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What is your first thought when I say Texas? Is it oil and gas derricks as fair as the eye can see or a rolling plain occupied by cattle and dotted with small towns? Those images are correct when you think of east Texas. Head out to West Texas between the border of Mexico and New Mexico and you will find something special. Desert mountain ranges occupy this landscape creating a unique mix of river valley, desert and mountain ecosystems. Big Bend National Park was established to protect this scenic area. Here is my guide to spending a week exploring Big Bend National Park.

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Disclaimer: Thank you to Visit Big Bend for hosting my stay. Visit Big Bend provided me with accommodations and select guided activities during my trip to Big Bend National Park. As always, all opinions are 100% mine.

Getting to Big Bend National Park

The closest airport to Big Bend is the Midland/Odessa Airport (MAF). Midland/Odessa Airport is located about 3 hours from the park’s Persimmon Gap entrance. The closest mid-sized commercial airport is El Paso International (ELP). El Paso is about 4.5 hours from Big Bend.

Estimated Drive time to Big Bend National Park

  • Alpine, Texas – 1 hour
  • Midland, Texas – 3 hours
  • El Paso, Texas – 4.5 hours
  • San Antonio, Texas – 6 hours
  • Dallas, Texas – 8 hours
  • Houston, Texas – 9 hours

While there is no public transportation to Big Bend National Park, Amtrak’s Sunset Unlimited and Greyhound buses stop in Alpine, Texas. You can rent a car in Alpine and make the hour drive to the park.

My Recommendations

I chose to fly into Midland because it was the closest airport to Big Bend and had much better flights than El Paso.

What kind of rental car do you need for Big Bend?

Big Bend National Park is one of the desert parks in Texas. Due to the park’s remote location a terrain, many of the park’s roads are unpaved and some are listed as high-clearance four-wheel-drive only. While many roads are unpaved, almost all of Big Bend’s more popular features can be reached without leaving the pavement. Only two major features require driving on gravel, Hot Springs and Balanced Rock.

Unless the park has recently experienced major flooding neither Hot Spring or Balanced Rock will require a four-wheel drive.

  • Hot Springs is reached by a 2 mile narrow and curvy road that is susceptible to flooding during Rio Grande water releases.
  • Balanced Rock is reached by driving 6.4 miles down Grapevine Hills Road. Grapevine is usually well maintained.

I rented a Kia Rio for my visit to Big Bend National Park. This is a small compact car and I was able to access both of these areas. At times, I needed to go slow and carefully place my wheels when driving over a few of the deeper ruts, but other than that Big Bend’s main attractions are accessible to all car types.

When is the best time to visit Big Bend National Park?

It is possible to visit Big Bend National Park any day of the year. The park is fully open 365 days a year except for unusual weather events of flooding. These events can temporarily close roads but rarely last long.

The best time to go to Big Bend National Park is between October and February. The summers are hot and miserable and make long hiking impossible. I visited Big Bend during November and had some unseasonably cold weather but was still fine hiking in a hoodie.

Park visitation is the lowest during the summers and the highest during March (Spring Break Season). The rest of the year the park is seeing moderate visitation and it isn’t uncommon for the campgrounds to fill every weekend.

Here are the average temperatures for Big Bend National Park:

  • December – February – Slight chance of precipitation. Average high temperatures range from 62°F to 68°F. The lows can drop into mid-30 °F’s. The park is at low visitation for the busy season.
  • March to May – Chances of rain increase along with the temperatures. Expect average highs to be between 75°F and 89°F. Visitors during these months often see the wildflowers and migrating birds.
  • June to August – Be prepared for the unbearable Texas heat. Temperatures will soar to the mid 90°F’s and this is the Texas monsoon season.
  • September to November – The average temperature will start to become more moderate. The average highs will between the 70°F-80°F’s. This chance of rain is less. This is one of the best times to visit the park.

Where to Stay in Big Bend National Park?

Big Bend National Park isn’t the largest national park in the United States but it takes at least one and half hours to drive the 55 miles from Santa Elena Canyon to Rio Grande Village. There are several options for lodging in Big Bend National Park.

There are two options for lodging or camping. You can move around every couple of nights or pick a home base for the duration of your trip.

If you are looking for a home base here are my suggestions for lodging. I will include suggestions for those wishing to move around in the itinerary.

