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“Everything is bigger in Texas” holds true for Big Bend National Park. Besides being large, Big Bend National Park is filled with wildlife, mountain hikes, desert flora, hot springs, crossings into Mexico, kayaking, camping, and so many more exciting features.
Big Bend National Park is nestled way down at the border of Mexico and runs along the Rio Grande River. Its pace is as slow as the meandering Rio Grande in the middle of a dry spring. We went down there thinking we could conquer Big Bend in two days but we were so wrong. We wanted to hit it hard and fast and then move on but Big Bend National Park is just not meant for that.
Big Bend National Park is situated around three main villages: Rio Grande Village, Chisos Village, and Castolon. These are all spread out along the main road. There is also a visitor center (Panther Junction) smack dab in the middle of it all. Pause here to get a look at the map so you can visualize how Big Bend is laid out.
I’m not going to write as much about our experience at this park because there is so much we would change if we went back. Instead, I am going to write about what we wish we would have known and our suggestions on how to visit Big Bend.
We drove into the park at the north entrance, by Persimmon Visitor Center. We then drove another hour to get to the Panther Junction Visitor Center, which signals the beginning of the main part of the park. There are only a couple of attractions between Persimmon and Panther Junction. We then drove another 30 minutes to get to the Rio Grande Village to find a campsite. I tell you this to give you a little snapshot of how much you will be driving in this park. Everything is so spread out and the speed limit is 45 mph. It sucks up time getting from one spot to the next.
As I said, Big Bend is situated in three villages. This splits the park into three main sections. These sections have there own hikes, attractions, viewpoints, visitor’s center, and camping. You can spend more than a day in each section. Visit this blog post to find out more about what each section has to offer.
We tried to see all the highlights of Big Bend in just two days. Because Big Bend is so spread out we spent too much time driving from one end of the park to another. With this in mind, here is my suggestion: Plan to spend at least five days at Big Bend if you want to get the entire experience. The pace of Big Bend is so slow and the vibe is peaceful. In order to really soak that in you should be willing to take the time (spend the days) to slow down yourself.
Here is how I would spend five days. They can be reordered based on preference and where you decide to camp. If you have not already, visit this blog post to see where the campsites are and what each one has to offer. I thoroughly enjoyed staying at Rio Grande Village. Chisos is the most beautiful campground but Rio Grande Village is quieter and more relaxed. I never visited Cottonwood but it has a lot fewer sites than the others and is close to a lot of attractions. It’s also far away from all other sections of the park (which can be good or bad). The order of my list is for someone staying at Rio Grande Village.
Wake up early and take the Hot Springs Historic Trail to the hot springs. Go early because the hot springs are over 100 degrees and this is usually the only time of day that they feel comfortable. Take the Historic Trail because it is only 1.5 miles out and back. You get to experience the hot springs and still have plenty of time for other things.
The road to the Hot Springs Historic Trail is narrow, gravelly, and pot-holed aplenty. A 4 x 4 vehicle is definitely the best option. We drove our little Hyundai Ioniq and we saw a lot of other non-recreational vehicles. It is tricky driving, though.
After the hot springs, head to Boquillas Crossing. Boquillas Crossing has a port of entry that will allow you to cross into Mexico and visit the town of Boquillas. The Rio Grande is the official border between Mexico and Texas. The port of entry is unmanned but there is a ranger on duty that will go over the rules of the border crossing. You will need a passport to re-enter the country after visiting Mexico. Since the port is unmanned, a machine scans your passport to allow entrance.
You can cross the river by foot if the river is low enough. Otherwise, there are small boats operated by men from Boquillas that will ferry you across for a fee. Once across, it is a quarter mile walk to the village. You can also pay for a taxi or burro ride. The village has delicious dining options. There are also shops but it is illegal to purchase items and bring them back to the U.S. To learn more about the Boquillas Crossing visit here.
If you do not spend the entire rest of the day in Boquillas, there are other hiking options to take up the rest of the day. Boquillas Canyon hike is short, easy, and absolutely beautiful. There are locations along the canyon that provide swimming opportunities. Daniel’s Ranch is a historic site and another easy hike.
Hike to Emory Peak. Emory peak is an 8.5-mile hike that gains 2,401 feet in elevation. The trailhead is just off the side of the Chisos Basin convenience store. Emory Peak is the highest point in Big Bend and offers spectacular views of the Chisos Mountains. There is some intense scrambling involved towards the end of the trail so keep that in mind before adding this to an itinerary.
Not so into summitting mountains? Chisos Basin offers another iconic hike: Window Trail. This is a 5.2-mile trail that only gains 948 feet in elevation. This trail offers views of the mountains and desert. During wet seasons, this trail also features a waterfall.
Use this day as a rest day. Chill out at the campground, swim in the river, or add in some short hikes. Enjoy the peaceful surroundings of Big Bend National Park. Emory Peak is a difficult hike and a day of rest will be much appreciated!
Since our time off is limited, Kenon and I do not always plan in time to just enjoy our campsite. We often rush from one thing to the next. The days that we do remember to plan in time for “camping” are cherished and refreshing.
On the east side of the park is the Santa Elena Canyon. The Rio Grande runs right through this canyon, creating a gorgeous recreation sight. Bring your own water vessel and spend a day exploring the Rio Grande. If you do not have one, there are outfitters available to rent from or that provide guided tours. This website gives more information about river outfitters.
The Santa Elena Canyon is also a great place to relax. There is a pebbly, sandy beach that is perfect for a picnic. The Santa Elena Canyon Trail is filled with views of the river, the canyon, and a variety of desert flora.
Ross Maxwell Drive or another hiking day. Ross Maxwell Drive is the same drive that it takes to get to Santa Elena Canyon from Day 4. It is more than a drive, though. There are a lot of iconic hikes and historic sites along the way. It would take more than a day to see all of them so Day 5 is reserved for getting in as many as possible. Not so interested in this option? There are so many hiking opportunities around the park that you can fill up your day hiking!
Find out why Big Bend should be on your bucket list by visiting our post: 10 Reasons to Visit Big Bend National Park
Learn about the camping options in Big Bend National Park by visiting this post: 10 Reasons to Visit Big Bend National Park
Gear of the Trip:
A long-sleeve, sweat-wicking t-shirt. You guys, I have a confession to make. I used to see people on trails, in the middle of summer, wearing long-sleeve shirts and think, “Lame! Tank tops are so much cooler and cuter!” I did not understand the allure of wearing long-sleeves in the heat of summer. That was until the blazing sun of Big Bend National Park burned my arms up like a marshmallow at a bonfire. For the remainder of our week in Texas and New Mexico, I lived in the only two long-sleeve shirts I brought with me. I also vowed to get home and buy more of these shirts to make my summer hiking more sun-friendly. I will still pull out my tanks sometimes, but these are now my go-to hiking top.