Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park

Things To Do

Backcountry Roads

In addition to scenic vistas, abundant wildlife, and diverse geology, an outstanding aspect of Big Bend National Park is its system of unpaved roads. While most visitors will stay on the 112 miles of paved roads in the park, those with a sense of adventure and a high-clearance and/or four-wheel drive vehicle can enjoy over 150 miles of unpaved roads. The tremendous increase in popularity of four-wheel drive "sport utility" vehicles means that more and more visitors are enjoying Big Bend's backcountry roads. While the unpaved roads can vary greatly in condition, they offer beautiful scenery, access to fascinating natural and historic sites, primitive roadside campsites, and some of the park's most primitive and remote hiking trails, as well as the opportunity to test the durability and limits of your vehicle and its occupants. The key to having a successful trip through the backcountry is being prepared to deal with large and small emergencies and the extremes of the Chihuahuan Desert.

Area Travel Information

The Big Bend region is a long way from the rest of Texas (or at least it seems that way). The websites listed below will help you learn more about the area and find out more about lodging dining and recreational opportunities outside of the park.

Local Information & Trip Planning Resources
Visit Big Bend . Com
Big Bend & Texas Mountains Travel Guide
Texas Mountain Trail

Brewster County Chambers of Commerce
Alpine, Texas Chamber of Commerce
Marathon, Texas Chamber of Commerce
Big Bend Chamber of Commerce
Brewster County, Texas

Texas Tourism Links - Big Bend Region Information
Traveltex . com - home page

Park Partners
Big Bend Natural History Association
Friends of Big Bend National Park

Paved Roads

Persimmon Gap to Panther Junction
28 miles (45km)
This road connects the north entrance of the park to park headquarters at Panther Junction. From Persimmon Gap the road descends a long, gentle, gravel slope to Tornillo creek and the Tornillo Flat. The Rosillos Mountains rise to the west, and to the east the Dead Horse Mountains dominat the skyline. Highlights include the trailhead to Dog Canyon and Devil's Den,  the Fossil Bone Exhibit area, and hoodoos located along the Tornillo Flat.

Panther Junction to Rio Grande Village
21 miles (34km)
From Panther Junction you can head southeast toward the Rio Grande and Boquillas Canyon. In twenty miles, the road descends nearly two thousand feet. Along the way are the Dugout Wells picnic area and nature trail, the Hot Springs Historic District, and the Rio Grande Village developed area. Boquillas Canyon is the longest of the canyons of the Rio Grande within the park.

Maverick Entrance Station to Panther Junction
23 miles (37km)
This drive in entirely confined to desert scenery with excellent views of the surrounding mountains. Numerous roadside exhibits explore the wildife that might be seen along the drive. Junctions for the Chisos Basin road and the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive are located along this route.

Chisos Basin Road

6 miles (10km)

This road climbs five miles up Green Gulch and then drops into the Chisos Basin. The grade of the road is deceiving, being as much as 10% in places. This road was constructed in the 1930s by the

Civilian Conservation Corps

, and provides breathtaking views as you rise out of the desert and into the mountains.

Caution: The road to the Basin is not recommended for trailers longer than 20 feet and RVs over 24 feet because of sharp curves and steep grades.

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (to Castolon and Santa Elena Canyon)
30 miles (48km)
This road starts along the eastern edge of Burro Mesa, skirts the western flanks of the Chisos Mountains, and descends to the floodplain of the Rio Grande. Spectacular historic and geologic features are some of the highlights of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.

The eight-mile road section from Castolon to Santa Elena Canyon is subject to flooding during late summer rains, and can be closed on occasion.

Bicycling Big Bend

Lightly traveled roads and varied terrain make Big Bend a premier bicycling location. Over 100 miles of paved roads, and 160 miles of backcountry dirt roads provide challenges for riders of all types and abilities. Bicyclists must be extremely cautious and well-prepared, but bicycling allows outstanding panoramic views, unobstructed by a windshield. It also allows the bicyclist to see and hear some of the smaller wonders of Big Bend from a more intimate viewpoint.

Share the Road
Bicyclists must share the roads with vehicles and obey all traffic laws. Traffic is sparse in summer and highest during March and early April and on holiday weekends during the winter. Use extreme caution, especially on paved roads, during busy times. In order to protect the fragile desert environment, off-road or single-track cycling is not allowed in the park. All bicycles must remain on paved and dirt roads.

Weather is often pleasant year-round and rewarding trips are possible most days of the year. Cycling from May to September is more of a challenge due to high temperatures; plan to take it easy when temperatures soar.

