Know Before You Go: Big Bend National Park

Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park

Big Bend is the fourth largest National Park in the US, located in a very remote part of Southwest Texas, along the border with Mexico. Big Bend is hard to get to, which means that people who are visiting the park really mean to be here. It’s not a quick stopover between their work conference or family vacation somewhere else. Anyone who is here has made an effort to do it. 

The sign is nice confirmation, but you kind of can’t miss the park!

Getting to Big Bend

The closest major airport is El Paso which is still a 4.5 hour drive away. We drove from our home in Austin, which was 7.5 hours away. Luckily we were traveling in April which meant the first part, through Burnet and Llano, offered up some really gorgeous wildflower views along the highway.

The drive to Big Bend through Burnet and Llano from Austin was filled with wildflowers.

There are not many towns around Big Bend so if you need supplies, especially fancy ones, you should bring them with you if you can. The closest towns would be Terlingua ghost town, Study Butte (pronounced stoody bewt), or Alpine. I use the term “town” very loosely. They’re all very, very small.

Orienting Yourself and Getting Around Big Bend

Big Bend National Park is huge and you will definitely need a car, preferably an SUV as there are many trails and roads that aren’t well paved and need a higher clearance vehicle to access. One hike, Ernst Tinaja, came highly recommended by our friends who know the park well. Unfortunately, our little Honda Accord was no match for the road leading to it so we missed out. There were still plenty of hikes to reach in a sedan too, so all was not lost.

Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park
The Chisos Mountains is the only range that sits entirely within a single National Park.

The heart of the park is the Chisos Mountains, which happens to be the only mountain range in the US that is totally contained within a single national park. (Right now you’re thinking mountains!? In Texas? I mean, I thought the same thing and I freakin’ grew up here.) The mountains themselves are arranged in a bit of a circle, forming a basin in the middle called the Chisos Basin. There is a visitor center here, a lodge, and the start of many of the trails within the park. One could potentially drive in, stay at the lodge, and hike to your heart’s content without ever getting back in your car.

The Chisos Basin visitor center is surrounded by the Chisos Mountains on all sides.

I wouldn’t recommend doing that though! The diversity of the terrain here is so much more varied than one would think, considering it’s a “desert” landscape. In order to sample a variety of what Big Bend has to offer, you owe it to yourself to drive to some of the other areas like the hot springs, Ernst Tinaja (if your car can bear the road) and the Santa Elena Canyon (where you can cross the Rio Grande into Mexico…if you dare).

Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park
Yep, that is the mighty Rio Grande river coming out of the Santa Elena Canyon. On the left bank is Mexico.

Cell Coverage & Clocks

This is about as middle of nowhere as you can get so be prepared for cruddy cell coverage. You will lose coverage somewhere on your hikes (although you never know when!) and definitely at some points during the drive into and out of the park, especially between Alpine and Terlingua.

I have AT&T and Brian has T-Mobile and he actually had a bit more coverage along the drive into and out of the park. But I had better coverage within the park. I was actually surprised at how much of the time I still had cell service. However, service is very unpredictable so please download or print items that you want access to. It’s not a good idea to rely on your phone alone.

Another note: for some reason cell carriers sometimes update to Mountain Time. However, Big Bend and the surrounding area is definitively in the Central Time zone. If you have plans that involve specific times, you should double check your phone’s clock and make sure it has not moved to Mountain time. I noticed that our accommodations specified the timezone on the checkout card and thought maybe someone had tried to sneak more time on a technicality like “You didn’t specify what timezone the 10am checkout was in…” Turns out, that actually is a thing that happens.

For the record, neither of our phones changed timezones, but we came from Austin which is already on central timezone so that might have helped.

A Note About Parking…

For several of the hikes, you’ll want to arrive quite early if you’re driving in, as the parking lots fill up fast. If you get there and there is no place to park, there’s literally no other option for you.

Chisos Basin Visitor Center

This is where a lot of the trails begin which is nice because you can park and do a lot of hiking without getting back in the car. However, the parking lot at the visitor center was almost full when we arrived at 8:30am.

Chisos Basin visitor center in Big Bend National Park
There’s a fair amount of parking at the Chisos Basin visitor center, but when it’s full, you’re just out of luck!

Lost Mine Trail

This is a popular trail but parking is only a handful of spots along the road just before the Chisos Basin visitor center. It is a steep, narrow road so it is not easy to park at the visitor center and walk down to the Lost Mine trailhead. I’d recommend getting to this one pretty darn early!

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon is sort of off by itself. There is a parking lot for around 25 cars and anyone coming here is coming for the canyon. There aren’t really other trails that use the same parking lot. So with that said, if you drive all the way out here and there is no place to park, there’s not really any other place to go to pass the time. We got here on a Tuesday at 8:30am in April, which is a popular time of year for visitors, and the parking lot was about 2/3 full.

Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park
Santa Elena Canyon is remote, and the hike is short. But it’s so worth it.

There may be other trails that have a similar situation, so you can’t go wrong applying the mantra about the early bird getting the worm. Although in this case it’s the early car that gets the parking spot. 🙂

Don’t Forget Your Ticket!

No matter where you end up staying or how you get to the park, you’ll need to pay an entrance fee. If you’re driving in, the cost is $30 per non-commercial vehicle and is good for 7 days. There are several other options for people walking in or for camping. There are even some days that are free! You can see more details about that on the National Parks website.

You can buy your ticket to the park at any visitor center, or by reserving ahead of time online. Below is information about each of the visitor centers in the park and their various amenities.

Want to Bring Your Dog?

Big Bend is already full of animals – mountain lions, snakes, and bears, oh my! You can bring your dog but it’s not really worth it. A good rule of thumb is that dogs are allowed anywhere a car is allowed. So while they’re in your car, they can be on the road or off to the side of the road. They aren’t allowed on trails or off leash anywhere. You can’t leave them at your campsite and you definitely can’t leave them in your car. Fido would have no fun at all.

Ross Maxwell drive in Big Bend National Park
Ross Maxwell scenic drive is one thing your dog could enjoy from the comfort of your car.

Next up…where to stay when visiting Big Bend, and a review of our lodging at Basecamp Terlingua!

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2 Replies to “Know Before You Go: Big Bend National Park”

  1. Love the pics, love the outdoors. Keep travelling, and keep posting dear friend! 😊👍🏼

  2. Nice! I spent an August birth out that way at Davis Mountains Park- and even at the height of brutal weather it still got chilly at night! Love me some hiking in the desert- might have to make my way back that direction! That drive is brutal though…

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