the water.

The Nature Trail is a quick 1 mile walk that takes you to a nice, high vantage point overlooking the river. The sun sets directly in line with the scene, making it a great choice to end the day, especially if you are able to snag a spot in the nearby campground.

The real prize is the Boquillas Canyon Trail which, like Santa Elena, allows you to wade through the water and explore the Rio Grande when the water is low. The trail straddles the border to Mexico and you should expect to encounter numerous opportunities to buy handmade souvenirs, tequila, and tamales along the way.

The Marufo Vega Trail also begins here. This is a lengthy hike into the desert with lots of loops and options, but is only recommended for those who have done their due diligence in planning and preparing.

As mentioned, I was not able to get into the nearby town of Boquillas Del Carmen, but this is a popular voyage as well.

When to go: Sunset is good for the nature trail, anytime is good for the Boquillas Canyon Trail!

♨️ 5. Hot Springs Historic District

Unfortunately, this area was closed when I visited Big Bend. However, it seems it would be well worth a visit when it’s open.

Running alongside the river upstream of Rio Grande Village, are a series of thermal springs known as Boquillas Hot Springs. The most famous of these is the Langford Hot Springs, which was a bathhouse in the 1900s. However, today only remnants of the walls remain. These springs are heated by geothermal processes and maintain a constant temperature of 105Β°F (40.5Β°c). The water carries a number of dissolved mineral salts including lithium, calcium carbonate, calcium sulfate and sodium chloride and has long been reputed to have healing effects.

The hot springs are accessible by a short 0.5 mile trail from the Hot Springs parking lot. Along the way, you can see a number of pictographs (images drawn on the rocks) and petroglyphs (images carved into the rocks) that are believed to date back from 1,000 B.C. to 200 B.C.

If you do visit the hot springs, ensure you take plenty of water with you. It is also worth checking on the NPS website that the hot springs are open, particularly in the summer when they are prone to flooding from the river.

πŸͺ¨ 6. Exhibit Ridge

Sunrise photography over the hoodoos of Exhibit Ridge in Big Bend National Park
A spectacular sunrise infuses the desert skies with color above an interesting desert “Hoodoo.”

My favorite part of Big Bend National Park is the region where most spend the least amount of time! The area north of Panther Junction is known as Exhibit Ridge, and is home to some really cool rock formations known as hoodoos.

While there is no official trail here, the Tornillo River bed serves as a good option. The river bed is almost always dry but will take you directly to the hoodoos. It is not the most direct route, but it ensures you don’t get lost nor end up with a cactus in the foot.

Photography from the Fossil Discovery Exhibit in Big Bend NP.
Fossils and displays show what life was like in a time past.

To access, you will want to park at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit and make your way to the river bed that runs under the bridge. Just follow that all the way and explore freely, but bring lots of water! The entire area is open and the hiking time was about 30-40 minutes to the first hoodoo.

While you’re there, be sure to check out the Fossil Discover Exhibit. This small but impressive display shows how the region looked a very long time ago, when the continent was actually divided by a large body of water. You will discover many authentic fossils as well as a few replications and a lot of really interesting information.

πŸ‡ 7. Grapevine Hills

The rocks of the Grapevine Hills glow orange as they bathe in the light of golden hour.
The rocks of the Grapevine Hills glow orange as they bathe in the light of golden hour.

Perhaps the most beautiful, and definitely the most intriguing region of Big Bend National Park is 7 miles up a rough dirt road in an area called the Grapevine Hills.

4WD is definitely recommended for this drive, but is not completely necessary. Average clearance will be enough, but higher clearance may save you a cracked oil pan!

The first two miles of the road are the best managed, as the garbage trucks use this frequently. The next 5 get increasingly worse as you continue, with some particularly nasty bumps and hills in the final mile.

If you are able to get there, however, you will be treated to a plethora of geographic wonders. The textures and shapes and colors of the rocky hills that give Grapevine Hills their name are really special. In the evening, they have a deep, blood-orange color that deepens to red at twilight.

The most popular feature and the biggest draw is the Balanced Rock at the end of the only trail up there. Astrophotographers come from all around to photograph the Milky Way over the large suspended boulder in the famously-dark south Texas skies.

