Named after a giant crescent in the Rio Grande, Big Bend National Park is a remote hiker’s paradise. A combination of roaring rivers, soaring peaks and desert landscapes, there are multiple ways to tackle this spectacular environment.
Coursing through the park are multiple scenic drives, delivering you to epic overlooks of the Chihuahan Desert and the Chisos Mountains. Be inspired by the scenery and hike deep into the desert, where the environment quickly changes with the elevation.
It’s not just dry land adventures on offer. Other things to do In Big Bend National Park include venturing into Mexico or paddling down the ancient river which formed 3 million years ago.
In this post, we'll cover:
12. Panther Junction Visitor Center
A great place to begin your experience in Big Bend National Park is at the Panther Junction Visitor Center. Here you can pick up maps and talk to the on-site rangers in order to plan your adventures in the Chihuahan Desert. If you’re camping overnight, or want to paddle down the Rio Grande, the center is also where you can pick up the necessary permits.
At Panther Junction, you can also learn about the unique geology found within the park thanks to fascinating exhibits along with a park orientation movie. From the center you can embark on several hikes and beautiful drives, including the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.
11. South Rim Loop
Beginning in the Chisos Basin, the South Rim Loop is a strenuous 12.6 mile trek that encompasses some of the best sights in Big Bend. From the basin, you’ll embark on a steady climb up to the rim from which you’ll experience jaw-dropping views of the Chihuahan Desert.
From bottom to top, hikers will gain just shy of 3,000 feet of elevation, with options to venture further along to Emory Peak. A popular walking direction is counterclockwise, which offers a more gradual climb. But, for a shorter yet steeper climb to the ridgeline, go clockwise. As a loop, the trail begins and ends at the same spot and can be completed as a day hike. However, for an unforgettable desert experience, why not camp out along the way?
10. Boquillas del Carmen
Few would imagine that traveling to a national park in the United States would come with the opportunity for an international adventure. However, from Big Bend you can embark on a unique experience along the Rio Grande and into the Mexican town of Boquillas del Carmen.
Beginning at the port of entry, walk down the river where you can jump in a rowboat and travel to the other side and out of the US. After crossing the river, you’ll have a mile journey to the town, with the option to walk, ride a donkey, or jump in a car.
In Boquillas del Carmen, you’ll find a variety of mouthwatering restaurants serving traditional eats. Some even have terraces overlooking the river.
9. Boquillas Canyon
The longest and deepest canyon in Big Bend National Park yields one of the top on-water experiences in and around the park. The 33-mile river journey presents fun but manageable Grade II rapids, with the chance to camp along the Rio Grande and float by old candelilla wax mining camps on the Mexican side of the river.
If you prefer to stay on firm ground, you can choose instead to hike along the easy to moderate Boquillas Canyon Trail, which follows the river’s edge for 1.6 miles. Boquillas Canyon is also home to a roadside overlook. The view is decent, but doesn’t compare to the vistas along the Boquillas Canyon Trail.
8. Hot Springs
With hike after hike on the itinerary, you’ll want to find a way to not just relax, but rejuvenate. Along with incredible natural scenery, Big Bend is also home to a historic bathhouse that was built towards the start of the 1900s. Now in ruins, you can still soak in the hot springs and bathe in piping hot 105 degree water.
The springs are close to the trailhead and require a 0.5 mile return walk. However, after your soak surrounded by unparalleled scenery, complete a 1-mile loop around a bluff above the Rio Grande.
7. Balanced Rock
The short and sweet, easy to moderate hike to Balanced Rock presents some otherworldly landscapes and unique rock formations. The journey to the trailhead is an adventure in itself as it requires driving along a maintained gravel road for over 6 miles.
From the trailhead, you’ll begin the 2.2 mile return hike along similar gravel wash with the trail remaining flat. The last quarter of the hike heads uphill with some invigorating rock scrambles that pose a fun challenge and are great for adventurous kids.
