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Best Time To Visit Big Bend National Park Texas

Best Time To Visit Big Bend National Park Texas

When you think of National Parks to visit, somehow Big Bend National Park doesn’t usually make the top of list. And I am not sure why this is. Maybe its because the park isn’t as lush, green and vibrant with easy access to it. Instead you’ll find a park that is dry, rugged and rough with adventure with lots of history and culture. And it is far from everything. Yet, in my opinion, that’s what makes it so unique. 

Big Bend National Park, as the name suggests comes from a large bend in the Rio Grande River as it dramatically changes directions from south east to north east. The park borders the land of Mexico for about 118 twisting miles. And offers many things to do including scenic drives, sunsets, birding, hiking, hot springs, dark skies and more. 

entrance sign to Big Bend National OPark
Entrance sign to Big Bend National Park

So if your planning a visit to one of the most under-rated national parks, this guide will help you determine the best time to visit Big Bend National Park, things to know before you go, best things to see in the park and where you can stay to visit. 

Best time to visit Big Bend National Park 

Temperatures in Big Bend National Park range from below freezing to above 100 degrees. So with that being said, knowing what to expect and coming prepared for your visit is essential. As you may need to pack for 4 seasons for just a few days. So, this guide will help to plan your visit, and determine what time of year and temperatures to expect.

Best Time of Year

The best time to visit Big Bend National Park is late fall into early spring. During this time, you will experience better weather. With fall and spring offering the most comfortable temperatures. And during the winter months, of December through February you’ll find cool temperatures during the day and cold temperatures at night. 

Busy Season

The busiest time of year in Big Bend is November through April. And particularly holidays and mid March. March is filled with spring break visitors and can get crowded. The temperatures are extremely pleasant but the crowds are not. Accommodations can be hard to come by during spring break, so make sure to plan in advance.

Summer Months 

Even though summer is the most traveled time of the year, it isn’t neccesarily the best time to visit Big Bend. The temperatures get hot in June through August. So, if you plan to visit at this time, get familiar with heat safety. 

Summer also means the possibility of storms. The rainy season is May through September and severe storms and flash flooding is possible. Although the rain can cool the dessert floor and therefore be a nice time to visit. 

How to get to Big Bend National Park 

Big Bend is located in Southwest Texas. It is in a remote location and most likely why this national park is overlooked. In my opinion its a great road trip destination. Because the closest airport (Midland International Airport) is located 3 hours away.  The airport is serviced by American, Delta, United and Southwest offering flights to seven major airports.  Hence, flying here for some can be a challenge because the nearest airport is not that close and the flights are limited.

Therefore, driving to Big Bend may be a better option for most. And then you can expand your trip to Big Bend National Park into a larger road trip, including the closest town of Terlingua Ghost Town or nearby Marfa.  

How far is Big Bend National Park from Texas major cities? Here are the driving distances:

  • El Paso, TX: 302 miles 
  • San Antonio, TX: 459 miles
  • Dallas, TX: 575 miles
  • Houston, TX: 654 miles
  • Albuquerque, NM: 568 miles

About Big Bend National Park

Compared to the largest national Park in Alaska which covers 8 million acres, Big Bend National Park covers 801,163 acres making it the 15th largest national park in the United States. It is the only national park that contains an entire mountain range within park boundaries, the Chisos Mountains. And is the largest protected area of the Chihuahua Desert. 

Big Bend is home to a variety of species with more types of birds, bats, butterflies, ants, scorpions and cacti then any other national park in the United States. And therefore significant because the park also contains the most representative example of the Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem in the U.S..

The park offers geologic, archeological and historic resources. And therefore creating opportunities to study many sedimentary and igneous processes.

And lastly, due to its remote location, Big Bend has some of the best dark sky viewing conditions in the United States. Because on a clear night you can see meteor showers, constellations and even see the Milky Way. 

