70 Things to Do in Big Bend National Park

This national park is a world of its own in the Big Bend Country of Texas.  You will not see many people or buildings driving through the desert landscape.  Instead, rocks and bushes will primarily line the path as you approach mountains in Texas.  With over 800,000 acres of wild land, you are sure to find things to do in Big Bend National Park.  Whether you enjoy driving, hiking, camping, birding, kayaking, star gazing, sightseeing, photography, or history, you will have your hands full here.

Visiting Santa Elena Canyon is one of the most popular things to do at Big Bend National Park.
Santa Elena Canyon at Big Bend

What makes Big Bend National Park worth visiting? Education, exploration and adventure. We have discovered 70 things to do in Big Bend, and share them all in this giant list. Is it possible to make a shorter list you may be asking? Not really. There’s far too much to do. Plus, a giant list full of distances, durations, elevations and 30 pics will help others plan ahead. This planning will help you get the most out of your trip, even if you only have 48 hours in Big Bend.    

Author note – All pics of Big Bend have been taken personally by the author, and much time is spent gathering these images.  Please ask permission before using any pics and link back to our guide so others know where credit is due.  

The map for Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park Map

These Big Bend National Park attractions are broken up into 14 sections. They are not ordered based on popularity because everyone will have a different idea about which attractions are the best, but the most popular attractions have a blue (27) number. Furthermore, the headings are marked with a (D) – for driving, (H) – for hiking, and (B) – for backpacking. Destinations with a driving label are more suited to those who would rather hike less, and drive throughout the park. Locations with a hiking label are for those who prefer day hikes, while backpacking labels apply to much longer hikes.

Places to Visit in Big Bend

There are two entrance gates along the main roads into Big Bend National Park. You will pay a $30 fee, per vehicle (motorcycles are $25), at the gate. If you somehow manage to arrive via bicycle or on foot, the fee is only half. Admission is good for seven days, and you can stay two weeks in a row. A Big Bend Parks Pass is only $55, which is well worth the cost if you will be visiting multiple times during the year.

The best things to do in Big Bend have a blue number

Big Bend National Park has five visitor centers, two gas stations and a lodge.  These places are spaced apart and it can take about an hour to get from one side of the park to the other.  The majority of Big Bend is open for camping and exploration.  Stop at these places if you need information or essentials.  

1) Persimmon Gap Visitors Center (D)

This will be your first opportunity out of all the things to do in Big Bend National Park.  The Persimmon Gap Visitors Center is just beyond the entrance booth along US-385.  This visitors center doesn’t contain much, but you may want to stop after a long drive to the park.   Here you can use the restroom, get information about the park and view the Big Bend map.  

2) Panther Junction (D)

The next visitors center is about 20 miles south.  At Panther Junction, you can purchase Big Bend merch including books and colored bandanas with printed trail maps.  You can also get more park information, use the restroom or access the post office.  Next door you will find the first available gas station since Marathon, Texas.  Panther Junction is a hotspot, but most people do not spend much time here.  After all, there are mountains to visit and many other things to do in Big Bend.  

If you are in need of WiFi, you should be able to get connected at Panther Junction.  View our other article to find more areas where you can get online, obtain signal, or connect to WiFi in Big Bend National Park.  

The Chisos Mountain Lodge

3) Chisos Mountain Lodge (D)

The lodge is a must-visit because of its location in the Chisos Mountains.  Normally, it is the only place you can purchase a well-cooked meal in Big Bend.  Next door to the Chisos Mountain Lodge you will also find a shop where you can buy food, camping supplies, or Big Bend merch such as hoodies and t-shirts.  There are several cabins near the lodge, as well as access to hiking trails and camps.  

The Chisos Mountains are covered with woodlands and full of wildlife like nowhere else in Big Bend.  Multiple backcountry campsites are positioned at various elevations throughout these mountains.  Many trails lead through the mountains on several sides.  Emory Peak is the highest point in Big Bend and it’s located in the Chisos Mountains.  

4) Rio Grande Visitors Center (D)

This visitors center is about 20 miles east of Panther Junction, and will be on the way to Rio Grande Village.  There are some educational displays and sculptures at the Rio Grande Visitors Center.  You can access discovery drawers and learn more about the river ecosystem.  This location is not open during the summer.  

5) Castolon Visitors Center (D)

This visitors center is about 32 miles southwest of Panther Junction.  Visit exhibits at the Magdalena House and learn more about the Silvas family.  Learn what life was like between two cultures in the Castolon community.  The Castolon Visitors Center is not open during the summer.  

Our tent setup at Rio Grande Village Campground
Rio Grande Village Campground #56

Developed Campgrounds

Big Bend National Park has three developed campgrounds with 184 campsites and 25 full hookup RV sites.  Each campsite will cost you $16 per night, except for the full hookup sites which are $36 each night.  Rules at each campsite differ and are discussed below.  Read up on our first time camping tips if this will be a new experience for you.

6) Chisos Basin (D)

This is the most popular campground in Big Bend for good reason.  It is situated within the Chisos Mountains, with easy access to the lodge, store and several beautiful hiking trails.  There are 60 campsites and 40 of them are reservable.  If you are lucky enough to get a spot in Chisos Basin, you will see some of the most spectacular sights in Big Bend from this location.  

Trailers and RV’s are allowed in Chisos Basin, but there are restrictions because of the winding roadways.  RV’s over 24 feet and trailers over 20 feet are not recommended.  Generators are only allowed to run between the hours of 8am – 11am, and 5pm – 8pm in Loop 1.  Campsites are smaller in the basin and open year-round.  You will have access to running water, grills, tables, toilets, fuel and a dump station.  

7) Rio Grande Village (D)

This campground is near the Rio Grande River on the east side of Big Bend.  It is a popular RV spot due to the full hookup sites and generator hours.  There are 25 full hookup sites and generators may run between 8am and 8pm in designated sites.  100 campsites are available at Rio Grande Village, making it the largest (and loudest) campground.  60 of these sites are reservable year-round.  You have access to water, showers, grills, tables, toilets, fuel and a nearby dump station.  

8) Cottonwood (D)

This west side campground is the smallest in Big Bend.  24 campsites are available year-round, but reservations are not accepted.  Here you will have access to running water, grills and tables.  Generators are not allowed, and there is no dump station.  

