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14 Top-Rated Things to Do in Big Bend National Park

Written by Lana Law
Jul 27, 2020

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On the border with Mexico, separated by a huge bend in the Rio Grande river, Big Bend National Park is one of Texas' most impressive natural wonders.

Mountains, desert, and the river combine to make this area an outstanding outdoor playground for hikers, campers, canoers, birders, and nature lovers in general.

Even if you are just up for a drive through the park, you'll find interesting sites and scenery along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, and a quick stop at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit or a soak in the hot springs will make for an outstanding day.

If that's not enough, take a short boat ride to Mexico for lunch, discover the best place to enjoy sunset, and stay in a luxury lodge. Be sure to stop at one of the visitor centers for a map of the park and information on conditions, then head out to explore, using our list of things to do in Big Bend National Park.

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Hike Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon
Santa Elena Canyon | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

One of Big Bend National Park's most spectacular hikes, and certainly the best reward-to-effort ratio of any hike in the park, is the Santa Elena Canyon Trail.

This fantastic 1.7-mile round-trip walk follows the edge of the Rio Grande River into the Santa Elena Canyon, where sheer, 1,500-feet-high walls rise up on each side of the river above you.

When the water is low, you can wade out into the canyon from the far end of the trail. The hike ascends a total of about 80 feet, offering outstanding views above the river near the start.

2. Soak in the Hot Springs

Hot springs
Hot springs | Christian Scheidegger / photo modified

One of the most popular things to do in the Rio Grande Village area is to take a dip in the 105-degree-Fahrenheit waters of the natural hot springs on the edge of the Rio Grande.

If you get too hot, you can cool off with a quick dip in the river. The primitive pool is located just .25 miles from the parking area, along a trail running past pictographs and the remains of an old resort from the early 1900s.

If you have time and want to see some incredible views out over the Rio Grande and mountains, it's definitely worth walking the .75-mile hot springs loop. This scenic trail runs up along a ridge above the hot springs and offers views up and down the river.

3. Drive the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

Mule Ears, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
Mule Ears, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

For a beautiful drive through the park, head out on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, running through some outstanding desert scenery on the way to Castalon and the Santa Elena Canyon area.

Mountain views stretch out into the distance across the Chihuahuan Desert. Stop off at the Homer Wilson Ranch Overlook to see the old homestead, but also to appreciate the view.

The Mule Ear Springs Trail is accessed from this highway, but even if you are not up for the hike, you can stop at the overlook to see these twin peaks, the cores of ancient volcanoes.

4. Learn about the Area's Natural History at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit

Learn about the Area's Natural History at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit
Learn about the Area's Natural History at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

On the drive down from Marathon, north of Panther Junction, be sure to stop at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit to learn about the geology of the park. Opened in 2017, this display features outdoor rooms with informative plaques and displays.

The most impressive pieces are the bronze skulls of a giant alligator and a Bravoceratops dinosaur, and on the ceiling in one of the rooms, a giant pterosaur, the largest flying creature ever known.

5. Walk the Nature Trail at Rio Grande Village

View from the Nature Trail
View from the Nature Trail | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

If you are looking for a short, easy, scenic trail near Rio Grande Village, you can't beat the Nature Trail. Leaving from the campground, this trail takes you out over a pond, where you can see turtles basking in the sun or fish swimming below the low bridge that spans the water.

This lush area is a stark contrast to the surrounding desert and is a good place to spot birds. On the opposite shore, the trail runs through desert scenery and provides views back over the pond and beyond to the Rio Grande River and distant mountains. The trail loops up to a lookout point.

You can make this a short walk out to the bridge or do the entire walk, which is .75 miles.

6. Take a Trip to the Mexican Village of Boquillas

Boquillas, Mexico
Boquillas, Mexico | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Don't forget your passport if you want to take a quick side trip to a Mexican village. At Boquillas Crossing, a border guard will scan your passport before you walk down to the river and hail a rowboat from the far shore. The boat will pick you up and take you to the Mexican shore of the Rio Grande River, from where you can hop a ride on a horse, donkey, or vehicle. The fee for the ferry is $5.00 per person.

From the river, it's about a mile up to the village. You can walk it if you like, but the trip is all uphill. You may want to pay for the ride into the village and then walk back down. The ride to town in a pickup or on a burro is also $5.00. If you want to ride a horse, the trip costs $8.00.

A few restaurants offer beverages and food. This makes a nice little afternoon outing for lunch.

7. See the Sunset over the Window

Sunset over the Window
Sunset over the Window | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The Window, a huge V-shaped notch in the mountainside, offers a glimpse to the sky and desert off in the distance. From the Chisos Basin Visitors Center, a .3-mile trail leads out to the Window View, a favorite spot to watch the sunset.

You can actually do this short, wheelchair-accessible trail at any time of day for a look out over the Chisos Basin to the Window, but at night, the rocks form a silhouette, with the colorful sky in the background.

8. Hit the Hiking Trails

Window Trail
Window Trail | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Hikers will want to designate some time for hiking. Fit hikers looking for big adventures can plan multi-day hikes or embark on some of the epic day hikes, like Emory Peak or the South Rim.

Day hikers looking for more modest hikes will find outstanding scenery on hikes like Santa Elena Canyon Trail, Lost Mine Trail, or the Windows Trail.

