Big Bend National Park Pictures: A Guide to Photographing Big Bend ⋆ We Dream of Travel Blog

Big Bend National Park Pictures: A Guide to Photographing Big Bend

Cover image for "Big Bend National Park Pictures: A Guide to Photographing Big Bend".  Text overlaying an image of Grapevine Hills at golden hour.

Consider this comprehensive photography guide your cheatsheet to taking home the best Big Bend National Park pictures possible in a short amount of time. I spent a week photographing sunset, sunrise, and the famously dark night skies of Big Bend and wanted to share what I learned for you shutterbugs looking to plan a trip of your own.

As this blog focuses more on the photography element of your visit, I strongly recommend queuing up our complete guide to visiting Big Bend National Park in a new tab which provides far more information on organizing a trip. This includes maps, where to stay, amenities, and everything you need to know for a visit.

Below, you will find some of my own photography which I hope can provide some inspiration, as well as explanations on what makes each region unique and what the best time(s) of day are to capture them. Please understand that this is a very subjective thing and that all opinions are simply my own.

The morning golden hour is the best time for capturing those perfect Big Bend National Park pictures.
The morning golden hour is the best time for capturing those perfect Big Bend National Park pictures.

Photographing Big Bend National Park

Before we dive into the details, it helps to understand just a little bit about the park. First of all, Big Bend is massive. I found it easier to consider logistically by breaking the park into 5 sections, which I will describe and rank in terms of photography opportunities.

A spectacular sunset in Big Bend National Park.
A spectacular sunset in Big Bend National Park.

Region 1: Exhibit Ridge

My research from reading other travel blogs suggests this is not a popular opinion, but I found Exhibit Ridge to be the best place for capturing unique Big Bend National Park pictures. Perhaps it is because it is not commonly explored that I found it more interesting than some of the better-known spots.

Exhibit Ridge is located on “Main Park Rd” as you enter Big Bend from the North (specifically from the town of Marathon). The only official sights and trails along the way are Dagger Flats, Dog Canyon, and the Fossil Discovery Exhibit. The Dagger Flats were recommended by the rangers at the Visitor Center for sunset as a location to find a field of blooming cactus, but I must admit that I did not get any pictures worth keeping there, personally. The Fossil Discovery Exhibit is certainly worth a quick look, but again, you will not be overwhelmed by the photos there.

Sunrise pictures of Big Bend National Park from Exhibit Ridge.
Clouds over Exhibit Ridge burst with color at sunrise.

What makes Exhibit Ridge so special is an area that is not officially on any map. Indeed, where I spent most of my time was exploring the interesting rock stacks known as “hoodoos”. You will see these distant rock formations and layered hills from the Main Park Road but will have to hike in via the (usually) dried up Tornillo River bed. You can access this from pretty much anywhere, but the easiest way is to park at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit and locate the river bed.

The best time to explore the hoodoos is absolutely at sunrise when the angular light accentuates the textures in the rock. This shadow play and golden light really bring the hoodoos to life.

I also loved shooting getting some milky way photos here. In fact, my favorite Big Bend National Park pictures were the night photos I captured at Exhibit Ridge featuring what I have dubbed the “Galactic Snail”. As of the time of writing this, I have never seen any night photos from this location, though I suspect that will not be the case for long.

Region 2: Grapevine Hills

Golden light graces the Grapevine Hills as sunset approaches.
Golden light graces the Grapevine Hills as sunset approaches.

The Grapevine Hills regions is probably the worst-kept secret destination for Big Bend landscape photography. At the end of a very rough 7-mile road, visitors will discover a fascinating tapestry of bubbled rock formations that glow the color of blood-orange in the evening. Splicing between these textures hills is a lone trail that leads to a popular geological phenomenon known as Balanced Rock.

As mentioned, the road here is very rough and 4WD is recommended. More important than 4WD, however, is at least above-average clearance. There are some major potholes along the way, many of which occur on hills, making it dangerous for low-clearance vehicles to navigate. For reference, I took my time slowly maneuvering in a typical minivan and still cracked the bottom once, but was fortunate not to crack an oil plate or anything.

If you are willing and able to make the journey, I recommend being prepared to stay through the night so that you can capture sunset, sunrise, and milky way here. The colors in the hills are equally amazing during both morning and evening golden hours, though I probably give the nod to sunrise. And, of course, getting a picture of the Milky Way over Balanced Rock is probably the highest priority on every photographer’s Big Bend bucket list.

While you’re in the area, don’t forget to check out Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Region 3: Chisos Basin

The sky catches fire in this picture of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend.
The sky catches fire in this picture of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend.

The Chisos Mountains are the natural feature that set Big Bend National Park apart from other similar desert regions in the south. Adding these rugged rock mountains to the backdrop adds an important layer of interest to your pictures.