The sun rises over the mountains from Rio Grande Village
Dawn at Rio Grande Village

Backcountry Camping

Camping in backcountry is also very popular in Big Bend National Park.  There are 41 backcountry campsites within the Chisos Mountains and many more throughout the wilderness of Big Bend.  All backcountry sites require a permit for specific areas, which cost $10 per night.  These can be purchased at Panther Junction or Chisos Basin.  Pets are allowed at campsites, but are not allowed to leave the vicinity.  Keep an eye on smaller dogs and watch for wildlife.  

There are no amenities at backcountry campsites except for a bear-proof storage container.  Furthermore, you may need an off-road vehicle to maneuver some unpaved roads.  You will be expected to bury your own waste and pack out all trash.  Campfires are not allowed at Big Bend, and caution must be exercised while using cooktop stoves.  Enjoy camping in the wilderness!  

9) Chisos Mountains (B)

The backcountry campsites within the Chisos Mountains will require backpacking.  You may hike anywhere from 1-8 miles to reach your campsite. The views will be gorgeous, but do not expect any amenities.  Keep an eye out for wildlife, but do not feed or engage them.  

10) Desert Wilderness (B)

Camping in more deserted areas of Big Bend is possible.  However, you must be an experienced hiker in order to camp in the desert.  Beware of snakes, wildlife and extreme conditions.  Show up in an off-road vehicle well-prepared and purchase a permit from a visitors center at Panther Junction or Chisos Basin. Enjoy the dark skies, quiet nights and time off-grid in Big Bend.  

Sunrise on the mountains in Big Bend National Park in Texas
The Rio Grande as sun rises on the mountains

Rio Grande Use

There may not be much water in Big Bend Country, but there is one major river flowing alongside the park for 118 miles.  The Rio Grande is a snow-fed mountain stream which travels 1,900 miles (in total) to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s 20th on the list of longest rivers in the world. Here are some ways you can use the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park.

11) Kayaking, Rafting and Canoeing (D)

Those who have their own equipment may kayak down the Rio Grande River at Big Bend National Park.  Day permits are free, while river camping costs $10 per night, but the park has specific rules for water use.  An extra paddle and wearable PFD’s are required.  

Inflatable kayaks are not the best choice because you may find yourself stranded in the desert if they deflate. We had an opportunity to rescue a family who walked to the road from the Rio Grande after their kayak was punctured.  This took place at dusk and was a very close call.

12) Swimming and Floating

The further a stream travels, the more pollutants it is apt to pickup. Swimming in the Rio Grande is NOT recommended. It may not be toxic, but the bacteria count and pollutants are too high for swimming. This definitely will not stop everyone from jumping into the river, but you probably don’t want that bacteria seeping into your orifices.

The Rio Grande flows through Santa Elena Canyon
The Rio Grande along Santa Elena Canyon

Canyon Trails

Big Bend National Park is home to some massive canyons, many of which can be seen while driving through the park.  No matter where you camp, or which direction you take, you will notice canyons inside Big Bend.  The lowest elevation within the park is 1798 feet at the Rio Grande.  Very tall canyon walls exist on each side of the park along the river.  Many other canyons can be experienced throughout the park and we have listed each in this section.  

12) Santa Elena Canyon (D)

Although it may take an eternity to reach Santa Elena Canyon, the gorgeous hike will be easy and unforgettable.  This is one of the most popular canyons in Big Bend.  Be sure to visit Santa Elena Canyon around sunrise or sunset for a spectacular photo.  There is an overlook where you may park, and a parking lot near the trailhead.  This easy trail is less than a mile long, but may require getting your feet wet in the Rio Grande.  The river was backwashing into Terlingua Creek during our visit, but the water was lower than knee-deep.  Follow the water upstream and between the canyon walls to a viewing platform.  

Distance: less than 1 mile one-way, with opportunity to get your feet wet

Duration: 30 minutes

Elevation: 2,169 feet

Pro Tip – Visit Santa Elena Canyon after you take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.  Check your fuel because the canyon is 43 miles from Panther Junction.  

The trailhead into Santa Elena Canyon
Santa Elena Canyon at Big Bend

13) Boquillas Canyon (D)

Another popular canyon trail is located on the east side of Big Bend.  The trail to Boquillas Canyon is slightly more difficult than the previously mentioned trail because of an immediate elevation change near the trailhead.  Head up to an overlook from the parking area, and follow the Rio Grande to a sand dune where the short trail ends.  This trail is also less than a mile long and provides a great view of the Sierra Del Carmen Mountains.  At the end of the trail you can watch the river flowing into the canyon, which is a reverse image of what happens at Santa Elena Canyon.  

Distance: less than 1 mile one-way

Duration: 30 minutes

Elevation: 1,798 feet

Pro Tip – People from the small village across the river will leave souvenirs along this trail for purchase.  

Boquillas Canyon is one of many popular things to do in Big Bend
The Rio Grande flows into Boquillas Canyon

14) Ernst Tinaja (D)

The hardest part of this trail is reaching it via Old Ore Road.  You will most likely need a 4-wheel drive vehicle with a high axle to get down the road.  The Tinaja Trail is only about half a mile long, but it’s several miles from the paved park road.  Once you reach the backcountry camping area you can hike up the canyon and get a nice view of the Tinaja.  The limestone layering is clear in this area where a spring fills the canyon with water.  Beware slick canyon walls which have been known to trap wild animals inside the Tinaja.  

Distance: 1 mile round trip 

Duration: 30 minutes

Elevation: 2,172 feet

15) Pine Canyon Trail (H)

This two-mile out-and-back trail begins within the grasslands east of the Chisos Mountains.  You will enter the canyon halfway through the trail and find comfort under the oaks, pines and junipers.  A cliff at the end of the trail will signal your retreat, but you may find a waterfall here during rain season.  The road to Pine Canyon Trail is several miles long and unpaved.

Distance: 4 miles round trip 

Distance: 1.5 hours

Elevation: 4,816 – 5,804 feet

16) Window Trail (H)

This trail leads to “the window”, which is a V-shaped opening in the mountains.  You can clearly see this opening as you arrive at the Chisos Mountain Lodge or Chisos Basin Campground.  There is a trailhead at each location leading to a desert overlook.  The distance to the overlook is 2-3 miles, depending on where you start.  There is an elevation loss of several hundred feet, unlike most of the trails within the Chisos Mountains.  Of course, this means you will climb back up on the return trip.  Save your water for the return hike because shade is scarce.  