Things To Know Before You Go To Big Bend National Park

  1. Big Bend is located in a remote area. So, fill up at the local gas station before you into the park. Also note there are only 2 gas locations inside the entire park.
  2. There is little to no cell service in the park. However, free public WiFi is available at all park visitor centers, the Chisos Mountains Lodge and the Rio Grande Village Store.
  3. You will drive on both a paved and unpaved roads to access trailheads and points of interest.
  4. Dogs are NOT permitted on trails, public buildings or back country.
  5. Bring plenty of water as it gets very hot.
  6. Pack food and snacks that are good energy foods, as supplies are limited.
  7. Bring your passport if you want to cross the border into Mexico.
  8. Pack your bathing suit and water shoes if you want to get into the hot springs and river.

How many days to spend in Big Bend

If you can spend three days in Big Bend National Park, you will see most of the highlights of the park. Big Bend is vast. So nothing is close by. It’s almost an hour drive to get to from one destination to another. Therefore, you should anticipate a lot of windshield time no matter how you plan it.

The good thing is, you’ll experience the scenic drives without even knowing it!

Park Entrances

There are two park entrances to Big Bend. Persimmon Gap is located on the north side via HWY 385 from Marathon. And Maverick Junction is located on the west side via HWY 118 through Study Butte and near Terlingua. The distance between them is 57 miles.

Both require the normal national park entrance pass. You can either purchase a per vehicle ($30), per motorcycle ($25), or pedestrian ($15) pass which will grant you access for seven days. Or you can use the annual American the Beautiful Pass which will grant you access to all the national parks for the year.

If you don’t have a pass, take a look at the info graph below and it can help you decide. 

photo credit: National Parks Service

Visitor Centers

There are 4 visitors centers in Big Bend National Park. They make a great place to start your national park exploration. Here, you can pick up a park map, hiking trials, get a river trip permit and other park related information.

  1. Panther Junction Visitor Center: Located near the center of the park and a great place to start your visit
  2. Chisos Basin Visitor Center: Located in the Basin developed area and 10 miles south west from Panther Junction 
  3. Castalon Visitor Center: Located in the Castalon Historic District about 8 miles from Santa Elena Canyon trailhead 
  4. Rio Grande Village Visitor Center: Located 0.25 miles north of the Rio Grande Village developed area, and 20 miles east of Panther Junction.
  5. Persimmon Gap Visitor Center: located at the north entrance

Best things to do Big Bend National Park

Now that you know the best time to visit Big Bend National Park, a little history about the park, how to get there, and other helpful information, we’ll now discover the best things to do in the park.

Scenic Drives

As I mentioned earlier, Big Bend is a large park, so you can expect a good amount of driving. There are a 100 miles of paved road, along with dirt roads and primitive dirt roads. So make sure you have the proper vehicle and check the road conditions if you plan to drive down a primitive dirt road. 

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive in Big Bend National Park

For scenic drives, the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is one of the best and most scenic. This not to miss 30 mile drive starts near the Maverick entrance and runs between Burro Mesa and the Chisos Mountains. Along the way you can see and/or stop at many points of interest:

  1. The Sam Neil Ranch 
  2. Blue Creek Ranch Overlook 
  3. Sotol Vista Overlook 
  4. Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff
  5. Mile Ears Viewpoint
  6. Tuff Canyon 
  7. Castalon Historic District 
  8. Santa Elena Canyon 

The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive ends at Santa Elena Canyon. So after your drive you have to perfect opportunity to hike the Santa Elena Canyon Trail.  

Another scenic way to get to Santa Elena Canyon is via Old Maverick Road. This wash board dirt road is only 14 miles however depending on the conditions, that will determine the time. We tried it once, and it was an adventure. So, I have one word to describe it: wash-board, so give it a try if you like adventure!

Hike Santa Elena Canyon

The Santa Elena Canyon trail is one the prettiest and most popular trails in the park.  It is one of my favorite places in the park, and in my opinion one of the best short hikes.  

Santa Elena Canyon is a moderately easy 1.6 mile out and back hike. The diffcult part can be the Terlingua River crossings both at the beginning and end of the hike. This river bed ranges from dry sand, to thick mud, to ankle deep water up to thigh high deep water.

