What Is So Special About Big Bend National Park?
Big Bend National Park contains more than 800,000 acres. There are 41 hiking trails on the map with a potential distance of 300 miles. Big Bend has 118 miles of paved roads and it takes over an hour to drive from one end to the other. It’s impossible to see everything in just two days. We visited the best parts of Big Bend National Park in less than 48 hours. This guide shares everything special we were able to find inside Big Bend (including pictures) with limited time.
48 hours is not enough time at this national park, but you will discover the best things to do in Big Bend, if you learn from our experience and plan ahead before your visit. Of course, you could also be more conservative and simply explore the park as you drive through. Although, this approach may leave you wanting more if you do not have much time.
Either way you choose to explore Big Bend can provide you with breathtaking views, scenic drives, challenging hikes, forever moments, or close encounters with wild and dangerous animals. You may camp within the Chisos Mountains, or along the Rio Grande and many places in-between. Big Bend National Park is unique and there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands of special things about the park. Come and see…
To Big Bend picture lovers and scavengers – The photos in this guide were taken personally while exploring Big Bend National Park. If you would like to “use” any photos, please give credit where it is due and link back to this guide.
First 6 Hours in Big Bend National Park
Mountains, Dinosaur Fossils and More Mountains
We drove to Big Bend National Park from San Antonio. The views coming into Big Bend are spectacular and exciting. Mountains are visible from I-90, but you do not get near them until reaching Big Bend. You can see for yourself in this video of us driving to the Chisos Mountains from San Antonio.
After obtaining admission we stopped briefly at the first visitors center. The staff pointed out areas of interest on the map and provided some advice for our situation. They knew we only had 48 hours in Big Bend, but did not act surprised. This must be a typical situation for others seeking weekend adventure.
There were five major things we wanted to accomplish in 48 hours at Big Bend. After leaving the visitors center there were a few more things we desired to see. We were in uncharted territory because this was our first visit west of Texas Hill Country. The park looks very intimidating on the map and there are far too many things to do in only two days.
Our next stop would be the Fossil Bone Exhibit. We already knew dinosaur bones have been found in Big Bend from our experience at the Witte Museum in San Antonio. However, we had no idea there is an exhibit in Big Bend N.P.
Fossil Bone Exhibit – Elevation 2,785ft
It’s a quick walk to and through this exhibit from the vehicle. The exhibit is shaded, but completely open to allow great views of the park. The fossils are not guarded at this exhibit. However, they are merely replicas, in case you get any ideas about prehistoric souvenirs.
The fossils include sea reptiles, triceratops and a bird with a very large wingspan. These giants look quite impressive, especially with the mountains of Big Bend in the background. The jaws of the giant alligator appear large enough to capture a Tyrannosaurus.
After a quick walk through the Fossil Exhibit you can head up to a viewing platform. You will not find any bones below, but you will see your first panoramic view inside the park. The entire exhibit is handicap accessible and will only eat up a few minutes of your time. Although, there is a picnic area and restroom if you want to stick around. After viewing the fossil replicas we were very eager to see more of the park.
Chisos Mountain Lodge – Elevation 5,400ft
The Chisos Mountains are where you will find the tallest peaks at Big Bend, as well as the lodge. Surprisingly, there is a woodland within these mountains where you may spot black bears and mountain lions. The lodge is higher than most other areas in Big Bend so you will do some climbing on the winding road from Panther Junction.
Driving to the lodge provides a spectacular trip into the Chisos Mountains. The most popular trails are found in this area. However, the lodge is worth a look whether or not you plan on hiking. The Chisos Basin Store and campground are also nearby. After taking a look around, and purchasing Big Bend merch, we headed east toward Rio Grande Village.
Panther Junction – Elevation 3,734ft
This is the second visitors center (and HQ) on the drive into Big Bend. It also serves as a post office, and a gas station is next door. Gas is more expensive here, but you may need to fill up in this behemoth of a park. At the junction you can purchase permits, or buy books and other merch.