Road guides and more information
All Big Bend roads are open to cyclists. A good map is essential. The Road Guide to Backcountry Dirt Roads of Big Bend National Park and the Road Guide to Paved and Improved Dirt Roads of Big Bend National Park have good descriptions of the roads and points of interest (available at the Big Bend Natural History Association Book Store).

Additional information on bicycling in the Big Bend area can be found at the website of the Big Bend Trails Alliance.

Big Bend bike rides
Many of the rides in Big Bend National Park are easier with a shuttle. If you have the luxury of having someone shuttle your vehicle or pick you up after a long day of cycling, opportunities are endless. A few suggestions follow. Check with a ranger for more information.

If you have a shuttle available:
Panther Junction to Rio Grande Village

Difficulty Distance Time
Easy 20 miles (all paved) 1.5-2.5 hours

Although there are some hills, the ride is mostly downhill as the elevation drops 1900 feet. Be wary of large motorhomes and trailers traveling this road, especially in late winter and spring. For a variation, ride to Hot Springs on the 2-mile unpaved spur road 16 miles from Panther Junction. Your shuttle can meet you at either Rio Grande Village or Hot Springs. The ride allows outstanding views of the Sierra del Carmen and the Rio Grande in the distance.

Panther Junction to Rio Grande Village via the Glenn Spring Road

Difficulty Distance Time
Moderate 35 miles (10 miles paved, 25 miles unpaved) 4-6 hours

Ride six miles toward Rio Grande Village on the paved road, then turn right onto the Glenn Spring Road. Follow the Glenn Spring Road for 15 miles as it skirts the Chisos Mountains and leads to a flowing spring before joining the River Road. Turn left and follow the river road for 9.6 miles to its junction with the paved road. Turn right and ride on the paved road for four miles to Rio Grande Village.

Panther Junction to Castolon via the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

Difficulty Distance Time
Strenuous 35 miles (all paved) 3-6 hours

This ride traverses some of the most scenic terrain in the park. It skirts the Chisos Mountains and passes interesting geologic features and historic sites. Although the elevation loss between Panther Junction and Castolon is 1580 feet, the terrain is challenging with many steep hills.

Old Ore Road

Difficulty Distance Time
Strenuous 26 miles (all unpaved) 4-6 hours

This premier ride is best taken from north to south for an easier ride and great views of the Chisos Mountains. The road is rough and rocky and the terrain is challenging. Park on the edge of the Dagger Flat Auto Trail at the north end of the Old Ore Road.

Old Maverick Road

Difficulty Distance Time
Easy 13 miles (all unpaved) 1.5-2 hours (one way)

Start from the parking lot near the Maverick Entrance Station. This route is easiest from north to south. There are many good views along the route, which ends at Santa Elena Canyon. Seasoned riders can return to Maverick for a strenuous 26-mile trip.

If you do not have a shuttle available:

Panther Junction to the Chisos Basin

Difficulty Distance Time
Strenuous 20 miles (all paved) 2-4 hours (roundtrip)

Ride three miles west of Panther Junction to the Basin Junction, three miles of gradual uphill. At the Basin Junction, turn left and ride seven miles to the Chisos Basin. This road is very steep, with 15% grades. The elevation gain is 1650 feet. Watch for traffic and be ready to pull off the road if necessary. This ride is an aerobic challenge even for those in excellent physical condition. The ride down is exhilarating. Watch for animals and obstacles on the road and make sure you don't break the 45 mile per hour speed limit!

Grapevine Hills Road

Difficulty Distance Time
Moderate 15 miles (all unpaved) 2-3 hours (roundtrip)

Park at the junction of the paved road and the Grapevine Hills Road for this ride past interesting rock formations. For variety, hike the two-mile round-trip Grapevine Hills Trail en route. Return the same way.

Paint Gap Road

Difficulty Distance Time
Moderate 15 miles (all unpaved) 2-3 hours (roundtrip)

Park at the junction of the paved road and the Paint Gap Road. The road has a variety of substrates including sand and rocks, and is especially rough near the end. Return the same way.

Dagger Flat Auto Trail

Difficulty Distance Time
Easy 18 miles (all unpaved) 2-3 hours (roundtrip)

Park near the junction of the paved road and the Dagger Flat Auto Trail. This route is fairly flat, with a gentle uphill on the way out. Watch for sand along the way—you can get bogged down. There are many interesting plants, and bicyclists can take advantage of the auto tour guide booklet. Return the same way.