We have been on two occasions. October, where the water was the deepest and March where we barely got wet. With this in mind, check the conditions before you go, so you know what to expect. You may want to bring a change of clothes or socks depending on the water level. 

I will admit, I was a little fearful about crossing an unknown river at first. However, its clearly marked and everyone is doing it. So just come prepared to cross. Ans stay on the path, it is dangerous to try to find another crossing area. If the river is impassable the park will close the trail for safety reasons. 

After you cross the river there are steps to climb to get to a higher elevation and viewpoint before making a gradual descent back down to reach the river bank. The trail is shaded in some areas but at mid day it can get very hot. The walk into the canyon is beautiful. Make sure to walk all the way down to the end. You will know because you can’t go any farther.  There are many areas to view the river along the walk, and it makes the perfect place to relax, have a snack and take in the beautiful scenery. 

Mexico Border Crossing

If you brought your passport then you can go to Mexico! The Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico border crossing is a unique experience offered only at Big Bend National Park. Just make sure to verify the operating hours so you know when the crossing closes and can be sure to return.

Required Documents

To cross into Mexico you must present a valid passport if you are an adult, no exceptions. Children under 16 may present a birth certificate. We unfortunately did not have ours. One of ours passports was expired and out for a replacement, so we were not permitted to cross. However, we definitely want to do this if we return to Big Bend. 

If you need additional information about crossing, contact Customs and Border Protection at 432-229-3349. Make sure to check the hours of operation because they are not open 7 days a week.

How to get there?

If you want to cross, just head over to the Boquillas Crossing and park your car. There, you can leave your car while you’re in Mexico. Then you will pass through the Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry, and then pay a fee to take a row boat over to Mexico. Or you can wade across the Rio Grande River only at Boquillas Crossing and only if the water level is low.

From there the town is a .5 mile walk or you can pay another fee to ride a burro, horse or a vehicle to get into town. Once you arrive n town, you should check in with the immigration office and pay a small fee. 

What to do in town?

There are 2 simple restaurants in town along with a bar and various little vendors. The people are friendly and rely on tourism from the border crossing. US currency is accepted and small bills are best to carry. So enjoy your time in the village, as it is a great place to grab a snack and drink before you head off to your next adventure.

Historic Hot Springs

Another fun and really unique thing to do is visit the Historic Hot Springs. Here, you will find the remains of a once thriving thermal hot springs resort that is now part of Big Bend National Park. Located on the banks of the Rio Grande River, this is all that remains of the historic bathhouse.  The hot spring water is considered old fossil water and believed to have healing properties. 

How to get to hot springs

To get to the hot springs trailhead you have to drive down a very narrow road. Trailers and dully trucks are not allowed on this road, and for good reason. Its rough, narrow and can be dangerous if your vehicle is too large.

Trailhead sign for Historic Hot Springs

Once you arrive at the trailhead and park your car, the hot springs are only a .25 mile walk down the river. Along the way you can learn about the old buildings and explore what still remains. This area has so much history, so take your time as you make your way to the hot springs.

Historic Hot Springs Trail at Big Bend National Park
Walking down the .25 mile path to the hot springs

Just down the trail, you will find the hot springs. You can see where the bathhouse once was. As the stone outline is all that remains and holds in the 105 degree water. The stone wall is what separates the warm water of the springs from the cool water of the river.

Standing on the wall that separates the river from the hot springs

When the water level is high or has recently flooded the hot springs may not be visible, so check with park ranger, so you know what to expect.

Historic Hot Springs at Big Bend National Park
Historic Hot Springs at Big bend National Park

You can sit and relax in the ancient thermal waters or cool off and float in the river. After you enjoy your time in the water you can continue down the hot springs trial loop or return back to the car.

We hiked the loop and it did have nice views. However it was hot, not shaded and rated just okay in my opinion. So, if time is limited, I would say spend yours on other activities.