  • Chisos Mountain Lodge: Chisos Mountain Lodge is located in the heart of Big Bend National Park. The lodge is near the trailheads of The Window and Lost Mine. The lodge offers a range of cottages and rooms.
  • Paisano Village RV Park & Inn: A small Inn located two miles from Big Bend National Park’s west entrance. This Inn has three rooms that are fully furnished and come with full kitchens. The rooms are comfortable and beautifully decorated Southwestern theme.
  • Lajitas Golf Resort: Lajitas Golf Resort is about 30 mins from the park’s western entrance and near Mesa De Anguilla area. This luxury resort has a range of hotel rooms and rental houses that provide a luxurious experience near Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park.

If you are planning on camping in Big Bend National Park, there are three campgrounds in the park. Reservations can be made for dates between November 15 – May 31. Make your camping reservations as soon as possible. If visiting during spring break or a holiday, I recommend finding a campsite and staying there for the duration of your visit. Learn more about camping in Big Bend National Park.

Cell Service in Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is a perfect place for an off-the-grid vacation. The park is remote and cell service is VERY limited to non-existant. The park is a great place to get off your phone and the internet and just enjoy being in the moment.

How to Spend 7 Days in Big Bend National Park

Map of Big Bend National Park’s Must-Sees

Big Bend Itinerary Outline

  • Day 1 – Travel Day
  • Day 2 – Fossil Exhibit and Balanced Rock
  • Day 3 – Lost Mine Trail
  • Day 4 – The Windows and Hot Springs
  • Day 5 – Boquillas Canyon and Boquillas, Mexico
  • Day 6 – Float trip on the Rio Grande and Tour of Terlingua
  • Day 7 – Santa Elena Canyon and Homer Wilson Ranch
  • Day 8 – Mesa De Anguilla and Relax at Lajitas
  • Day 9 – Travel Day

7 Day Big Bend National Park Itinerary

Day 1 – Travel Day

Flying into your chosen airport and make the drive to Big Bend National Park.

If flying into El Paso, be sure to stop in Marta and check out the art exhibit such as Prada Marta.

If flying to Midland, drive down to Marathon and spend the evening relaxing in the gardens of Eve’s Gardens.

Before leaving Midland or El Paso, stop by a grocery store and grab lunch fixing for the week. I am a big fan of PB&J’s when in the parks.

Recommend Places to Stay
  • Eve’s Garden Bed & Breakfast: Eve’s Garden is a CUTE little B&B located in the town of Marathon. The B&B is a labor of love by Kate, Alaine, and Noble. They have built Eve’s using sustainable construction methods and maintain an organic flower garden. Be sure to stay for breakfast. Alaine does amazing home-cook breakfasts every morning.

Day 2 – Fossil Exhibit and Balanced Rock

Have a lazing morning at Eve’s and enjoy the homecooked breakfast at 9:00 am (serving time subject to change).

After breakfast, make the hour drive from Marathon to the Fossil Discovery Exhibit. This exhibit showcases 130 million years of geologic time. There are fossils from all the significant geological events in Big Bend such as fossils from the Deinosuchus (a giant alligatoroid), Teratophoneus (a smaller cousin of T.rex), and many more fossils.

After the exhibit, take a short walk up to the nearby overlook and enjoy out the views. Head down to the Panther Junction Visitor Center and check out the exhibits before heading out Grapevine Hills Road.

Drive 6.4 miles down Grapevine Hills Road until you find the small pullout that is the Balanced Rock Parking Lot. This lot can hold about 12 cars (assuming everyone knows how to park).

From this lot, Grapevine Trail leads to Balanced Rock. The trail is 2.2 miles for the round trip. The trail is flat except for the last 0.25 miles. There is a short ascent up a ridge to the base of Balanced Rock.

As you do hike keep an eye on these rock formations. They are unique to this area of Big Bend and remind me a lot of the landscape of Joshua Tree National Park. Be sure to watch the cliff faces. If you are lucky you might see invasive Aoudad (Barbary Sheep) or a mountain lion on the cliff faces.

Recommend Places to Stay
  • Chisos Mountain Lodge: Chisos Mountain Lodge is located in the heart of Big Bend National Park. The lodge is near the trailheads of The Window and Lost Mine. The lodge offers a range of cottages and rooms.

Day 3 – The Windows

Get an early start to your morning and attempt to beat the crowds, on the popular Windows Trail. The Windows trail is 5.4 miles or 4 miles round trip depending on which trailhead you start from. The Chisos Basin Trailhead is located near the visitor center with plenty of parking. If you want to save 1.4 miles, drive over to the campground and find the trailhead in the campground. The trailhead parking is at the bathroom across from site 49. The actual trailhead is between site 49 and 51.