Maps and road guides are available at the Big Bend Natural History Association Book Store.
Additional information on bicycling in the Big Bend area can be found at the website of the Big Bend Trails Alliance.

Santa Elena Canyon

Spectacular Santa Elena
Santa Elena Canyon, downstream, is the most popular overnight or three day trip, not only because the put-in and take-out are easily accessed by car, but because it is often considered the most dramatically beautiful. Santa Elena has the tallest cliffs forming the canyon wall—up to 1,500 feet.

The first 13 meandering miles from the put-in at Lajitas give you a good look at the contrast between the riparian and desert ecosystem. The river becomes more technical in the last seven miles when you have entered the actual canyon. Two miles into the canyon, the largest rapid, the Rock Slide is classified as a Class IV rapid at certain water levels.

Santa Elena Upstream
An enjoyable day trip consists of paddling upstream, from the Santa Elena Canyon Trailhead, a few miles into the canyon, and then returning back downstream (also known as a "boomerang" trip). If the water level is low, you do not have to fight the current much going upstream, making this trip quite leisurely. It is an ideal trip if you only have one vehicle, or if you do not want to pay for a shuttle back to your starting point. A good destination is Fern Canyon, a beautiful side canyon approximately two miles upstream, which has ferns growing where water is seeping out of the canyon walls. A backcountry use permit is required for all river trips; no fee is charged for day-use trips.

Outfitters, Guides, & Shuttle Services

The businesses listed below provide a wide variety of services, including shuttles, equipment rental, and guided trips. Please contact these businesses individually for more information:

The businesses listed below provide a wide variety of services, including shuttles, equipment rental, and guided trips. Please contact these businesses individually for more information:

Big Bend River Tours—800.545.4240
Desert Sports—888.989.6900
Far Flung Outdoor Center—800.839.7238


Big Bend National Park is not typically considered a climbers' destination, but it offers some scenic, challenging, and wildly varied rock climbs. Over the years, park visitors have often inquired about climbing, but there is little written. A rudimentary climber's guide is available by request at most visitor centers.

Climbing in the park is unofficially discouraged because there is little written information to disseminate, the quality of rock ranges from fair to terrifying, the weather can be extremely harsh, and the approaches can be long, waterless ordeals. Bolting of any kind, electric or hand, is strictly forbidden. Climbing in Big Bend National Park can be very rewarding, but leaving any trace of impact on this resource, over time, will surely jeopardize access.

Climb safe! A climbing helmet is an absolutely necessary part of a Big Bend climber's rack. Dehydration kills park visitors every year; you cannot bring too much water. All rock in Big Bend National Park is suspect, so belayer position and gear placement are especially critical.

Please get involved. If you climb in the park let a ranger know about it. Provide a photo or sketch if you can, and a written description of the location, route, and overall quality of the climb. Your information will be much appreciated by future climbers.

The majority of the park's exposed vertical rock is composed of unstable igneous rock (rhyolite) and sharply fluted limestone. River canyon routes, Dog Canyon, and Mesa de Anguila routes are generally composed of limestone. Routes in the Chisos, Grapevine Hills, and Pine Canyon are generally composed of igneous rock. Don't let this discourage you too much; there are relatively solid climbs on igneous rock. As stated by Roger Sigland in his informal guide, "On any climb expect rotten rock and few good cracks for pitons."

Topographic maps and trail guides are available at the Panther Junction Visitor Center.

Permits are required for backcountry camping. Permits are not required for climbing, although voluntary registration at one of the visitor centers is encouraged. Some climbing areas are so remote, however, that a backcountry permit may be required to gain access to them. Please check in and out for safety reasons as well as to provide climbing information to park staff.

Most climbs in the park require traditional gear from small nuts to off width protection. Many climbs involve a significant approach so check the weather and pack accordingly. Helmets are highly recommended.

The use of portable electric drills is prohibited. Hand drilling is allowed only with written approval of the Superintendent. There are routes with bolts and even a few sport climbs in the park, but some were placed prior to any rules on the subject and some were placed illegally. Replacement of old bolts with 3/8 inch bolts is currently allowed.

Cultural Resources
Climbing, ascending, descending, or traversing an archeological or cultural resource is prohibited. Be aware of your impact and tread lightly.

Take a Drive

Big Bend is a big place; over three hundred miles of roads allow access to the landscape and locations in the park, depending what what type of vehicle you are driving. The following road descriptions provide a taste of what each road provides. Before you arrive, learn more about our paved roads, improved dirt roads, and primitive dirt roads.