It is no wonder, then, that the Chisos Basin region is the most-visited part of the park. This area boasts some impressive elevated views, and also has the most trails available.

If you have already researched pictures of Big Bend National Park, you will have seen many from the popular Lost Mine Trail and South Rim trail, both of which are absolutely worth hiking if time permits. However, I must admit that my favorite composition from Lost Mine Trail came within the first mile, where the trail hits a clearing and reveals an amazing view of the Chisos Mountains. This is particularly beautiful at sunrise.

The South Rim trail was a bit too long for me, but is definitely something to consider for those of you looking to wilderness camp. For most mortals, I recommend shooting sunrise from the Lost Mine Trail and sunset from the Window View. During the right time of year, the sun will actually cross the horizon perfectly set within a natural rock frame known as “The Window”. You will likely have some company as this viewpoint requires no hike at all and is, perhaps, the most popular destination for Big Bend sunset pictures.

Region 4a: Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

Late afternoon light on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.
Late afternoon light on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.

Region 4 was broken down into 4a & 4b because both regions provide different photo opportunities, but will be part of one trip.

In order to access the incredible Santa Elena Canyon, you will “have to” drive the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. This beautiful stretch of roads traces the Chisos Mountains. Along the way, you will be treated to plenty of photo ops and natural features.

The best-known formation is the “Mule Ears,” which can be a fantastic subject for sunset pictures if you are fortunate to have some sky interest. They will be silhouetted at sunset and, accordingly, I found them a bit lackluster on a blue-sky day.

Other popular stops along the way are the Homer Wilson Ranch and Sotol Overlook. While I would definitely recommend stopping at each, neither felt like strong enough compositions for me to rank higher on the list. With that said, the Milky Way does rise directly over Homer Wilson Ranch which I wanted to try shooting but never had the opportunity.

For me, the best time to get pictures from the Ross Maxwell Road is during the evening golden hour. Sunset itself is unlikely to put on much of a show as you are driving through a bit of a valley, and will therefore be in shadow late into the evening. However, the Chisos Mountains reflect the golden and red hues of the setting sun very dramatically and provide a great backdrop.

Surprisingly, my favorite pictures from the drive came from the roadside pull-offs at Mile Marker 2 and 3.

The Chisos Mountains glow with vibrance in the evening golden hour.
The Chisos Mountains glow with vibrance in the evening golden hour.

Region 4b: Santa Elena Canyon

At the end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is the Santa Elena Canyon. Here, the Rio Grande river winds its way through towering limestone cliffs in a spectacular display.

First off, I think the casual visitor will find more interest in getting some quick “grab shots” here than perhaps any of the places above. The scene is naturally unique and beautiful, so it seems easy to get a pretty photo. I would argue that while it is easy to get something good, it is more challenging to get something great. My favorite photo of the region showed a Milky Way cutting right through the canyon, but turned out to be a fake. Don’t be fooled by everything you see!

Navigating the Santa Elena Canyon trail.
Navigating the Santa Elena Canyon trail.

With that said, I have seen some night photos here that I really liked, but otherwise found very little advantage in being here early or late enough for golden hours. If time is plentiful, by all means plan to spend an evening here, but otherwise I suggest shooting around mid-day when the light is balanced and even and using your precious sunset time elsewhere.

Region 5: Rio Grande Village

The final region of the park and the one that I consider least photogenic is the Rio Grande Village.

This comes with a major caveat, however!

First, I must explain that there are plenty of great Big Bend pictures to be captured in this region! In particular, the viewpoint from the Nature Trail ranks high on my list of favorite places to shoot sunset in Big Bend. I had also scouted a Milky Way composition that I think could have been intriguing from the beach on the Boquillas Canyon Trail.

Big Bend national park picture capturing the green water and limestone cliffs from the Boquillas Canyon.
Capturing the green water and limestone cliffs from the Boquillas Canyon.

With that said, the reason this ranked last says more about how beautiful I found other areas of the park. It is also because I could not access the Ernst Tinaja trail, which looks incredible enough to push things up a spot or two. Unfortunately, the road there is incredibly difficult and requires a proper rough-road vehicle.

Furthermore, the Hot Springs trail was also closed when I visited.

What I would say about the Rio Grande Village area is that there are experiences to be had, such as swimming in the Rio Grande, buying tamales from across the border along the walk, taking a soak in natural hot springs, and so on that do not translate as magically to a photograph.

Of the pictures I did keep, my favorites were from the Nature Trail viewpoint and taking the Boquillas Canyon Trail until it dead ends beyond the beach, looking back the way you came. The green water and looming canyon walls provide all the Big Bend feels you could ask for!