The iconic Balanced Rock holds steadfast under the Milky Way in the famously dark night skies of Big Bend.
The iconic Balanced Rock holds steadfast under the Milky Way in the famously dark night skies of Big Bend.

LEARN PHOTOGRAPHY: Night Sky Photography Tutorials

πŸƒβ€β™€οΈ Best Things to Do in Big Bend NP

With a multitude of different landscapes just beckoning to be explored, you’ll find plenty of things to do in Big Bend. Its remote wilderness is a place of extremes and provides an excellent place for outdoor activities.

There are trails and options for most abilities, from scenic drives to strenuous multi-day hikes or cycling routes.

πŸ₯Ύ Hiking

Hiking the Grapevine Hills of Big Bend NP in the evening light.
Hiking the Grapevine Hills as the sun fades.

With over 200 miles of hiking trails, you can expect to find some great trails here, from short day hikes to long multiday routes. Whether you want to hike through the deserts, mountains or alongside the river, you’ll be spoilt for choices. If you need a little inspiration to get you going, you may enjoy these hiking quotes!

Here’s just a few of the best hikes in Big Bend:

  • Lost Mine Trail: 4.8 miles starting from mile 5.1 on the Basin Road. Many opt to only hike the first mile in for sweeping views of the Chisos Mountains. Popular at sunrise.
  • Santa Elena Canyon Trail: 1.7 miles starting at the end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Visitors can choose to walk upstream when water levels are low enough, or take an elevated trail up and around.
  • South Rim Trail: 12-14.5 miles starting from Chisos Basin Trailhead. Many smaller trails splinter off of this popular hike.
  • Emory Peak: 10.8 miles starting from Chisos Basin Trailhead.
  • Mule Ears Spring: 3.8 miles starting from Mule Ears Overlook parking area, mile 15, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Views of the Mule Ears rock formations are available throughout the scenic drive.
  • Grapevine Hills Trail: 2.2 miles starting from Grapevine Hills parking lot. 4WD recommend, mid-high clearance a must!
  • Boquillas Canyon Trail: 1.2 miles starting from Boquillas Canyon Road near Rio Grande Village. Bring money for souvenirs, tamales, or a cheeky margarita, and bring swimwear for a dip upon arrival!
  • Ernst Tinaja: 1.9 miles and 4WD required, starting from the Ernst Tinaja campsite outside of Rio Grande Village.
  • Rio Grande Village Nature Trail: Quick 1 mile walk from the Rio Grande Village campground.
  • Hot Springs Trail: 1.2 mile walk beginning near the Rio Grande Village.
  • The Window Trail: There are two trails, the Window VIEW Trail being a short .3 mile return to a popular sunset viewpoint. The hike to the The Window itself is closer to 5 miles return and is a bit more challenging.

πŸŽ’ Backpacking

For the more adventurous, the expanse of undeveloped areas in Big Bend provides ample opportunity for backpacking. Backcountry permits are required for any multi-day trips in the park and can be acquired up to six months in advance. There are a number of multi-day hikes to choose from to really explore the wilderness of this incredible park. You will need to be entirely self-sufficient and carry in enough food and water for the duration of your trip.

Overnight backpackers can choose to explore the Chisos Mountain or head out into the desert. There are 42 designated backcountry campsites in the mountains and your permit will specify your sites and nights there. Alternatively, most of the desert areas are open to wilderness camping. However, it is advised that only experienced backpackers venture into the remote areas of the park as the trails are not always clear and conditions can be extreme.

🩳 Explore by River

A view of the Rio grande from the Santa Elena Canyon Trail.
A view of the Rio grande from the Santa Elena Canyon Trail.

Stretching over 250 miles, Rio Grande has carved many spectacular canyons through Big Bend which provide a unique opportunity to explore the park from a different perspective. While you can drive alongside or hike to some parts of the river, the best way to truly experience it is to take to the water by kayak, canoe or raft. Floating amongst the sheer cliffs allows an appreciation of the grandeur of the landscape.

One of the most popular places to paddle out from is Santa Elena Canyon. You’ll have the option to head out with your own gear, or rent equipment from local outfitters or take a fully guided tour. There are a variety of tours that you can choose from depending on your skill level and length of time, lasting from a couple of hours to a few weeks.

