You’ve made it to one of the most remote corners of America. Big Bend National Park is a huge area that will take several days to explore. Despite the long drives in between locations, Big Bend National Park offers a lot of variety: a hot desert, cool mountains, fun on the river, and the excitement of knowing you’re almost in another country. And just outside the park, you get to experience what it’s like to live without strip malls and cell phones, in a community of desert dwellers that’s surprisingly close-knit and welcoming.
I spent the end of Day 6, all of Days 7 and 8, and the morning of Day 9 in Big Bend National Park. Since my particular itinerary won’t be the same as yours, I’ve organized the next few pages in a more orderly fashion. If you’re interested in how I tackled the Big Bend, skip down the page a bit.
Terlingua Ghost Town – This is a good place to establish your base of operations for a few days. There are several motels here, as well as a handful of stores and restaurants.
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive – Quite possibly the most beautiful drives in the park, this road takes you to the Rio Grande, ending at Santa Elena Canyon.
Santa Elena Canyon – One of Big Bend’s scenic wonders, this deep canyon was sliced by the Rio Grande. You can swim in the river, wade over to the other side, or hike a short trail into the canyon.
Canoe Trip, Santa Elena Canyon – A river trip is a great idea, if you want to experience parts of the Rio Grande that can’t be accessed on foot.
Chimneys Trail – A long, flat walk across the barren desert ends at this outcropping of rocks. Surprises include a small arch and a great view of Santa Elena Canyon in the distance.
Balanced Rock Trail – An iconic feature of Big Bend National Park. Hike up to see this huge boulder, balanced between two other rocks, then scramble to the top of it, if you dare.
Window Trail, Chisos Basin – This is likely Big Bend’s most popular trail. Hike downhill from the campground, motel, and store, to reach the basin’s “pour-off” point, where all rainwater drains.
Lost Mine Trail, Chisos Basin – A climb out of the Basin ends on a ridge, with great views and a few rocks to scramble.
Road to Boquillas Canyon – Drive this road to the lonely southeastern part of Big Bend National Park.
Boquillas Canyon – Similar to Santa Elena Canyon, this huge gash was also cut by the Rio Grande. Hike to the mouth of the canyon, and you will likely meet some of the Mexicans who live nearby, and cross the border freely.
Big Bend’s North Side – This part of the park offers less to see and do, and the only reason to visit may be to enter or exit the park.
Late in the day on Day 6, I arrived in Terlingua Ghost Town, and checked into the El Dorado Hotel. It’s the second most affordable place to stay in the Terlingua/Study Butte area — the first is the Chisos Mining Company Motel, but it was booked (because I was visiting on the busiest week of the year, in mid-March, when all Texas schools were on spring break). After checking in, I plotted my strategy for the rest of the evening, and decided I could burn off the rest of the daylight with a drive down Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, visiting Santa Elena Canyon as it was brilliantly lit with the setting sun.
On Day 7, I once again took a ride down Ross Maxwell Drive, but this time, I wasn’t driving. I joined up with a river day-trip, and canoed with about a dozen other people up the Rio Grande, passing through Santa Elena Canyon. The river trip took most of the day, and after returning to my motel in mid-afternoon and taking a thorough shower, I headed back into the park and ended up at Balanced Rock.
I finished the day with one of the most enjoyable experiences of my trip. I had dinner at the High Sierra Bar and Grill, the restaurant connected to my motel. The food was good, and the musical entertainment was, well, unforgettable.
I devoted Day 8 to traveling further into Big Bend National Park, visiting the Chisos Basin and Boquillas Canyon areas. First at Chisos Basin, I hiked the popular Window Trail. At midday, I drove out to Boquillas Canyon, then in late afternoon, I hiked the Lost Mine Trail back at the Basin. The evening ended with dinner at La Kiva, which offered better music than the High Sierra, and good barbeque.
Now that you know my itinerary, go ahead and jump into the Big Bend area with a visit to Terlingua Ghost Town, my base of operations during my stay.