16 Top-Rated Things to Do in Big Bend National Park
Authors Michael and Lana Law have camped and hiked in Big Bend NP on multiple trips. It's one of their favorite parks in the US.
Big Bend National Park is one of Texas' most impressive natural wonders. On the border with Mexico, set along the Rio Grande river, this park is an outstanding outdoor playground with a long list of things to do. Hikers, campers, canoers, birders, and nature lovers in general will not be disappointed.
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. Add a quick stop at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit or a soak in the hot springs for a little more excitement.
If that's not enough, take a short boat ride to Mexico for lunch, discover the best place to enjoy sunset, or plan a 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.
1. Hike Santa Elena Canyon
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
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
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
On the drive down from Marathon, north of Panther Junction, one of the best places to stop if you have young children is the Fossil Discovery Exhibit. Here, everyone can learn about the geology of the park. One of the more recent additions to the park, this display features outdoor rooms with informative plaques and displays that you can touch, feel, and climb on.
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
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
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
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.
Those with some photographic expertise may want to attempt a long exposure shot with the "V" framing the turning night sky.
8. Hit the Hiking Trails
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, Boquillas Canyon, 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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, Boot Canyon, 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.
15. Explore nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park
If you've fallen in love with the desert scenery of Big Bend National Park but crave more space to yourself, just down the road to the west is Big Bend Ranch State Park. This massive wilderness area is home to all the high desert solitude you can handle.
Spread out over 450 square miles, this former working ranch is the largest state park in Texas. Summer temperatures often top out over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, but in the shoulder seasons, the days are pleasantly warm and the nights cool.
Activities available here are extensive. Nearly 240 miles of trails suitable for horseback riding, mountain biking, and hiking await you and your toys. If you prefer your motion to be engine powered, 70 miles of unmaintained dirt roads, best suited to high-clearance 4x4s are available.
Front country and backcountry camping is available, as is roofed accommodation at the Sauceda Bunkhouse.
16. Take a Scenic Drive on Texas Highway FM170
The scenery along this stretch of highway that follows the curves of the Rio Grande is some of the most spectacular in Texas. Rolling hills (some especially steep at a 15 percent grade), twists, turns, ruins, and animal spotting all keep drivers and passengers entertained.
A curious sight right near the start of the highway a few miles from Lajitas is the old film set from the 1985 Roy Clark movie Uphill all the Way. A few outbuildings along with a chapel are all that remain.
Other interesting stops along the way could include a hike or two in Big Bend Ranch State Park and Fort Leaton State Historic Site.
The highway runs for 50 miles from Lajitas to Presido and passes through country that is, for the most part, uninhabited until you get close to Presido, where farms line the floodplain. Grab a bite here and return the same way you came.
Map of Things to Do in Big Bend National Park
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 wonderful.