Distance: 5 miles

Duration: 2.5 hours

Elevation: 5,089 – 4,508 feet

The "Window" can be seen from many places in Chisos Basin
The “Window” from Pinnacles Trail

17) Boot Canyon Trail (H)

This trail is named after a rock formation which looks like an upside down boot. A very good view of this boot can be seen along Emory Peak Trail.  The Boot Canyon Trail connects Pinnacles Trail to South Rim Trail in the Chisos Mountains.  Significant elevation changes along Boot Canyon Trail will provide some challenge, but the Arizona cypress, Douglas fir, and maple trees may be worth the two-mile trip.  

Distance: 3 miles

Duration: 1.5 hours

Elevation: 6,975 – 7,257 feet

Zoom in to see the "boot" in Boot Canyon at Big Bend National Park
Boot Canyon from Emory Peak Trail

18) Juniper Canyon Trail (H)

This challenging Trail is part of the Outer Mountain Loop.  It’s six miles long and takes hikers from Boot Canyon to the Dodson Trail.  There is also an unpaved road in the area which can be a starting point for Juniper Canyon Trail, or the Dodson Trail.  The former leads into the Chisos Mountains and the latter runs toward the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.  

Distance: 6 miles

Duration: 3.5 hours

Elevation: 3,980 – 6,890 feet

19) Blue Creek Trail (H)

This five-mile trail leads through woodlands, desert, grasslands and along Blue Creek Canyon.  It connects the Dodson Trail to Laguna Meadow.  You can hike from the Chisos Mountains, or the desert near Homer Wilson Ranch and the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.  Evidences of past ranches are very noticeable along the multi-purpose trail.  If you are short on time, hike only the first mile from Homer Wilson Ranch Overlook to see Red Rocks Canyon.  

Distance: 5.5 miles

Duration: 3 hours

Elevation: 4,170 – 6,716 feet

20) Tuff Canyon (D)

This is one of the shortest trails in Big Bend National Park.  You can see Tuff Canyon from Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, or hike less than half a mile into the white volcanic ash cliffs.  Find the easiest route down into the canyon by heading west from the parking lot and passing the overlook.  This is a quick stop, but looks spectacular around sunset.  

Distance: less than 1 mile round trip 

Duration: 15 minutes

Elevation: 2,293 feet

A sunset view of Santa Elena Canyon from Tuff Canyon
Tuff Canyon at sunset, beneath Santa Elena Canyon

21) Dog Canyon (H)

This interesting canyon is located near Persimmon Gap, where many enter the park.  Dog Canyon is noticeable from the main road, but looks much better up close.  An unshaded two-mile trail leads into the canyon where limestone rises vertically from the ground.  There is no significant elevation change along this trail, which is only recommended while dry.  For most people, this trail will be your first opportunity after entering Big Bend.  

Distance: 4 miles round trip 

Duration: 1.5 hours

Elevation: 2,575 – 2,520 feet

22) Devil’s Den (H)

This canyon is just south of Dog Canyon and north of Dagger Mountain.  It’s an unshaded three-mile hike from the previous trail into Devil’s Den.  Beware of pour-offs which may require some climbing experience.  Explore the area to find alternative routes, or unique views from inside and outside the canyon.  

Distance: 6 miles round trip 

Duration: 2.5 hours

Elevation: 2,575 – 2,956 feet

Pro Tip – Choose wisely because it will take about four hours to hike Dog Canyon and Devil’s Den.  First or last light will make this hike more comfortable and scenic.  

23) Cross Canyon Trail (B)

This trail is on the southern side of Big Bend, beyond Mariscal Mountain.  Cross Canyon Trail receives little foot traffic and is not well marked.  It leads seven miles from the Rio Grande River, through Cross Canyon and to another area of the river.  There is also a trail connection to Mariscal Canyon Trail.  This trail can be quite challenging, especially in warm weather.   Watch for sand on the road and do not get stuck.  

Distance: 14 miles round trip

Duration: 7.5 hours

Elevation: 2,392 feet

24) Slickrock Canyon (H) 

This canyon has carved through part of Slickrock Mountain.  It’s a challenging five-mile hike from Oak Creek.  The “trailhead” is across from the north end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.  Elevation changes are not too serious on the hike to Slickrock Canyon, but shade will be nonexistent.  

Distance: 10 miles round trip 

Duration: 5 hours

Elevation: 3,245 feet

Pro Tip – Slickrock Canyon does not have a defined trail.  Choose a route and navigational markers before hitting this canyon. 

25) Mesa de Anguila Complex (B)

This is the westernmost point of interest in Big Bend.  You can access the trailhead in Lajitas, but you will need desert experience.  Climb to the Mesa and explore other trails and canyons leading to the Rio Grande.  These trails lead through the desert for several miles and may require gear.  In the very least, you will need plenty of water.  

Distance: 14 mile loop

Duration: 7.5 hours

Elevation: 2,644 – 3,878 feet

Pro Tip – The Big Bend map is not reliable for this area.  Check with park staff and plan accordingly before you hike or backpack near Mesa de Anguila.  

Emory Peak is difficult to pinpoint from the trail unless you know which peak it is.
Emory Peak from Pinnacles Trail

Mountains in Big Bend

Does Big Bend have mountains?  Absolutely!  In fact, there are several mountain ranges.  The most popular are the Chisos Mountains which contain the highest elevations inside the park.  Hike Emory Peak to reach a height greater than 7,800 feet – the highest point in Big Bend National Park.  If this hike alone does not quench your thirst for adventure, there are many other peaks throughout the park.  Explore the mountains of Big Bend for some of the best views in Texas. 

26) Emory Peak (H)

This is the highest point you can reach in Big Bend.  Emory Peak is 7,832 feet high, and the elevation gain is 2,432 feet from Chisos Basin.  The quickest way to reach this peak is via two trails – Pinnacles Trail and Emory Peak Trail.  Begin Pinnacles Trail from the Chisos Basin Trailhead and follow Emory Peak Trail to the top of the mountain.  