🐎 Horse Riding

Horse riding and camping with horses is permitted in certain areas with the right paperwork.

You’ll need a backcountry permit and up to date vaccinations for your horse. There are also several stables located just outside Big Bend that offer tours ranging from an hour to several days.

πŸš΅β€β™€οΈ Cycling

As is the case in most national parks, the trails in Big Bend are closed to mountain bikers. However, there are over 160 miles of unpaved dirt roads and 100 miles of paved roads that make for great options for keen cyclists.

These offer a variety of terrains for all abilities with sensational panoramic views along the way! There are also operators that offer shuttle services to drop you and your bike off and then you can cycle back.

The NPS website has a number of great cycling routes listed if you’re in need of some inspiration.

🚘 Scenic Drive

Big Bend Photography of the winding Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.
An evening view of the winding Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.

One of the great things about Big Bend National Park is the amount of beauty that can be seen from the roadside. So for those with limited time or abilities, you can still take in many of the spectacular scenes on offer in this otherworldly wilderness. The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is the most popular route, providing stunning vistas and pull-offs along the way.

For those with 4WD and high clearance, there are also a number of primitive roads you can explore.

🐴 Wildlife Spotting

Desert mules pose for a photo.
Desert mules pose for a photo.

Big Bend is home to a multitude of thriving ecosystems. Although deserts are often considered barren and devoid of life, that absolutely isn’t the case! There is an abundance of wildlife that are adapted to the environment and thrive in the desert, including more than 450 species of bird, 75 species of mammals, 56 species of reptiles and 11 species of amphibians!

Some of these animals include black bears, mountain lions, coyote, javelinas, mule deer, jackrabbit, foxes and roadrunners. During the spring, you can expect a chorus of birdsong particularly in the late afternoon, followed by chirruping insects. In the wetter summer months, the frogs and toads jump into action and their distinctive croaking fills the air. As many of the animals in the park are nocturnal, dusk and dawn are the best times for wildlife viewing.

There are a few less friendly critters, including venomous snakes, scorpions, spiders and centipedes. While bites and stings from these are rare, you should always pay attention to where you walk and place your hands. You should also inspect your shoes and bedding before use!

Please remember all of these animals are wild, please help keep them that way. Do not attempt to touch them or feed them — this is for both your safety and theirs.

🌌 Stargazing

Milky Way night photography above the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park
The Chisos Mountains under a Milky Way sky.

As an International Dark Sky Park, Big Bend National Park boasts the darkest night skies in the lower 48 states. Combined with Big Bend Ranch State Park, there are over 1 million acres of protected dark skies in Big Bend!

Add to this mostly clear nights and wide open stretches of uninterrupted skies and you’re in for a real treat when it comes to stargazing. As the sky darkens, marvel overhead as a blanket of thousands of twinkling stars envelopes the park.

♨ Hot Springs

The hot springs maintain a year-round temperature of 105Β°F (40.5Β°c), providing perfectly warmed water to soothe away any aches and pains! Set along the bank of the Rio Grande, these hot springs offer a unique setting in the desert to unwind after a day of exploring or hiking!

Soaking in the geothermal hot springs in Big Bend is definitely a top thing to do in the park – when they’re open! Unfortunately, they were closed on my visit in April 2021 and are often closed in the summer due to flooding. Be sure to check on the NPS website to see if they’re available before you go.

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πŸ“ Planning Your Visit to Big Bend NP

Hopefully, you no longer need convincing as to why you should visit Big Bend. At this point, it seems important to provide some practical information to help you plan your time there and ensure you have the best possible experience.

🌀 When to Visit Big Bend National Park

Milky Way photography from Big Bend featuring the hoodoos of Exhibit Ridge.
Spring visits to Big Bend mean ample opportunity for photographing the Milky Way!

It is subjective, but I feel that the best time of year to visit Big Bend National Park is in spring… specifically in April. This is when the spring break crowds have ceased, the weather is comfortable (usually), the Milky Way is out, and the wildflowers are in bloom. Of course, there are pros and cons to visiting at every time of year.

Spring and fall both tend to provide milder temperatures, making it perfect for comfortably undertaking some of the beautiful hikes and for camping under the stars. With the exception of spring break, the crowds are also smaller during these times. However, my visit the first week of April coincided with an unseasonably warm spell which pushed temperatures to triple digits most days, so there are no guarantees.

