We only have one day to visit Big Bend National Park. Do we or don’t we go?
Most people who visit Big Bend National Park fall into one of two categories. The first group of people take the time to plan a week or more long vacation down to the border in South Texas. The second group of people get close enough to think they are “close” to Big Bend and only have a day or two to visit before heading off to their next destination.
Whatever group you’re in, I think even the tiniest visit you can make to Big Bend is worth it.
Here’s what to expect when you visit Big Bend National Park.
The Down-Low About Big Bend National Park
Located in the southernmost portion of central Texas (yes, Texas is really that big!), you’ll find the wonderful world of Texan desert that takes your mind back to days where John Wayne and his cowboy friends were sauntering on horseback to their next destination.
You’ll pass through many cities on your way to Big Bend no matter which way you enter Texas state lines, but you definitely shouldn’t expect anything city-like when you get to Terlingua, Alpine, or Marathon (the towns near the park).
Be sure to stop for gas and groceries while you can if you plan to stay awhile down by the river.
We visited during COVID-19 times so things were a little different than usual, but to be safe, no matter when you’re reading this pay attention to signage posted in bathrooms (like the one that told me rattlesnakes sometimes wander into the toilet area) to stay safe and happy on your trip down South.
Big Bend National Park Rules & Expectations
You probably expect a long drive to get to Big Bend, but you should also know at once you enter the park…you’ll have quite a bit of driving to go before you reach a Visitors Center.
There are three Visitors Centers in the park, so you can choose whichever one is closest to your entrance.
When we visited, the Panther Junction Visitors Center was open and all other Visitors Centers were closed.
Panther Junction Visitors Center only had outside chats with Park Rangers and those hours of availability vary based on the day of your arrival.
But whether or not a Park Ranger is around, it’s important to stick to Big Bend’s rules as the wildlife out at the park is a little more than just cactus and roadrunners.
Here are the rules and regulations that were posted during our visit:
· Pets are only allowed on paved areas and some dirt roads for camping. They are not allowed in the backcountry, on, or even near the Rio Grande river.
· Bears and mountain lions have been spotted there from time to time during migration periods, so be sure to pick up after yourself, never feed wildlife, and know how to behave if you come across one. If you’re unsure, talk to a Park Ranger before heading out into the backcountry.
· No matter the season, Big Bend is not exactly a shady place. Packing enough water for strenuous, and even the easiest hikes is super important. Never leave to hike without it.
· All dispersed camping, river trips, and backcountry camping require a permit. There are SO MANY cool places to camp here that we want to hit when we go back for a visit, so please be sure to grab a permit and respect the Leave No Trace principles if you decide to camp.
Yeah, yeah, so many rules, I know. But these rules keep our wonderful national parks clean, safe, and open to the public. Please make sure you read and adhere to all posted rules when you visit, as they may change and are super important to keeping Big Bend beautiful.
But now, onto the best part. Here’s everything we saw and loved at Big Bend.
Our Favorite Parts of Big Bend National Park
For those of us who know us, you probably already know that we are in Group 2 of the groups I mentioned in the introduction, so we only had 24-ish hours to visit the park before we had to high tail it out.
What did we see and do, you ask? I’ll tell you!
1. Get to the river, ASAP!
If you’ve never seen the Rio Grande, it’s a must. There’s something about the Rio Grande that had me as giddy as a little kid throughout our whole ride through the park.
There are several points to get yourself to the river and see what it’s all about, but after living in Texas for 16 years of my life and never seeing it…it was even better than I thought it would be.
2. Be sure to stop and stare at as many desert mountains as you can
Believe it or not, Texas is not just flat land with a bunch of tumbleweeds and cacti.
Big Bend is home to some pretty incredible mountains, the Chisos Mountains are some of the biggest but there are plenty more that you’d might not ever expect.
If you check out the guide you get when entering the park, you’ll learn that the mountains actually have their own climate up there which is why much of the wildlife migrates to the park throughout the year.
It also means you should always be prepared for shifting weather when you’re hiking at elevation in Big Bend, so don’t forget to pack plenty of water, but also carry a light jacket, too, depending on the season.
3. Take the path less traveled
Maverick Road was pretty much our only way to get out of the park and back to our campsite for the night so we decided to give the 4×4 dirt road a chance.
We drive a Ford E-150 van with some pretty beefy tires, so we were up for the challenge.
This dirt road has some of the best angles and views of the park on the Eastern side.
We were able to drive roughly 14 miles of dirt road and see Santa Elena Canyon behind us, several mountain ranges that we passed on the way to the river, and even found some awesome dispersed campsites for next time we visit.
But if you’re in a Honda Sonata or even a low-sitting RV, I would suggest finding a paved path instead.
4. Santa Elena Canyon is a sight to be seen
If you’re into canyons, cracks, rivers, and amazing landscapes, you have to see Santa Elena Canyon.
There are several viewpoints and even a trail you can take to see it up close and personal. There are just some views in life that you can only stare at and take in without a word and Santa Elena Canyon is certainly one of them.
5. Book a river trip
After visiting the park for only 24 hours, we were already sold on planning a river trip for a few days down on the Rio Grande.
To paddle the river along the southern border of Texas, surrounded by canyon walls that make you look and feel like a tiny ant at a picnic…that’s the good stuff.
There are several river rafting companies nearby if you’ve never booked or ran a river trip before, but if you’re like us (some would call us river rats!), then grab your whitewater rafts and kayaks and head down to the Rio.
You’ll need a permit from the Visitors Center so be sure to get one before saddling up and dropping in.
Visit Big Bend for a Good Old Outdoor Time
Visiting Big Bend was one of the highlights of our month-long road trip across the country.
Not many people make it down to one of the most southern parts of Texas to see the Rio Grande and the beauty of its neighboring mountain ranges and canyons.
For RVers, you’ll get to experience the grandness of Texas, while also seeing sides to the state that you never thought existed.
We didn’t see much wildlife on our trip, but I hear staying up late and listening to the sounds of the Texas desert can liven up your experience no matter where you are in the park.
There are dedicated spots to park your RV at the park, but due to COVID-19 most of them were closed when we visited.
Be sure to check with the Park Rangers before camping anywhere in the park, designated campsite or dispersed.
But most of all, have a good time, y’all!
Erin Maxson is rooted in South Dakota, but wanders every chance she gets to see the beauty that nature holds. From hiking to climbing, there’s not an adventure she’ll turn down.
After renovating her 1976 Airstream Argosy, Erin knows the ins and outs of living life on the road and trailer maintenance.
Whether she’s on the road with her dog and partner or at home curled up with a good book, Erin is always planning her next adventure because life is meant to be lived outdoors.