West Texas is mostly flat and desolate, right? Not Quite! Big Bend National Park is an exception to people's commonly-percieved notions that West Texas is flat and desolate. Big Bend National Park is the quintessential hidden gem of the state. At 801,000-plus acres, it’s one of the largest national parks in the United States, yet it’s also one of the least-visited parks. The low-visit rate might be because the park is nowhere close to a populated city center. Plus, the park has no Old Faithful or Mount Rushmore-type signature attractions so, it does not appear on many people's bucket lists. For those travelers willing to make an effort to see the park, 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 of the park's acreage. 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 trails or taking a trip down part of the Rio Grande River. But that’s only the beginning. Whether you're a seasoned RV camper, or a newbie, hitting the road for the first time, Big Bend National Park is ready for you. From primitive backcountry camping to cozy RV campgrounds, this park has something for everyone.
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 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 an exceptionally, long drive, so be sure you gas up the camper before hitting the road. Highway 118 south from Alpine goes almost directly to the central part of Big Bend National Park. Once again, it’s a very long trip, and there are few, if any, indications of civilization along the way. Highway 385 runs north and 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 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 several high-quality RV parks interspersed throughout the Park, as outlined 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.
The Rio Grande Village RV Campground is a concession-run campground that offers 20 RV reservation-only sites and five RV first-come, first-served sites. It’s one of the few RV camping locations in the area that is open year-round, and it’s also the only campground in Big Bend National Park that offers full hookups. These sites fill up fast, so reserve in advance if at all possible. In addition to the stunning Big Bend scenery, the park has lots of trees and grass, a nice reprieve from the relentless summer heat. Trust us when we say that these things are not easy to find in this area of Texas. Other amenities include a stable Wi-Fi connection, showers, and laundry facilities. This campground accommodates rigs up to 40 feet at most sites; however, a few sites are only suitable for smaller campervans.
Offering 100 sites, Rio Grande Village Campground is the largest campground in the park. There are plenty of shady spots among the cottonwoods, and the proximity to its namesake river creates a sense of serenity. Additional tranquility can be felt with slightly cooler temperatures than other campgrounds in the park thanks to its location in a valley. Although this is a larger area, no hookups are available. However, flush toilets and drinking water are handy, and a dump station is located nearby. Nearly half of the sites are reservable mid-November to mid-April, and the other half of the sites are saved for last-minute visitors on a first-come, first-served basis. RVs and trailers with a length of 40 feet or less will have no problem parking in the pull-through sites.
Chisos Basin Campground, which is situated high in the Chisos Mountains, is a camper's favorite campground. There are some facilities for RVers, albeit not very many, and vehicles are limited to 20 feet for trailers and 24 feet for RVs. The sites are mainly designed for smaller rigs and temporary parking. Along with the scenic views and moderate temperatures, one of the big pluses of this camping area is that Chisos Basin is close to some of the main hiking trails. So, it’s an excellent place to leave your rig behind 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 mid-November through the end of May.
Named for the trees that surround it, Cottonwood Campground is located near the Rio Grande. The campground is also conveniently situated between Castolon Historic District and the picturesque Sante Elena Canyon. This quiet campground might be the park's best-kept secret, and is open year-round, making it an ideal place to pause for a few hours during a busy day of sightseeing. It has 24 RV parking spots available on a first-come, first-served basis along with many picnic facilities. Group campsites can be reserved in advance and can accommodate groups of up to 25 people. There are pit toilets and potable water on-site, but there are no hookups. The Cottonwood Campground doesn't permit generators, so if you need electricity, you might want to choose another campground nearby.
This primitive campground is very close to the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center. The road leading to the campground is gravel, and usually accessible to all vehicles. However, the road can become difficult and dangerous to navigate after heavy rains. It has one of the larger RV parking areas of any other similar campsites and has adequate turnaround space. As is typical of such locations, there is absolutely no shade, so come prepared for a day in the sun. If the hot summer heat doesn't sound like your cup of tea, the campground provides excellent access to hiking in the Dog Canyon area and to the canyoneering route in Devil's Den.