Hiking guides and maps can be purchased for a few bucks. Delightfully, they offer bandanas with printed trail maps of the Chisos Mountains. These are great for covering your face, keeping your brow dry, or finding your way through the mountains. Restrooms, trash bins and a short trail are also located at Panther Junction. From the junction you will head east if you are going to Rio Grande Village, or west if heading to Chisos Basin.
Boquillas Canyon Trail – Elevation 1,798ft
This short and easy trail runs along the Rio Grande on the east side of Big Bend. There is an overlook just beyond the trailhead where you can see the canyon wall in one direction and mountains in the other. A fox quickly crossed our path as we captured photos from the overlook.
This trail is only three quarters of a mile long, and dead ends at the water as it follows the canyon northeast. A few people were bathing in the river which is inadvisable due to the water quality. A man on horseback offered to let me ride his horse, and crossed the river into Mexico.
Souvenirs lay out along the Boquillas Canyon Trail because the locals are trying to find ways to make money this year. There is a border crossing nearby, but it has been closed most of the year. After completing our first trail, where we found one of the lowest elevations in Big Bend, we headed to camp.
Rio Grande Village – Elevation 1,841ft
There is no check-in at Rio Grande Village Campground this year. The entrance board simply directed us to our campsite which was reserved months in advance. Our named was pinned to the marker at our site. We parked and quickly setup our tent in four minutes. The rainfly we left in our SUV for three reasons: it was still quite warm in November, we desired more airflow, and we hoped to fall asleep under a plethora of stars.
Rio Grande Village has 100 campsites and costs only $16 per night. Many sites can accommodate 40-foot long motor vehicles and allow generators to run from 8am to 8pm. From our campsite (56) we only saw a handful of tents. Many campsites have picnic tables, bear-proof food lockers and (charcoal) grills because wood fires are not allowed here. Several restrooms are positioned throughout the village.
See the Sunset Here at Big Bend National Park
After setting up our tent, we pulled out our dual burning stove and cooler. Inside the cooler was two bags of ice, pre-made chicken soup, eggs, turkey bacon, and our own special version of chili. We wanted to spend less time cooking because there are so many special things to see in this park.
At the same time, we need unpreserved food that tastes pretty good.
It took about five minutes to heat up the chili using the stove. After washing dishes, we walked to the Rio Grande Overlook to watch the sunset.
Most people suggest watching the sunset through “The Window” at Chisos Basin. We saw this location while visiting the lodge and the setting did not appear that spectacular. The Rio Grande Overlook is different. It offers a very nice panoramic view of the east side at Big Bend National Park.
As the sun is setting you can see the mountains near the center of the park, as well as the Rio Grande below. Turn around and you will see the colorful Sierra Del Carmen Mountains in Mexico. Aside from the peaks within the Chisos Mountains, this must be one of the best views in Big Bend.
The Next 12 (Active) Hours in Big Bend National Park
From the Tallest Peak to the Mouth of the Widest Canyon Wall
The night did not bring much sleep at Rio Grande Village. After surveying the dark skies over the park, we jumped into our two-person sleeping bag around 9pm. However, other people in the campground did not seem interested in dark skies or being quiet. One group was yapping and laughing loudly next to a campfire until nearly midnight. The walls of a tent provide no sound barrier. Consequently, I learned a few more imperative first time camping tips at Big Bend.
Bring something to cover your eyes and ears if you have difficulty falling asleep in bright or noisy environments. I did not expect the campground to be so lively at night. Headlights wander, car alarms go off and neighbors may be inconsiderately loud. They may also bother you inadvertently by snoring at night.
We learned this the hard way and camp was only half full. A little more prep will go a long way. Our most difficult hike would be in the morning. Unfortunately, I only slept 4 – 5 hours even though I was in bed more than eight. The next day would be tough in the Chisos Mountains, but we would not be derailed.
