[Park Closure] CASTOLON AREA CLOSURE [+ Info]
The Castolon Historic District, including the visitor center and store, remains closed due to a fire in late May. Cottonwood Campground is open.
West Texas and New Mexico is mostly flat, boring, and desolate, right?
For the most part, that’s very true. But Big Bend National Park is most definitely an exception. It’s the quintessential “hidden gem.” At a staggering 801,000-plus acres, it’s one of the largest National Parks. Yet it’s also one of the least-visited ones. It is nowhere even close to a population center. Plus, the park has no Old Faithful or Mount Rushmore-type signature attraction. So, Big Bend National Park does not appear on many bucket lists. But for those travelers willing to make an effort to see it, wonders await them like nothing else they’ve ever seen. Only about half the Park is in the United States. Mexico’s Parque Nacional Cañon de Santa Elena and Maderas del Carmen make up the remainder. The Boquillas border crossing is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 to 6.
Biologically, the Park is incredibly diverse. Some of the highest peaks in the Southwest are juxtaposed against seemingly endless prairie. As a result, Big Bend is home to over 1,200 protected plant species, along with rare mammals, birds, and reptiles. Many of these land animals are foragers and only come out early in the morning, late in the afternoon, or at night.
Researchers have dated geological activity in the area back to the Paleozoic period, which was some five hundred million years ago. That activity, along with subsequent movements, created many of the canyons and rock formations which are spread throughout the Park.
Many visitors enjoy hiking one of the Park’s many, many trails or a trip down part of the Rio Grande River. But that’s only the beginning.
The Castolon Historic District, including the visitor center and store, remains closed due to a fire in late May. Cottonwood Campground is open.
There’s probably a reason that the stretch of Interstate 10 through West Texas is one of the state’s leading speed traps. People are in a hurry to get through this part of the state, because there just isn’t much to see. Of course, these people probably haven’t seen Big Bend.
To reach the western part of the Park, take Highway 67 south from Marfa and then take F.M. 169 even further south. It’s a very, very, very long drive, so be sure you have plenty of gas. Highway 118 south from Alpine goes almost directly to the central part of BBNP. Once again, it’s a very long trip and there are few, if any, indications of civilization along the way. Highway 385 runs basically north-south through Marathon. Head south on this road to reach the Park’s eastern areas. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, it’s a long drive. Big Bend’s GPS coordinates are 29° 14' 59.646" N, 103° 15' 0.59" W. For a GPS address, use the one for the Panther Junction Visitor Center (310 Alsate Dr, Big Bend National Park, TX 79834).
Big Bend is remote with a capital “R.” There are very few paved roads in this huge park, which means limited surfaced parking lots. Fortunately, there are a number of high-quality RV parks interspersed throughout the Park, as outline below. Because of the area’s remote location, park rangers know that you have to stay somewhere. So, for the most part, they roll out the RV welcome mat more than most other National Parks.
The nearest airports, in Midland and El Paso, are each more 200 miles from the park. If you plan to fly in, you’ll have a long drive ahead of you. Amtrak and Greyhound can get you a little closer, but you’ll still be about 100 miles from Big Bend. Once you do get to the Park, you’re still on your own; there is no public transportation inside.
This concession-run park offers twenty reservation RV sites and five first come, first served sites. However, it’s one of the few parks in the area that is open year-round and it’s also the only park in BBNP that offers full hookups. In addition to the stunning Big Bend scenery, the park has lots of trees and grass. Trust us when we say that these things are not easy to find in West Texas. Other amenities include a very stable WiFi connection, showers, and washer/dryer facilities.
Offering 100 sites, Rio Grande Village Campground provides plenty of shady spots among the cottonwoods. No hookups are available, but flush toilets and drinking water are handy and a dump station is nearby. Nearly half of the sites are reservable November 15–April 15.