Any park ranger will tell you that neither desert nor mountains will truly reveal themselves to a motor vehicle. To experience the best of Big Bend, you should get out on foot, if only for a short time, and become part of the landscape.

While At The park

What to Do When You Arrive

  • Check out the visitor center. Park headquarters at Panther Junction is a good place to get oriented to Big Bend. A relief map, interpretive displays, and bookstore provide excellent information. A short, self-guided nature walk will familiarize students with the local flora. Panther Junction Visitor Center is open from 8:00am-6:00pm daily. Other visitor centers are located at the Chisos Basin, Persimmon Gap, and Rio Grande Village.
  • Go to a program with a ranger. Park rangers offer daily interpretive programs on a variety of topics. Programs include walks, talks, hikes, and evening slide presentations. Check the interpretive activity schedule on park bulletin boards for times and topics. The schedule is also posted on the website for planning prior to your arrival.
  • Take a hike! Big Bend has hundred of miles of trails for you to explore. They range greatly in distance and difficulty. Some trails are self-guided with trail brochures to enhance your experience.
  • Become Junior Rangers. Junior Ranger activity books are sold at park visitor centers for $2.00. By completing the activities in the book, students can earn badges, patches, bookmarks, and certificates. It’s a good way of learning more about the park during your visit.
  • Be flexible. Don’t get frustrated if everything doesn’t go exactly as planned. Some of the best teachable moments are unplanned. Take advantage of opportunities as they arise.


Big Bend is one of the largest and least visited of America's national parks. Over 801,000 acres await your exploration and enjoyment.

Other possible activities in the park include (and are not limited to) birdwatching, bike riding, floating the river, and much more. Use the information in this section to plan ahead to make the most out of your Big Bend experience.

Things to do in the park

Below are commonly asked questions regarding things to do in Big Bend. Please contact us, or look elsewhere on the website if your question is not answered here.

Can we ride horses in Big Bend?
Horse rides are not available in the park. You can bring your own horses to the park, but you must obtain a backcountry use permit and certain restrictions apply. Stables in Study Butte and Lajitas offer guided horse trips outside of the park.

How can we take a river trip?
Several companies offer guided river trips ranging from one-half day to one week. You can also bring (or rent) equipment and obtain a backcountry use permit to do your own river trip. Because river levels and conditions vary, check current conditions before planning your own trip.

Is there any place to swim in the park?

You can soak in the ruins of the old

Hot Springs bath house

(near Rio Grande Village) which has a constant temperature of 105°F. Overnight camping is not allowed at Hot Springs. Alcoholic beverages and pets are also prohibited. When the Rio Grande rises above three feet in depth, the hot spring is inaccessible.

Swimming in the Rio Grande is not recommended. The river can be hazardous, even in calm-looking water. Strong undercurrents, deep holes, and shallow areas with sharp rocks and large tree limbs are common. Water-borne micro-organisms and other waste materials occur in the river and can cause serious illness. However, if you choose to enter the river, wear a life jacket. The end of the Boquillas Canyon Trail and the Santa Elena Canyon trailhead area may be suitable for wading at certain times of the year (always check river conditions first).

If you really want to swim, Balmorhea State Park (about a three-hour drive north of Big Bend) boasts the “world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool.” The huge pool has a surface area of 62,000 square feet and 22-26 million gallons of crystal-clear spring water flow into it each day. Contact Balmorhea State Park at (432) 375-2370 for more information.

Can we fish in the park?
You can fish in the Rio Grande—a free permit is required (see Fishing Regulations). Catfish are common. Jug fishing is not permitted, and you are not allowed to bring live bait into the park. Bait can usually be purchased at the Rio Grande Village Store.

Where can I see wildlife?
Much of the wildlife in the park is active at night, but dusk is a good time to look for deer, fox, and javelina. The Window View Trail in the Basin is especially good. Rio Grande Village is a good place to see coyotes and javelinas, and is good for birding throughout much of the year. Do not feed any wildlife in the park.

Where can I ride my mountain bike? Or, do you have mountain bike trails?
Mountain bikes are allowed on all roads in the park, but they are NOT allowed on trails or cross-country. The Old Ore Road is one of the best dirt roads for biking. There are also good mountain bike trails outside of the park around Terlingua and Lajitas.