Breakfast at Rio Grande Village Campground
Coffee, eggs and turkey bacon were on the menu the following morning. It took only five minutes to prepare all of this before sunrise. Since the food was pre-cooked, we only had to heat the eggs and water. We ate the turkey bacon as if it were beef jerkey.
Eventually the sun came up over the Sierra Del Carmen Mountains. We removed all gear from our tent, but left the tent standing. Javelinas frequent the campground, but we were unconcerned about them bothering our tent. We drove straight to the Chisos Mountain Lodge. It was time to begin the ascent to the highest point at Big Bend National Park – Emory Peak.
The Hike to Emory Peak – Elevation 7,832ft
Hiking to Emory Peak within the Chisos Mountains is simply amazing. We’ve never experienced a trail with as many outstanding scenic views. Technically, two separate trails must be taken to reach the peak from the lodge: Pinnacles Trail and Emory Peak Trail. The route twists and turns through the Chisos Mountains, rather than leading straight to the peak. For most people, this is an all-day hike.
It took 13,436 steps to reach Emory Peak in 2hr and 45min. The distance was nearly five and a half miles. Normally we can hike this distance in two hours or less. This was not the case at Big Bend, even though we passed handfuls of people on the trails to Emory Peak. Many people decided to stop and rest, but we were incredibly eager to reach the top.
My Health App recorded 163 floors worth of elevation gain. However, it’s a gradual 2,400-foot climb, which should be closer to 220 floors. The view from the top of Emory Peak is unmatched in Texas (and many states for that matter). You can see so far, the views go beyond the curvature of the Earth. Hiking to Emory Peak is a must-do if you are in relatively decent shape.
At the end of the hike you will be forced to climb up rocks to reach the peak. You will need to use your hands and feet during the final 25-foot climb. This climb is not terribly difficult or dangerous if you hold on. The views from the peak are unforgettable. You can see most of them in this video of our hike to Emory Peak. I really hope to see them again one day.
Views of Big Bend Country from Emory Peak
Feast your eyes on views of Big Bend from the top of Emory Peak in our hiking video below! The views of Big Bend National Park are amazing. You can see more than 20 miles in every direction throughout the mountainous terrain. This video is the shortened version of the one in the link above.
The trails leading to Emory Peak may seem to wind around the mountains unnecessarily, but the views are worth the hike. If you are capable of going the distance you can (and should) add this hike to your Big Bend list. See what it looks like for yourself and you will not have to wonder what might have been.
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive – Elevation 2,165ft to 4,278ft
This route runs for about 30 miles through the mountains on the west side of Big Bend. You will curve around the west side of the Chisos Mountains and descend more than 2,000 feet heading west. You will also pass Burro Mesa, Tule Mountain, Goat Mountain, Kit Mountain, Bee Mountain and Mule Ear Peaks. Along the way there will be several areas you can stop to hike or view displays.
It’s impossible not to notice the white volcanic ash on mountain bases and canyon walls as you follow Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. There is no bad time of day to use this route while the sun is up. The road leads right to Santa Elena Canyon, which rises higher as you approach. In fact, the canyon wall reminded us of “The Wall” in Game of Thrones.
Of course, this real-life wall is in a desert climate. It stretches for miles from the Unites States to Mexico. The only noticeable gap is where the Rio Grande modestly flows through. You can park at an overlook to view the canyon, or take a short trail to the viewing platform where the water bends. Due to our hike to Emory Peak, we were barely able to reach Santa Elena prior to sundown.
Santa Elena Canyon – Elevation 2,159ft
This canyon is another hotspot at Big Bend because there is less hiking and more breathtaking views. However, these views are from a lower elevation than those at the beginning of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Here everyone appears quite small along the backdrop of the canyon wall. You can barely see mountains to the north as you get closer to Santa Elena Canyon. Again, some people may be swimming in the Rio Grande here, but the quality of water makes it a bad idea.
