Visiting Big Bend National Park

Who Knew Texas Could Look Like This?!

Visiting Big Bend National Park
View of the cliffs of the Sierra Ponce Mountains and the Rio Grande in Big Bend — photo ©Donetta Dalman

We recently visited Big Bend National Park in Texas and checked off number 26 on our list of the 63 official National Parks in the United States. This park is one of the least visited and in one of the most remote areas of the country. There’s not much around it and it’s about a couple of hours drive south of Interstate 10 but it’s definitely worth the drive!

My husband and I both grew up in Oklahoma so Texas is a state we have often visited. We’ve been to numerous places around the state and enjoyed the vast array of things that Texas offers. But we had no idea that something like this existed in Texas!

Wow! It’s just stunning to see!

This is a park that must be visited between late fall and very early spring. It’s way too hot to be there in the summer and many things are closed during the summer as well. We were there in mid-April and it was great! I will say that it did get a little warm during the day though so even April was pushing it for being a little late in the year — especially if you’re wanting to do some major hiking.

If you’re visiting during the right time of year, you could spend days exploring various hiking trails, checking out all the popular view points, visiting the various visitor centers, and maybe even doing a little off-roading. But if you’re like us and you just take a couple of days to check out the high points, these are the things that we would recommend.

Find a great place to stay

We stayed at Big Bend Station and we highly recommend this place. The location can’t be beat for proximity if you’re staying outside the park. It’s in Terlingua and it’s minutes from the west entrance. We have a rooftop tent that we camp with so we got a pop up site which had electricity and water and was also right near a nice bathroom that even had showers (the showers were $2 for 6 minutes but everything else was included). It was only $39 a night to stay which we thought was a great deal. They also have full RV sites as well as motel rooms you can rent as well.

They had a little store/gift shop on property plus there was a convenience store right next door as well. They also had a cool game room. This room had books and games, tables and chairs, a couch, TV, and a pool table. This was a nice feature because the temperature got pretty hot during the day the second day we were there so when we got back to the campground we hung out inside for a bit before setting up camp — waiting for the temps to go down with the sun. ;)

Once we got our camp set up, we enjoyed walking around the area to check out all the views, watching the sunset, seeing some vultures and bats fly around the area, and gazing at the stars once it got dark. It was an awesome experience.

Big Bend National Park sign

If you’re anything like us, you have to stop for the classic photo at the entrance sign. ;) If you stay in Terlingua like we did, there is a sign before the Maverick Junction entrance on the west side and there’s a parking area so you can easily hop out and get your photo.

Have to stop for the photo!

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

As you head into the park on highway 118 from the west, you’ll go about 9 miles and you’ll find this scenic drive that heads south into the park. This is a great, paved road that has lots of view points along the way and takes you all the way down to the Cliffs of Sierra Ponce Mountains and Santa Elena Canyon.

These are the highlights that we recommend along the way:

Chisos Mountains Exhibit

This overlook not only has amazing views but it has some information on signs that tell about the mountains that you’re looking at and how they were formed. It’s pretty fascinating information!

Homer Wilson Ranch Overlook

There is a hiking trail here that goes down to the Homer Wilson Ranch if you’re so inclined but just stopping to take in the views and see the pretty plants at this overlook was amazing. Definitely worth the stop!

Sotol Vista Overlook

This overlook has a great view of the Santa Elena Canyon from afar. It looks small from here but as you’ll see later, if you go all the way to the canyon, it’s quite large! The views of the whole area from this viewpoint are quite breathtaking.

Goat Mountain

This viewpoint also has great information on some signs about the mountains in the area as well as some of the geological formations and how they came to be. It’s super interesting to learn about. The ridge you see in the bottom right photo is a good example of this. We’d seen these ridges in a couple of spots and this was explained here. And of course, there are some incredible views from the area!

Tuff Canyon

This is an area that not only has a great overlook but there’s a nice hiking trail to go down into the canyon too. The view of the canyon from above is beautiful and one you should definitely check out. But hiking the trail gives a great perspective from below and gives you even more beauty to see.

Castolon Visitor Center

This is a great chance to stop and get out to enjoy some views, take a bathroom break, get your NP passport book stamped, find some souvenirs, and learn more about the area.

There are buildings here that are part of the visitor center area that are almost 100 years old! It’s really interesting and very cool to check out. Sadly the main building that housed the visitor center before was ravaged by a fire in 2019 so it is fenced off and closed.

There are great views of the river valley and the Cliffs of Sierra Ponce Mountains from here as well.