Distance: 10.5 miles round trip 

Duration: 6 hours

Elevation: 5,400 – 7,832 feet

Pro Tip – Emory Peak Trail is shorter than Pinnacles Trail, but more difficult.  The final climb to the top requires the use of hands and feet. 

Emory Peak requires some rock climbing to reach the summit
Climbing Emory Peak

27) Lost Mine Trail (H)

This is one of the most popular mountain trails in Big Bend.  Many people can manage the distance and elevation gain along Lost Mine Trail.  Parking is scarce along the road to Chisos Basin Lodge, but there is overflow parking down the hill.  Get to this trail early which begins at an elevation of 5,600 feet and climbs 1,250 feet.  Despite its name, Lost Mine trail does not lead to a mine or to Lost Mine Peak, but there are great views.  Be on the lookout for wildlife because there were black bear dropping along the trail on our way down.  

Distance: 5 miles round trip 

Duration: 2.5 hours

Elevation: 5,600 – 6,850 feet

Pro Tip – Hike the first half of Lost Mine Trail to be rewarded with views of canyons and mountains to the east, while saving some time.  

Stop about halfway along Lost Mine Trail for this view of canyons and mountains.
Canyons and mountains from Lost Mine Trail

28) South Rim Trail (H)

There are two ways (from Chisos Basin) to begin this all-day hike through the Chisos Mountains.  Jump on Pinnacles Trail and follow it to Boot Canyon Trail, or take the first turn onto Laguna Meadow Trail, and turn at Colima Trail.  Either direction will lead around Emory Peak and toward the South Rim.  Elevations climb to roughly 7,200 feet along the South Rim Trail, which is an elevation gain of about 1,800 feet from Chisos Basin.  Alternatively, you can also reach South Rim Trail from Juniper Canyon Trail, or Blue Creek Trail.  

Distance: 12 miles (as a loop)

Duration: 7 hours

Elevation: 6,867 – 7,438 feet

Pro Tip – Start with the Laguna Meadow Trail to make your climb easier because it ascends more gradually than Pinnacles Trail. 

29) Basin Loop Trail (D)

This is the quickest and easiest loop within the Chisos Mountains, excluding the Window View Trail.  The Basin Loop includes part of Pinnacles Trail and Laguna Meadow Trail.  However, there is only about 200 feet of elevation gain throughout the loop.  Start at Pinnacles Trail and turn onto Basin Loop Trail, or take Laguna Meadow Trail to Basin Loop Trail.  If you are looking for an easier hike within the mountains of Big Bend, this one is for you.  

Distance: 2 miles

Duration: 1 hour or less

Elevation: 5,600 feet

Pro Tip – This is a good area to spot wildlife.  We saw two black bears, a mother and her cub, quickly evading our presence on Pinnacles Trail. 

30) Laguna Meadow Trail (H)

This trail leads from Pinnacles Trail toward the South Rim.  The park describes Laguna Meadow Trail as ancient and marshy.  Elevation gains on this trail gradually increase from 5,500 feet to 6,700 feet.  You may not be able to tell, but the natives once used this as a camping area many years ago.  

Distance: 6 miles one-way

Duration: 3 hours

Elevation: 5,374 – 6,696 feet

31) Marufo Vega Trail (B)

This trail is across from the Boquillas Canyon Overlook and leads into the Dead Horse Mountains.  Expect steep climbs on each side of the loop and no shade.  It is possible to reach the Rio Grande River, or hike high above the water while following the loop.  The Marufo Vega Trail can be risky especially in the hot sun.  

Distance: 14 miles (as a loop)

Duration: 8 hours

Elevation: 2,743 – 1,785 feet

32) Strawhouse Trail (B)

This trail follows a creek-bed from the Marufo Vega Trail.  However, it is not clearly defined and experienced hikers have lost the way.  At times you may see cairns, washes, or part of a trail, but most of the time you may have little indication of your way.  Pay attention along this seven mile trail and do not get too distracted by the views of the Dead Horse Mountains and Sierra Del Carmen.  

Distance: 14 miles round trip 

Duration: 8 hours

Elevation: 1,873 – 2,848 feet

33) Telephone Canyon Trail (B)

This trailhead begins at Old Ore Road, which requires a four-wheel drive vehicle or high axle.  It also runs across the Dead Horse Mountains, passes the Strawhouse Trail and ends at Adam’s Ranch. The ranch is private property and will not provide an help to hikers and backpackers.  You will not find many people, or much shade in these mountains.  It may be worth exploring Sue Peaks on the north side of this trail.  

Distance: 18 miles round trip 

Duration: 10 hours

Elevation: 1,873 – 2,805 feet

Pro Tip – Hike only the first three miles of this trail if you desire a quicker challenge.

34) Mariscal Canyon Rim (H)

You can hike this trail at Mariscal Mountain on the south side of Big Bend.  However, it’s about a 30 mile drive along unpaved roads from the main road.  There are backcountry campsites in the area, but you will want to use a four-wheel drive vehicle with a high axle.  The trail to Mariscal Canyon Rim is not very long, but there will not be any shade.  Upon making it to the rim you will have a spectacular view from 1,500 feet above the Rio Grande.  The rocks near Mariscal Mountain may be very unstable, so be extra careful gathering those views.  

Distance: 7 miles round trip 

Duration: 3.5 hours 

Elevation: 2,392 feet

35) Dodson Trail (B)

This trail is part of the outer mountain loop and leads through the desert to the old Dodson Ranch.  You can begin this trail from the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, or the trailhead at the end of Juniper Canyon Road.  The trail is clearly defined near both ends, but is more difficult to see in the middle.  Water runs across the Dodson Trail at several points and may look like trails.  Take this trail to get a great look at the Chisos Mountains from the south.  

Distance: 11.5 miles

Duration: 7 hours

Elevation: 4,236 – 5,220 feet

36) Ward Spring (H)

This trailhead is off the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, along the western edge of the Chisos Mountains.  It leads through part of Homer Wilson Ranch to an active spring which used to be piped to a stock tank.  Although the spring is not quite visible from the road, it’s a short hike to a small oasis.  Look for the green treetops, or any wildlife which may be taking advantage of Ward Spring.  

