Big Bend National Park in far west Texas is an amazing place. Snuggled into a big bend of the Rio Grande on the US-Mexico border, this park is known for striking sun-kissed scenery where its three distinct habitats of mountains, desert and river meet.
Even though this park is undeniably gorgeous, it seems to be a well-kept secret. At over 800,00 acres, like all things Texas, Big Bend is huge, yet it only sees an average of 300,000 visitors per year. Compare this to the 8-10 million people who visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and you’ll feel like you have this desert paradise all to yourself.
Why such a difference, you ask? In a word: Isolation.
There’s no doubt that Big Bend is in the middle of nowhere. The closest place to fly into is the small airport in Midland, Texas, and even that is still over 200 miles away from the park’s entrance. If you are going to visit Big Bend, you need time. With peak visitation times from November to April, we could never fit it in during our school year. So, while Big Bend has been high on our national park wish list for a long time now, we never managed to make the long, 1500 mile journey down there.
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Well, that finally changed this April when, for the very first time in seventeen years, the school calendar gods finally smiled upon us this mixed public/private school teacher marriage (oh, the scandal!) and gave us the exact same Spring Break. Wahoo!!!
The funny thing is that we actually didn’t have any plans to visit Big Bend at all. You see, we had intended to go to the Smokies for a 5-day backpacking trip that would serve as training for our upcoming summer of hiking in Peru. We planned a moderately challenging route in the eastern corner of the park, secured a permit, bought food for five days out on the trail and even loaded up our backpacks when we suddenly decided to bail on that plan and head to Texas instead.
Ten days before our scheduled departure, we started looking at the weather forecast for the Smokies. Rain was predicted for our week in the backcountry. Oh well, we thought, there’s still plenty of time for that to change. And, with each passing day, the forecast did change—only for the worse! With just a few days to go, 80-100% chances of showers and thunderstorms threatened every single day, and we were faced with a pretty miserable-sounding time in the backcountry. We even considered throwing in the towel and staying put right here in Chicago.
But, as travel junkies, we would never forgive ourselves if we let a week of potential travel go wasted, so, on the Friday morning with less than 48 hours to departure, we woke up and looked at a national weather map to see where else we could go. The entire Southeast portion of the country was mired in thunderstorms for the following week putting it out of the question. Where could we drive that would be warm and dry and offer awesome hiking opportunities in April?
Big Bend, that’s where!
Sure, it would take us some 22 hours and two days of driving to get there. And we would only be in the park for four days before having to turn around and make the arduous drive all over again. But would it be worth it? Four days of driving in exchange for four days of camping, hiking, photographing, birding and stargazing in a spectacular setting? You betcha!
So, with the car stuffed with gear, we set out on a lengthy road trip to the southwest corner of Texas to the big bend in the Rio Grande River where the desert, mountains and river meet and had a magnificent time exploring this hidden treasure of a national park.
Here’s a sampling of what makes Big Bend such a special place and why you should go out of your way to visit there, too:
No surprise, we couldn’t wait to take advantage of the countless trails in the park and put some miles on our hiking boots. Big Bend has loads of great hikes that can keep you busy for days.
The Santa Elena Canyon Trail (1.7 miles roundtrip) in the southwestern corner of the park is described as a Big Bend classic for good reason. Just after starting out, hikers must wade across the Rio Grande to access the trail that skirts along the canyon wall. The waters were cool, calm and shallow for our crossing, but we were informed that over thirty hikers had to be rescued by the park service just the day before when the waters rose suddenly and became too treacherous to cross.
From high above the river, we admired the sheer size of the canyon walls and enjoyed the cool temperatures that their shade provided. We watched several canoeists paddling up the river and noted that this would be a fun adventure on a return trip to the park. We read that the Rio Grande is so silty here that it actually sounds like sandpaper rubbing against the hull of your canoe. Can you imagine?
The ranger at Cottonwoods Campground recommended the hike into Cattail Falls (3.0 miles roundtrip), which for some reason (unbeknownst to us) isn’t marked anywhere on the park map. The trailhead is accessed by a rough dirt road just north of the parking lot to Sam Nail Ranch. This was a hot, desert hike to a shady canyon where a surprisingly, tall waterfall was trickling over a sheer cliff wall. The waters weren’t flowing at maximum volume on our visit, but the falls were impressive none-the-less, and we admired the pretty ferns and yellow Longspur columbine that were thriving in this shady oasis.