As you reach the river the trail will appear to end. However, it crosses Terlingua Creek and through some tall grass to a viewing area. It’s not possible to get very far into the canyon because of the water, and a rockslide further upstream. Terlingua Creek was not active during our visit, but the crossing was full of backwash from the Rio Grande.
You may need to remove your shoes and socks to get a closer look at Santa Elena Canyon. Following Terlingua Creek a short way north will lead to a path over some rocks. This route kept my feet dry but was much more difficult. I also wondered what types of animals were living up on rock ledges, or hiding in the tall grass.
If you are not that adventurous, the canyon view from the overlook is perfectly fine. After leaving Santa Elena Canyon, we stopped at Tuff Canyon, but we had lost too much light to continue our longest day at Big Bend National Park. We drove back to camp at Rio Grande Village to cook dinner.
Dinner at Rio Grande Village Campground
After a long day on the other side of Big Bend, we returned to camp for dinner. It was dark, but not late. Unfortunately, daylight savings time was the previous week, so we were losing an hour of daylight each evening. Cooking our chicken soup with vegetables was not difficult, but the bugs were swarming in the light. Several others were also cooking in the dark, but we prefer to keep the lights off for two reasons; bugs stay away and the skies are lit with stars.
What’s so special about Big Bend National Park at night? Thousands of stars can be seen in many areas of the park on a clear night. With less lighting and activity at camp the second night, many stars could more easily be seen. We decided to stargaze rather than read books while we had the opportunity. My camera doesn’t have the capability of taking a decent photo of the dark sky at Big Bend. It’s simply one of those things you need to experience in a place where there is minimal light pollution.
Sleep came much easier on this night. The earplugs we purchased from the Chisos Basin Store were incredibly useful. I barely heard truck doors slamming and alarms being armed via keychain as I fell asleep under the stars. We woke before sunrise with a full nights rest and had somewhere to be nearby.
Final 4 Hours in Big Bend National Park
A Spectacular Sunrise, Risky Dirt Roads and Another View of the Chisos Mountains
We quickly packed up our gear and tent. The sun came up over the Sierra Del Carmen Mountains at 7:30 the day before. I quickly mixed together peanut powder, granola and water for breakfast so we could reach the overlook by this time. We already saw a spectacular sunset from the overlook our first day. The sunrise would give the mountains on both sides of the park a completely different look.
Sunrise at Rio Grande Village Overlook – Elevation 1,949ft
The Rio Grande Village Trail is only about half-a-mile long. It leads over a small wetland via a dock, up a flight of stairs, and around a small rock formation, which is the overlook. We hiked to the top with our cold breakfast and a few minutes to spare. The sunrise came up over the Sierra Del Carmen mountains as expected and lit up the Chisos Mountains on the east side of Big Bend.
The Chisos Mountains receive some light before 7:30am because of their higher elevation. The view is amazing. It was the opposite of what we had seen the first night. Surprisingly, less people were interested in seeing the sunrise than the sunset from the overlook. After the sun was risen and breakfast was consumed, we headed out of camp to try and see two more trails before leaving Big Bend.
Ernst Tinaja Attempt – Elevation 2,169ft
This campsite is not too far from Rio Grande Village, but it must be reached via Old Ore Road. The road is gravel and roadsigns advise using a four-wheel drive vehicle. After slowly driving up Old Ore road for a mile we decided to turn around. It becomes increasingly difficult and there is a risk of getting stuck without an off-road vehicle.
The Ernst Tinaja is several miles up this road, but it may take the better part of an hour to reach. If you happen to reach the trail, it leads to a natural limestone carving (much like a jar) and a spring. Wild animals have been drowned here after being unable to escape the jar. We did not get to see it up close, but will need to rent an off-road vehicle to explore areas like this in the future. After trying our luck off-road, we continued toward the Chisos Mountains once again.