Temperatures in the summer (Jun-Aug) frequently reach over 100Β°F (38Β°c). It is also rainy season from Jun-Oct, during which time flash floods can occur. This can make the waterfalls spectacular, but can also cause many trails to become impassable.

The cooler weather during the winter makes it a perfect time to explore the hot springs! However, the winter weather can be harsh with cold snaps below freezing and even the occasional snow, particularly in the mountains. Also, Thanksgiving and the holidays in December are some of the busiest times in the park – so expect larger crowds.

⏳ How Many Days to Spend in Big Bend

Enjoying a golden moment somewhere in the beautiful desert.
Enjoying a golden moment somewhere in the beautiful desert.

I would recommend spending at least three days in Big Bend if you are a photographer or hiker. Many of the sights are quite spread out, but three days will allow you to explore them all. It should also provide time for most of the best hikes.

Of course, the park is absolutely enormous and as the head ranger told me, “you can walk anywhere the desert will let you”. Due to the park’s vast size, you could spend weeks exploring and still not discover all that Big Bend has to offer.

🧭 How to Get to Big Bend National Park

Located in Southwest Texas, on the border of Texas and Mexico, Big Bend is certainly not the easiest of national parks to reach. However, this is part of what makes it the fantastic off-the-beaten-path adventure that it is!

Most visitors reach the park in their own vehicles, which is what I would suggest. Depending on where you’re coming from, there are numerous entry points for the park but all inevitably arrive at Panther Junction (the park HQ.) It is worth noting that Panther Junction has bathrooms, water fill-up stations, and Wi-Fi.

Another option is to fly to one of the “local” airports and rent a vehicle from here. From any of these airports, you’ll need to drive at least three hours. The closest airport is Midland airport, which is around 200 miles away. Another popular option for getting to Big Bend is to fly to El Paso as this has more flight options. However, El Paso is 288 miles from the park so requires a longer drive time.

Pro Tip: Those who do journey to Big Bend via El Paso should consider going through Guadalupe Mountains National Park on your way. It only adds about an hour to the journey and is a beautiful, lesser-visited park.

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βœ‡ Getting Around Big Bend National Park

The easiest and most popular way to get around Big Bend National Park is to drive. For the more adventurous, it is also a great place for cycling and backcountry hikes.

The NPS website also has an option of local tour operators that can provide shuttle services, guided trips and other activities. Some operators also offer river tours along the Rio Grande which provide a unique way of exploring the park.

⛽️ Gas and Supplies

Amenities are limited in Big Bend due to its remote nature, but you will be able to find all the essentials! In fact, gas is available in the park at Panther Junction and was the same price as the pumps in nearby Terlingua, and actually cheaper than the pumps in Marathon! You can also fill up in Rio Grande Village.

Panther Junction and Rio Grande Village also have year-round convenience stores, as do Chisos Basin and Castolon. Each location carries basic groceries, camping supplies and souvenirs.

The nearest town with amenities is Terlingua, located 30 miles for the park’s headquarters. Those entering Big Bend National Park from the North will pass through the town of Marathon, but as mentioned above, should skip the pumps!

⛺️ Where to Stay in Big Bend National Park

The Milky Way hovers above the Chisos Mountains from Lost Mine Trail.
The Milky Way hovers above the Chisos Mountains from Lost Mine Trail.

As an International Dark Sky Park, Big Bend is a great place to camp under a blanket of stars ,and there are a number of campgrounds within the park that offer the opportunity for primitive camping. If you prefer four walls around you at night, however, then there is only one accommodation option within the park.


Within the park boundaries, Chisos Mountains Lodge is the only accommodation available. It offers a few different room types, as well as an RV park. This is also where you’ll find the only full-service restaurant option in the park.


There are three NPS front country campgrounds within the park:

Backcountry camping is also permitted, however, you will need to register for a backcountry permit prior to your visit.

While there are many options for hike-in camping, Big Bend also offers primitive roadside camping with a backcountry permit. Some of these will require a 4WD with high clearance, but a couple can be reached with standard vehicles.