Can I take my dog hiking with me?
No. Dogs are not allowed on trails or anywhere in the backcountry because of their interference with wildlife and because they may threaten other hikers. Dogs are allowed anywhere vehicles can go, such as roads and primitive roadside campsites. They must be on a leash or otherwise restrained at all times. They may NOT be left unattended in a campsite. We recommend that visitors also not leave their pets unattended in vehicles because of the extreme heat.

Can we cross the border into Mexico?
Due to concerns with Homeland Security and increased illegal immigration and smuggling of contraband, U.S. Customs closed all unofficial crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border in May 2002, including those adjacent to the park. Visitors may cross into Mexico ONLY at official crossings; the nearest ones are in Presidio (95 miles west) and at Del Rio (240 miles east).

What To See and Do

You've driven many miles to get here, and have finally arrived at your destination: Big Bend National Park. But now what? Now that you're here, how do you spend your time? Where should you go? What should you explore? The park is big, and often visitors have a limited amount of time to explore. Here are suggestions for seeing the park if you have a limited amount of time to enjoy Big Bend.

One Day Visit
If time allows, drive to the Chisos Mountains Basin to take in the spectacular mountain views. Walk the 0.3-mile self-guiding Window View Trail to get a feel for the mountain scenery.

A trip along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive will give you a taste of the Chihuahuan Desert and will lead you to the Rio Grande. There are scenic overlooks and exhibits along the way. Sotol Vista, Mule Ears Overlook and Tuff Canyon are all worthwhile stops. The short walks to the Sam Nail Ranch and Homer Wilson (Blue Creek) Ranch and a visit to the Castolon Historic District will give you a glimpse into Big Bend’s past.

A highlight of the trip is the short (1.7-mile round trip) walk into Santa Elena Canyon—one of Big Bend’s most scenic spots. Drive to the end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to access the trailhead. You may return to the main road by returning on the Ross Maxwell Drive or on the Old Maverick Road, a 13-mile gravel road linking the Ross Maxwell Drive to the Maverick (west) Entrance. Be sure to check on road conditions first.

Three Days
With three days to spend in the park, you can explore the major roads more thoroughly and still have time for some great hikes. In the Basin area, consider hiking the Window Trail (5 miles round trip) or the Lost Mine Trail (4.8 miles round trip); consult the Hiker’s Guide to Trails of Big Bend National Park (available at the BBNHA Book Store) for trail descriptions.

In addition to the Basin and Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (see suggestions for “one day”) you can drive to Rio Grande Village, perhaps stopping at Dugout Wells along the way to walk the short Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail. The Rio Grande Village Visitor Center (open November through April) offers a brief introductory slide program. Walk the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail which begins near site 18 in the campground. The bluff overlooking the Rio Grande at the end of the nature trail is a particularly beautiful spot at sunset.

The Boquillas Canyon road will take you to an overlook of the Rio Grande and the small village of Boquillas, Mexico. At the end of the road is the Boquillas Canyon trail, which takes you to the entrance of this spectacular canyon.

One Week
With a week or more to spend in Big Bend, endless possibilities are open to you. You’ll have plenty of time to explore the roads mentioned in the One Day and Three Day sections and will also have time to hike or to drive some of the primitve dirt roads. For these, you’ll need a high clearance or four-wheel drive vehicle; don’t forget to check at the visitor centers for current road conditions. You may also want to consult the Road Guide to Backcountry Dirt Roads of Big Bend National Park. The River Road, Glenn Springs Road, and Old Ore Road are some of the more popular backcountry routes. A visit to Ernst Tinaja near the south end of the Old Ore Road is a Big Bend highlight.

If you don’t have high clearance or four-wheel drive, improved dirt roads such as Dagger Flat, Grapevine Hills and Old Maverick Roads will get you “off the beaten path.” Hike the Chimneys Trail, Mule Ears Trail, or Grapevine Hills Trail for a closer look at the desert environment. If you'd like to explore the Chisos Mountains, trails to Boot Canyon, Emory Peak and the South Rim offer good views of the park and take you into another world which seems far removed from the desert. There are plenty of opportunities for overnight backpacking along these trails. A backcountry use permit is required and can be obtained at park visitor centers.

If you have the time and the inclination, you may want to consider a river trip. Seeing the park’s canyons from the middle of the Rio Grande is both fascinating and gratifying.


