Updated: Jan 13, 2021
"I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference." - Robert Frost
What can I say about Big Bend National Park? JUST WOW! Definitely a national park not to be missed! Big Bend National Park is one of the least visited national parks, not because it lacks beauty but because of its remote location. I want to share with you our journey to Big Bend National Park and I can reassure you that it's worth the extra work to visit this amazing place.
We live in New England and as New Englanders fondly say "you can't get there from here." My family had their hesitations and secretly so did I. For us to travel to Big Bend National Park, we had to take two flights before reaching Midland Airport, rent a car, and drive another 4hrs through rural Texas just to reach the outskirts of the Park. This is the kind of trip where your travel companions and ability to adapt matters. Adding to the mix, we chose to do Glamping for the first time, and the Friday we got there was the Friday before the 2018 government shut down. Our anxiety level was high. Before we left for the trip, I went over the itinerary with the family, explained we were trying a few new things and there was a good chance things would not go according to plan. This would not be a beach vacation. With lowered expectations, each of us was ready for the unknown. But let me tell you, it was one of the best trips our family had!
We spent 6 days 5 nights in December. We chose the month of December because we live in New England and wanted to go somewhere warm. I would recommend visiting Big Bend NP anytime between November till April. The spring might be even better because you can see Cactus 🌵 blooms. The summer would be way too dry and hot, so I would recommend against it.
Before you start planning for the trip, I would recommend you to take a look at the map below. It gives you an idea of how vast the park is.
Area map around Big Bend National Park from NPS website
Depending on where you come from, Marfa, Alpine and Marathon are three good places to stop for groceries. Alpine is about 2.5hrs and Marathon is a little bit over 1.5hrs from Big Bend. Marfa is supposed to be a cute town to visit, and it's where the famous Prada Marfa art display is. Marfa Prada is about 3.5 hrs and Marfa town is almost 3 hrs from Big Bend. Unless you are coming from the west, I would not drive that far to see it. We came from Midland Airport and chose to go through Marathon where we purchased our groceries.
The other reason we chose to stop by Marathon is that we wanted to enter Big Bend via I-385. On this highway, there is a Fossil Discovery Center which is about 15 min from the Panther Junction Visitor Center and 40 min from Marathon. This is a great stop for the kids to explore after a long drive. My kids had a blast there! You can find more information about the exhibit here https://fossildiscoveryexhibit.com/
Our kids having fun exploring @FossilDiscoveryCenter
Big Bend National Park Map from NPS website
We split our stay between Glamping ⛺️ at Basecamp Terlingua, and Lajitas Golf Resort (https://www.lajitasgolfresort.com/). The resort is ok, nothing too special and will add another 30-40min to your drive to the park. If you look at the Big Bend National Park Map above, Lajitas resort is all the way to the left corner of the map, and you will have to drive through Terlingua to approach the park.
The Glamping experience, however, was a highlight of our trip and has become a mainstay of our NP trips. Glamping gives you the feel of roughing it ( without actually roughing it). I just checked their website again and it looks like they have more lodging options. The Bubble looks pretty cool! https://basecampterlingua.com/bubbles/ . Give it a try!
There are lodging options available inside the park. The park is huge so regardless of where you stay, expect to do a little driving. I like the Basecamp location because it's right next to the Ghost Town Terlingua. One restaurant not to miss in Terlingua is The Starlight, which is historical and charming, serving authentic Tex Mex food with music to boot. After a long day on the trails eating packed food, its a real treat to have a relaxing sit down meal. You can get more information regarding Startlight restaurant and The Ghost Town here http://www.thestarlighttheatre.com/ and http://ghosttowntexas.com/
Sunrise, daytime and nighttime views of our tent @BasecampTerlingua
I would again recommend you use the National Park Trail Guide App (free) as a starting point. This app will give you a list of all the hikes and level of difficulty. You can plan your choice of trails based on your travel companions' ability. I recommend all the trails we did because it gives you an appreciation for Big Bend's uniqueness! The park offers a diversity of rocks, plants, and animals. You will see green trees in one section then desert like at the next, etc.... so cool 😎
Our kids were 6 and 8, but we still did lots of hikes. Big Bend NP ranked 14th of the 30 largest US National Park. To minimize driving, we divided the park in 4 different areas: Chisos Basin/Balanced Rock, Rio Grande/Boquillas Canyon, Ernst Tinaja/Hot Springs, and Santa Elena Canyon area. We focused on one area per day.
We hiked Balanced Rock Trail, which is about 1.9 mile round trip with 230ft gain in elevation. The first part of the trail is flat but as you get closer to the Balanced Rock, the elevation changes quickly. So be prepared to help the little ones. Overall, we didn't think that this hike was difficult. Our 6yr old, who is not a fan of hiking, did fine (and yes there was some whining along the way as expected). Bring a hat, sunscreen, snacks and plenty of water!
My youngest at the beginning of the change in elevation; my kids were taking a break under the Balanced Rock; My eldest posed with her favorite plant.
After Balanced Rock Trail, we headed to the Chisos Basin Visitor Center for lunch. There is a restaurant adjacent to the visitor center. The food was decent and the restaurant has a beautiful view of the Window Trail. There is outside sitting as well. From this area, there are many trails that you can take. Again, you can go as little or as long as you want. The Windows Trail is rated moderate and is about 5.2 miles round trip. Due to time constraints, we didn't hike the whole way. We did just part of it and came back. If you don't want to hike this trail, within a short walk from the visitor center there is a viewing area which is a great spot for a photo op of the Window Trail.