If you want to add in a little history and perhaps a swim, try the Hot Springs Trail. For details and a more complete look at trail options, see our article on the best hikes in Big Bend National Park.

9. Spend a Night Camping under the Dark Skies

Vermilion flycatcher at Cottonwood Campground
Vermilion flycatcher at Cottonwood Campground | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Big Bend National Park is a designated National Dark Sky Park. Free from almost all light pollution, the night sky is a sea of diamonds, and the constellations are visible in outstanding clarity.

Camping at any of the Big Bend campgrounds will give you a front row seat to this nighttime spectacle, particularly on a moonless night. Camping will also give you an opportunity to see some of the park's wildlife.

While javelinas and roadrunners are some of the usual visitors, if you camp in the Cottonwood Campground, you have a good chance of seeing some interesting birds. Look for vermilion flycatchers by day and listen for great horned owls by night.

Reservations are recommended during the peak season running from January 1st to April 15th. Sites can be booked up to six months in advance on a rolling date basis.

10. Dine, Hike, or Pick Up Souvenirs at the Chisos Basin Area

Chisos Mountain Lodge Restaurant
Chisos Mountain Lodge Restaurant | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The Chisos Basin Area, in the mountains not far from Panther Junction, offers a full range of facilities. You can dine with a view out to the Window from the Chisos Mountain Lodge Restaurant and Patio, pick up everything from supplies to souvenir jewelry and clothing at the Basin Convenience store, or begin one of several hikes at the Chisos Basin Trailheads.

From here, you can hike Emory Peak, South Rim, Chisos Basin Loop, Window View, and Window Trail hikes.

This area is also home to the Chisos Mountain Lodge, and just below is the Chisos Basin Campground. Nearby is the trailhead for Lost Mine.

11. Canoe along the Rio Grande

Canoeing on the Rio Grande
Canoeing on the Rio Grande

The Rio Grande winds its way along the border with Mexico, and at Santa Elena Canyon, it has cut through the earth to create 1,500-foot-high walls. Paddling through the canyon provides a fascinating glimpse into the geology of the area and is a truly memorable experience.

Trips start from the town of Lajitas and end at the mouth of the canyon. These tours typically last all day and include lunch. Trips can be arranged either in Lajitas or Terlingua, on the west side of the park.

If you have your own equipment a "boomerang" trip may be in order. This involves paddling up through the canyon and drifting back down. Permits are required and are free.

12. Explore the nearby Ghost Town of Terlingua

Skeleton on a bike in Terlingua
Skeleton on a bike in Terlingua | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Study Butte and Terlingua are just three to four miles from the west entrance to the park, and the Terlingua Ghost Town is six to seven miles down the road from here.

For a taste of what life is like in a very small town in this area of West Texas, a quick stop for lunch in the Terlingua Ghost Town is a fun activity, particularly if you are already on the west side of the park.

The Terlingua Trading Company is one of the biggest establishments in town, with a good selection of souvenirs, crafts, jewelry, and other random items.

Next door, is the Starlight Theatre Restaurant, with indoor dining and live music. Nearby is the Posada Milagro, a very good breakfast and early lunch stop with a lovely outdoor patio.

13. Treat Yourself to a Night at a nearby Resort

Gage Hotel pool
Gage Hotel pool | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Big Bend National Park offers an amazing outdoor experience, but exploring it can be a tiring endeavor. Heading back to a luxury resort or a charming historic lodge can be a welcome treat at the end of the day.

The quaint little town of Marathon, north of the park, offers an authentic experience, with a couple of art galleries and the outstanding Gage Hotel. This historic property is an oasis and a reason in and of itself to visit this area of Texas.

Built in 1927, the Gage Hotel is a wonderful place to gather around a fire pit at night with other guests, relax in front of a fireplace in one of the cozy common rooms, escape from the heat around the pool, or enjoy some of the finest dining in the region at the hotel's 12 Gage Restaurant.

This can be a great place to spend your entire trip, or even just a night at the end of a multi-day hike or a couple of nights camping in the park.

Alternatively, on the west side of the park is the western-style Lajitas Golf Resort, with an 18-hole golf course designed by golfing great, Lanny Wadkins. This large resort offers all kinds of activities, from horseback riding to canoe trips. It's also just a relaxing place to hang out around the pool or enjoy a tasty meal.

14. Bird-Watching

Summer tanager
Summer tanager

Big Bend National Park is an excellent place to spot birds as they migrate through on their way north and south. The park is right in the middle of one of North America's great main flyways, and with the Rio Grande as a permanent water source, it's an ideal stopping place.

The park has a wide variety of birds all year, however, the spring is when you'll find the greatest diversity. Some key species to watch for are the Colima warbler, rufous-crowned sparrows, summer tanagers, and western screech owls.

Good places to see birds in the park are along the Nature Trail at Rio Grande Village, near Santa Elena Canyon, the Cottonwood Campground, and the Chisos Mountains. If you are camping, roadrunners are frequent visitors, especially if you have food around your site.

Frequently Asked Questions

When is the best time to visit Big Bend National Park?

The best time to visit Big Bend National Park is from early January through the middle of April. At this time, you'll enjoy sunny days and cool nights, and you'll see the desert in bloom.

May through September is considered the rainy season and, not surprisingly, the hot season. Temperatures are close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit in June, July, and August, but rainstorms can cool things down wonderfully.

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