Nearby Attractions

Local Information Resources
Visit Big Bend . Com
Big Bend & Texas Mountains Travel Guide
Alpine, Texas Chamber of Commerce
Marathon, Texas Chamber of Commerce
Brewster County, Texas
Big Bend Chamber of Commerce
Texas Mountain Trail - Big Bend Region Information
Traveltex . com - home page

Park Partners
Big Bend Natural History Association
Friends of Big Bend National Park

The McDonald Observatory is located 140 miles northwest of Big Bend National Park on Hwy. 118. McDonald Observatory Visitors' Information Center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The Visitors' Center is the check-in point for all daytime and evening visitor activities. A one-hour guided tour of some of the telescopes is offered at various times. Star parties with night viewing through the telescopes are also offered.

The Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute is located 124 miles north of Big Bend National Park on Hwy. 118. The arboretum features a living collection of trees and shrubs from throughout the region, while the greenhouse houses over 240 species of Chihuahuan Desert cacti and succulents that are propagated for research and exhibition. The Visitors' Center contains exhibits on the natural diversity of the Chihuahuan Desert, as well as the Leapin' Lizard Nature Shop. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, about 275 miles away from Big Bend, preserves the rugged spirit and remote wilderness of the American West. There, in the ancient mountains that tower so majestically into the Texas sky, a visitor can delight in grand views, diverse landscapes and small pleasures. Campgrounds and Visitor Centers are located at the Park Headquarters near Pine Springs, at McKittrick Canyon, and at Dog Canyon.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, about 275 miles away from Big Bend, preserves the rugged spirit and remote wilderness of the American West. There, in the ancient mountains that tower so majestically into the Texas sky, a visitor can delight in grand views, diverse landscapes and small pleasures. Campgrounds and Visitor Centers are located at the Park Headquarters near Pine Springs, at McKittrick Canyon, and at Dog Canyon.

Davis Mountains State Park and Indian Lodge State Park are located 130 miles northwest of Big Bend on Hwy. 118. Facilities include camping for tents, full hookups for RVs and showers, as well as an interpretive center, trails for hiking, wildlife viewing areas, and picnic areas. Indian Lodge, located within Davis Mountains State Park, is a historic pueblo-style accommodation with a full-service restaurant and gift shop.

Fort Davis National Historic Site preserves one of the best surviving examples of an Indian Wars' frontier military post in the Southwest. From 1854 to 1891, Fort Davis was strategically located to protect emigrants, mail coaches, and freight wagons on the Trans-Pecos portion of the San Antonio-El Paso Road and on the Chihuahua Trail. Located 128 miles north of Big Bend National park, the historic site in located in the community of Fort Davis.

Big Bend Ranch State Park is located to the west of Big Bend National Park. Over 299,008.38 acres of Chihuahuan Desert wilderness, extends along the Rio Grande from near Lajitas to southeast of Presidio in both Brewster and Presidio Counties. It was purchased from private owners in 1988. Embracing some of the most remote and rugged terrain in the Southwest, it encompasses two mountain ranges containing ancient extinct volcanoes, precipitous canyons, and waterfalls. The Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center in Lajitas serves as the eastern gateway to the state park; the western gateway is Fort Leaton State Historic Site, just outside of Presidio.

Floating the Rio Grande

If you have the time and a spirit of adventure, you may want to consider a river trip. Seeing the park's canyons from the middle of the Rio Grande is both fascinating and gratifying. There are many possibilities, from half-day floats to extended seven-day excursions.

Things To Do

You've driven many miles to get here, and have finally arrived at your destination: Big Bend National Park. But now what? Now that you're here, how do you spend your time? Where should you go? What should you explore? The park is big, and often visitors have a limited amount of time to explore.

No matter how limited your time in Big Bend, remember that you will enjoy the park more if you stop your car and explore on foot. Big Bend National Park has a multitude of great hikes. That doesn't mean that you have to hike miles on steep grades; there are also many short, easy walks and roadside exhibits where you can stretch your legs and enjoy the sights, smells and sounds of the Chihuahuan Desert. Hiker's guides and road guides are available at book sales areas throughout the park, and they offer more detailed information about Big Bend's trails and roads. Attending ranger led activities and evening programs is also a good way to learn more about Big Bend. Remember, you don't have to see everything on one trip.

You will probably enjoy the park more if you choose a few spots and explore them thoroughly to get a taste of what Big Bend has to offer. Then, come back another time to see the rest!

Ranger-led Programs

The advantage of the fee tour is a guarantee of a personal tour at a given time and place for a specific group or family. Personal tours are available on a wide variety of topics related to park resources.

Transportation is not provided for the tour group, and usually does not include trips on backcountry roads. If you are interested in a general tour of the park, contact the Far Flung Outdoor Center at 800 839-7238 for jeep tours.