We hiked to the falls in the late afternoon on a particularly hot day and have to admit that it was quite a struggle. Having just arrived from Chicago, we thought maybe we just weren’t acclimated to the desert climate, but, when we got back to the car, the thermometer read a toasty 102°F! We were somewhat relieved to discover that we weren’t such wimps after all!
The Lost Mine Trail (4.8 miles round trip) is one of the most popular trails in the park. Located high up in the Chisos Mountains in the park’s center, this trail climbs quickly from the trailhead up to prime views of Juniper and Pine Canyons.
The higher elevations of this mountain hike provide a most-welcome respite from the heat, and the stunning vistas at trail’s end make this a must-do hike. Although the trail is a steady uphill, the grade is fairly gentle and can be handled by most. The biggest challenge of the hike may actually be finding a parking space in the tiny lot at the trailhead. We started later in the day and had the parking lot, the trail and the stunning views mostly to ourselves. We spent a pleasant hour at the top relaxing over a snack and enjoying the way the light would play across the surrounding landscape.
We woke up well before sunrise to hit the trail at Grapevine Hills. Donning headlamps, we kept a watchful eye on the trail hoping not to stumble across any snakes in the dark, but luckily the footing was not an issue. This 2.2 mile easy roundtrip hike follows a level gravel wash into the heart of the Grapevine Hills for most of its length.
As the sun began to rise, the peculiar landscape of the region slowly began to reveal itself, and we felt like we had been magically transported into an episode of the Flintstones. Giant boulders spread as far as the eye could see, and, if this wasn’t the inspiration for Bedrock, we’re not sure what was.
Our final destination was the highly photogenic Balanced Rocks, which are best captured in pre-dawn glow. With a quarter-mile left to go, the sky lit up and our surroundings turned an impossibly beautiful pink, precisely as the flat trail abruptly ended and headed up into the rock formations. Hiking as fast as possible, we raced to the Balanced Rocks and set up our tripods just as the pink hues were fading—curse that snooze button!
The scene was still undeniably gorgeous, and we spent a good hour+ finding interesting compositions of the unique rock formations with various cacti and flower foregrounds. What an amazing landscape!
We took the walk back to the car slowly and enjoyed seeing what we had missed in the darkness on the way in. It was full-on spring down in the valley, and, believe you me, our cameras were clicking.
We were so distracted by the endless fields of yellow desert marigolds and purple bristling nama that we almost walked right past the javelina that was checking us out only 20 yards or so off the trail. Holding his prehensile snout high in the air to get a good whiff of us, he must have determined we weren’t much of a threat, and he went on his merry way. These pig-like animals often travel in large herds, but this guy was traveling solo on this particular day.
Big Bend is one of the premiere US birding destinations and one of the main reasons we’ve always wanted to go there. With the Rio Grande providing a major, reliable water source smack dab in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, birds from everywhere flock to this desert paradise at some time during the year. With over 450 species on offer, any serious birder who hasn’t done a pilgrimage to Big Bend should hang up their binoculars.
While we don’t claim to be hardcore birders, we do love taking photographs of birds, and we had a handful of terrific sightings starting with our very first night in the park. A park ranger happened to be patrolling on foot as were picking out our campsite at Cottonwoods Campground on the park’s west side. Upon spotting our binoculars in the car, she asked if we were interested in birds and pointed out a Great Horned Owl perched high in a tree above one of the sites.
The owl was a male, and, apparently, he and his mate are reliable regulars in the campground. Each year, they return to Cottonwoods to nest and raise their chicks, and we could hear the two calling out to each other from the adjacent trees. The female was on chick duty that afternoon, and some other campers pointed out her nest in the hollow of the tall Cottonwood tree. Through our long lenses we could just barely make her out, keeping a wary eye on us gawking from below.
Of course, we couldn’t resist snagging the closest site to the male’s perch, so we set up our tent underneath a Great Horned Owl. How cool is that?