Tent campers absolutely love this campground. There are some facilities for RVers, albeit not very many, and vehicles are limited to 20’ trailers and 24’ RVs.. The sites are mainly designed for smaller rigs and temporary parking. One of the big pluses is that Chisos Basin is very, very close to some of the main hiking trails. So, it’s an excellent place to leave your rig for the day. Amenities include flush toilets, outdoor grills, running water, picnic tables, and a dump station. Twenty-six of the 60 sites are reservable from November 15th through May 31st.
This quiet park is open year-round, making it an ideal place to pause for a few hours during a busy day of sightseeing. It has twenty-four RV parking spots along with many picnic facilities. There are pit toilets and potable water on site but no hookups, and generator use is not allowed.
This primitive campsite is very close to the Persimmon Gap Visitors’ Center. It also has one of the larger RV parking areas of any other similar campsite. As is typical of such locations, there is absolutely no shade, so come prepared for a day in the sun.
These sites are about nine miles west of Panther Junction. Each site can accommodate two vehicles and six people. Campers enjoy excellent views of the Chisos Mountains as well as the Park’s desert landscape. Wildlife often congregate at the springs. Watch out for the javelina, as these pig-like animals often get very aggressive when food is around.
Big Bend National Park allows backcountry camping for people with permits. There are also a number of established backcountry and roadside campgrounds. These places are especially nice for the longer hiking trails mentioned below. Most of them are off-limits to RVs. However, there are a number of exceptions.
Paint Gap (PG) 1 is only four miles from Panther Junction, PG 2 and 3 are clustered together, and PG 4 is accessible by high-clearance vehicles only. The “gap” provides some shade in the mornings and late afternoons, but that’s about it. Excellent views of the landscape as well as some old ranches.
This slightly-larger campground is even closer to Panther Junction. There are a few low shrubs, but little other vegetation. There is a nearby spring, and the views are quite nice especially at sunset.
Each site can fit two large vehicles. K-Bar Road is one of the more well-maintained primitive campsite roads in the Park. Pommel and Panther Peaks are clearly visible to the southwest.
This horse-friendly RV primitive campsite can accommodate three vehicles and eight horses. The Park’s road crew uses this area as something of a hub, so there is usually civilization nearby. Once again, watch out for the javelinas.
Persimmon Peak is one of the most prominent mountains in the entire park. There are some truly nice views from the summit of almost the entire western and southern parts of Big Bend. A hiking trail takes you to the top, but it is rather steep and rocky.
Like most of the other hiking trails in Big Bend, Mule Ears is a mostly-easy hike with a few challenging spots and a very nice payoff at the end. In this case, that payoff is a desert spring and a very unique rock formation. The Mule Ears subtly change shape as you get closer and view them from different angles. That’s one of the things that makes this hike worthwhile. Another cool aspect are the flowers that bloom in spring. Cattails and ferns are especially prominent. For all the desert trails, the National Parks Service recommends one gallon of water per person per day.
This area is best known for the picturesque Balanced Rocks at the end of a 2.2-mile hiking trail. The trail is mostly flat until the last quarter mile; the entire path is over a sandy wash that’s easy to tread. Given the nature of the trail and the cool rock formations, the Grapevine Hills area is especially popular with kids. Watch out for snakes though, they like to stay in the shady places between rocks.
Most people choose to experience one of Big Bend’s most popular attractions on either an overnight or a three-day boat excursion. Both the put-in and the take-out are easy to reach by car. Moreover, some of the cliff faces are fifteen stories high. The first dozen or so miles along the river are an easy trip, especially if the water level is low. As you paddle, you get to see how Big Bend’s ecosystem changes from desert to riparian. Then, you hit the rapids. At certain water levels, the Rock Slide can be a Class IV obstacle. When you get to the end, a shuttle is available to get you back to your starting point. Or, you can just turn your canoe around and go back...