The Windows trail slowly descends into the heart of the Chisos Basin and a vast canyon. As you enter the canyon, be prepared for amazing views and keep an eye out for bears. I saw a mom with three cubs high on the cliff sides.

When you start having to cross water, you are getting close to pour off. The trail ends at the top of a waterfall/dropoff and an amazing view out into the Chihuahuan Desert.

When you get back to Chisos Basin, take a break and enjoy some lunch.

After lunch, head over to the Chisos Basin Loop Trail. This easy 1.8-mile loop provides excellent views of the window and surrounding mountains. This is a popular spot to see Mexican jays. On the way back to the Lodge, hike the 0.3-mile Window View Trail and pick your sunset spot for later in the evening.

Recommend Places to Stay
  • Chisos Mountain Lodge: Chisos Mountain Lodge is located in the heart of Big Bend National Park. The lodge is near the trailheads of The Window and Lost Mine. The lodge offers a range of cottages and rooms.

Day 4 – Lost Mine Trail and Hot Springs

Today will be another early start, make the short drive from the Chisos Mountain Lodge to the Lost Mine Trailhead. This trailhead has limited parking so I would plan to be there before 8:00 am.

Lost Mine Trail is a 4.8-mile round trip hike with about 1,100 ft of elevation gain. The trail gains steady elevation and will steepen as you go along. The trail will treat you to many spectacular views of the mountains and showcase how the landscape transitions from desert to forest.

Photo Credit: Michelle from The Wandering Queen

After the hike, take a break and enjoy an ice cream from the Chisos General Store. Once you are rested, head towards the Hot Springs.

The road to the Hot Springs is a narrow two-mile dirt road. Take it slow.

When you get to the parking lot change into your bathing suit and make the short 0.3 mile walk along the Rio Grande River over to the Hot Spring.

The Hot Spring is a naturally occurring hot spring on the banks of the Rio Grande River. Enjoy a nice soak in this warm pool and watch the Rio Grande River flow past. If the water is too warm, feel free to jump into the Rio Grande for a cold water dip.

You are not allowed to cross the Rio Grande and visit Mexico at this site. It isn’t uncommon to see Mexican’s crossing at this spot to leave knick-knacks for tourists to buy. Please don’t purchase these knick-knacks. They are contraband.

Recommend Places to Stay
  • Chisos Mountain Lodge: Chisos Mountain Lodge is located in the heart of Big Bend National Park. The lodge is near the trailheads of The Window and Lost Mine. The lodge offers a range of cottages and rooms.

Day 5 – Boquillas Canyon and Boquillas, Mexico

Remember to bring your passport with you on today’s adventure. Start you day by driving over to the Rio Grande Village. Try to be there by 9:00 am for the ranger talk along the Rio Grande Nature Trail. The ranger will explain the UNIQUE geological history of Big Bend National Park and why the park geologist position at Big Bend is one of the most coveted positions in NPS.

After the ranger program, head over to Boquillas Canyon Trail. This trail runs 1.4 miles along the Rio Grande River and into the Boquillas Canyon. The trial has some elevation gains at the start but flattens out from there. Enjoy the hike along the canyon and then head over to the border crossing station.

This small border crossing station is the only place you are legally allowed to enter Mexico from the United States in this region. You will need a passport or passport card to cross. From November 2 to April 30, this crossing station is only open Wednesdays through Sundays and open from 8 am to 5 pm. It is open Friday through Monday from 9 am to 6 pm from May 1 to November 1.

Once you clear this station, you have the option of walking across the Rio Grande or spending $5 and getting a boat ride. I recommend taking the boat ride. It is safer and you don’t get wet. Once in the town, find one of the local taco stands and enjoy a traditional Mexican lunch. After lunch explore the town but remember you MUST be back at the border station at least 30 mins before closing so you can clear customs and re-enter the USA.

NPS / T. VandenBerg
Recommend Places to Stay
  • Paisano Village RV Park & Inn: A small Inn located two miles from Big Bend National Park’s west entrance. This Inn has three rooms that are fully furnished and come with full kitchens. The rooms are comfortable and beautifully decorated Southwestern theme.
  • Retro Rents: Retro Rents is a set of 5 old school Airstreams/Travel Trailers that have been re-done and decorated by Terliguia artist Danilea. Each of the 5 trailers has been uniquely redecorated and perfect for a retro couples getaway.