These personal tours are highly dependant on staff availability; therefore, advance arrangements are required. For more information call the Division of Interpretation and Visitor Services at 432-477-1108 or email for more information or to check on availability of a given ranger tour.

Picnic Areas

You can picnic almost anywhere in the park, but be sure to leave the area clean and pack out your trash. Picnic tables are provided at Rio Grande Village, Dugout Wells, Santa Elena Canyon, the Castolon Historic District, the Cottonwood campground, the Chisos Basin, and Persimmon Gap.

Charcoal grills are provided at the Daniel's Ranch picinic area at Rio Grande Village and the Persimmon Gap picnic area. Charcoal only is allowed in the provided grills.

Exploring Big Bend

When President Franklin Roosevelt signed the bill authorizing Big Bend National Park on June 20, 1935, could he have imagined how popular the park would become over the next half-century? According to the enabling legislation that created the park, Big Bend National Park was set aside and protected for its "scenic and recreational values." Once a remote and seemingly inhospitable area reached only by miles of dirt road, Big Bend has become one of the most popular vacation destinations in the state of Texas, visited by an average of 300,000 visitors each year. Scenic vistas, diverse wildlife, historical sites, and the border culture all rank among the features that visitors enjoy in Big Bend, but the primary reason that many visitors give for visiting the park is the opportunity for outdoor recreation.

Over 800,000 acres of open land invite you to explore, wander, and linger. Over 150 miles of dirt roads and about 200 miles of hiking trails wind through the park, providing almost limitless opportunity for hiking, camping, mountain biking, horseback riding, and other backcountry adventures. Additionally, the Rio Grande borders the park for 118 miles, giving river runners the option of floating canyons or open water by raft, canoe, or kayak.

Hiking and Backpacking
Hikers who really want to experience the three major ecosystems of the park will want to hike trails in the Chisos Mountains, in the desert, and along the Rio Grande. The Chisos Mountains, lying in the center of the park, provide about twenty miles of hiking trails and forty-two campsites for backpackers. Rising to 7832 feet in elevation, the Chisos Mountains preserve a relict forest of oaks, pines, junipers, madrones, and Arizona cypress that provides a pleasant, shady hiking area year-round. Emory Peak, the highest point in the park, provides a panoramic view of the Chisos Mountains and the desert; the view from the South Rim extends far into Mexico on a clear day. It is not uncommon for hikers to see the tracks and scat of black bear, mountain lion, and gray fox along mountain trails. Carmen Mountains white-tailed deer, rock squirrels, rusty-rumped whiptail lizards, spotted towhees, tufted titmice, and Mexican jays are also common in the Chisos Mountains.

The Chihuahuan Desert covers about eighty percent of the park, surrounding the island of the Chisos Mountains like a desert ocean. Trails in the desert range from short, easy nature trails to multi-day treks marked only by rock piles, if at all. The remote desert routes provide a wonderful wilderness experience for experienced backpackers. Silence and solitude are key resources protected here, as there are few other places like this where people can escape civilization so completely. Quite often, the only sounds you hear are the wind and your own breathing. Bare rocky ground and sparse vegetation are hallmarks of the desert, but the observant hiker will find plenty of life here. Look for termite nests built up along the stems of plants, white exoskeletons of millipedes long dead, piles of animal droppings, and tunnels dug into the soil by rodents and reptiles. Bird life is plentiful in the desert, especially in the morning; look for nests hidden in yuccas, cacti, and other prickly vegetation. Hikers who roam the desert in the spring will find wildflowers adding their colorful blooms to the desert landscape. Bluebonnets, paintbrushes, bi-color mustard, desert bailey, yucca, ocotillo, and various types of cactus are some of the more obvious plants found blooming during the spring; a careful observer will find many more.

The Rio Grande creates yet another distinct environment in the Big Bend. Dense stands of reeds and mesquite thickets line the river for much of its length along the park boundary, making human access to the river difficult, but providing habitat for many types of wildlife. The best way to enjoy this area is from the river itself, but a short walk into one of the river canyons or elsewhere along the shore will show you a world very different from the rest of the park. A myriad of bird species can be found in the riverbank vegetation. As the river provides water for many desert animals, look along the muddy shoreline to identify who has visited it recently.

River Trips
Floating the Rio Grande can take you through miles of canyons up to 1,500 feet deep, where the sunlight may reach the bottom only briefly on winter days. Canyon wrens call from the high cliffs, and cliff swallows dart in and out of their colonies of mud nests. Sounds echo, magnifying the noise of rapids to make them seem much larger than they really are. The constant hiss is caused by silt in the water brushing against the bottom of your boat. The geologic history of the canyon walls is laid bare by eons of carving by the river, making canyon trips especially interesting for geologists.