🏨 Where to Stay Outside Big Bend NP

Due to its remote location, there aren’t many options for accommodation nearby.

While there are a few fun towns near Big Bend National Park, the closest town is Terlingua. It is located about 30 miles from the park and roughly a 45-minute drive.

🍽 Where to Eat in Big Bend and Nearby

TheΒ Chisos Mountains Lodge Restaurant and Patio is the only full-service restaurant within Big Bend.

Terlingua offers the closest dining options located less than an hour outside the park. Here, you can find several options for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

in case. You never know when it may come in handy (particularly as I’m clumsy)!

⚠️ Useful Tips for Visiting Big Bend NP

Golden Hour photography featuring a desert cactus in Big bend NP.
  • Bring your passport: Big Bend shares a border with Mexico and a visit to Boquillas in Mexico is a popular day trip, so make sure you pack your passport!
  • Plan ahead: As accommodation is limited in and around the park, availability becomes extremely limited during peak months. Make sure you book ahead to avoid disappointment. Additionally, all campsites currently need to be booked in advance.
  • Arrive early: Although it is one of the lesser-visited parks, it is increasing in popularity and can get busy at the weekends and during holidays. It can also become very hot during the middle of the day, so take advantage of the cooler mornings for exploration.
  • It gets hot: The dry desert heat can quickly cause dehydration and the sun can be intense. Make sure you carry plenty of water and sunscreen.
  • Leave no trace: Please be respectful of the park. Keep to the trails, dispose of waste properly, and leave any plants etc. that you find.
  • Let wild animals be wild: You may encounter many different animals including black bears, coyote and cougars, please do not feed or disturb them. Feeding wildlife can alter their behavior with humans, making them less fearful and more aggressive. This can lead to wildlife having to be euthanized.
  • Desert critters: The desert is home to venomous snakes, scorpions, spiders and centipedes. Check your shoes and bedding just in case one thinks your stinky shoes smell like home!
  • Download offline maps: Cell service is limited throughout the park, therefore it’s worth downloading an offline map such as Google Maps. Wi-Fi is available at the visitor centers.
  • Drive carefully: The roads can be busy and you may share them with wildlife. Please adhere to speed limits and drive responsibly in Big Bend.

πŸ€— Fun Facts About Big Bend National Park

First light spills onto the scene at Exhibit Ridge in this landscape photograph of Big Bend.
First light spills onto the scene at Exhibit Ridge.
  • Big Bend is an International Dark Sky Park and has the darkest night skies in the lower 48 states. There are even shields over the few lights in the park to reduce the light pollution.
  • At 1252 square miles, Big Bend NP is bigger than the entire state of Rhode Island (1034 square miles).
  • Evidence of human occupation has been found dating back 12,000 years.
  • Flowing for 1896 miles from Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico, Rio Grande is the fourth longest river in North America and serves as part of the natural border between Mexico and the USA.
  • In 1976, Big Bend was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
  • Big Bend is incredibly biodiverse and is home to 11 species of amphibians, 56 species of reptiles, 40 species of fish, 75 species of mammals, more than 450 species of birds, and about 3,600 species of insects. It boasts more types of birds, bats, butterflies, ants, and scorpions than any other national park in the United States.
  • There are over 1200 different plant species in Big Bend.
  • The Chisos Mountains are the only in the US to be fully contained within a single National Park
  • The park gets its name from the large bend in the Rio Grande.

πŸ™‹β€β™€οΈ FAQs About Big Bend National Park

Early light photography on a hoodoo in Big Bend.

What is special about Big Bend National Park?

Big Bend is a place of extremes, encompassing desert, mountains and river landscapes with an incredible amount of biodiversity. It is also home to the darkest skies in the lower 48 states making it a haven for stargazing.

Is Big Bend National Park worth visiting?

The short answer: Yes, absolutely! There is so much you can do and see in Big Bend that I would recommend anyone who has the opportunity make the time for a visit.

The long answer would be this: it is definitely worth seeing as part of a road trip, or if you live nearby, but it is not a park that I would recommend as a standalone vacation or photography destination unto itself. While it is truly beautiful, my personal feeling is that there are too many other places that are more accessible, offer more hospitable conditions for exploration, and would be generally considered more photogenic that I would recommend ahead of a trip to Big Bend.