These sites are about nine miles west of Panther Junction. The campground is located off of an improved dirt road that is usually in good condition, but it can become difficult to access for RVs and trailers after heavy rainfall. Each of the two sites can accommodate two vehicles and six people. Campers enjoy excellent views of the Chisos Mountains as well as the park’s desert landscape. What visitors may not enjoy as much as the view is the lack of shade at this campground, it gets hot. However, you don't have to sit around all day. Croton Wash and Springs are within walking distance of your camper, and if you like to watch for wildlife, the Springs is the place to go because wildlife often congregates 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 several established backcountry and roadside campgrounds. These places are especially nice for the longer hiking trails. Most of these backcountry areas are off-limits to RVs; however, there are several exceptions. If you feel like leaving your motorhome back at camp for a few days to escape into the wild, these primitive sites could be for you. Be sure to stop in at Panther Junction or Chisos Basin Visitor Center during their open hours to obtain your backcountry permit.
If you are a boondocker, consider staying at one of the primitive roadside campsites at Paint Gap. Paint Gap One (PG 1) is only four miles from Panther Junction, and PG 2 and PG3 are clustered together. PG 4 is only accessible by high-clearance vehicles. The gap sites provide some shade in the mornings and late afternoons, but that’s about it. Campers staying at PG1, PG2, and PG3 have excellent views of the Chisos Mountains, but beware because you may be sharing the view with the resident javelinas. If you're after a history lesson, you may be in luck. An old ranch is located at the end of the road, and although there's not much left to look at, you can still see the old fence, a feeding trough, and other historic debris. The ranching in the area ended when the land became a national park, but remnants of the facilities still stand.
This slightly-larger, backcountry campground offers five roadside campsites. Panther Junction is conveniently close (without ruining the primitive experience), and the Chisos Mountains provide a stunning backdrop to the campsites. There are a few low shrubs, but little other vegetation. There is a nearby spring, and the views are quite lovely, especially at sunset.
K-Bar features two primitive sites, each able to accommodate two large vehicles. K-Bar Road is one of the more well-maintained primitive campsite roads in the park but beware of wash boarding after heavy rains. If you're looking for a breathtaking sunset, you've come to the right place. The Sierra del Carmen and the Deadhorse mountains are both visible in the east, Pommel and Panther Peaks are clearly visible to the southwest, and the Chisos Mountains make an appearance in the northwest. Don't get too caught up in the moment though, because javelinas are present in the area and can often become aggressive.
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. Although the real world is close, the turnoff for this campground is not marked, so pay attention! The shade is hard to come by (well, impossible to come by, actually), so be sure you have plenty of water on board in your camper. Once again, watch out for the javelinas.
One of the nice things about Big Bend is that, for the most part, winters are quite mild. So, sites like Emory Peak are rarely 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 makes for a great detour before navigating the camper towards Big Bend. 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, however. In late fall to early winter, about 10,000 visitors come for one of the world’s largest chili cook-offs.
Perhaps the most unspoiled part of this desolate region has no trail markings and no parking areas, so leave the Airstream at camp. 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 which are crystalline and easy to make into crude tools. These rock formations also make Apache Canyon one of the most colorful parts of Big Bend. Apache Canyon is the perfect place to experience all the geology, biology, and history of the park.
It takes most people three days to pass over the thirty-mile Outer Mountain Loop Trail. If you plan side trips to Emory Peak or the South Rim, add an extra day to your trek. Much like the 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 extended adventure. This trail is also one of the most hazardous in the park. Each year, rangers respond to several emergencies. Most of these 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, sometimes called the Blue Creek Ranch, covered some 28,000 acres of land. Today, the main house still stands, and because of the dry desert air, it’s in much the same shape today as it was back in the 1930s. The house became part of the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, so it's a must-visit location for history enthusiasts.
The park’s primary information center is also one of the nicest visitor centers. It is open 364-and-a-half days a year (with reduced hours on Christmas Day). Most people begin their sojourns here, as the center is a one-stop-shop to pay admission fees, collect backcountry permits, and learn more about the park and its RV-friendly campgrounds. There’s a large store nearby that has groceries and gasoline for people who need to stock up on supplies before heading further into the park.