DISCOVER EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT BIG BEND: The ULTIMATE Guide to Big Bend National Park

When and Where to Get the Best Big Bend Pictures

Of course the term “best” is always subjective. To determine what I consider “best”, I took into consideration a few different factors:

  1. Strength of the composition
  2. Ease of access
  3. Potential for an “epic” shot

As an example, The Window View is the most popular spot for sunset in Big Bend. This ranks high on my personal recommendation list due to the absolute ease of access and being a strong composition with the natural framing of the rocks. However, even with the best sunset I have seen in recent memory, I would argue that the photos still do not make my “trophy wall”. More on that to come!

Best Locations for Big Bend National Park Sunset Pictures

A crazy sunset picture looking at The Window in Big Bend National Park.
A crazy sunset picture looking at The Window in Big Bend National Park.

Unfortunately, I found sunrise to be a better time for most photoshoots, which means getting up very early. Still, whether you are a casual visitor or photography enthusiast, it is worth arranging your daily itineraries so that you end your day in one of these amazing places to capture a Big Bend sunset.

Grapevine Hills

A Big Bend National Park picture of the Grapevine Hills at sunset.
A prickly pear cactus frames this sunset capture of the Grapevine Hills.

This was my favorite place for photographing sunset as I found the landscape more interesting here than anywhere else. The hills really pick up some fantastic color, and while I didn’t get the blockbuster sky I was hoping for, I still found the scene photogenic.

  • Composition: 5
  • Ease of Access: 2
  • Potential: 5
  • Overall Score: 12

The Window View

A 1-minute walk delivers you to a clear westerly view where the sun will, at times, be perfectly framed by V-shaped rocks.

  • Composition: 3
  • Ease of Access: 5
  • Potential: 3
  • Overall Score: 11

Rio Grande Village Nature Trail

Later on this evening, the sun would be setting directly in line with this picture from the Rio Grande Nature Trail in Big Bend.
Later on this evening, the sun would be setting directly in line with this picture from the Rio Grande Nature Trail.

Just a half-mile hike in and up provides a really nice composition featuring the snaking Rio Grande as a leading line to the mountains and sunset. While I was not here for sunset, I did see images to confirm it as a solid choice.

  • Composition: 3
  • Ease of Access: 4
  • Potential: 3
  • Overall Score: 10

GOT THE PERFECT SUNSET PHOTO?: 130+ Best Sunset Captions for Instagram

Best Locations for Big Bend National Park Sunrise Pictures

First light shines on the Chisos Basin in this sunrise picture from Big Bend National Park.
First light shines on the Chisos Basin in this sunrise picture from Big Bend National Park.

The good thing about getting sunrise pictures in Big Bend is that you are more likely to have great light and quiet scenes. The bad thing is that you have to be up very early!

I prefer sunsets as a rule as they are easier to prepare for. Being able to scout compositions and watch the light change is my easier going from day to night, but shooting sunrise means you are doing a lot of guesswork as you wander in the dark. Hopefully, this guide can help get you in the right direction.

Exhibit Ridge Hoodoos

Big Bend National Park picture of sunrise from the hoodoos of Exhibit Ridge.
Morning clouds ignite with color over a hoodoo in Exhibit Ridge.

As mentioned before, you can wander around the open desert and get very creative with the hoodoos, which get the most interesting light during sunrise. The hike is slightly tricky in the dark if you have never seen what you are looking for in the day, but stick to the river bed and there is no chance of getting lost.

  • Composition: 5
  • Ease of Access: 4
  • Potential: 5
  • Overall Score: 14

Lost Mine Trail Overlook

Sunrise picture from Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend NP.
Sunrise from the Lost Mine Trail.

The Lost Mine Trail is 5+ miles, but fortunately my favorite view is just a mile up! From this first clearing, you will get a beautiful view over the Chisos Basin. I love the way the first light kisses the mountains. It is also good to get here for sunrise as the parking lot fills up very early.

  • Composition: 4
  • Ease of Access: 4
  • Potential: 4
  • Overall Score: 12

Grapevine Hills

Sunrise photography at the Grapevine Hills.

As beautiful for sunrise as sunset, the Grapevine Hills are a stunning place to take in a sunrise. There is no one specific composition necessarily, allowing you to be creative. Personally, I love the view looking back down the Balanced Rock trail capturing the entire valley.

  • Composition: 5
  • Ease of Access: 2
  • Potential: 5
  • Overall Score: 12

WANT TO IMPROVE YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY?: Photography Guides for all Levels!

Best Locations for Big Bend National Park Milky Way Pictures

Milky Way picture from Big Bend National Park.
The Milky Way rises over the Chisos Mountains.

Photographers planning a trip to this remote destination are most likely interested in snapping off some Big Bend National Park pictures featuring the renown night skies. After all, Big Bend is home to the darkest night skies in the lower 48 states!

The following list is my favorite compositions and locations for getting Milky Way pictures in Big Bend.

Exhibit Ridge Hoodoos

Milky Way photography in this Big Bend National Park picture.
Standing amongst the hoodoos and the stars.

