- Website link: Big Bend National Park
- Cost: $30.00 per car (as of June 1, 2018)
- When to go: anytime, however, the summer temperatures can be extremely high. We recommend March through April when the desert plants are in bloom.
- Suggested accommodations in the park: Chisos Mountains Lodge, or there are several developed and undeveloped campsites/campgrounds available for RV and tent camping. Backcountry camping requires a permit. Click the link above for information.
We are so excited to start this road trip in our home state of Texas! Big Bend is one of the two national parks in the Lone Star State. (The other is Guadalupe Mountains National Park.) Big Bend is located in the bend where the Rio Grande River creates the border between the United States and Mexico. As you will see below, the park is a quite a jaunt from any major city. (But isn’t vacation time for getting away from it all, anyway?) At Big Bend you will experience the peacefulness of the desert and the beauty of the mountains, as well as the tranquility of the river. We think it’s the perfect escape for a long weekend or an extended stay.
Big Bend National Park is approximately:
437 miles from Austin, Texas — 533 miles from Dallas, Texas — 292 miles from El Paso, Texas — 563 miles from Houston, Texas — 321 miles from Lubbock, Texas — 203 miles from Midland, Texas — 412 miles from San Antonio, Texas
Okay, Big Bend is in a remote location, but the good news is: if you don’t have time to drive to the park, all of the above cities have airports and car rentals! We are big believers in flying to the closest airport, renting a sweet ride, and hitting the road from there. Now, before you go getting all mad at the bloggers, we know that’s not the most cost effective way to travel. We would love to have unlimited cash to fund our travels, but we don’t, nor do we have unlimited time because we have full-time jobs. However, we have found that it does help to have air miles, hotel points, and a plan. The “plan” is the reason we’re here. We want to help you make the most of your vacation time, and depending on where you stay and how long you stay, a trip to Big Bend is relatively inexpensive compared to the costs of visiting some of the other national parks.
Let’s hit the road, starting from the closest major airport in Midland, Texas. This route is not the fastest, but it is the most scenic, and there are some great bonus stops along the way.
⇒Take I-20 west out of Midland, toward Pecos, Texas, via Odessa and Monahans. Bonus stop: Monahans Sandhills State Park. Play on the dunes! Tent and RV campsites are available in the park. Approximate drive time between Midland and Pecos: 1.5 hours.
*Recommended hotels in Midland and Pecos: Hampton Inn or Holiday Inn Express. Travel tip: these cities are located in booming oil production areas, so nightly hotel rates are likely to be much higher than in other places.
⇒At Pecos, take Highway 17 south toward Fort Davis, Texas. Bonus stop: Balmorhea State Park for a dip in the world’s largest spring fed swimming pool! Tent and RV campsites are available in the park, as well as the San Solomon Springs Courts (motor courts-type motel), which was built by the CCC in the 1940s. Approximate drive time between Pecos and Balmorhea: 40 minutes. Travel tip: have the kids make a list of all the animals they see on the trip.
⇒Continue on Highway 17 through the Davis Mountains to the town of Fort Davis. Look for Aoudad Sheep in this area. Double Bonus stops: Fort Davis National Historic Site. Take a walking tour through the fort, and then head to Davis Mountains State Park where you can enjoy some fantastic mountain scenery and check out the famous McDonald Observatory! Tent and RV campsites are available in the state park. Approximate drive time between Pecos and Fort Davis: 1.5 hours.
Suggested accommodation in Fort Davis: Fort Davis Drug Store and Hotel. We have not stayed in the hotel, but we do recommend the food at the Fort Davis Drug Store.
Suggested accommodation at Davis Mountains State Park: Indian Lodge, built in the 1930s by the CCC.
*Recommended accommodation for this area: Hampton Inn in Alpine.
⇒At Fort Davis, take Highway 118 to continue on to Alpine. This is a beautiful drive, so take the time to enjoy the scenery. Approximate drive time between Fort Davis and Alpine: 30 minutes. Travel tip: stop at the Museum of the Big Bend on the Sul Ross University campus in Alpine. Spend about an hour learning about the area. Interesting museum for all ages, and it’s free! Travel Tip: top off your gas tank and buy groceries in Alpine.
⇒Continue on Highway 118 south to Terlingua, Texas and Big Bend National Park. Approximate drive time between Alpine and Terlingua: 2 hours. Look for Javelina near creeks along the road south of Alpine, and be prepared to stop at Border Patrol checkpoints in this area. Just north of Terlingua, watch for the burro crossing signs and the adorable wild burros that cross the highway here.
⇒Arrive in Terlingua. At Terlingua Ghost Town, definitely stop by the Terlingua Trading Company for a souvenir or two, and then take a stroll through the historic Terlingua Cemetery. Have dinner at the Starlight Theatre. Cool atmosphere, kid friendly, good food, and live entertainment!
*Recommended restaurants in Terlingua: Starlight Theatre and La Kiva.