Soon you’ll see the Balanced Rock, which is exactly as advertised. The large boulder perfectly poised against two sandstone giants. After admiring the natural work of art, have some fun scrambling in the surrounding boulder field, keeping your eye out for colorful lizards.
6. Canoe the Rio Grande
Beginning in the headwaters of the San Juan Range in the Colorado Rockies, the Rio Grande continues its epic journey all the way down to a sandy delta in the Gulf of Mexico. A part of the illustrious river cuts through Big Bend, offering the chance to trade your hiking shoes for a canoe and go for a paddle.
Rather than hike to viewpoints of the surging body of water, get out on the Rio Grande to experience the thrill yourself. Find a greater appreciation for the local geology, with rising canyon walls shooting up to the left and right. Most tours leave from neighboring towns of Terlingua and Lajitas, but you can paddle along the Rio Grande with your own canoe. Though permits are required, they’re free.
5. Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
Big Bend is quite a large national park and comprises three major sections, with one being the entrancing Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The road courses through some of the best scenery in the park across its 30 miles. The drive is a mesmerizing way to experience the park without ever leaving your seat.
Beginning at Panther Junction Road, prepare yourself for an exciting experience. Grab a map from the visitor center to see the major viewpoints and trailheads along the way before putting the car in drive. Two glorious places to stop include the Homer Wilson Ranch Overlook and the viewpoint at the Mule Ear Springs Trail. The road ends at Santa Elena Canyon, home to one of the best bang-for-buck hikes in the park.
4. Window Trail
If you’re seeking a sunset spot on your travels through Big Bend National Park, then add the Window Trail to your itinerary. Ending with a perfectly framed golden hour, the trail helps show off just how amazing deserts are when the sun begins to fall.
The bulk of the hike to the sunset spot is downhill along a moderate 5.6 mile return trail. Soon the Window, a V-shaped cut in the Chisos Mountains, will come into view. Here the sun falls into the crevasse, illuminating the sky in bright warm colors but creating silhouettes out of the landscape.
Keep in mind that after rain, you may have to cross Oak Creek several times on your way to the Window. You can also reach this viewpoint along the 0.3 mile accessible Window View Trail.
3. Chisos Mountains
If you only have a day to spend in Big Bend, then basing yourself in the Chisos Mountains will help you get the most out of your time. The national park is the only one in the United States to have an entire mountain range all to itself. With the complete range to explore, you’re bound to find yourself with a packed itinerary.
Among the higher elevation, the landscape quickly changes, saying goodbye to blooming ocotillos and welcoming Ponderosa pines and fir trees. The Chisos Mountains are complemented by the rolling Chisos Basin, which helps create a thorough slate of epic hikes.
As it’s based in the center of the park, if you have time you’ll be well placed to explore more parts of Big Bend.
2. Lost Mine Trail
A moderate 4.8 mile trek in the Chisos Basin Area, the Lost Mine Trail, is a superb choice for those wanting a slightly longer walk. Such is its popularity that it is worth adding this to the start of your day’s itinerary and arriving before the parking lot quickly fills.
For a while, you’ll be wondering why the Lost Mine Trail is so popular as you walk steadily uphill with few views to speak of. But once you reach the ridgeline, the world opens up and you’ll be greeted with expansive scenery that goes on for miles.
After enjoying the peaks and troughs of the Chisos mountains, you’ll reach a peak that opens up to a 360 degree view of Big Bend National Park.
1. Santa Elena Canyon
A hike that brings your spectacular scenery without leg-burning effort, the Santa Elena Canyon is a must-do. The 1.7 mile hike is rated as easy and offers a firsthand experience of the incredible Rio Grande.
You’ll start the hike alongside Terlingua Creek. But the bulk of the 1 to 2 hour hike will be spent caressing the edge of a surging river with giant 1500 foot walls rising to either side. The feeling of being dwarfed beside an ancient landscape is an enchanting sensation as you continue along to an even better viewpoint.
The hike reaches a crescendo as the trail reaches the edge of the Rio Grande from which you’ll have stunning vistas into Santa Elena Canyon.