Just a few steps on the five-mile Chimneys Trail will remind you that not all desert hikes involve blowing sands and steep dunes. There are no signposts or other markings on the trail, but it is well-worn and easy to follow. Just look for a line in the rock that rather looks like a bowling lane gutter. At first, hikers see little more than rock outcroppings in the near distance and scattered plants along the desert floor. But towards the end of the hike, the Chimney Mountains rise prominently in the distance. Look closely, and you’ll also see a cave-like formation with a small nearby spring. Park rangers say native peoples used this area for seasonal shelter. In fact, this little enclave is the only hint of shelter on the entire trail. So, leave early to avoid hiking during the heat of the day, try not to walk this trail during summer, bring lots of water, and wear lots of sunscreen.
With names like these, it has to be good, right? These two areas are limestone canyons nestled in the Santiago Mountains near the northern edge of the Park. The two-mile Dog Canyon trail cuts through a wide and deep ravine, so there is occasional shade. Nevertheless, the trail is awfully hot in the summer because of the rocks. There are also some cool vertical cliffs peppered with sagebrush and other plants. Devil’s Den is even nicer. It’s almost like a wide slot canyon. So, it’s beautiful and easier to navigate on foot.
If you only have a day in Big Bend National Park, spend that day on the Lost Mine Trail. The trail is well-marked, packed with informative displays, and close to the main ranger station and visitor center. Rolling slopes dominate the first part of the trail, so you can take in the scenic views of Casa Grande Peak. Next, ascend a gentle ridge to get a great view of the nearby canyons. This ridge is also something like Big Bend’s Continental Divide. The north side marks the beginning of lush forested mountains; the south side represents the furthest edge of the colorful desert ecosystem. The final third of the trail is a little more difficult to navigate. But you did not come to Big Bend to walk up and down driveways. No one is exactly sure where the “lost mine” is, other than it’s somewhere near the end of the trail. Supposedly, workers were blindfolded on their way to and from the mine. Later, roving Comanches wiped out most of the whites in the area, forcing the mine to close forever.
News flash: Deserts get hot in the summer. So, if your schedule only permits a summer sojourn, it may be a good idea to cut back on the desert trails. Not to worry. Thanks to Park features like the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, you can still take in all the sites and sounds. This thirty-mile drive takes visitors very close to a number of attractions, including:
This Drive is not just a sightseeing adventure, although that would be more than enough. The Scenic Drive is also a journey through the Park’s geological, biological, and commercial history. The more you understand about these things, the more enjoyable your overall Park excursion will be.
Warm summers are a good time to explore Big Bend’s high mountains. And you cannot get much higher than the Chisos Mountains. Rangers close much of the area during the fall and winter, to protect the fragile peregrine falcons. The sage-covered slopes, sharp canyon-like drop-offs, and colorful desert floor have attracted visitors for thousands of years. These Mountains are also one of the most habitable areas of the park. There are several Texas towns in the area, as well as two Mexican towns that straddle the border.
This 12-mile trail is a bit strenuous to tackle in one day. That’s especially true in summer when the weather is hot. Many people get backcountry use permits and camp for the night at some point. However, the payoff is one of the best views of Big Bend. Visitors enjoy the sweeping Sierra del Carmen Mountains, majestic Rio Grande River, and the river’s canyon. A quick note here. The Rio Grande’s water is hopelessly contaminated. No matter how many purifiers you use, you cannot drink it. So don’t.
The Park’s primary information center is also one of the nicest ones. It is open 364-and-a-half days a year (reduced hours on Christmas Day). Most people begin their sojourns here, as the Center is a great place to pay admission fees, collect backcountry permits, and learn more about the Park. There’s a large store nearby that has groceries and diesel fuel.
The longest and deepest canyon in Big Bend is even deeper than Arizona’s Grand Canyon in some places. Once you reach the canyon, it’s rather easy to get around. The hiking trail goes literally to the water’s edge. There are also amenities, such as a new visitors’ center and a country store. River tours are available as well. Three days takes you through the entire length of the canyon; four days offers opportunities for off-water exploration. Getting to Boquillas Canyon can be a challenge. It’s 33 miles from the canyon to the Rio Grande Village, and the roads are not exactly Autobahn-quality.