Distance: 3.5 miles round trip 

Duration: 1.5 hours 

Elevation: 3,930 – 4,446 feet

See the Sierra del Carmen Mountains from Rio Grande Village Overlook at sunset.
Sierra del Carmen Mountains at sunset

Big Bend Overlooks

Big Bend National Park must have hundreds of overlooks.  We can’t possibly find them all, but we do have the most popular ones listed here.  Overlooks are the perfect place to enjoy nature by watching wildlife, watching the sunset, or trying to see far-reaching views.  The overlooks at Big Bend provide opportunities to see dinosaur relics, mountain lions, black bears, pre-existing ranches, the Rio Grande, rock formations and mountains.  If you find an overlook not listed here, let us know at the end of this article.

37) Fossil Discovery Overlook (D)

This Fossil Bone Exhibit is about 10 miles from Panther Junction along Park Road 385 from Marathon.  This quick stop allows you to view the northern side of the park from an overlook.  Walking to the overlook is easy and handicap accessible.  There are a few displays along the path which provide some information about the land.  From the overlook you can see mountains around Big Bend above the Fossil Bone Exhibit.  There are few stops along Park Road 385 and this may be the best one, but not because of the views.  The views are great, but they only increase the desire to see more mountains.  

Distance: less than half a mile round trip 

Duration: 30 minutes or less

Elevation: 30 feet

The desert and many mountains can be seen from the Fossil Discovery Exhibit in Big Bend.
The overlook at Fossil Discovery Exhibit

38) Rio Grande Village Nature Trail (D)

This short loop trail leads to one of the best overlooks inside Big Bend.  It’s less than a mile to reach the top where you will see the Rio Grande snake around the east side of the park, but that’s not all. You will also see the Sierra del Carmen Mountains, Chilicotal Mountains and wild animals wandering through Mexico.  The tiny village of Boquillas is also present.  

This may be one of the best spots to hit early, or late in the day.  If you are staying in Rio Grande Village, you can’t miss the trailhead on the east side of camp.  It begins with trees, crosses a wetland via a boardwalk, and then leads up a small hill.  The elevation gain is a bit more than 100 feet, and there is a spur trail leading to the river as well.  It’s not a difficult hike for the average person, and the views are worth the time and energy.  

Distance: 1.5 miles round trip

Duration: 30 minutes

Elevation: 1,844 – 1,952

Pro Tip – Hit this overlook at sundown if you are camping in Rio Grande Village.  Stay up top until the stars are bright, and come back up for sunrise to see all this overlook has to offer. 

The sun sets on the mountains from Rio Grande Village Nature Trail in Big Bend.
Rio Grande Village Nature Trail

39) Window View Trail (D)

This trail is directly behind the Chisos Basin Store and provides a view of “the window”.  We’re not sure why they call it that because it’s simply a V-shaped opening in the mountains.  The concrete walkway leading to the overlook is easy and handicap accessible.  You can also see the Chisos Basin Campground and several of the peaks in the Chisos Mountains.  

Distance: less than half a mile round trip 

Duration: 10 minutes

40) Daniel’s Ranch Trail (H)

This trail leads to an overlook atop the Hot Springs and Rio Grande.  The trailhead begins at Rio Grande Village, and passes Daniel’s Ranch on the way to the Hot Springs.  There is some elevation gain as you hike up a cliff to reach the overlook.  Little shade is present along this trail which is a better hike early, or late in the day.  Alternatively, you can hike from Hot Springs Road to Rio Grande Village.  

Distance: 6 miles round trip 

Duration: 2.5 hours

Elevation: 1,850 – 2,201

41) Oak Spring Trail (D)

This trail will lead you through “The Window” at Big Bend National Park.  You can begin from Oak Spring Road off of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, or follow the Window Trail to Oak Spring Trail.  Look out over the desert from the top of the trail, view the Chisos Mountains from “The Window”, or witness a waterfall from the lower elevations after it has rained.  

This trail is not very long, but you will have to backtrack from either end.  One option would be hiking to the Chisos Mountain Lodge for lunch from Oak Spring Road, and returning after your meal.  This would be a seven mile round trip hike with some significant changes in elevation.  

Distance: 1.5 miles round trip 

Duration: less than 1 hour

Elevation: 4,068 – 4,846

42) Homer Wilson Ranch Overlook (D)

You can find this pre-existing ranch along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.  Homer Wilson Ranch Overlook is where the Dodson Trail meets Blue Creek Trail.  The area is primarily desert, but you can see the Chisos Mountains to the east.  The ranch is open to the public and can be reached via a half mile trail.  

Distance: less than half a mile round trip 

Duration: 30 minutes or less

43) Burro Spring Trail (D)

This short trail is located along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.  A paved road leads to the trailhead about halfway down the drive.  From the overlook you will see Burro Spring, and evidence of wildlife visiting the area.  It is possible to get a closer look at the spring, but the trail is not maintained.  

Distance: 1.5 miles round trip 

Duration: 30 minutes

Elevation: 3,199 feet

44) Mule Ears Trail (H)

This trailhead is also located along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.  However, the overlook can be experienced from the parking area.  You can see Mule Ears Peaks in the distance from the overlook.  Alternatively, you can follow a desert trail to a closer overlook of the peaks.  Mule Ears Trail is not very long, but is a dry and rocky hike to a historic area – part of Castolon Ranch.

Distance: 4 miles round trip from the first overlook

Duration: 1.5 hours

Elevation: 2,802 – 3,218

45) Boquillas Canyon Overlook (D)

This overlook is right next to the parking area for Boquillas Canyon Trail on the far east side of the park.  Simply hike up some rocky steps from your vehicle to reach the top.  You will get a great view of the Rio Grande, Boquillas Canyon, and parts of Mexico.  The trail continues a short distance and ends at a sand dune next to the river.  

Distance: less than half a mile round trip

Duration: 10 minutes

Elevation: 1,837 – 1,900

Mountains can be seen in Mexico from the Boquillas Canyon Trail Overlook in Big Bend.
The Rio Grande from Boquillas Canyon Trail Overlook

46) Santa Elena Canyon Overlook (D)

This overlook is on the far west side of Big Bend and requires no hiking.  Simply access the parking area from the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive before it ends at the canyon.  The overlook is a few hundred yards away and is offset from the canyon interior.  However, you can hike a short distance south from the overlook to get a “better” view.  Although you do not need to hike to see Santa Elena Canyon, you can get inside the walls near the Rio Grande.  

