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A long weekend guide to Big Bend National Park

We spent the last weekend of January in Big Bend National Park and it was so worth the trek!

We had been wanting to get out West since we moved to Houston a couple years ago and I am happy to say that it exceeded expectations. Every Texan (okay, every American!) should try to get out there if given the opportunity.

Logistics

Getting there

Big Bend is one of the most remote places in the lower 48 states, but getting there is absolutely worth the trip. We drove from Houston, which is about 8.5 hours from the border of the park, and another 1 hour to the entrance of the park, and another half hour or so to a campground depending on where you’re staying. The ten hour drive there is pretty much a straight shot along I-10 and US-90. You’ll get extremely close to the Mexican border and your phone may jump over to international service, or you’ll lose service entirely (both things happened to us). It’s also good to know that there are long stretches of about 80 miles where there are no gas stations or restrooms.

If you’re not local to Houston or not up for the drive, the nearest airport is in Midland, about 200 miles from the park.

When to visit

We took our trip on the last weekend in January. There was beautiful weather during the day reaching a dry and sunny 65°, but the evenings were chilly at around 35°. Typically the best time to visit is Spring or Fall for less extreme cold of the winter and the harsh heat of the summer, but I really didn’t mind the cold nights!

What to pack

If you’re tent camping, pack layers! We have air mattresses, two L.L. Bean sleeping bags zipped together to make a double sleeping bag, and then we each have down 25° sleeping bags that we tuck into our L.L. Bean sleeping bags. I bring a regular bed pillow for car camping and it all makes for a very cozy and warm night in a two man tent.

You can purchase food in the park at the camp stores, and there are charcoal grills you can use but ground fires are not allowed, so plan accordingly. We kept things simple and ate sandwiches and used our jet boil for coffee in the mornings.

For clothing, pack comfortable hiking gear and again…lots of layers! I found a t-shirt, leggings, sweatshirt, and hiking boots to be a comfortable outfit for the entire day. Carry a backpack with you and make sure to carry at least two liters of water with you. Even if it’s not super hot, it’s still very dry and you’ll be happy to be hydrated! We also loved adding Liquid IV to our water for a treat and to stay on top of replenishing electrolytes and energy. A hat, sun block, lip balm and lotion are also going to be things you’ll be happy to have!

Where to stay

There are three campgrounds in the park and all are great options. We stayed at Rio Grande Village Campground. There are also a lot of really interesting opportunities to drive or hike into the backcountry for a more remote experience.

Willow House in Terlingua

If camping isn’t your thing, book a room at the Chisos Mountain Lodge—the only lodge in the park, or stay in nearby Terlingua.

What to do

Day One (Travel Day)

We hit the road at 4:00am from Houston, TX to arrive in the park around 2pm.

We stopped at The Ranch House in Sanderson for lunch. It was good and we felt lucky that they were open because the hours were spotty at best. I would recommend packing snacks or your own lunch on this drive if you get nervous about what your next meal is going to be haha

Immediately after entering the park, we headed to the Grapevine Hills Trail and hiked 2.2 miles to Balanced Rock. The drive to the trailhead was a bit rocky, or gravel-y rather, but our little VW Golf handled it okay, so I think most vehicles would make the journey!

We went to set up camp in the Rio Grande Village after our hike. We had just enough energy left to do the .75 mile Nature Trail at Rio Grande Village to see get a closer look at the Rio Grande, the Mexican border, and the sunset.

Day Two (first full day in the park)

We spent our first full day in the park doing a lot of little hikes and basically just trying to see as much of the park as possible. We started the day by driving all the way to Santa Elena Canyon and then slowly made our way back up while stopping to see as much as we could.

Our first stop was the Castalon Visitor Center. We stopped there to use the bathroom, but it ended up being a really cool pitstop. It’s a great place to explore the human impact in Big Bend. There’s a small old school house and a couple other homes with great stories that are surprisingly not as old as I would’ve thought — as late as the 1960s!

Our first hike of the day was the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. It’s a 1.5 mile walk in to the canyon with river views and a fun echo chamber at the end of the trail.

We stopped at the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook to look down at where we just were in the canyon on the drive out. There’s some information about how the canyon was formed and is a nice way to see the canyon if you don’t have enough time to do the canyon trail.

Just a few miles down the road is the Dorgan House Trail, which is under 1 mile round trip and is another spot with some historic ruins. There are four farmhouses from the early 1900’s and stunning views of the desert and mountains.

The longest hike of the day was the Mule Ears Spring Trail. It’s just under 4 miles round trip and easy, but I wouldn’t make doing this hike a super high priority if you’re short on time.

The landscape is beautiful, but there isn’t a lot of variation so you can really get the feel for it just by hiking in a half mile or so.

Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff is a flat one mile walk down a gravel wash and ends at the pouroff—a 100 foot tall vertical rock that funnels water from the mesa above. It was dry when we were there, but this spot is prone to flooding during storms.

We stopped at the Sotol Vista Overlook for a good photo-op. This spot has beautiful views of the western side of the park.

Further down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, we stopped at Sam Nail Ranch to take a .5 mile walk down to the historic homestead.

Finally, we took a trip outside of the park to visit Ghost Town Terlingua. There were a couple of dining options as well as places to stay and a small shop where you could pick up some grocery items and souvenirs. We went to a restaurant for burgers and a cold beverage.

Day Three

We dedicated an entire day just to the Chisos Basin portion of the park and to be honest, we could have added on an entire second day exploring the Mountain.

We got up early enough to see the sunrise while on our hike. I don’t think there is a single bad hike in the park, but if you’re feeling overwhelmed with the choices, I would choose based on the amount of miles you feel comfortable walking.

We did a big 15 mile hike to Emory Peak and added on the South Rim Trail. If I had to choose only one of these two, I would cut the hike down to 12 miles and just do the South Rim Trail.

The views on the Emory Peak trail were better throughout, but the peak was actually so scary that I didn’t want to get close and couldn’t fully enjoy it 😂 but honestly…it was very windy and I could only picture myself getting blown off the side of the mountain lol.

The view from the end of the South Rim Trail made up for that tho. It’s an impressive view of the desert below.

That view was a highlight of the trip.

This long day of hiking was fun and beautiful, but it was hard. I was so tired and sore by the end of it, but thankfully when you’re dreaming of ice cream while hiking all day just know that you can get an ice cream sandwich at the Chisos Basin Store.

Hanging out in the Basin is almost as beautiful as hiking to the top. I highly recommend doing as many hikes in this area as you can!

Day Four

On the last day in the park, we took a slow morning drinking our coffee and packing up our campsite before fitting in one last hike.

The Boquillas Canyon Trail is 1.4 miles round trip that stats at the top of a cliff overlooking the Rio Grande and ends down at the river.

In non-covid times, the Boquillas Port of Entry is open and can take you across the river to a small village in Mexico.

After our hike, we drove 2 hours to The Prada Marfa in Valentine, TX. This art installation has become a popular stop on West Texas road trips, so we had to check it out!

Prada Marfa is worth the detour if you’re into roadside attractions and contemporary art. Or if you’re into snapping cute pictures for Instagram. It’s a very popular spot for looking cute haha

We spent the afternoon strolling around Marfa, but didn’t go into any stores or restaurants in efforts of keeping our germs to ourselves.

We stayed in a teepee at El Cosmico and thoroughly enjoyed a night of glamping after a couple nights in our tent.

We’d love to make this trip again in the next couple of years. It’s a lot of driving, but worth it! I have hopes that we will be able to visit the Hot Springs on our next trip here. They were closed for Covid, but almost everything else was open at limited capacity, making this a very safe and socially distanced getaway.

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