Later that night, we could make out the silhouettes of both owls perching on a low branch of a nearby tree. We pulled out some chairs and sat quietly in the dark, listening to them hoot to one another about the day’s events. Every now and then, they would silently fly to a different tree, their enormous shadows moving across the ground providing the only hint of their movement.
If the owls weren’t enough, Cottonwoods campground also provides ideal habitat for the vermillion flycatcher which can be seen year round at Big Bend. We were in complete awe of these striking red beauties as they flitted amongst the trees lining the campground in search of their supper.
Another great spot for birding is the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail that leads right from the Rio Grande Village Campground on the park’s east side. With the trailhead located conveniently inside the campground next to site 118, we took advantage and hit this birding hotspot in the early evening and at sunrise. Crossing the floating bridges over the beaver pond, we spotted a Great Blue Heron preening himself amongst the giant reeds and a beaver out for an early morning swim.
Big Bend provided other exciting bird sightings including: a Scaled Quail, Acorn Woodpeckers, Greater Roadrunners, the pretty Pyrrhuloxia, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Scott’s Oriole, oodles of Turkey Vultures, numerous hawks and an American Kestrel, among others (although we didn’t manage to document them all).
Being located over 200 miles from the nearest city of any size can’t always be terribly convenient, but it does have its advantages. With absolutely no light pollution to speak of, the skies in Big Bend are famous for being charcoal black. And, against this stark backdrop, the stars can really shine. On our night at the Chisos Basin Campground, we were lucky to have clear skies, so we made our first-ever attempt at photographing the night sky. We still have a lot to learn, but we definitely had a lot of fun trying to capture the star-studded skies of Big Bend.
In addition to all the great day hiking opportunities, Big Bend also offers a popular backpacking route called the Chisos Basin Loop, which circuits Emory Peak, the highest point in the park, and offers stunning views off the South Rim escarpment. Backpackers can choose from several different hiking trails and backcountry camps to create an itinerary suited to their skills and stamina. Because we decided to visit Big Bend at the last minute, we didn’t book a backcountry permit in advance. We actually weren’t even sure that we were going to go backpacking, but, when we inquired about walk-up permits, it turned out that the desirable Toll Mountain camp was available. Well, why not?, we thought to ourselves. You only live once, right? And, just like that, we were on our way into Big Bend’s backcountry.
We set out in the early afternoon of our first day and followed the Pinnacle Peak Trail for 3.5 miles to the base of Emory Peak, a very popular day-hike destination in the park. It was a hot and sweaty uphill, gaining 1600 feet of elevation, with lots of steps and switchbacks along the way. There was always something interesting to look at on the trail, whether it be the impressive Havard agaves, prickly pear cacti or the fiery-red blossoms of the claret cup cactus.
At the turn off to Emory Peak, a small, metal sign marked TM1 indicated the side trail to our backcountry home for the evening. The small, pleasant site was located on a ridge with views of Emory Peak to one side and the entire Chisos Basin to the other. It was a tight squeeze for our little tent, but we managed to find a cozy spot nestled amongst the small trees.
Big Bend has a small population of black bears, so, before heading out for an early evening hike up to Emory Peak, we emptied out our large packs and stored our food and toiletries in the convenient metal bear boxes provided in camp.
The 3.0 mile trail (RT) started quite mellow, and, at this late hour, we were lucky to have it entirely to ourselves. We enjoyed walking with only our cameras and a light backpack and managed to spot two different pairs of deer along the way who seemed completely unbothered by our presence.
About two-thirds of the way up, the gentle, flat terrain suddenly turned rocky and began to climb in elevation. By trail’s end, it had become so vertical that we had to ditch our hiking poles and backpack for the final scramble up to the 7825′ summit. Rock climbing really isn’t our thing, but we found that going up wasn’t too difficult. The sheer drop offs to either side encouraged us to hold on tight. The beautiful 360° views from the top of the park’s highest peak made the trickier downhill totally worth it.
We made a quick descent back to camp just as dusk fell, and we had to don our headlamps for the last portion of the trail. We were lucky we knew where we were heading!
For Day 2 on the trail, we packed up camp and dropped most of our overnight gear off in the large bear boxes at the trailhead to Emory Peak. From there, we hiked a 6.0 mile loop through shady Boot Canyon, past the cool waters of Boot Springs and out to the South Rim where a sheer 2500′ drop-off provided spectacular views of Mexico’s Sierra Ponce and the Rio Grande.