Distance: N/A

Duration: 10 minutes or less

Elevation: 2,221 feet

Pro Tip – Santa Elena Canyon looks amazing during sunset, but driving through the park in the dark is not much fun, so you can’t have all the best scenarios. 

The Santa Elena Canyon Overlook view at sunset
Santa Elena Canyon from the overlook

Hiking the Desert Trails

The Chihuahuan desert is the largest in the country, and Big Bend National Park is entirely within this desert region.  Of course, it also covers the northern part of Mexico, and southern area of New Mexico.  The sun bears down on this desert daily and shade is only found in certain valleys or mountain regions.  During the winter the desert is manageable with highs around 70 degrees and lows around 40 degrees.  However, the summer months can become unbearable with highs around 100 degrees and lows near 70 degrees.  Desert views can be wonderful, but expect a lot of dust, rocks, bushes and sunshine along these trails. 

47) Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail (D)

Visit this area six miles east of Panther Junction to have a picnic under Cottonwood trees and take a very short hike through the desert.  The nature trail is located near Dugout Wells, which is marked along the park road.  In the past, there was a community at Dugout Wells, but today there are simply remnants.  A spring can be found near this trail which helps the vegetation survive the desert climate.  

Distance: Half a mile round trip 

Duration: 15 minutes

48) Panther Path (D)

This desert garden cannot be missed in front of Panther Junction.  The loop is only 50 yards long, but is handicap accessible and will familiarize visitors with many desert plants.  Most visitors will stop at Panther Junction for a variety of reasons, and this trail will not take much time.  

Distance: 50 yards

Duration: 10 minutes or less

49) Dorgan House Trail (D)

This quick trail is between Santa Elena Canyon and Castolon.  Visit the remains of the Grand Canyon Farms on the west side of Big Bend.  The trail is an old dirt road with little shade along the way.  There are several remains to see, including the Dorgan House and La Casita.  There is also a great view of Santa Elena Canyon and some other peaks around the park.  

Distance: Half a mile round trip 

Duration: 20 minutes

50) Balanced Rock at Grapevine Hills (H)

Grapevine Hills is on the north side of Big Bend, about 10 miles from Panther Junction.  Grapevine Road is a dirt road, but this is one you can manage without a four-wheel drive vehicle.  A short trail awaits at the end of the road which leads to a laccolith.  The trail is fairly easy, but does pass through sandy areas.  You will know “Balanced Rock” when you see it.  It looks much more like a window than the point of interest in Chisos Basin.  This would be a great trail to do at sunrise or sunset because of the rock formation and lack of shade.  

Distance: 2 miles round trip 

Duration: 1 hour or less 

Elevation: 3,209 – 3,481

51) Banta Shut-in (B)

This trailhead is located two miles east of Panther Junction, at K-Bar.  It leads through desert runoff “trails” to a large pool.  The main route runs through several canyons, but may not be clearly defined.  It may also be possible to reach Banta Shut-in from the Fossil Bone Exhibit, but the distance will be greater.  This long trail will provide no shade, so check with park staff for the best route.  

Distance: 15 miles round trip 

Duration: 8.5 hours

Elevation: 3,274 – 2,579 feet

52) Ore Terminal (H)

This trail travels through the desert where the Old Ore tramway towers can still be seen.  The trailhead begins near the Boquillas Canyon Overlook – same area as Strawhouse Trail.  The tramway ran six miles, but the current trail is not quite as long.  This hike is very doable during cooler seasons and is not advisable in the summer.  Ore Terminal breaks off Strawhouse Trail and travels northwest.  There is a significant change in elevation as you travel through canyons and over hills.  

Distance: 8 miles round trip 

Duration: 4 hours

Elevation: 1,873 – 2,822

53) Elephant Tusk (B) 

This trail runs from Black Gap Road to the Dodson Trail.  You can hike out-and-back, or make it a loop by following Fresno Creek.  You will begin near the Elephant Tusk campsite, but the trail is not clearly defined.  Head straight for the east side of Elephant Tusk, loop around Tortuga Mountain, and follow Fresno Creek back to Black Gap.  By heading all the way to the Dodson Trail, you will gain nearly 3,000 feet of elevation.  

Distance: 16 miles (as a loop)

Duration: 9 hours

Elevation: 2,106 – 5,013

54) Dominguez Spring (B)

This trail is very isolated on the south side of the park, but there are backcountry campsites nearby.  In fact, you will begin at one of them, follow an old dirt road north, and enter one of the Sierra Quemada Canyons.  The trail continues south of Dominguez Mountain until ending at an old dam and house.  The spring is near these remnants several miles north of the unpaved roads and campsite.  There are decent views of the Chisos Mountains, but the trail begins 31 miles from Rio Grande Village.  Over 1,200 feet of elevation change will take place along the hike to Dominguez Spring.  

Distance:  14 miles round trip 

Duration: 8 hours 

55) Smoky Creek Trail (H)

This trail connects the Dodson Trail to Mule Ears Trail, but it may not be well defined.  This desert trail which follows Smoky Creek may not get much foot traffic.  However, there is much to see and explore in this area south of the Chisos Mountains.  It may take all day to explore the desert and hike out to Mule Ears and back.  The views will be worth it, but shade will not be found.  

Distance: 8 miles one-way

Duration: 4 hours

Elevation: 3,904 – 4,898

56) Upper Burro Mesa Pour-off (H)

You can find this trail along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, just west of the Chisos Mountains.  Descend the rocky creek-bed until you come to the pour-off.  You will hike nearly two miles and climb over some rocks to reach the 100-foot high cliff.  The trail to Burro Mesa is fairly short, but not recommended when water is present.  Decent elevation will be gained on the return hike.  The Upper Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail opposes the lower trail, which is located further along the drive.  

Distance: 4 miles round trip 

Duration: 1.5 hours 

Elevation: 3,989 – 3,573

57) Chimneys Trail (H)

This trail is right down the road from the pour-off trails.  Chimney’s Trail runs to the north side of Kit Mountain where an eroded dike can be seen.  Look closely and you will see pictographs on one of the “chimneys”.  It is possible to continue hiking to Maverick Road.  You will pass Black Mesa and Pena Mountain, hiking a distance of seven miles one-way.  