Desert Mountain Overlook

This was one of my favorite areas but interestingly enough, it wasn’t the actual overlook that I loved so much but the view from the other side of the road. As we parked, I noticed a hill directly across from the overlook and it looked like some people had hiked up there to see the view so I decided I’d do that too. WOW! I was rewarded with a beautiful view of the river and the whole valley between the river and the cliffs. And not only that, there were some wild horses grazing down there! It was such a beautiful sight.

Of course the actual overlook on the other side of the road was beautiful too. You have a great view of the mountains from this spot!

Dorgan House Exhibit

This is a little spot that you can pull off and see the ruins of a house that used to stand here. It was built by a family who settled in the area in 1913. There’s also a hiking trail so you can explore further and see more ruins but we opted to just check out this one that was closest and move on.

Dorgan House ruins ©Donetta Dalman

Rio Grande boat launch and picnic area

This is a really fun stop because we got to go all the way down to the water and walk around by the Rio Grande. The water was pretty low in this area at the time and someone had put a log across the smallest portion of the river so we even got to walk across and stand in Mexico! haha!

This is the spot where you really get to take in the view of the Cliffs of the Sierra Ponce Mountains and realize how truly massive they are. Pictures won’t do this justice — although you can see me standing in the one on the left and see how tiny I am compared to the cliff! ;)

Santa Elena Canyon

There is a great overlook right in front of the canyon that gives you an awesome view of it. There’s also a trail you can hike to get down closer to the canyon as well. The overlook has great informational signs that tell all about the canyon and and even show how people boat through it. It’s definitely a spot you don’t want to miss.

Santa Elena Canyon ©Donetta Dalman

At this point in the journey we turned around and went back up the scenic drive. There is a road (Old Maverick Road) that connects back up to the west entrance so that you just make a loop but that road isn’t paved and not recommended for vehicles unless they are 4 wheel drive. We do drive a 4 wheel drive truck but since there wasn’t anything up that road that we necessarily wanted to see, we opted to go back the other way and explore more of the park on the east side of the scenic drive.

Once you’ve made your way back up to the West Entrance Road, you can turn right and head toward the Chisos Basin area. Word of warning — this area is limited in space so it can fill up and the road will be closed off to traffic. This happened to us when we got there. We just ended up going further east in the park to explore some more and decided to go back to that part the next morning since we were staying another day anyway.

Assuming you can go in here next though, I’ll share the must see things that we recommend.

Chiso Basin Road

This road itself is pretty amazing and has some incredible views. I have never seen so many yuccas in my life! They had already bloomed so it was a sea of stalks coming up out of the plant. haha! The mountain views and the rock formations along the road were incredible too.

There is an exhibit/pull-off along the way before you get into the mountains where you can do a little bird watching and see a great view of the mountains. We saw a beautiful type of blue birds as we stopped to enjoy the area. They were too fast for me to catch a good pic of them sadly but they were sure pretty!

Chisos Basin Visitor Center/The Window

Once you get to the mountains, you begin a climb up to the basin through some switchbacks and beautiful views. There are some hiking trails along the way but from the looks of the parking lots, you better get there early if you want to park! lol!

Once you get up into the basin there is a visitor center, lodge, campground, and many hiking trails. The best part of this area was the view of The Window. This is an area where the mountains have a “window” opening to see out over the valley below. It’s so beautiful! There is a trail that goes down for a closer look but there’s also a really nice, paved trail up near the visitor center so anyone can stroll around and take in the view without a major hike to see it. Not to mention there are animals to be aware of in this area too. ;)

Panther Junction Visitor Center

This is the visitor center that you get to by coming in from the north on Persimmon Gap Road. The center has a beautiful garden area full of desert plants as well as great information inside about the mountains, the river, and the whole park area. It was probably my favorite visitor center in the park.

Rio Grande Overlook

The name of this was a little deceiving because we couldn’t see the river at all from here but it does give you a beautiful view of the area and the Sierra del Carmen Mountains.

Rio Grande Village Visitor Center

This was just a small little center on the southeast corner of the park but it ws a pretty area and of course has some educational information as well as bathrooms. :)

As I’ve mentioned throughout, there are many hikes available throughout the park and also areas where you can go off road and explore even further. But in order to see the main viewpoints and enjoy the beautiful scenery of the park, you can see all of the things on this list in 1–2 days in the park and be able to truly see some amazing things.

I hope that this gives you a glimpse of how amazing Big Bend National Park is and, if you haven’t been before, I hope you add it to your list. Just make sure you go during the time of year when it’s pretty cool outside. ;)

Have you been to the park? What was your favorite spot?


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