Boquillas Canyon will leave you feeling awestruck. Getting to Boquillas Canyon can be a challenge, considering the roads are not exactly Autobahn-quality. But the risk is worth the reward in this case—the canyon is deeper than Arizona’s Grand Canyon in some places! Amenities are waiting for you before and after you finish the hike, such as a new visitor center, a country store, and a large parking lot suitable for motorhomes. Once you reach the canyon, it’s smooth sailing. The hiking trail goes all the way to the water’s edge, and river tours are available if you don't want to stop exploring once you reach the water.
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 portion is not only on the ground. If you ask park rangers for the best stargazing spot, they will probably point you in the direction of Sotol Vista. On clear fall nights, it’s often possible to see the curvature of the Milky Way from this spot. Since the views are outstanding at Sotol Vista, it would be a shame to visit the location just once during your trip, so plan on stopping at least once during the day and again at night.
Hikers planning to explore Mariscal Canyon should be aware that the landscape that surrounds the canyon is arid and remote. That’s saying a lot, considering most of Big Bend National Park is fairly desolate. 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 to the formations so you won't get lost. Once you reach the canyon rim, there are some amazing views of the Rio Grande River far below, so don't forget to pack your camera and take it with you on your hike. Once your trek is complete, you’ll have a feeling of satisfaction knowing that you conquered one of nature’s more imposing obstacles.
The South Rim Trail is a 12.5-mile trail that is doable in a day, although it would be a very long day. Some people get a camping pass and spend a night away from the comfort of their camper to take full advantage of this hike. The night skies are so dark that the views are simply amazing, especially at somewhat higher elevations. There are several designated campsites along the trail, and all of them are equipped with chemical toilets and bear boxes. 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.
With names like Dog Canyon and Devil's Den, these features have 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 along the way. Nevertheless, the trail is awfully hot in the summer because of the rocks and minimal cover. There are also some cool vertical cliffs peppered with sagebrush and other plants. Devil’s Den is even nicer than Dog Canyon. It resembles a wide slot canyon. It’s beautiful and easier to navigate on foot, so don't forget to pack your hiking boots and camera in your campervan for this trip.
If you only have a day in Big Bend National Park, spend it on the Lost Mine Trail. The trail is well-marked, packed with informative displays, and close to the main ranger station and visitor center with plenty of RV parking available. Deep canyons, lush forested mountains, colorful desert ecosystems, and views of Casa Grande Peak are all features of this trail. The final third of the trail is a little more difficult to navigate, but you didn't 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, at one time, miners 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. If your schedule only permits a summer vacation, it may be a good idea to cut back on the desert trail hikes. Not to worry, because thanks to park features like the paved Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, you can still take in all the sites and sounds from the front seat of your Sprinter van. This thirty-mile drive takes visitors very close to a number of attractions, including Sotol Vista, Sam Nail Ranch, Mule Ears, Tuff Canyon, Lower Burro Mesa, and Santa Elena Canyon. This Drive is not just a sightseeing adventure, although the sights would be more than enough to see. The Scenic Drive is also a journey through the park’s geological, biological, and commercial history.
Warm summers are an excellent time to explore Big Bend’s high mountains. 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 permits and camp away from the motorhome for a night or two. 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. Rio Grande’s water is hopelessly contaminated. No matter how many purifiers you use, you cannot drink it. So pack plenty of water with you before starting your expedition.
Persimmon Peak is one of the most prominent mountains in the entire park. Some truly nice views are visible from the summit. Almost the entire western and southern parts of Big Bend are observable from the top of the peak. To reach the summit, a hiking trail leads you to the top. Before heading for your hike, be aware that it is rather steep and rocky, so you will want to double knot those hiking boots before leaving the RV.
Like most of the other hiking trails in Big Bend, Mule Ears is a mostly-easy hike with a few challenging spots and a gratifying payoff at the end. In this case, that payoff is a desert spring and a 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 is the flowers that bloom in spring. Cattails and ferns are especially prominent. You'll be talking about this treck long after you return to the camper for the night.
Grapevine Hills is known for its picturesque views of 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, so lock up the RV and get ready for a bumpy ride. 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 always turn your canoe around and go back the way you came.
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. 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. There is no shelter from the sweltering summer sun, so, leave early to avoid hiking during the heat of the day and try not to walk this trail during summer.