Distance: 5 miles round trip 

Duration: 2.5 hours 

Elevation: 3,182 – 2,864

Relics at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit and mountains in the background.
Mountains beyond the Fossil Discovery Exhibit relics

Historic Areas

Big Bend National Park contains several historic areas, many of which are pre-existing ranches.  If you visit a park in Texas, there’s a good chance it once served as a ranch, or gathering place for natives.  This is true for Big Bend.  However, there is also prehistoric evidence within this park.  You can see relics of these ancient creatures at one of the first stops in the park.  Who knows; you might even find a dinosaur bone while hiking in the desert! 

58) Fossil Discovery Exhibit (D) 

More than 1,200 species have been discovered in Big Bend, and some of the best ones are on display.  How old are the dinosaur fossils?  The park claims the oldest fossil dates back 130 million years!  Additionally, geology exhibits can be viewed here, and throughout the main roadways in the park. This exhibit will teach you about the land and its past inhabitants who came long before us. The Fossil Discovery Exhibit will not look like much as you pull into the parking area. However, you might be surprised to find relics of giants inside – the Bravoceratops, alligator, T-Rex and Quetzalcoatlus (large flying creature) are “must-see”.

Distance: Less than half a mile

Duration: 20 minutes

Bravoceratops at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit in Big Bend National Park

59) Hot Springs (D)

Visiting the Hot Springs on the east side of Big Bend is one of the most popular activities, when they are not flooded and polluted by the Rio Grande. This is a very short hike to an ancient bathhouse where the water temperatures reach 105 degrees. Most of the time, visitors are able to soak in the Hot Springs. Restrooms are nearby, as wells as an overlook and a trail leading to Daniel’s Ranch, which has already been discussed. Keep an eye out for pictographs on the trail leading to the Hot Springs, and visit the overlook for fantastic views of the Sierra del Carmen Mountains.

Distance: 1 mile round trip

Duration: 30 minutes

60) Sam Nail Ranch (D)

This ranch is another oasis along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Here you will find windmills, birds, and pieces of what once was the Sam Nail Ranch. There is a very short loop trail which provides some shade and a wonderful view of the Chisos Mountains.

Distance: Less than half a mile

Duration: 20 minutes

61) Castolon Historic Compound (D)

Take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to reach this historic compound on the west side of Big Bend, near Santa Elena Canyon. The store is still operational here, which once was a trading post and military operation. Visit the oldest Adobe structure in Big Bend via a very short trail before you leave Castolon.

Distance: Less than half a mile

Duration: 20 minutes

Driving to mountains in Big Bend is one of the most popular things to do.
The Sierra del Carmen Mountains from the park road

Driving Through Big Bend

Big Bend National Park has 118 miles of paved roadways. Additionally, there are multiple unpaved roads, some of which require the use of a four-wheel drive vehicle, or high axle. These roads lead to backcountry campsites, trails, and pre-existing places. It’s difficult to say whether there is more mileage along the hiking trails or roadways in Big Bend because each exceeds 200 miles. If you prefer to drive through the park in order to see its wonders, this section is for you.

62) Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (D)

This is the most popular route in Big Bend National Park. The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is 30 miles long, and more than a few points of interest are along this route. Additionally, it provides excellent views of the Chisos Mountains, Santa Elena Canyon and other rock formations. You can easily spend an entire day visiting canyons, ranches, springs, trails and waypoint exhibits along this route.

These points of interest have been discussed in other sections, including the time necessary at each location. If you obey the posted speed limits inside the park, it will take more than one hour to drive this route from Park Road 118 (which runs east to west from Rio Grande Village to the western entrance gate) and back.

Driving toward mountains at Big Bend National Park in Texas

63) Visit Every Waypoint Exhibit (D)

Big Bend National Park has many educational displays located throughout the park. 16 of these exhibits explain bits and pieces about the geology and are recorded below. However, there are other displays beside roadways, trails and pre-existing ranches. How many waypoints can you find in Big Bend?

The Fossil Discovery Exhibit has two waypoints, which are located eight miles north of Panther Junction:

  • Sedimentology: Ancient Water Flow Creates Sediment Beds 
  • Volcanism in the Chisos Mountains 

The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive has seven waypoints:

  • Chisos Mountains
  • Fins of Fire
  • Burro Mesa Pouroff Trailhead Sign
  • Goat Mountain
  • Mule Ears Viewpoint Trailhead Sign
  • Tuff Canyon
  • Santa Elena Canyon Overlook

The main park road between Panther Junction and Rio Grande Village has two waypoints:

  • Sunken Block
  • Boquillas Canyon Overlook

The main park road between Panther Junction and Terlingua also has two waypoints:

  • Badlands
  • Volcanism in Big Bend National Park

There is one waypoint 11 miles out on Glenn Springs Road:

  • The Extinction of the Dinosaurs

There is one waypoint near the Chisos Mountain Lodge:

  • Volcanic Origins 

There is one waypoint on Grapevine Hills Road:

  • Grapevine Hills Trailhead Sign
Visit every waypoint in Big Bend National Park
Waypoint at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit

Visiting Mexico

There is only one border crossing inside Big Bend National Park, and it is near Rio Grande Village on the east side of the park. For years, visitors have been taking advantage of this border crossing in order to visit the small village of Boquillas in Mexico.

64) Boquillas Port of Entry (D)

Crossing the border can be done between Wednesday and Sunday from 8am – 5pm (during winter), and Friday to Monday from 9am – 6pm (during summer). You must have a passport and show up between these hours to cross the border. The port is managed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, along with the National Park Service. You can be ferried across the river via a small rowboat for $5, or walk across if water levels permit.

The small village of Boquillas is less than half a mile away. You can easily walk to the village, or ride a burro for another small fee. Boquillas has two restaurants to choose from, and one bar. Moreover, cash is accepted across the border and the villagers will be happy to sell you souvenirs. You may also come across souvenirs in Big Bend National Park, near the Rio Grande. These are considered to be illegal contraband.

