Written by Terri Marshall – Remote, rugged and far from pretty much everything, getting to Big Bend National Park takes some effort, but it’s worth every mile. You’ll likely find yourself searching for Wylie E. Coyote as you watch roadrunners scurrying across the dusty roads. And don’t be surprised if a peculiar looking javelina ambles its way onto your hiking trail. Nearby, the quirky ghost town of Terlingua celebrates everything from chili cookoffs to the Day of the Dead.
If sunsets are your thing, the ones here will take your breath away. But don’t leave when the sun goes down because the International Dark-Sky Association designated Big Bend National Park as an International Dark Sky Park in 2012. Look up to the heavens for a dazzling show.
About Big Bend National Park
Covering more than 800,000 acres in the far southwest corner of Texas, Big Bend contains three habitats: mountains, river and desert, including the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert in the United States. The Rio Grande River winds along the park’s southern boundary creating a natural border between the United States and Mexico. The park harbors more than 450 species of birds, 75 species of mammals, 56 species of reptiles and 11 species of amphibians, along with fascinating geological features and fossils.
Last year, the park saw a record number of visitors, estimated at approximately 581,000. The busiest months are from November through April when temperatures are far more comfortable than the searing summer heat. An important tip: make a plan, but expect the unexpected. Weather here is unpredictable and the park’s remoteness makes planning ahead necessary. Your last places for stocking up on any significant supplies are at the towns of Alpine (72 miles from the park), Fort Stockton (99 miles) and Del Rio (214 miles).
Human history within the park spans thousands of years to the time when Native Americans roamed the land. The oldest archaeological site discovered here dates back 8,800 years. Over the centuries, this land fell under the rule of Spain and later Mexico before becoming home to ranchers in the 1880s. The park originally began as the Texas Canyons State Park in May 1933. The name changed to Big Bend State Park in October 1933 as a nod to its location on the bend of the mighty Rio Grande.
Like other U.S. parks, Big Bend benefited from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Between 1934 and 1942, CCC crews, using only picks, shovels, rakes and a dump truck, built the seven-mile access road into the Chisos Mountains Basin. Later, CCC work crews built the Lost Mine Trail and several stone and adobe cottages in the Basin. Big Bend was established as a National Park on June 12, 1944. Its unique desert, mountain and river environments yield an impressive wealth of biological diversity.
Big Bend offers 201 miles of hiking trails and 394 miles of roads (paved and unpaved) for epic explorations. Recreational activities include hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, canoeing, rafting, camping, biking, wildlife viewing and birdwatching. Scenic drives are also part of the Big Bend experience. Situated in the heart of Big Bend, the Chisos Mountains extend 20 miles making it the only mountain range completely contained within a single National Park. A popular hike in the Chisos, the Lost Mine Trail rises 1,100 feet over 2.4 miles (4.8 miles round-trip) to Lost Mine Peak at 7,535 feet.
For a dramatic hike, take the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. A 1.6-mile, in-and-out hike, the trail runs along the edge of the Rio Grande River where narrow limestone canyon walls rise up to 1,500 feet above you on both sides. After a long day of hiking, treat your feet with a dip in the Langford Hot Springs on the banks of the Rio Grande. The soothing geothermal waters of the springs are contained within the ruins of the former J. O. Langford bathhouse. A one-half mile round-trip hike leads to and from the hot springs from the parking lot.
Those preferring a more laid-back adventure can enjoy river float trips, kayaking or canoeing on the Rio Grande. The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive delivers a remarkable overview of the park’s varied landscape. Starting at the western slopes of the Chisos Mountains, the route climbs to Sotol Vista for one of Big Bend’s exceptional views. From there, it winds down to the Castolon Historic District paralleling the Rio Grande before ending at the Santa Elena Canyon trailhead.
Where to Stay
Within the park, the Chisos Basin Campground accommodates tents and RVs 20 feet or smaller with 63 sites. In the western corner of the park, Cottonwood Campground’s 22 sites offer dry camping. The Rio Grande Village Campground has 100 sites. Set in a grove of cottonwoods and acacia trees near the Rio Grande, the campground includes, flush toilets, running water, picnic tables, grills and some overhead shelters. The 25-site Rio Grande Village RV Park has the only full hook-ups in the park. Reservations are required for all campgrounds. Book in advance because cell service is a distant memory in Big Bend. Several highways lead to the park: TX 118 from Alpine to Study Butte or FM 170 from Presidio to Study Butte (then 26 miles east), or US 90 or US 385 to Marathon (then 70 miles south). Visit the park’s website, nps.gov/bibe, for more information.
This article first appeared in the 2022 summer issue of Girl Camper magazine.
More Girl Camper
Girl Camper Magazine: Subscribe to Girl Camper Magazine here! Girl Camper Magazine
Events: Check out upcoming Girl Camper Events – you can attend events in any chapter! https://girlcamper.com/events/
Main GC Facebook Group – Join over 375,000 like-minded women in our public Facebook group! Girl Camper FB Group