It has been almost two years since we moved to Texas and, with one trip at a time, we have been discovering the second largest state of the nation. This time we took a road trip to Big Bend National Park on the southern side of the state in the remote Chisos Mountains.
We fell in love with the park and its spectacular scenery that shifts from desert basins to the rugged mountain elevations. The Rio Grande (borderline between Mexico and the United States) quietly flows through deep river gorges. As an extra bonus, the dark-night skies were mesmerizing. In fact, due to the great distance from major urban centers, the skies over Big Bend are among the darkest in North America.
We had a fabulous vacation, but because of the remoteness, planning was crucial for success. Is Big Bend National Park your next destination? Read on and find out how to get there, where to stay, what to do, hikes we recommend, and more.
How to get to Big Bend National Park
Getting to Big Bend can be tricky due to its remote location, but not impossible. Making a road trip is the best option if you live within a reasonable driving distance.
A commercial flight is the right alternative for folks who live far away. Because the nearest airports are El Paso and Midland, 300 and 250 miles away respectively, it will only get you part way to Big Bend. A rental car will take you to your final destination. For affluent travelers, Lajitas Airport is a privately-owned airport for the use of the resort’s guests and property owners.
Big Bend National Park: staying at Lajitas Golf Resort
We stayed at the Lajitas Golf Resort, which is about a 20-minute drive to the west entrance of Big Bend. Perfectly nestled among colorful mountains, this hidden gem has a nicely decorated, rustic style. Our spacious, comfortable room had stone walls and log beams that gave us the impression of staying at a ranch.
The resort is lovely and offered a pleasant stay. Most of our meals were at the only restaurant in the facility. Every night after dinner, we sat at one of the terrace tables and enjoyed a drink that perfectly matched the ambiance. Meanwhile, our daughter played around the fire pit with other kids. When we took a few steps away from the hotel lights and looked up at the hundreds of bright stars, I realized I could stare at them for the rest of my life. It also reminded me of how tiny we are in this universe.
You will never have to leave the property if you want to take advantage of several activities the hotel offers. Golf, pool, zipline, spa, and horseback riding are just some of them. However, if your main objective is to see the park’s natural wonders, the resort also offers a jeep rental service that will accommodate your desire to get lost on the stunning Big Bend scenery.
As we fit in the trailblazer group, we spent most of our time hiking. Yet, following one of the guests’ recommendations, we rented a golf cart and drove through the course for the spectacular views of the Big Bend and the Rio Grande. A must do.
Other lodges at Big Bend National Park
Lajitas Golf Resort is definitely the best place to stay when visiting Big Bend. It is an oasis in the desert. However, there are other alternatives within and near the park.
Chisos Mountains Lodge – the only lodging facility within Big Bend National Park. For peak season, the lodge can book up to a year in advance.
Terlingua Ranch Lodge – 7.5 miles from the park.
Gage Hotel – 46 miles from the park.
For more lodging options, click here.
Hike, hike, and hike!
Big Bend extends 118 miles along the Mexican border and covers 801,163 acres of land. The park offers more than 150 miles of epic hiking trails through mountains, desert, and along the Rio Grande. Because we spent only three days at the park, we had to pick a few to explore. Whether driving to the starting point or exploring one of the trails listed below, we witnessed the harsh beauty of the desert blended with the majesty of mountain peaks and the lushness of the land surrounding the great bend in the Rio Grande. Additionally, we spotted roadrunners, bobcats, rabbits, tarantulas, and deer that made appearances to enhance the natural environment.
Big Bend National Park: Santa Elena Canyon Trail
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is an example of the Big Bend’s well-known splendor. When driving through it, the views of desert and hills were breathtaking. The further we drove, the scenery changed, and immense limestone cliffs rose in front of us. The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive led us to the entrance of Santa Elena Canyon.
The 1.7-mile round trip Santa Elena Canyon trail is one of Big Bend’s jewels. Nonetheless, there was a small task to be performed before we started the hike: cross the knee-deep Terlingua Creek and climb a muddy bank to get to the trail. A rope anchored to the ground helped us to move up to the other side of the stream. It was challenging, but fun. Other families, including one with four kids (between the ages of 6 and 12) made the crossing. Our 11-year old had fun when my husband gave her a piggyback ride to the other side. On our way back, she chose to walk into the shallow tributary. Kids faced it as a big adventure, and the crossing experience into the canyon was totally worth it.
The trail starts on a steep, nicely built concrete path and rock steps. Along the trail, we had glorious views of the Rio Grande cutting through the narrow Santa Elena canyon. Then the trail drops down gradually to river level where it ends in beautiful greenery, boulders, cool shade, and great canyon views. Our daughter had fun climbing and skipping on big rocks in the canyon.
Note: We didn’t have water shoes, but I would highly recommend bringing them, especially for the kids. This time, like everyone else, we took the hiking shoes off and carried them to the other side. We walked on the muddy, sometimes rocky ground under the water.
Big Bend National Park: Hot Springs Canyon Trail
After we left the parking lot, we walked along a beautiful, rocky, cliff wall that revealed interesting pictographs and petroglyphs. The Hot Springs were just steps away. Our daughter joined some folks that were already relaxing in the warm water.
We continued past the springs along and above the river in the direction of the Rio Grande Village. Because the trail features lots of ups and downs and several curves, at each turn we had different views of the Rio Grande, Chisos Mountains, and Del Carmen Mountains. Most of the expansive panorama was a mix of land belonging to either the United States or Mexico.
Often, we had the trail entirely to ourselves as we rarely encountered other hikers. The stroll was quiet and peaceful. We enjoyed the solitude surrounding us.
Note: There is no need to be an experienced hiker to make this six-mile round trip, but a good plan is necessary. First of all, make sure to pack lots of water, snacks, sunscreen, and hats. Bring binoculars if you like. Also, have an early start to avoid the heat. There is no shade. A couple of groups we bumped into had kids (ages 7 and 10) with them.
Big Bend National Park: The Window Trail
What fascinated us the most about this easy, 5.6-mile, round-trip trail is how the scenery changed as we moved forward. Starting adjacent to the parking lot of Chisos Mountains Lodge, the first half-mile was downhill through some low brush and stunning views of the surrounding mountains. Then, it became shady. Near the last mile, we met the creek. Dry at first, but soon the water started running from underground stream beds. The farther we walked, the more the stream’s flow increased, but the water was just enough to make the crossings interesting and challenging. Despite requiring some caution due to slippery rocks, it was indeed a big adventure for the younger hikers.
The trail descended along the vertical rock walls of Oak Creek Canyon. At the end, the water ran throughout a narrow pour off, aka The Window, in the desert floor of Chisos Basin. The site was both fascinating and terrifying. Standing a few feet away from the edge, we watched the water flowing out of the mouth of the canyon. We wondered how it would look from the other side as it dropped from 220-feet high.
For additional information about Big Bend National Park, click here.
What you need to know
- If you are planning to hike, avoid the summer months when the temperatures are soaring.
- Always carry water.
- The park offers many activities, but not all of them are available year-round.
- Bring bug spray, hats, and sunscreen.
- Make sure to be prepared for weather changes.
- Always have snacks. The Lajitas General Store is open to all guests and community residents. Other convenience stores are at Chisos Mountain Lodge and Rio Grande Village.
- Fill your gas tank at every opportunity. Gas stations are limited in the park area.
- The entrance fee to the park per vehicle is $30, and it is valid for seven days.
- Cell phone service is scarce.
Have you visited Big Bend? What is your favorite American national park?