Day 6 – Float trip on the Rio Grande and Tour of Terlingua

Today, you will float down the Rio Grande River. Trips on the Rio Grande range from short half-day trips to 4 plus day adventures. Unless you are a serious paddler, I recommend booking a half or full-day trip. I recommend the full day trip as it gets you more time on the water and lets you seem more of the canyons.

These river trips are a bit like booking a surprise. The only thing that is certain is that you will get to float down a canyon. The water levels at the time of your trip will determine everything about your trip. Some days trips are done in canoes, others are done in Grand Canyon rafts. Some trips float down the Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend, others explore the Colorado or Hot Springs Cayon in the Big Bend Ranch State Park.

After your rafting trip, head into Terlingua and the general store. For a dollar, you can get a small map that will guide you around Terlingua Ghost Town and explain some of the histories.

Terlingua Ghost Town has a fun crazy history. The crazy shouldn’t be surprising given the town was founded to mine quicksilver (mercury). The area is rich in the mineral Cinnabar. When cinnabar is crushed and heated, liquid mercury is extracted. Minning started in the 1880s and lasted until the 1940s. Today all the mines are closed and the once-thriving town of 3,000 has 58 permanent residents.

Recommend Places to Stay
  • Paisano Village RV Park & Inn: A small Inn located two miles from Big Bend National Park’s west entrance. This Inn has three rooms that are fully furnished and come with full kitchens. The rooms are comfortable and beautifully decorated Southwestern theme.
  • Retro Rents: Retro Rents is a set of 5 old school Airstreams/Travel Trailers that have been re-done and decorated by Terliguia artist Danilea. Each of the 5 trailers has been uniquely redecorated and perfect for a retro couples getaway.

Day 7 – Santa Elena Canyon and Homer Wilson Ranch

This morning head back into Big Bend National Park and enjoy the scenic Ross Maxwell Drive. Skip the scenic sights as you head to the Santa Elena Canyon trailhead. Don’t worry, there will be time to stop on the way back.

The Santa Elena Canyon is probably the most famous hike in the park. The Santa Elena Canyon Trail is 1.7 miles round trip. The trail requires crossing Terlingua Creek. If the water level is super high like it was when I was there, it may not be possible to hike into Santa Elena. The trail is reasonably flat once you get past the initial set of switchbacks.

Once you have hiked Santa Elena, start working your way back out Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Be sure to stop at all the overlooks such as the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook, the Mule Ears View Point, Sotol Visita.

If you are not hiked out consider hiking the short trails of Tuff Canyon (0.75 mile) or Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff (1 mile). These short hikes are a great addition to your Big Bend adventure.

Stop at the Homer Wilson Ranch, this ranch was one of the largest ranches in this area and best-preserved ranch houses in the area.

Recommend Places to Stay
  • Lajitas Golf Resort: Lajitas Golf Resort is about 30 mins from the park’s western entrance and near Mesa De Anguilla area. This luxury resort has a range of hotel rooms and rental houses that provide a luxuries experience near Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Day 8 – Mesa De Anguilla and Relax at Lajitas

Today is the day to get away from the crowds of Big Bend and explore a lesser-known area of Big Bend. Mesa De Anguilla is the western part of the park and the only way to access this area is hiking. Unless you are excellent at route finding and carrying a map, I highly suggest booking a guide for this hike. I would have had difficulty following this trail.

Mesa De Anguilla has a 14-mile loop trail if you are looking for a nice overnight backpack but for people looking for a shorter hike, I suggest the 3-mile round trip hike to the Saddle. The first part of the hike is following a dry river bed and rock cairn hopping until you get to the Mesa. Once at the Mesa, the hike is all uphill until the Saddle.

Recommend Places to Stay
  • Lajitas Golf Resort: Lajitas Golf Resort is about 30 mins from the park’s western entrance and near Mesa De Anguilla area. This luxury resort has a range of hotel rooms and rental houses that provide a luxuries experience near Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Day 9 – Travel Day

Say goodbye to Big Bend and head home.

Disclaimer: Thank you to Visit Big Bend for hosting my stay. Visit Big Bend provided me with accommodations and select guided activities during my trip to Big Bend National Park. As always, all opinions are 100% mine.

Get help planning your trip to Big Bend National Park
Jennifer is a long time national park blogger and the founder of National Park Obsessed. She is a dedicated National Park lover who is working on visiting all 62 US National Parks. She has currently been to 53 of the National Parks. She is dedicated to sharing her knowledge of the Parks with others and helping them learn to love the parks as much as she does.

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