Lost Mine Trail – Elevation 6,834ft
This may be the most popular hiking trail at Big Bend N.P. Park staff advise visitors to reach this trail early because parking is very limited. The Lost Mine Trail is not as long or difficult as some of the other Chisos Mountain Trails, but there is an elevation gain of about 1,200 feet. The trail is more than two miles, but does not lead all the way to Lost Mine Peak. Surprisingly, it doesn’t lead to a mine at all.
Lost Mine Trail ends with views of Pine Canyon, Juniper Canyon, and other mountains to the east. This trail is moderately challenging and consistently steep. However, it is well-shaded and more people seem to be able to manage it. You will see more spectacular views of Big Bend along this trail, and get a decent workout. It will take about two hours or so to finish this out-and-back trail. On our way back down we spotted what appeared to be fairly fresh black bear feces!
Less Than 48 Hours in Big Bend National Park
Our total time in Big Bend National Park was only 44 hours. This is not enough time to see all of the unique, exciting and amazing things Big Bend has to offer. We saw as much as we possibly could, but only spent 22 hours exploring the park outside of camp. Five of those hours went to Emory Peak, and more than a few were used to drive from one side of the park to another.
The park allows visitors to stay a maximum of 14 consecutive days. You really do need 14 days at Big Bend N.P. to discover everything about the place. What is so special about Big Bend? Everything – the darkest skies after spectacular sunsets; elevation changes within an entire mountain range; biological diversity among various ecosystems; 118 miles of flowing water; a border crossing near hot springs; gigantic dinosaur fossils remind us of a more habitable past; and volcanic dikes share part of its creation story.
Other Special Points of Interest at Big Bend
We may have experienced the most unique and special things about Big Bend National Park. However, there are many other amazing and exciting things to see throughout the beautifully diverse landscape. In fact, we discovered many things we would like to see during our visit, but did not have enough time to explore them all. The final section covers these areas. The first two were on our initial list, but are not being allowed this year.
Boquillas Border Crossing
The Rio Grande flows along Big Bend N.P. for 118 miles and the only legal border crossing is near Boquillas. Walk across the river if the water is low enough, or pay a $5 fee to cross via boat. After crossing you can pay a few bucks to ride a donkey or horse to Boquillas. It’s only half-a-mile to the small farming village where you can purchase souvenirs, or stay the night in Mexico. However, you will need your passport to return to the U.S. The border crossing is currently closed this year.
This historic trail leads to an old bathhouse where waters reach a temperature of 105 degrees. Normally, you can soak in the hot springs which are situated next to the Rio Grande. It’s a quick mile-long hike to this old health resort, which is typically a very popular spot. Unfortunately, this entire area is also closed this year.
This point of interest will be difficult to locate unless you are trying to find it. There is a photo of the “balanced rock” in the Big Bend Hikers Guide, but we heard about it through word of mouth. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time left to drive to Grapevine Hills Road, which leads to this peculiar sight. A large stone must have rolled downhill and become lodged between two pillars.
It looks more like a window than “the window” at Chisos Basin. There is also a spring nearby, but Grapevine Hills Road is unpaved, and does not lead all the way to the “balanced rock”. You must hike a mile without shade to reach it. This would be another great place to watch the sunset, but watch out for those panthers.
Dog Canyon and Devil’s Den
These two trails are the first you pass upon entering Big Bend National Park. Dog Canyon is a two-mile trail, while Devil’s Den is about three, but encourages rock climbing. They can be reached from the same parking area which is just beyond the first visitors center. These “trails” have been carved by water during flash flooding. Dog Canyon splits the Santiago Mountains and Dagger Mountain. The canyon is visible from the main road and will be an unshaded hike.
This trail leads downhill from the trailhead, unlike the other Chisos Mountain Trails. It follows Oak Creek Canyon to the edge of “the window”, which can become dangerously slick. The total hiking distance will be about five or six miles depending on where you start. We opted not to do this trail on our first visit to Big Bend because “the window” can be seen from the basin, lodge, and many points up in the Chisos Mountains.
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