Big Bend National Park
Big Bend is one of the least visited and most underrated national parks in the contiguous United States. This is primarily due to the park's remoteness, located in deep West Texas with only the Rio Grande separating it from Mexico, and its seemingly uninhabitable, scorching conditions for so many months of the year. But, between late fall and early spring, Big Bend's climate becomes the perfect haven for adventure seekers who desire an escape from the frigid lands that lie to the north and are ready for an incredible desert crawl.
Big Bend will surprise you; amazingly, though it lacks in rainfall for most of the year, a plethora of biodiversity manages to survive in the park. In fact, we probably saw more wild animals on this trip than many others combined. It seemed that coyotes, mule deer, and javelinas were excited to greet us everywhere we went. But the most shocking thing about Big Bend, which makes you wonder why its not more commonly on folk's radar, is the amazing sweeping views of the surrounding desert, canyons, and mountains, rivaled only by those at the Grand Canyon.
What's more, the lack of trees in the desert exposes the landscape's raw features and bare facade in a way not commonly seen in many places. And don't get me wrong, I love trees, but it felt like the glare had been taken off the earth.
This four day itinerary moves through Big Bend National Park from West to East, which is actually opposite of the way we went, but feels like a much more optimized plan.
Day 1: Getting ACQUAINTED with the Desert
Drive to the west side of Big Bend National Park and check out the Santa Elena Canyon Trail, which follows the American side of the Rio Grande through an incredibly tall (and echo prone) canyon. The trail winds through a forest of bamboo-like grasses and large boulders giving it an oasis feeling compared to the expansive desert you just drove through.
On the first night, camp in the Southeast area of the park, in the desert.
Night 1 Car Camping Options:
Cottonwood Campground (Google Maps) - Car camping along the Rio Grande. The whole campground is first come, first serve so arrive early to claim a spot.
Primitive Roadside Camping - Basically, this is off-road car camping or backcountry camping without the need to backpack your things in. Dirt roads include Old Maverick Road and River Road West. As with Cottonwood, the sites are primarily first come, first serve. However, you will need a Backcountry Permit, which can only be attained in person at a Big Bend visitor center during normal hours of operation. Visitor center hours of operation can be found on their website, through the following link: Big Bend Visitor Centers.
Night 1 Wilderness Camping Options:
Ditch the car on the side of the road and walk into the wilderness camping areas of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Wilderness camping permits, which can only be attained in-person at a visitor center, allow you to wander the untamed desert without a designated campsite and achieve as much solitude as you could possibly want. It's just you, whoever you brought, your pack, and the desert.
Day 2 - 3: The Chisos Mountains & Basin
For the Chisos Mountains, you've got two awesome itinerary options:
1) Sleep in the Chisos Mountains Basin. This involves car camping or staying at the Chisos Mountain Lodge.
2) Backpack into the mountains and sleep at the primitive backcountry campsites. For this option, follow this link.
Option 1 - Car camping or staying at the Chisos Mountain Lodge
Day 2 (Chisos Mountains)
Day hike to the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains (Length: 12 - 15 miles round trip):
This is a heck of a day hike. To be honest, its fairly strenuous with over 2000 ft of elevation gain and 12-15 miles total round trip, depending on the route you take. But if you push yourself to make this journey, you WILL BE REWARDED! The South Rim (plus Northeast Rim - which you will pass along the way) offer panoramic views of canyons, mountains, hills, buttes, and desert unlike you've ever seen before. And the amazing thing is the view lasts for over 3.5 miles! Its one of those times when you think you've definitely seen the best view, but then you walk another 50 feet, and HOLY CRAP, it gets even better - that happens about 30 times...no joke. I wish my words and photos could truly explain the vastness and beauty of these mountain rim views.
Alternative Day Hike - Emery Peak (Length: 10.5 miles round trip):
Emery peak, being the highest point in the Big Bend, offers amazing 360° views of the whole park and beyond. Although this trail is a bit shorter than the South Rim round trip, it is a more strenuous hike as you climb an additional 1000 feet in a relatively short distance (1.5 miles).
Shorter Day Hike - Pinnacles Trail (Length: however long you want)
If you want a shorter hike, take the Pinnacles Trail and turn around whenever you're ready. This trail has great views of the Chisos Basin the whole way up. Here's a tip: The Pinnacles Trail is the first stint of a trip to the South Rim or Emery Peak so if you decide you're in the mood to keep going, no back tracking required!
Day 3 (Chisos Mountains)
Day Hike - Lost Mine Trail (Length: 2 - 4.8 miles round trip)
On your second day in the Chisos Mountains (third day in Big Bend National Park), hike the Lost Mine Trail. This trail is much shorter than the South Rim and Emery Peak round trips, but provides outstanding views of Casa Grande, Juniper Canyon, and Pine Canyon. The trail ends 2.4 miles in with amazing views similar to some sections of the South Rim trail.
