I didn’t know much about Big Bend National Park until a recent travel writing conference took me to El Paso, Texas. As always, I wanted to squeeze in some prime hiking, if possible. What I discovered is that if I drove about 90 minutes north, I could hike at White Sands National Park. And White Sands has incredibly cool (and rare) white gypsum sand dunes.
And I also discovered that if I drove four-and-a-half hours southeast, I could explore Big Bend National Park. One of Big Bend’s claims to fame is that it is the only national park to contain an entire mountain range (the Chisos). It’s also part of the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest in North America and the most diverse in the Western Hemisphere. The Chihuahuan Desert features rivers, mountains and, of course, desert terrain. And all of those lie within Big Bend.
Tips for Exploring Big Bend
Big Bend contains more than 800,000 acres. That means it’s big. In fact, it’s the 15th largest national park. If you’ve got the time, give yourself a full week here. Then you’ll be able to see all of the park’s signature sites.
The sites lie in three main regions: Castolon, the Chisos Basin and Rio Grande Village. Each of those areas has a campground and Chisos Basin also has a small lodge. If camping or a park lodge aren’t your thing, you can also find lodging through places like AirBnB in the nearby Terlingua Ghost Town.
As I said, Big Bend is big. It can take 90 minutes, for example, to drive from the Rio Grande Village campground to the Santa Elena Canyon overlook. There are three gas stations in the park, but they’re not always open, depending on the time of year. So make sure you know your gas situation every day.
Chisos Basin lies in the park’s midsection and is the most popular campground. So if you want to camp there, you’ll need reservations (a limited number are available) or you’ll have to get to the campground shortly after noon if you want to nab a spot.
A favorite visitor activity is hiring a local to row you over the Rio Grande to Mexico, then hiring someone to take you on a burro to Boquillos. Boquillos is less than a mile from the river and features a small museum, two restaurants and lots of locals selling handmade items.
You’ll need your passport if you want to go to Mexico, and the port of entry is only open on certain days. So be aware of this if that’s something that interests you.
There are innumerable hiking trails in Big Bend. I hiked on all of the major trails and rate the South Rim trail as the best for the exceptional vistas it offers into Mexico and beyond.
I also recommend visiting Santa Elena Canyon, Mules Ears, the hot springs and Balanced Rock. And keep your eyes open for killer sunrises and sunsets.
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