*Recommended accommodation in this area: Lajitas Resort. Nice, clean hotel, spa, highly acclaimed golf course, general store (deli, grocery, gas), the Thirsty Goat Saloon, Candelilla Restaurant (good food), and a relaxing, laid-back atmosphere. Stop by the general store and say hello to Clay Henry. He’s the mayor of Lajitas, and he’s a goat! This resort has activities available for everyone in the family.
Bonus stop: Big Bend Ranch State Park. Check out the hiking trails in this beautiful state park. Better yet, start at Lajitas and head west on Highway 170 through parts of the park for a spectacular scenic drive that follows the Rio Grande all the way to Presidio, Texas. We highly recommend this drive! Travel tip: the river is the US border. A passport is required to cross in to Mexico.
Destination: Big Bend National Park
Pack the car with plenty of water, road snacks, and a picnic lunch. Make sure to have a full tank of gas before you head to the park! Travel tip: bring a playlist or CD’s along on this trip, as there is no radio station reception in the park. Cell phone service is poor in some areas of the park, too.
⇒The park entrance station is about a 15 minute drive from Terlingua, however, the park headquarters at Panther Junction Visitor Center is about a 30-45 minute drive from the entrance. We recommend this visitor center as stop number one for information about all the park has to offer. Travel tip: there is a store with gasoline available at Panther Junction. While at the visitor center, be sure to take the short, self-guided walking trail where you can learn about the desert plants that grow in the park.
⇒ Familiarize yourself with the park by driving the paved park roads on the first day. (Check out the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive!) By doing this, you will get a feel for what you want to explore in depth during the rest of your visit. For roads, refer to the park brochure/map you will receive at the entrance station.
Everyone wants to make their vacation/national park visit their own, so rather than creating a specific itinerary we have listed our Top 10 Must-Do’s for visiting Big Bend National Park.
1. Learn about the park before you go. Click the website link at the top of the page for all the details.
2. Sure you’re on a road trip, but for heaven’s sake get out of the car! There are miles upon miles of hiking trails for all abilities in Big Bend, along with lots of overlooks and pull outs for photo ops. It’s your vacation, so make the most of your time and money!
3. Santa Elena Canyon. Take the Santa Elena Canyon Trail (short and easy) to the edge of the river and overlook. The view is stunning, and it’s a great place for a picnic. There are outfitters outside the park that can arrange rafting trips, too! Travel tip: check with the park for regulations before putting your own watercraft in the river.
4. Chisos Basin. Come here for the mountain air and the views. It’s the perfect place to take a break and enjoy a picnic lunch or a sunset. Several trails originate in this area of the park. If you only do one hike in this area, take the short and easy Window View Trail which originates at the Chisos Mountains Lodge. There is a very nice gift shop and restaurant at the lodge, and a convenience-type store, too. Travel tip: bears, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes, although elusive, call the park their home, so be aware of your surroundings.
5. Fossil Exhibit. Excellent and educational exhibit of fossils, dinosaur bones, and petrified wood found in this area of the park. Kids and adults will love this open-air, museum-like exhibit! Did you know that the area around Big Bend was once an ancient ocean? Learn all about it here. Covered picnic tables are available in this area, too.
6. Castolon. Interesting old buildings, along with a visitor center in the historic general store. (No gasoline.) Definitely worth a stop to learn about the cotton gin that used to operate here. Visitor center closed in the summer.
7. Sam Nail Ranch. Take the short hike to the ruins of the old ranch. Parts of the trail are shaded by trees, and birds abound in this area. See old windmills and the crumbling adobe walls of the buildings. This is the perfect place for an early morning hike.
8. Mule Ears Peaks. View point off of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Great photo op. There is also a trail that leads to Mule Ears Spring.
9. Rio Grande Overlook. About thirty minutes southeast of Panther Junction, near Rio Grande Village Visitor Center and campground. Short hike to the overlook. We saw Aoudad Sheep on the hills here. Drive about four more miles to Boquillas Canyon Overlook for great views of the river. Travel tip: in this area there may be trinkets for sale, along with an “honor system” jar in which to place cash payments. Be aware that buying these trinkets may be illegal. There is also a Port of Entry to cross the river to Boquillas Del Carmen, Mexico in this area. A passport is required.
10. Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff Trail. Easy hike to the pouroff with some interesting rock formations and desert plants along the way. We recommend early morning for this hike. Take plenty of water, a hat, and use sunscreen. Travel tip: in the event of rain, this trail can flood without warning.
There you have it: a short (and hopefully enticing) overview of the park, though we’ve barely scratched the surface. There are hundreds of options for exploring at Big Bend, so get out there and make your own adventure! We hope you have a wonderful trip. Leave us a comment and tell us your favorite thing about your journey.
Travel safe, travel smart, and we will see you down the road!
Mike and Kellye
We strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) We aren’t paid for our recommendations, and we only recommend our own tried and true vendors and venues. Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally and our opinions are our own.