Sunrise over the Sierra del Carmen from Big Bend National Park
Sunrise over the Sierra del Carmen Mountains in Mexico

Stars During Night and Day

Big Bend is a wonderful place to see stars. The night skies are very dark, and the stars appear brighter in many locations in the park. Sadly, visitors in the developed campgrounds seem to have little interest in the dark skies. Backcountry campsites and overlooks may be a much better option for stargazing. Furthermore, there are many great areas to see our own star during the course of a day.

65) Best Sunset Locations (D)

There is no shortage of locations to see a great sunrise or sunset at Big Bend. Any of the overlooks discussed in a previous section are prime spots. However, you may want to find a more difficult location if you are backpacking, or an easier location if driving. One of our favorite locations is the overlook at Rio Grande Village, but here are several areas to keep you busy:

  • Rio Grande Nature Trail Overlook
  • Boquillas Canyon Trail Overlook
  • Fossil Discovery Exhibit Overlook
  • Dog Canyon
  • Balanced Rock at Grapevine Hills
  • Lost Mine Trail
  • Pinnacles Trail
  • Window Trail
  • Mule Ears Overlook
  • Tuff Canyon
  • Santa Elena Canyon
  • Chisos Mountain Lodge
One of the best things to do in Big Bend is watch the sunset from the overlooks.
Sunset from Rio Grande Village Overlook

66) Dark Skies (D)

Big Bend has some of the darkest skies in the country at night. It is truly a wonderful sight if you enjoy leaving the realm of artificial light. Honestly, it does not look quite as good as the photographers capture with their intense camera equipment, but it is a pleasing sight. Your best opportunity to see the darkest skies will take place on cloudless nights when the moon is not as bright. Campgrounds will be a good place to stargaze, but backcountry campsites will be better. The Chisos Mountains are probably a great spot at night, but hiking the trails after dark can be risky.

Wildlife in Big Bend

Despite its desert climate, Big Bend National Park is full of wildlife. More than likely, you will see birds, horses, donkeys and javelinas, especially if you visit Rio Grande Village. Whether you hike in the woodlands of the Chisos Mountains, or the open desert, you may come across more dangerous animals. This section explains the types of wildlife you might see, and what you can do if you see them.

67) Birding (D)

Big Bend has more than 450 documented species visiting the park each year. It is a really good place to look for birds. Search for water and trees to have the best chance of seeing various types of birds. Where can you find water and trees in Big Bend?

  • Chisos Mountains
  • Rio Grande Village
  • Cottonwood Campground
  • Daniel’s Ranch
  • Sam Nail Ranch
  • Dominguez Spring
  • Ward Spring
  • Burro Spring
  • Dugout Wells

Hike into the Chisos Mountains and head for the canyons or ridge trails to look for birds. If you happen to see a Colima Warbler, you will have seen a rare sight because the Chisos Mountains are the only place in the country you will see one. The best time for birding may be at the end of spring, but there are plenty of birds to see year round. Purchase a checklist from the visitors centers to aid you in your search.

Birding from the wetlands at Rio Grande Village in Big Bend National Park
Rio Grande Village Nature Trail

68) Horseback Riding (D)

Cross country horseback riding is allowed at Big Bend, with a backcountry permit. You must bring your own horse and vaccination records. Grazing is not allowed and manure must be packed out. Horseback riders may travel along unpaved roads and many of the hiking trails in Big Bend. However, they may not travel along paved roads, or high into the Chisos Mountains. Blue Creek, Laguna Meadow, and the South Rim Trails are the exception in the Chisos. Your horse may camp with you at campsites in the backcountry.

69) Encountering Wildlife (B)

Big Bend is a decent place to spot wildlife. Yes, there are black bears in Big Bend National Park. There are only thought to be around 30, and they live in the Chisos Mountains. Most people never see them because they tend to avoid humans, unless you feed them, which you should never do. We noticed two black bears from Pinnacles Trail, on the return hike from Emory Peak. They were about 100 yards away and quickly exited the area.

Other animals you might see inside the park include foxes, coyotes, javelinas, or mountain lions. Each of these will also avoid humans, but every once in awhile there is an interaction. If a large animal such as a black bear or mountain lion approaches you, do NOT run. Either puff yourself up and throw objects in the direction of the animal, or slowly back away. Contact park staff promptly to report any incidents with wildlife.

Lost Mine Trail - black bear and mountain lion warning sign
Lost Mine Trail

Big Bend Opportunities

Many thanks to the 260 volunteers who help make Big Bend National Park perform effectively. This national park depends on volunteers to educate visitors, patrol the trails and protect resources. You may not notice them on your visit, but they are everywhere, serving as the eyes and ears of Big Bend.

70) Volunteering

Are you interested in becoming a volunteer at Big Bend National Park? Volunteers are required to stay at the park for at least three months, and are encouraged to bring their own RV or trailer. They work about 32 hours per week including weekends and holidays. 50,000 hours of work is completed by volunteers every year. Out of all the things to do in Big Bend National Park, volunteering may be the most important.

See for more than 30 miles from Emory Peak in Big Bend National Park
View from the top of Emory Peak

Best Things to Do at Big Bend National Park

There are hundreds of attractions and things to do at Big Bend. This giant list contains the best and most popular sights. However, there are surely many other things to do in a park as large as this.

Big Bend has at least 41 hiking trails with a potential distance of more than 300 miles. It also has 118 miles of paved roads, and more than 100 miles of unpaved roads. Coincidentally, the Rio Grande flows through the park for 118 miles. There are many things to see and places to stop throughout the park depending on your desires.

You will need 14 days in Big Bend National Park to complete everything

This list has been created to better prepare for future trips to Big Bend. Hopefully it will be as helpful to you as it has been to us. It will take more than 200 hours to complete everything described in this Big Bend list, not including time spent eating or sleeping. More than likely, you will need 14 days in Big Bend to complete everything. Although, you can get the best (most popular) things done in only a few days.

I’m a certified personal trainer in San Antonio. After adopting Abbey, I created Places for Pups to help you get outside, exercise with your dog and have fun doing it. We have mastered hiking in Texas Hill Country. Though we emerge from the woods unharmed, we are not responsible for you or your pets. You are solely responsible for trying exercises, or places discussed on this site. Grab the best hiking gear and go dog friendly.  I wish you good fortune on the trails to come.

David Earley


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