We continued on through Colima Canyon to loop back to our gear before finally retracing our steps back down to our starting point in Chisos Basin. With a pleasant downhill grade, we enjoyed this stretch of trail even more the second time around.
As we neared the trail’s end, we were treated to great views of The Window, a notch at the bottom of the basin through which you can see the desert valley below.
Big Bend has tons of great options for campers. We stayed in the park for five nights, and, believe it or not, we stayed in a different place each night. Setting up and taking down the tent every day isn’t always our preferred way to experience a place, but, with so little time, we didn’t want to lose a second of it backtracking to an area of the park we had already seen.
We stayed at all three of the front-country campsites and had great experiences at each one. Who could ever forget sleeping under a Great Horned Owl at Cottonwoods? And the easy access to the Rio Grande Valley Nature Trail made staying at the RGV Campground super convenient. We really loved the Chisos Basin campground for its cooler temperatures, spectacular views and wide-open skies. Our cozy backcountry campsite on the Chisos Basin Loop had everything we could ask for (awesome views, comfortable sitting logs, bear boxes) and more (a composting toilet around the corner at the Emory Peak trailhead!).
We definitely had our most unique camping experience on our last night in the park. In Big Bend, you can get a permit to car camp in a private backcountry site. In all of our travels to national parks, this is something we had never heard of before and knew we had to try it. Because we had a permit to camp at Toll Mountain the night before, we were able to tack on a reservation for a backcountry car site for the following night for no additional charge. Time permitting, we actually could have stayed up to 14 nights in the Big Bend backcountry, but, alas, it wasn’t in the cards for this short trip—duly noted for the next.
We were really curious what backcountry car camping would be like, and we have to say it was pretty awesome. Driving down a dirt road in the early evening to a site in the middle of nowhere that was reserved for just the two of us was such a treat. Sure, it was lacking conveniences like bathrooms or running water, but having a little piece of desert paradise all to ourselves was well worth the trade off. And the fact that we could drive to it was a luxury that we weren’t accustomed to. It doesn’t take much to make these two campers happy, but we were seriously in heaven.
Big Bend is undeniably beautiful, yes. But it is an interesting park in that it doesn’t have any iconic sites that tourists flock to, like Yosemite’s Half Dome or Yellowstone’s Old Faithful. Don’t let that dissuade you from a visit. The park is chock-full of striking landscapes and subtle surprises that are sure to make any visitor with half a pulse swoon.
If you happen to be there in April, one place you certainly don’t want to miss is the Dagger Flats Auto Trail in the northern section of the park. This drive didn’t strike us as a must-do, but when two separate park rangers waxed poetic about it, we couldn’t resist.
The 7-mile unpaved road took us past field after field of desert marigolds and Texas bluebonnets. Even though the early evening light was less than ideal on our visit, we couldn’t resist stopping for some photos.
Out of the car, we were very careful to look for snakes everywhere we walked, but it was actually a pair of furry friends that gave us the biggest scare. There we were setting up our shots in the middle of a field of flowers when we heard the unmistakable sound of footsteps running towards us at full speed. All of the sudden, a giant desert hare came out of nowhere, bounding right in our direction, with another one in hot pursuit. I am not sure who was more startled—us or them—but the jackrabbits veered away from us at the last second with a giant leap before disappearing off into the sunset. It was quite a moment, to be sure!
Back in the car, we drove to the end of the road, where a hidden valley of giant dagger yuccas in full bloom awaited us. We had never heard of these plants before, but, for the life of us, we can’t figure out why. They are truly incredible. At over 20 feet tall, this giant, prehistoric-looking plant blooms every year in April. Their blooms alone can grow to weigh over 70 pounds, with a single tree containing over one thousand blossoms.
We passed only two other cars on the drive, and both drivers were grinning from ear to ear. Long-time visitors to the park, they both told us that we were witnessing the best bloom they had seen since the 1980’s. What luck!
Wow, we sure managed to experience a lot in our four days in the park. We’re not going to lie—a 22 hour drive is pretty brutal—but our time in Big Bend was worth every minute of it!
Have you ever changed your travel plans at the last minute? Have you ever visited Big Bend?