Traveler's Checklist - Big Bend National Park

Big Bend scene.

Photo by AlphaTangoBravo / Adam Baker via Creative Commons.

If you're looking for dramatic desert scenery, a chance to get away from crowds, and lots of variety in elevation, climate and things to do, you'll find all that and more in Big Bend National Park in Texas. Here are some tips to help you plan a visit.

Sometimes considered "three parks in one," Big Bend includes mountain, desert, and river environments. An hour’s drive can take you from the banks of the Rio Grande (elevation about 1,800 feet) to a mountain basin over a mile high. Here, you can explore one of the last remaining wild corners of the United States, and experience unmatched sights, sounds, and solitude.

• This park is rarely crowded compared to many others, but visitation is highest in March and April, and the park is extremely crowded during spring break, which is usually the second and third week in March. Easter weekend, Thanksgiving weekend, and the week between Christmas and New Year's Day are also very busy. All lodging and campsites are usually full during these periods. Visitation is lowest in August and September.

• Elevation makes a big difference in the climate; lower areas are usually pleasant late fall through spring, but hot in the summer. There are occasional periods of cold weather and even some light snow in the winter, especially at higher elevations such as the Chisos Basin.

• Getting there will require a vehicle; there's no public transportation to or in the park. This site has maps of the region, detailed maps of the park, and driving directions.

Plan ahead for fuel and supplies; basics are available in the park, but it's a long way to town.

• Want to spend a night in the park, but you're not a camper? The Chisos Mountains Lodge is located in the Chisos Basin at 5,400 feet elevation, and offers a variety of rooms and cottages, plus a gift shop and dining room.

• Campers will find three developed NPS campgrounds: Chisos Basin is in the mountains at 5,401 feet; Rio Grande Village and Cottonwood are along the Rio Grande at about 2,000 feet. The concession-operated Rio Grande Village RV Campground includes the only hookups, plus showers and laundry facilities. Campground reservations are an excellent idea during the busy seasons mentioned above.

• If you prefer more primitive camping, the park offers that opportunity along some unpaved roads and in the backcountry; check those links for important details.

• Big Bend's backcountry areas provide also excellent opportunities for hiking, backpacking, and driving unpaved roads. Permits are required for overnight camping, horse use, and for floating the river.

• Those river trips offer the chance to enjoy some of the park's most dramatic physical features: Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas canyons. Opportunities range from half-day trips to week-long expeditions. Check the park website for details, and don't forget your passport or other appropriate ID for a river trip; the middle of the Rio Grande is the international boundary.

• This is prime territory for birders. Big Bend's location on a migration route between South, Central, and North America, plus the wide variety in elevation and terrain, are among the reasons more than 450 species of birds have been recorded in the park.

• Hikers have plenty of choices on over 150 miles of trails, from easy strolls and self-guiding hikes to challenging overnight trips.

Scenic driving options include over 300 miles of roads, including both paved routes for any visitor and dirt roads that require the proper vehicle and information. Favorites for almost everyone include the 30-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive which leads to the Castolon Historic District and Santa Elena Canyon. If you plan to venture off the pavement, it's essential to get good information, and check locally for updates on current conditions.

Star gazers will find that the park's remote location, infrequent cloud cover and low humidity, especially in winter, make it an excellent place to enjoy the night sky.

• Never forget this is remote desert country and cell phone coverage is spotty. You'll find excellent safety information on the park website.

• Need some expert suggestions? Check the "What to see and do" page from the park, which offers suggestions for a one, two or three-day visit or longer stays.

RESOURCES

For detailed information, visit the Big Bend National Park website. Visit this site for maps.

FRIENDS ORGANIZATION

The Friends of Big Bend National Park organization has performed a range of important services in behalf of Big Bend, including raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to improve the park's paleontological exhibit, help underwrite a new interpretive film, provide educational exhibits at the Panther Junction Visitor Center, and perform restoration work in the park.

Comments

Last December was my first trip to Big Bend. I loved it and will return some day. The day long south rim loop hike was amazing to me. We also saw a family of bears about 300 yards from the Window trail.