The view over the Window Trail @ChisosBasin
We hiked the Ernst Tinaja Trail which is about 1.5hrs drive from Terlingua to the trail head. You should have AWD for this road. Ernst Tinaja trail is rated easy and is about 1.9mile round trip with 131ft change in elevation. It's a beautiful trail and great area for rock scrambling for the kids. At one spot we needed to help the kids traverse a huge big boulder; you can either pass over or under the boulder. We ended up spending much more time there than we anticipated because the kids didn't want to leave. It was like a natural playground to them. There are shaded areas along the trail, making it feel cooler due to the rock formations on both sides. Bring a light jacket, snacks, drinks and sunscreen for this hike.
The road to Ernst Tinaja trail and the drive was a breeze with AWD ; the terrance along the trail is pretty cool and the kids love running/climbing around this area @ErnstTinajaTrail; My kids are chillin' on one of the rocks.
We ended the day with the Hot Springs trail to the historic Langford Hot Springs with an old bathhouse foundation which was constructed in 1906. It is situated along the Rio Grande river directly across the US-Mexico border. We thought that was pretty cool. There are a couple of different trails varying in length that can get you there, but we basically drove up to the parking lot area and got there in a short walk. This was like a hot tub which was great to soothe those sore muscles after hiking. The temperature is about 105 degree. My family loved it. It’s kind of hidden but the GPS will take you there. You can find more information about the hot springs here: https://www.nps.gov/bibe/planyourvisit/soakinthesprings.htm
My family enjoyed the hot springs at sunset along the Rio Grande River
It took us a little bit over one hour to get from Terlingua to the Boquillas Canyon trail head. So add another 30min travel time if you stay in Lajitas area. Boquillas Canyon trail is rated easy and is about 1.3 miles round trip. It's an easy hike along the Rio Grande leading you to the Boquillas Canyon. The Rio Grande is the border between US and Mexico. As you look across the river, you can see people on Mexico side. The Boquillas Canyon is beautiful and I saw people on floats/kayaks. When we were there, the water was low enough that we could easily walk over to Mexico side. My kids enjoyed dipping their feet into the river, and literally a few steps from Mexico border.
When you are in this area, you can also visit Boquillas Del Carmen, a small northern town in Mexico. You will need valid passports to go through the Boquillas Crossing border port. Once you pass the port, you take a quick boat ride ($5) across the Rio Grande River and continue to the town by either walking (0.5mile) or for a fee, you can ride a burro, a horse or in a vehicle. The town is fun filled with authentic Mexican food, unique crafts and local tours. We didn't go because the border was closed due to the government shutdown. We would totally do this if it was available. This would be an adventure in itself. You can find more information on Boquillas Del Carmen here https://www.nps.gov/bibe/planyourvisit/visiting-boquillas.htm
We ended the day just hanging out around the Rio Grande Village. There are a few trails there that you can take. We just did the Rio Grande Village Nature Loop which is a 0.5 mile easy walk with awesome views. There are a few places for a picnic and overall a great place for little kids to safely run around.
The drive to Boquillas Canyon is beautiful; Our daughters made a stop along the Boquillas Canyon trail and looked over the Rio Grande River; The kids dipping their feet in the Rio Grande @Boquillas Canyon.
We went to Santa Elena Canyon. It's a long drive but provides an impressive view of the Canyon. You can stop at the overlook and view the Canyon or you can do a 1.7miles round trip hike into the Canyon. Supposedly the morning is the best time to come here. We started the day late and didn't get there until afternoon. The hike is not difficult and fine for little kids. The kids love splashing in the puddles but it's cold when you get inside the Canyon. On the way back, and in Robert Frost spirit, we took the "road less travelled." In this case, it was Old Maverick Road. We honestly didn't know what to expect but be prepared to drive for a long time through a desolate area of the park. It's one of those roads that you don't want to have a car break down. We drove over a few streams and wondered what it would be like if the water was any higher. Again, AWD would be best for these roads.
Our family @SantaElenaCanyon
We hiked the Lost Mine Trail on our last day. It was our favorite hike at Big Bend, and is probably the most challenging one. Lost Mine Trail is rated moderate and is 4.2 miles round trip with a 1,099ft gain in elevation. The gain in elevation is what makes this hike challenging. My kids whined a bit, but in the end we were all happy when we made it to the top:)
We brought our snacks, lunches and lots of water. There are many areas along the hike where you will be exposed to sun so make sure you bring sunscreen. It is probably more challenging for little ones but definitely doable. As long as time is not a constraint and you take a lot of breaks, you will get there. The view on top is expansive and rewarding.
Our daughters hiking on Lost Mine Trail; The view along the hike is amazing. We made it up top!
Final thoughts: -
- There are options to float or kayak on the Rio Grande through the canyon which would be amazing, but we couldn’t do it because our youngest was 6 and didn’t make the age cut off
- Definitely get AWD or you'll have a hard time getting to some really special trails without it.
- Download Google Offline Map beforehand because there is no internet in the park. I do this for all national park trips. See my National Parks Trip 101 post for step to step how-to.
- Grocery selection is limited, & sparsely located around the park's nearby towns. I recommend stocking up on groceries at a bigger town before getting to the park (as mentioned above).
- There is McDonald Observatory center in Fort Davis which we didn’t see due to time constraints. It’s supposed to be very good. This is a great stop if you are driving from the Alpine area.
- If you travel in an RV, I would recommend getting a separate car since many roads off the main loop road are bumpy/hilly/gravelly; an RV would not make it. We actually saw one RV get stuck. Read the road signs; some are not recommended unless you have AWD. We rented the Expedition which handled the off roading like a champ.
- If you have to fly through Dallas, we recommend a day or two too relax at the Gaylord Hotel. We did it and it was a nice way to end the trip after 5-6 days of "roughing it!" :)