No surprise here! My favorite place to take night pictures in Big Bend National Park is wandering around the hoodoos of Exhibit Ridge. I’ve mentioned this in the blog already, but the fact that this is the one composition I have not seen photographed before made it all the more exciting for me.

  • Composition: 5
  • Ease of Access: 4
  • Potential: 5
  • Overall Score: 14

Balanced Rock

Balanced Rock is the most iconic spot for Milky Way pictures in Big Bend.
Balanced Rock is the most iconic spot for Milky Way pictures in Big Bend.

This is the classic Big Bend Milky Way picture. Photographers from all around drive all the way here and put their car through a bumpy ride just to capture this one shot of the Milky Way over the natural miracle known as Balanced Rock. I must admit, it is completely worth the effort.

  • Composition: 5
  • Ease of Access: 2
  • Potential: 5
  • Overall Score: 12

Bonus: Grapevine Hills

Big Bend National Park milky way photography from the Grapevine Hills.
The Milky Way rises over the Grapevine Hills.

While most people head straight to the Balanced Rock formation, I also enjoyed the view of the Milky Way over the Grapevine Hills from the trail. It many not be as striking as the main attraction, but I think it is worth shooting on your way in!

Lost Mine Trail

Lost Mine Trail MIlky Way night photography.
Another Milky Way photo taken from the Lost Mine Trail.

If you’re noticing a correlation between sunrise destinations and Milky Way destinations in Big Bend, that is because both occur in the Southeastern skies. Accordingly, what is good for one tends to be good for the other, and the view from the first Lost Mine Trail overlook is no exception.

  • Composition: 4
  • Ease of Access: 4
  • Potential: 4
  • Overall Score: 12

LEARN ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY: Night Sky Photography Tutorials

Nearby Places to Photograph

As you leave or enter the park, there are a few other places to consider saving time to photograph as well.

Terlingua

The main attraction in the nearby town of Terlingua is the cemetery. This is a particularly good option for the majority of you who will be staying nearby. From the cemetery, you get nice dark skies and plenty of opportunity for creative compositions using the above-ground graves for your subject with the Milky Way sky behind.

The Terlingua Cemetary.
The Terlingua Cemetary is a popular destination for stargazers who are staying nearby.

Big Bend Ranch State Park

If you have a Jeep or rugged vehicle of some kind, you may actually find more fun and adventure in the wild landscapes of Big Bend Ranch State Park than in the National Park. There are tons of dirt roads to explore with waterfalls, canyons, and scenic vistas.

Even if you are relegated to paved roads as I was, it is worth driving through the park and enjoying some spectacular overlooks.

A picture of the Rio Grande from a viewpoint in Big Bend Ranch State Park.
A picture of the Rio Grande from a viewpoint in Big Bend Ranch State Park.

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:

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

Final Thoughts on Capturing Epic Big Bend National Pictures

The opportunities for capturing epic Big Bend National Parks pictures are endless.
The opportunities for capturing epic Big Bend National Parks pictures are endless.

My goal in photographing any place is to try to capture the essence of the place. What I found fun and challenging about getting such pictures in Big Bend was trying to fit such a unique, diverse, and grandiose landscape into still frames. At the end of the trip, I will unabashedly say that I am very pleased with what I was able to capture.

I hope you have found this guide useful, inspirational, and/or informative in some way! As always, please leave a comment below if you believe anything to be inaccurate, or if you want to mention something I’ve missed. I truly welcome all constructive feedback.

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8 Comments

  1. April 25, 2021 / 10:25 am

    What a beautiful landscape to photograph. I especially love the night shots with the bright stars in the sky.

    • April 25, 2021 / 8:04 pm

      Thank you so much Krista. The night skies truly are remarkable in Big Bend.

  2. April 27, 2021 / 3:26 pm

    Wow! These shots are beautiful! I love the sunrise and sunset shots, the lighting look so soft and romantic. And the night shots, they are just stunning!

    • April 28, 2021 / 2:44 pm

      Thank you so much. It is definitely one of the most underrated national parks with so much beauty to offer.

  3. April 28, 2021 / 8:30 am

    These are amazing, you are very talented! I especially loved the astrophotography. This definitely seems like a photographers playground so many beautiful views to capture.

    • April 28, 2021 / 2:45 pm

      Thank you so much. That is the perfect description – it truly is a photographer’s playground!

  4. jonathan
    August 3, 2021 / 5:21 am

    found this site really helpful, and the photos look fantastic. Thank you!

    • August 3, 2021 / 8:55 pm

      Thank you much for taking the time to leave a comment. We’re glad you found the post helpful and appreciate your kind words 🙂

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**All photos contained in this photography-based travel blog are copyright of Adam Marland & Sophie Clapton. 
They are not to be used for any purpose without the expressed, written consent of their owners.**