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. However, many of these are the very same elements that contribute to its natural beauty.
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.
Featured in this guide will be everything you need to know for visiting Big Bend National Park and photographing the desert treasures that await you. I’ve also put together a guide to the best photography locations in Big Bend for those interested in capturing beautiful pictures here.
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Quick Facts About 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
Map of Big Bend National Park
You will find useful maps for your visit to Big Bend NP below. In my planning and adventuring, I found it helpful to break the park down into 5 regions. These regions, ranked by popularity, are:
- Chisos Basin:
Includes most of the parks most-popular trails, great sunset views, and beautiful mountain-scapes.
- 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.
- Exhibit Ridge:
Home to interesting “hoodoos” and the Dinosaur Fossil Exhibit.
- 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.
- Grapevine Hills:
A rough road brings you to the blood-orange Grapevine Hills, known for the iconic “Balanced Rock” feature.
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.
Top Sights in Big Bend NP
I like to think of Big Bend as 5 distinct regions, each with its own unique brand of beauty and each worth a visit. This list breaks them down explaining the best places to visit in Big Bend National Park, as well as the best time to photograph each of them.
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
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.
My personal favorite views were those from the roadside pull-offs at Mile Markers 2, 3, and 4. I found the mountains served 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.
When to go: I found the evening golden hour the best time to be driving the Ross Maxwell road. The mountains turn to gold during the latter stages of the day, while adding some shadow play and texture.
Popular hikes: Mule Ears Springs, Homer Wilson Ranch, Chimneys Trail, Lower Burro Mesa, Ward Spring Trail
Popular overlooks: Sotol Vista Overlook, Tuff Canyon Overlook, Mile Marker 2/3/4
Santa Elena Canyon
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.
When to go: Midday / Night. As you are in between towering cliffs most of the day, it is hard to pinpoint a particularly good time to be there. However, there is a very neat effect around midday when there is an almost dividing line between the two halves of the river.
Shooting the scene under starlight has become quite popular as well.
Popular Hikes: Santa Elena Canyon Trail, Dorgan House
Popular Overlooks: Desert Mountain Overlook, Santa Elena Canyon Overlook
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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.
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.
When to go: Sunrise at Lost Mine Trail, Sunset otherwise.
Popular Hikes: Lost Mine Trail, Window View Trail, South Rim Trail
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, the Hot Springs and Boquillas crossing were both closed, and the Ernst Tinaja trail was inaccessible. With these unavailable, a very short day trip was all I needed.
Even with so much closed at the moment, it is well-worth the time to visit the region. If nothing else, 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 andy 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!
Popular Hikes: Rio Grande Village Nature Trail, Boquillas Canyon Trail, Hot Springs Trail, Marufo Vega Trail
Popular Overlooks: Boquillas Canyon Overlook
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 105°F (40.5°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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The hot springs maintain a year-round temperature of 105°F (40.5°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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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
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 100°F (38°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
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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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
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:
- Chisos Basin Campground (open year-round)
- Rio Grande Village Campground (open Nov 1st – April 30th)
- Cottonwood Campground (open Nov 1st – April 30th)
At present, advance reservations are required for all of these campgrounds. More information can be found on the NPS website.
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. The closest town is Terlingua, located about 30 miles from the park and roughly a 45 minute drive.
There are a few quirkier accommodation options available in Terlingua for a fun escape:
Buzzard’s Roost – Offering three teepees in the Chihuahuan Desert you can enjoy a relaxing night under the stars, complete with your own hammock and private fire pit. Prices starting at $105 per night.
Basecamp Terlingua – Providing a range of accommodation including teepees, casitas, bubbles, retro trailers and lotus tents, as well as campsites, they have something to suit every budget. Prices range from $45 for a campsite up to $599 for some of the casitas.
Ten Bits Ranch – Inspired by Western movies, each room is part of this re-created old western themed town so you can stay in the “Bank”, the “Gun Shop” or even the “Courthouse”! And what’s even better is that the property is self-sustaining, using solar energy and its own well. Prices start from $129 per night.