Of course, that is highly subjective. Perhaps you really love the desert and fossils and cacti and such, in which case you would probably appreciate the park in a way that most cannot. This is just one photographer’s opinion!

Is Big Bend National Park dangerous?

As with all natural wildernesses, there are a number of risks when exploring, almost entirely environmental. However, by adhering to park rules, being prepared and knowing your own limitations, most of these can be mitigated. Visit the NPS website for specific safety advice in the park.

Vehicle injuries are actually one of the highest causes of injury in Big Bend, so please drive carefully through the park. After this, the sun is the second-most likely source of problems. Ensure you carry plenty of water, cover-up in the sun, avoid hiking in the middle of the day, and wear sunscreen.

What is the difference between Big Bend State Park and Big Bend National Park?

Beyond the difference in their designations, Big Bend National Park is nearly three times larger than Big Bend State Park. Big Bend National Park is also more developed, with paved roads suitable for most vehicles including RVs, big campgrounds, and more amenities, including a hotel and a restaurant.

Big Bend State Park is large and rugged, with the vast majority of its treasures located along isolated dirt roads. There is plenty to be discovered here as well for those who have the time and vehicle for such an adventure.

What should I bring to Big Bend?

What you need to bring to Big Bend will vary depending on what you plan to do! However, some things you’ll definitely want to bring include:

  • Water: A minimum of 1 gallon per person per day is recommended. Fill-ups are available at visitor centers.
  • Ample snacks, as amenities are limited.
  • Sunscreen and clothing that offers protection from the sun.
  • Swimwear for dips into the Rio Grande.
  • Comfortable, proper hiking shoes. There are many low-lying cactuses and the thorns will penetrate thin materials with ease. Ouch!
  • Passport (if you wish to visit Mexico.)
  • A camera!
  • Activity specific equipment e.g. camping gear.

Is there cell service in Big Bend National Park?

Cell service in Big Bend is spotty throughout the park, but most people get spots of service. That said, I did not have it for even a single moment my entire time in the park.

The most reliable cell service can be found in the Chisos Basin area and near Panther Junction.

You will also find free, reliable Wi-Fi at the Panther Junction visitor center.

Are there snakes in Big Bend National Park?

Yes, there are 31 species of snakes in Big Bend, including 4 species of rattlesnake. The snakes are typically more active after summer rains. All wildlife, including snakes, are protected in the park so please do not harm, handle or otherwise disturb them.

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If you enjoyed the photos and writing in this guide, you may also find some of the following resources helpful:

Finally, feel free to browse our Big Bend professional photography gallery for prints and inspiration ?

πŸ’¬ Final thoughts on Big Bend National Park

Sunrise photography from Lost Mine Trail shows the Chisos Basin in golden light.
There is so much magic to discover in the desert wonderland of Big Bend National Park.

If you have read even most of this guide to Big Bend National Park, you are definitely better-prepared than most!! While it probably will not crack my Top 10 list of favorite NPs, I was extremely impressed by the unique beauty I discovered here and fell in love with many aspects of the park.

I loved that the ethos here is to “explore as the desert allows”, meaning the truly adventurous are welcome to make their own way on their quest to discover interesting compositions and unseen parts of the park.

Bring LOTS of water, sunscreen, memory cards, and enough coffee for at least one night of enjoying the stars. I have a feeling you’ll find a special joy for Big Bend just as I did.

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Photo of author
Written by
Adam Marland is a professional travel blogger and landscape photographer from Oregon. After over a decade of experience as a freelance travel photographer, Adam found national acclaim when he became the National Park Foundation's β€œChief Exploration Officer” in 2021.

8 thoughts on “🏜 Big Bend National Park Ultimate 2024 Guide + Photo Tips”

  1. Wow what a comprehensive post and your Milky Way photos are amazing! You’ve definitely made me want to visit here with my camera at night time!

  2. Love this guide to Big Bend National Park in Texas! I didn’t know much about it. You’ve inspired me to add it to my list of best places to hike!

  3. Just found your website while reviewing more online information for our upcoming April 2023 fourteen day trip to west Texas and southern New Mexico. We will visit Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands National Parks. Your Big Bend websites are awesome.

    Mel Coker
    Chapin, SC


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