After Sara accepted a job teaching in Odessa, Texas, the first thing we did was determine where the nearest national park was. Less than a three-hour drive south of Midland / Odessa, on the border between Texas and Mexico, lies Big Bend National Park. Big Bend is Texas’ largest National Park and the 15th largest National Park in the United States at over 800,000 acres. We spent two separate long weekends in Big Bend and this post contains my suggestions for the best driving itinerary and things to do in Big Bend.
Below is a basic map showing Big Bend’s main paved roads and the 3 main areas I’d recommend visiting in Big Bend National Park:
Map of Big Bend Showing Best Driving Routes and Destinations
Note: Big Bend is BIG. If you want to walk, hike, or take the time to enjoy view points, you will need a minimum of two days to explore the park. We backcountry camped in the Chisos Mountains and camped in Terlingua when we visited Big Bend.
If you have the time, I would recommend entering Big Bend Park on one highway and departing on the other to make a loop.
Drivers arriving from the east may be tempted to enter and exit Big Bend on Highway 385 to save time, but I quite like the towns of Terlingua and Alpine and would recommend visiting them, if you can. The scenery along Highway 118 is also quite different from that on Highway 385. Big Bend State Park is also beautiful to drive through so another option is to drive Highway 170 to Presidio and connect with Highway 67 north (or vice-versa).
Driving South on Highway 385 to Big Bend Park
If you plan to stay outside of Big Bend National Park, I would highly recommend the “ghost town” of Terlingua, which is just west of Big Bend National Park on Highway 118.
Alpine is the closest large town (pop. 5905) but is 80 miles (130 kms) north of the park on Highway 118. If you need to stock up on supplies before entering Big Bend, Alpine is likely your best bet.
Be forwarned that gasoline and diesel are scarce and expensive around Big Bend. While fuel is usually available at Panther Junction and in Study Butte / Terlingua, I’d still recommend filling up in Alpine, Marathon, or Presidio before driving towards Big Bend NP to save time and money once in the park.
Note: As soon as you head south of Highway 90, there will be lots of border control personnel and checkpoints. If you do not have a US Driving License, I highly recommend carrying your passport.
Driving east of Panther Junction takes you towards the Rio Grande Village Visitor Center. The scenery along this road is beautiful and there are several stops and viewpoints along the drive.
Tunnel on the Road to Rio Grande Village Visitor Center
Before reaching Rio Grande Village Visitor Center, there is a turn-off south to Hot Springs Road. Hot Springs Road is a two-mile gravel road that descends down a rough narrow wash into the Hot Springs Historic District. We managed to drive it safely in our 2WD car but a high-clearance vehicle would have been better. Motorhomes and oversize vehicles are prohibited on the one-way sections of the Hot Springs Road.
Road to the Hot Springs Historic District
Once at the parking lot, it’s a 1-mile (1.6km) round-trip walk to the Langford Hot Springs. It’s not a difficult walk and we managed to do it in our sandals without a problem.
The Langford Hot Springs are a wonderful 105° F (41° C) and carry loads of dissolved mineral salts reputed to have healing powers. Even in the mid-day sun Sara and I enjoyed the hot springs, though they’d be much more enjoyable in cooler ambient temperatures. Thankfully, the Rio Grande was high enough that we were able to safely dip in the cool river for hot/cold cycles.
Langford Hot Springs
There is an NPS Visitor Center, small store, and campground around the Rio Grande Village. The NPS put on a free BBQ when we visited so we stopped for lunch but unless you need information, there is not a lot to see or do.
A short drive east of the visitor center exists the Boquillas Border Crossing. If you’re interested in quickly visiting Coahuila, Mexico, and have your passports with you, this is the place to do it. We didn’t cross over since I always face scrutiny entering the US due to having worked in Yemen, but it would be a great adventure.
After crossing the border, you’ll need to pay $5/person for a row boat across the Rio Grande River and another $5/person for a truck ride into Rio Grande Village. I’ve read that there are lots of souvenirs available for tourists to buy and that Jose Falcon’s Restaurant is a great place for Mexican food. If you do visit, please let me know how it goes in the comments section below!
Further east, you’ll find a side road south to the Boquillas Canyon Overlook or you can continue driving to the Boquillas Canyon Trail. We elected to hike the 1.4-mile (2.3km) round-trip trail into the stunning rocky canyon.
The best part is you’re essentially hiking along the US / Mexico border. The Rio Grande River divides the countries and thus Mexico is a stone’s throw away.
Me Standing in Texas with Mexico in the Background
Sara is All Smiles in the Boquillas Canyon
In central Big Bend National Park, there is a beautiful mountainous area called the Chisos Mountains. Down in the basin below the mountains, there is a visitor center, convenience store, campground, and lodge. The Chisos Mountains Lodge is the only accommodation outside of camping within the national park so it would be a convenient place to stay if money is not a concern.
If you’re interested in backcountry camping within Big Bend, check out my post about camping in the Chisos Mountains. For longer hikes, I’d also highly recommend the South Rim and/or Emory Peak hiking trails.
Even if you don’t plan to stay in Chisos Basin, or hike in the Chisos Mountains, I would still recommend driving to the visitor center. The drive is beautiful and you can do a short 0.3-mile round-trip walk on the Window View Trail. The convenience store also sells cold beers from Big Bend Brewing Co. so it makes for a great place to picnic lunch.
View From Window View Trail
Off the main road from Highway 118 to Panther Junction, in the west part of Big Bend Park, there is a beautiful scenic drive south on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.
Cerro Castellan (Castolon Peak), Big Bend National Park
The scenic drive goes to Santa Elena Canyon, but there are also plenty of beautiful stops along the way. This road is best enjoyed slowly so take your time and enjoy the views. We stopped numerous times to take photos and soak in the desert landscape.
Castolon Peak with Santa Elena Canyon in the Background
Near the end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, there is a picnic area and overlook of the Santa Elena Canyon. We had a picnic lunch at the covered tables but it was still exceedingly hot. Most visitors would only jump out of their air-conditioned vehicles for a few quick photos before continuing on.
View from Santa Elena Canyon Overlook
If you follow the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive right to the end you’ll be able to access the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. The temperatures were so hot when we visited that we were only able to quickly walk a portion of the trail before heading back. It was so hot that the water in our water bottles was like a hot tea after only twenty minutes!
Santa Elena Canyon
If you do plan to walk the trail, be prepared and carry lots of water as well as a hat and sunscreen.
Views from the Santa Elena Canyon Trail
From Santa Elena Canyon, the fastest route back to Highway 118 is along the Old Maverick Road. Unfortunately, when we visited, there were signs indicating this improved dirt road was closed to 2WD traffic. Rather than risk it in our car, we doubled back along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. If you have a high-clearance vehicle, I would certainly recommend also exploring the Old Maverick Road and driving the loop.
Overall, Big Bend is one of the most road trip worthy national parks I’ve visited. Although the hiking options are more limited than in other national parks, the huge canyons and desert mountains are stunning. Car and motorcycle enthusiasts should definitely add driving Big Bend to their bucket lists!