Here's a tip: If you're not interested in doing a full 4.8 mile hike, there is still a really cool view of both canyons and Casa Grande from a mountain saddle about a mile into the hike. Turning around here will essentially make the trip a 2 mile hike instead.
Option 2: Backpacking in the Chisos Mountains
To skip to Day 4, follow this link.
1) Make sure you stop by a visitor center at least a day ahead of your planned backpacking trip to get your Chisos Mountain Backcountry Camping Permit because Big Bend National Park doesn't allow for same day Chisos Mountain permits.
2) BRING ENOUGH WATER! There isn't much (if any) water available in Big Bend and dehydration is no joke. The National Park Service recommends you bring 4 liters per day per person.
I've done a lot of thinking about how to optimize a two night backpacking trip in the Chisos Mountains and here it goes:
Day 2 (Chisos Mountains)
Pinnacles Trail and Emery Peak (6.5 miles)
Hike up the Pinnacles Trail toward Emery Peak. This is a fairly challenging trail as you climb 2000-ish feet in 3.5 miles. Have lunch at the base of the Emery Peak Trailhead and leave your packs in the bear boxes at the start of the trail. After lunch, hike to the top of Emery Peak where you'll be rewarded with full 360° views of Big Bend National Park from the highest point. You're sure to be amazed by the clarity and vastness of the park's landscape.
Heads Up: there's quite a scramble at the top of the peak. Though not necessary, we brought our climbing shoes along and enjoyed having them handy.
Ideally get a campsite near Emery Peak so you can call it a day pretty quickly once you're back down to your packs.
Day 3 (Chisos Mountains)
Head to the South Rim (3 - 5 miles depending on where you camp)
Hike out to the South Rim via the following route:
Boot Spring Trail > Northeast Rim Trail > Southeast Rim Trail
After you set up camp, wander the remainder of the Rim Trail and prepare yourself to be mesmerized by panoramic views of canyons, mountains, and desert. This part of the park is so stunning that the 3.3 miles of Rim Trail (which is relatively flat) ends up taking waaaaay longer than you'd expect, as you barely crawl along the cliff top.
In the morning, take the Laguna Meadows Trail back to the Chisos Basin Visitor Center parking lot.
Day 4: East Side of Big Bend National Park
Come down from the mountains and head out to the east side of the park toward Rio Grande Village. Out here, you'll have a lot of options, depending on what you're interested in. Regardless of what you choose, the drive out to this side of the park will gift you with astonishing views of the Chisos Mountains (from below) and Sierra del Carmen mountains in Mexico.
Here are some suggestions for what to do during the day:
Hiking at Ernst Tinaja (Google map)
Ernst Tinaja kills a couple birds with one stone. One, you get to go OFF-ROADING (!!!), and two, you can do a short hike through a beautiful canyon of colorful rock layers (if you're not already completely over hiking) and around pools of water (tinajas) that last the whole year, which is pretty rare for Big Bend.
Note: This hike can be cut short (around 1.5 - 2 miles in) for those who are unwilling to do some rock scrambling (which may or may not be the funnest part...)
Relax in Natural Hot Springs (Google map)
Take a load off and relax your aching muscles and joints. After 3-4 days of adventuring through deserts, mountains, and canyons, your body is bound to be sore. Reward yourself by relaxing in soothing 105°F, mineral infused waters.
The hot springs are said to have healing powers, which inspired J.O. Langford to establish this (now ruined) bathhouse in 1909. Suffering from Malaria since he was a child, he drank and bathed in the healing waters (WARNING: don't drink the water).
Visit Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico (Google map)
You didn't know that Big Bend was also an official Port of Entry into Mexico, did you? Well, you better believe it because between Wednesday through Sunday the port is open for visitors to Boquillas, a small Mexican town on the other side of the Rio Grande. All you need is your passport and your Big Bend trip can quickly become an international adventure.
Fossil Discovery Exhibit (Google map)
The Fossil Discovery Exhibit is a good thing to catch on your way out of the park. With all of the dry, hot desert that surrounds, you'd hardly guess that Big Bend used to be a shallow sea and, at another point, a swamp-like environment (similar to some places in southern Louisiana), and dinosaurs ruled the land!
A bunch of dinos have been found here; and, in fact, as recently as 2016, a new species of duck-bill dinosaur was discovered in Big Bend. The open air exhibit is really fascinating and well done. Definitely a solid, kid friendly activity too.
Camping on the East side of Big Bend
For your last night, I'd suggest car camping at Rio Grande Village (Google Map). Its proximity to the Hot Springs and Boquillas make it an ideal location. The campground has both reservable and first come, first serve campsites. More information about reservations can be found on the National Parks Service webpage.
Have fun in Big Bend!