Dark Sky Viewing

Big Bend National Park is an international Dark Sky Park, which means it has the darkest skies of any national park in all of the lower 48 states. And it is also the largest, covering over 15,000 square miles. 

With the least light pollution of any of national park, and good weather conditions, you have the opportunity to see meteor showers, constellations and even the Milky Way. If you’ve never experienced the views of a dark sky area, you really should. It is amazing to see the skies in action. So grab a comfortable chair, one that reclines preferably to support your neck, a pair on binoculars and a blanket. 

Once you settle in, your eyes adjust and the night sky takes over. You will soon find yourself emersed into the universe. It’s amazing!

Other great things to do in Big Bend National Park

Big Bend is a large spread out park. And you really need a few days to really enjoy what the park has to offer. If you are staying outside of the park, consider the drive time because it is easily an hour drive to get to almost destination in the park. So, travel at your own pace and do what feels best for you! There are so many options and we all travel differently.

However, if time permits, here are some other hiking trails in the park you should consider:

  • Window View Trail: less than .5 mile roundtrip. Great place for sunset view.
  • Boquillas Canyon Trail : 1.5 mile round trip. Short climb than leads down to the river
  • Lost Mine Trail: 4.8 miles round trip. Beautiful mountain and desert views
  • Mule Ears Spring: 3.8 miles round trip. Desert hike to a small spring
  • Grapevine Hills Trail: 2.2 miles round trip. Easy, populat hike with groups of balanced rocks at the end
  • South Rim Trail: 12 mile challenging loop near Terlingua, popular for backpacking and camping

Places to Stay When You Visit Big Bend National Park

Campgrounds in the park

If you want to experience the park to its fullest, I would try to stay at one of only four park campgrounds in the park. This way you can reduce your driving in in and out of the park everyday.  Reservations can be made at Recreation.gov.

  1. Chisos Basin Campground: Reservation only, located in the center of the park, no hook ups, open year round for small campers and tents.
  1. Rio Grande Village: Reservation only, located near Rio Grande, No hook ups, open May 1 – Oct 31, Generators may be used. 
  1. Cottenwood Campground: Reservation only, located near Rio Grande, No hook ups, open November through April, Generators may NOT be used
  1. Rio Grande Village RV: Reservations needed, Full hook ups, Privately run campground https://www.chisosmountainslodge.com/rv-park-and-campground

Campgrounds outside of the ark

For camping outside of Big Bend, you will find many campgrounds. We have stayed on the west side a few times and always stay at Maverick Ranch RV Park, its our favorite. However there are many options for campgrounds in Terlingua, a little closer to the park.

Closest Lodging to Big Bend National Park

For option to stay in or just outside the entrance, there are 3 options:

  • Chisos Mountain Lodge is the only lodging facility within Big Bend National Park.
  • Big Bend Resort is located just 3 miles from the west entrance.
  • Chisos Mining Co. Motel is located nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park.
  • Gage Hotel is an upscale stay near Big Bend in Marathon.
  • Lajitas Golf Resort and Spa in Lajitas is another upscale stay just past Terlingua.
  • Willow House is a desert boutique hotel located in Terlingua.

Local Areas to Visit

Terlingua Top 12 Things To Do In Terlingua Texas Ghost Town 

Marfa (Information coming soon) and Alpine

Are you ready to explore Big Bend National Park?

In summary, I think Big Bend National Park offers a variety of wonderful things to see and do. And in my opinion, the best time to visit is October, where the weather is pleasant and its just before the busy season.

It will be a great experience no matter what you choose to do. And you may even decide to come back again and again. I hope you find this guide resourceful for your visit. So, explore, enjoy, be safe and most of all have fun!

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Author

  • Kim Costantine

    Meet Kim, a spirited adventurer and full-time RV traveler who, along with her partner and small furry companion, is on a perpetual journey to explore the wonders of the open road. With a passion for wanderlust, Kim has embraced a nomadic lifestyle, making her home on wheels as she crisscrosses the country in search of hidden gems and breathtaking landscapes.

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