Lajitas Golf Resort – With a golf course, swimming pool, full-service spa and charter plane service, Lajitas offers 4-star luxury amidst the rugged desert environment. Prices start from $149 per night.
Where to Eat in Big Bend
The Chisos Mountains Lodge Restaurant and Patio located at Chisos Mountains Lodge is the only full-service restaurant within Big Bend.
Where to Eat near Big Bend
Located less than an hour outside the park, Terlingua offers the closest dining options. Here you can find a number of options for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Some top rated options include:
- DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ – No trip to Texas would be complete without BBQ!
- Espresso y Poco Más – Perfect place for coffee, breakfast and lunch.
- Starlight Theatre – Get all your Tex-Mex favorites here as well as live music. It’s a popular spot, so expect to have to wait for a table.
- Long Draw Pizza – Boasting cold beer and hot pizza, Long Draw is a great budget option.
Packing List for Big Bend National Park
Your individual packing list will vary depending on the type of vacation you intend to have. However, there are a few essentials that you will want to consider taking with you to Big Bend NP.
America the Beautiful Annual Pass
The annual national park pass costs $80 and provides access to all 63 national parks in the US. Additionally, it grants admission to over 2000 federal recreation sites! Discounted passes are offered to some groups, including seniors, military personnel, and 4th graders. Check the NPS website for up-to-date information and to purchase your pass.
Hopefully, by now you’ve seen how beautiful Big Bend is, so you don’t want to forget your camera! We use the Sony a7riii and have loved it ever since the first photo we took with it. However, for beginners, you may wish to consider an entry-level DSLR. This will allow you to start learning manual settings and decide whether photography is something you enjoy enough to invest in.
You are going to be in the desert and exposed to the sun. Bring a sunhat, sunglasses, and sunscreen as a minimum. We use Stream 2 Sea sunscreen as it’s eco-friendly and most of their bottles are made from sugarcane resin rather than plastic.
There are some great hikes in Big Bend NP. You’ll therefore want to ensure you pack some comfortable shoes. Closed-toe, sturdy hiking shoes are better than hiking sandals. This will help to reduce the risk of injury to your feet in a desert environment.
The weather varies by season and altitude. It is typically sunny throughout the year but temperatures vary from average highs of 65°F (16°c) in the winter to over 100°F (38°c) in the summer. Additionally, temperatures are 10-20 degrees cooler in the Chisos Mountains.
With this in mind, you’ll want to pack layers of clothing. A wind and waterproof jacket is also likely to come in handy. I love my Columbia jacket as it’s comprised of two layers. This allows me to just wear the outer waterproof/windproof shell, inner insulated layer or combination of both, depending on the weather.
Reusable Water Bottle
We don’t travel anywhere without a reusable water bottle. Remaining hydrated is even more important in the desert. Bring your own bottle to prevent wasting single-use plastic bottles! Water is available at trailheads and visitor centers.
It’s likely you’ll be using your phone to navigate, take photos, and more! Bring a power pack with you to keep your phone charged on the go.
You’ll want a backpack that’s comfortable and sturdy to carry around during the day. I use the GoGroove camera backpack as it also provides easy side access to my camera while out and about.
Mini First Aid Kit
When out hiking, we always have a mini first aid kit in our bag just in case. You never know when it may come in handy (particularly as I’m clumsy)!
Useful Tips for Visiting 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.
Fun Facts About Big Bend National Park
- 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.
Frequently Asked Questions
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.
Related Guides to Big Bend National Park
If you enjoyed the photos and writing in this guide, you may also find some of the following resources helpful:
- Big Bend National Park Pictures: A Guide to Photographing Big Bend
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park: The Ultimate Guide
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park: EVERYTHING You Need to Know
- Ultimate Guide to Sitting Bull Falls
- Night Sky Photography tips and tutorials
- 101+ Dream Destinations for your Travel Bucket List
- Travel Lessons from 10 Years on the Road
Finally, feel free to browse our Big Bend professional photography gallery for prints and inspiration ?
Final thoughts on 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.