Guide to Big Bend National Park


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.

Now, here’s how my trip unfolded.


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.

On Day 9, I traveled Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive one more time, to access the Chimneys Trail for my final hike in Big Bend.  When it was over, I drove out the north entrance of the park.

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.


  1. Mona 9 July, 2018 at 10:06 Reply

    Love your website!!! I am planning a visit to Texas and will stay 1 night in Marfa, 2 nights in Terlinga and 1 night in Marathon. (so your site is very helpful). I have a question about Big Bend you might be able to help me with.

    We will arrive at about 3 pm in Terlingua. So not much time left. The next day we have the whole day and the next morning after that we go on a river boat trip. So the last day is covered.

    What would you suggest to do the afternoon after our arrival and the full next day?

    • admin 9 July, 2018 at 19:22 Reply

      Hey! A lot of it depends on what time of year you’re going. If it’s summer, you’ll want to focus most of your time around Chisos Basin, because it’s higher and should be cooler than the other parts. If you’re going in summer, you’d probably have enough time to drive to Chisos Basin and back by sunset or a little after. Any other time of year, you probably won’t have enough time to do much that day. Maybe drive a little of the River Road? Or just enjoy Terlingua that evening. The next day, You’ll definitely want to go up to Chisos Basin, and maybe drive all the way out to Boquillas Canyon, if you don’t mind the driving and think you have the time. That’s really what it comes down to — it’s a big park with long drives, so don’t overdo it!

  2. Mona 10 July, 2018 at 07:18 Reply

    Thank you!!! I am going in October, so I will stay in Terlingua that night and enjoy the next full day in Big Bend. Now I know what I am able to I can continue planning! Thanks so much!

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