Along the more open areas of the Rio Grande, you may see local people fishing, farming, and engaging in other traditional activities. These quiet stretches of the river offer expansive views of the colorful buttes, mesas, and mountains in both the U.S. and in Mexico. Far fewer people float the open water between the canyons, so it is possible to go for days without seeing another boater.

As in other parts of the park, your ears may tell you more than your eyes. Listen for beavers crawling through the brush, and you may see one slide down the riverbank into the water. Turtles, especially red-eared sliders, often sun themselves on rocks and logs just above the waterline. Great blue herons and green kingfishers are just some of the many birds you may see flying along the river.

The many miles of dirt roads in Big Bend National Park will lead you across washboards and boulders, through canyons and creekbeds, past old settlements and cemeteries. As an end in themselves, or as a means to access hiking trails or the river, the backroads may also test your vehicle and your driving skills. These roads are not for those who want to keep their expensive four-wheel-drive vehicles in pristine condition, but for those who wish to leave the blacktop behind and experience the park more slowly and intimately. The apparent monochrome of the desert separates into many unexpected hues as your slower driving pace provides a more close-up view of the desert vegetation. Several of the dirt roads provide excellent vantage points to see the looming South Rim of the Chisos Mountains change color throughout the day.

Mountain bikers are encouraged to explore the backroads as well. Although bicycles are not allowed on trails or off-road, the backroads offer sufficient challenge to most cyclists. Mountain bikers have some advantages over motorists on some stretches of particularly rough backroad, as it is easier to pick a route for one set of wheels than for two, and they always have the option of getting off and walking through or around the rough spots.

What’s a full day of exploring Big Bend without a night out under the stars? Big Bend offers a variety of camping experiences, regardless of your means of travel. For those who want to camp with some degree of civilization, the park maintains three developed campgrounds with individual sites, charcoal grills, picnic tables, water, and restrooms. For those who don’t mind having close neighbors, these campgrounds are the most convenient.

Visitors also have a number of primitive camping options. A backcountry use permit, available at a visitor center, is required. Over seventy primitive roadside campsites line the park's dirt roads; what these sites lack in amenities, they make up in scenic views. Many campers request specific sites based on the sunrise or sunset views visible there. Many of these backroad areas are single sites, giving campers a private camping experience.

Backpackers in the Chisos Mountains can choose from forty-two designated campsites. Some are surrounded by trees deep in Boot Canyon, while others lie in fairly open Laguna Meadow. Some are perched high near the South Rim, while others sit lower and closer to the trailhead. Some sites have spectacular views, while others are more sheltered and protected. Backpackers in the desert have the freedom to choose their own campsites in open zone areas, as there are no designated sites for backpackers there, but it can be a real challenge to find a flat, clear spot large enough to accommodate a sleeping bag. The desert may look barren from a distance, but you’ll find a surprising amount of vegetation when you try to find an open area for a campsite.

With few exceptions, river runners can camp almost anywhere along the Rio Grande. Like desert backpackers, they can select their own campsites, although sheer cliffs and dense river cane limit the camping options in many areas.

Regardless of where or how you camp, you’ll find that sleeping out adds another dimension to a trip to Big Bend. Camping distills our lives to the bare elements of living: finding a campsite, preparing a simple meal, laying out a bedroll. Sleeping out sharpens our senses, as we strain to identify every odd sound around our campsite. With no walls or ceilings in the way, campers witness nature firsthand. The changing colors of the Sierra del Carmen at sunset, the rising of the full moon, the rumbling of the Rio Grande, a chorus of coyotes, and a night sky sprinkled with thousands of stars are just a few of the rewards bestowed on those who camp out. And few experiences compare with waking up to a desert sunrise, with birdsong the only sound you hear.

There are as many ways to enjoy Big Bend as there are people who visit. The diversity of recreational options here offers something for almost everyone. People come to the park seeking escape, entertainment, exercise, and many more intangible things. Some go for multi-day treks, while others prefer to relax. Some visit to test their limits, while others come to recharge their batteries. Some visit the park alone, to reach and reclaim an inner peace, while others come to bond with family and friends. Some bring mountain bikes and kayaks, while others bring lawn chairs and novels. Talk to any of these visitors, however, and you’ll find that they have one thing in common: they’ve all found the type of recreation they were looking for in Big Bend National Park.