The Sotol Vista overlook does not disappoint. After just a short hike, visitors see views of the entire western portion of the Park. The “Vista” part is not just on the ground. If you ask park rangers for the best stargazing spot, they will probably tell you “Sotol Vista.” On clear fall nights, it’s often possible to see the curvature of the Milky Way from this spot.
Beware that this area is very arid and remote. That’s saying a lot, considering most of the vast Park is arid and remote. The trail starts flat as it begins on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. The closer hikers get to the Chisos Mountains, the steeper the path becomes. The trail markings are piles of rocks, so pay attention and don’t get lost. One you reach the canyon rim, there are some amazing views of the Rio Grande far below. In addition, you’ll also have a feeling of satisfaction knowing that you conquered one of nature’s more imposing obstacles.
This 12.5-mile trail is a “tweener” trail. It’s doable in a day, although it would be a very long day. So, some people get a camping pass and spend the night. We vote for the latter option. The night skies are so dark that the views are simply amazing, especially at somewhat higher elevations. If there’s a full moon out, you may even need your sunglasses at night. There are several designated campsites along the trail. All of them have chemical toilets and bear boxes. Once you hike the area, you’ll find out what these bear boxes are for. Be especially watchful for the trail stops marked “South Rim” and “Big Drop.” The South Rim overlook offers excellent views of the Santa Elena Canyon and practically the entire southern half of the Park. The “Big Drop” is big indeed. Small animals, such as rabbits and desert lizards, are very common sites along this trail. You may also see a mountain lion, cougar, or bear in the distance.
One of the nice things about Big Bend is that, for the most part, winters are quite mild. So, sites like Emory Peak are almost never off-limits. At some 7,800 feet, it’s the highest point in the Chisos Mountains. But you wouldn’t know it until you get close. From a distance, Emory Peak looks more like Emory Molehill. A 1.5-mile trail takes hikers to the summit. It’s not terribly challenging but it is quite steep. As you walk, enjoy the flowers and wildlife that are abundant in the area.
This mining ghost town is really cool. Around 1903, the Chisos Mining Company discovered large deposits of quicksilver. At one point, Terlingua was home to about 2,000 people. Quicksilver prices were high during World War I, and cheap Mexican labor was available throughout the period as well. Prices fell in the 1930s and the company declared bankruptcy in 1942. There is still some activity in the area. In late fall or early winter, about 10,000 visitors come for one of the world’s largest chili cook-offs. The first one was in 1967.
Perhaps the most unspoiled part of an unspoiled region has no trail markings and no parking areas. The National Park Service has never rolled out the “Welcome” mat because there are some very old stone quarry ruins in Apache Canyon. Early peoples lived here because of a large spring and the nature of the rocks. They are crystalline and easy to make into crude tools. Fortunately, there is no “Keep Out” sign either. These rock formations also make Apache Canyon one of the most colorful parts of Big Bend. This place is a good place to experience the geology, biology, and history of the Park.
It takes most people three days to pass over this thirty-mile trail. If you plan side trips to Emory Peak or the South Rim, add an extra day. Much like the aforementioned Lost Mine Trail, the Outer Mountain Loop essentially combines the Juniper Canyon, Dodson, Pinnacles, Blue Creek, and Laguna Meadows trails. So, there is a lot to see on your three or four-day adventure. This is also one of the most hazardous trails in the Park. Each year, rangers respond to a number of emergencies. Most of them are heat-related illnesses, which is why you should not attempt this trail between May and October.
At its peak in the 1930s, the Homer Wilson Ranch (a/k/a the Blue Creek Ranch) covered some 28,000 acres. The main house still stands. Mostly due to the dry desert air, it’s in much the same shape today as it was back then. The house became part of the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.