Of all the national parks in the United States, Big Bend is one of the largest, yet one of the least accessible. Located along the southern border of southwest Texas, it takes a bit of an effort to see the park. However, visitors willing to make the trek to the Chihuahuan Desert are rewarded with stunning mountain and canyon vistas.
When Tiffany and I decided to go on this adventure, Big Bend jumped to the top of our list of places to visit. The pictures we’d seen and things we’d read about the park captured our imagination. We knew we needed to make our way to Rio Grande country to see the park for ourselves.
This spring, we spent a number of days exploring Big Bend. From the Chisos Mountains to the Boquillas crossing, we toured the park and attempted to avoid javelinas and snakes as we hiked through the wilderness. After covering a lot of ground during our time there, we developed a list of must-dos for anyone visiting the park.
Here are our Top 5 Things to do in Big Bend National Park, in no particular order. (Number 5 was my personal favorite.)
- Things To Do in Big Bend: #1 Hike the Window Trail
- Things To Do in Big Bend National Park: #2 Do Some Star-Gazing
- Things To Do in Big Bend National Park: #3 Watch the Sunset in Santa Elena Canyon
- Things To Do in Big Bend National Park: #4 Take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
- Things To Do in Big Bend National Park: #5 Cross the Rio Grande into Mexico
Things To Do in Big Bend: #1 Hike the Window Trail
At the heart of Big Bend lies the Chisos Basin, a popular hiking and camping destination located in the rugged Chisos Mountains. From the visitor center in the Basin, a number of trailheads criss-cross the ridges and canyons around the area.
Our favorite Chisos-based hike was the Window Trail, a 5.2-mile out-and-back that dives into Oak Creek Canyon and offers spectacular views of the surrounding area. From the trailhead, the route gradually descends and follows a seasonal creek through a narrow, winding canyon. At the end of the trail, the creek passes through “the window,” a narrow opening 220 feet above the valley floor. The views through the window are simply awesome, especially in the morning hours.
Just be careful. Those wet rocks are as slick as they look.
We hiked to the window in the peak season of early spring, so the temperatures were ideal. Because the length of the trail goes down to the waterfall, you have to keep in mind the entire hike back is uphill. For someone as out of shape as myself, having the cooler temperatures saved my life.
Pro Tip: After you finish the hike, hit up the Basin Convenience Store for some popsicles. Make sure you get there before the buses of school-aged kids, though. Or you may be out of luck.
Things To Do in Big Bend National Park: #2 Do Some Star-Gazing
Ideally, this is where we would put up an extended exposure of Big Bend’s night sky. Unfortunately, we didn’t get any truly clear nights. We saw some patches of amazingly bright stars, but faced cloud cover nearly every evening.
That being said, if you can make it to Big Bend on a clear night, it is supposedly one of the darkest places in the continental U.S. Because it is so remote, Big Bend remains insulated from light pollution, making it the perfect place to set out a blanket or camp chair and gaze into the stars.
We certainly would have loved to do that, but we did catch a few nice sunsets. Which leads me to the next item on our list.
Things To Do in Big Bend National Park: #3 Watch the Sunset in Santa Elena Canyon
In the western part of Big Bend sits the impressive Santa Elena Canyon. A short, but at times steep, 1.7-mile out-and-back trail takes you from the trailhead into the canyon. You first cross Terlingua Creek (which was dry when we were there, but can cause issues when it’s flowing) and then climb a set of stairs and ramps up and over a ridge into the canyon. It’s an easy hike and well worth it for the views of the canyon and Rio Grande.
In the evening, the sun sets into the canyon and paints its sheer walls various shades of gold. Or at least that’s what Tiffany told me, since I’m quite color blind. Even with my visual impairment, it was a beautiful sight.
Getting to the canyon is simple via car, and the walk is short. However, I’ve heard that the best way to explore the canyon is on the water by kayak or canoe. By all accounts, it’s one of the best things to do in Big Bend National Park. Next time, we may try to do that. As long as I don’t sink the kayak first.
Things To Do in Big Bend National Park: #4 Take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
One of the best ways to see Big Bend and all of its glory is to take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. This 30-mile route goes through some of the most breathtaking areas of the park and provides some wonderful views of the Rio Grande and the canyons of the area. It also provides visitors with a great chance to see wildlife and wildflowers.
So, we got lucky. If we’d tried to plan our trip to catch the bluebonnets in full bloom, there’s no way it would have happened. We just managed to be in Big Bend during one of the best blooms in recent years. Even for me and my color-blindness, it was an awesome sight. Many of these bluebonnet patches popped up along this drive. If you time it right, it’s extremely impressive.
Things To Do in Big Bend National Park: #5 Cross the Rio Grande into Mexico
One of the most unique experiences you can have while visiting Big Bend actually takes place across the Mexican border, in a small town called Boquillas del Carmen. In the southwest corner of the park, you can cross the Rio Grande and enter Mexico at the smallest border crossing station in the United States.
For $5, you will be rowed across the Rio Grande and arrive in Mexico. (If the river is low, you can also wade across if that’s your thing.) From there, you can ride a burro or walk a short distance into the village of Boquillas. We chose to walk, and it was a cool experience to be on our own in Mexico, even for a short time. It was our first trip south of the border (even though we’ve travelled internationally before) and our first taste of Mexico was a good one.
After doing some sightseeing, we grabbed an early lunch at the Boquillas Restaurant. Tiffany had some tasty goat tacos and I had some of the best tamales I’ve ever had. I’m a tamale guy, but Tiff typically doesn’t enjoy them. She even loved these. They were that good.
Have you ever been to Big Bend? I’m sure we’re missing some great recommendations, so be sure to leave your thoughts below. Maybe next time we’ll be able to check out even more of the park!