Deep in the Heart of Texas: A Long Weekend in Big Bend National Park
If you’re itching to fly south this winter, add Big Bend National Park to your travel list. Late winter, especially February and early March, offers an ideal time to visit west Texas — or, far west Texas, as the locals say. While much of the rest of the country battles rain, snow, and chilling temperatures, south Texas remains relatively warm and dry.
Where is Big Bend National Park?
Big Bend is a long way from anywhere, and that’s exactly why folks love it. The park is 235 miles from the closest major airport in Midland/Odessa airport, 330 miles from the next closest airport in El Paso, and more than 400 miles from popular destinations San Antonio or Austin. Yes, getting from point A to point B takes some time. The good news is there’s likely not much to get in between you and your destination except the flat, open road, stretching out for miles in all directions. While the distance makes for a lot of driving, it’s well worth the trip.
Like all of Texas, Big Bend can certainly boast about its size — the park itself is larger than the entire state of Rhode Island — but its location along Mexican border makes it truly unique, with 118 miles of the park bordering our southern neighbor along the Rio Grande River. Additionally, 23 miles of border are protected in nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park west of the park, and seven more in Amistad National Recreation Area east of the national park. The Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River is protected by the National Park Service for 196 miles, with the upper 69 miles flowing within the national park.
The park also protects a great diversity of plants and animals, from cougars and hundreds of cactus varities, to jackrabbits and javelinas (not a species of pig, as many think, but peccary, another species of animal altogether), and more than 450 species of birds, many passing through unencumbered during annual migration. Beyond plants and animals, the park also protects the stars, or at least our view of them. Big Bend’s famous night sky is one of the least light-polluted skies in the Lower 48.
Day One: Getting There
The first step is getting there, which will take several hours any way you slice it. Be prepared to spend the better part of two days just getting to and from Big Bend. Once there, make a beeline to Panther Junction Visitor Center in the center of the park, also home to park headquarters. Catch an introductory film on the three distinct ecosystems in the park: desert, mountains, and river.
Plan to stay your first night in the Chisos Basin area of the park, not far from Panther Junction. Rooms and campsites can fill up during the ideal season of late winter to early spring, so be sure to make reservations ahead of time.
Day Two: Exploring Chisos Basin
Chisos Basin is a great basecamp for some of the best hiking in the park, including The Window, a gorgeous carved-out view of the desert floor from the basin rim, and Emory Peak, the highest point in the park. Temperatures in the mountains can be much cooler than in the desert below, and rainfall there can be significantly higher, making the vegetation and wildlife in Chisos pretty different.
You may be surprised at the number of trees in the mountains as you hike the Emory Peak Trail to 7,825 feet. You’ll begin to fully grasp the expansiveness of the park, the river valley, and the Chihuahuan Desert stretching far into Mexico. You’ll spot barely a speck of civilization in any direction.
After a long day of hiking, watch the sunset, with a beverage in hand, from the perfectly situated deck of Chisos Mountain Lodge. Get there early — this view is truly incredible, and word has gotten out. Stay for dinner and have a Texas-sized steak. The campground lies just a short walk away, so even if you’re camping out, you can still dine in.
Day Three: Crossing the Border at Boquillas
To see and experience the Rio Grande, drive to the Castolon or the Rio Grande Village area of the park, both on the river and the U.S. border with Mexico. Rio Grande Village is more developed with amenities, and from there you can cross the border into Mexico via rowboat at the Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry. The Port of Entry is open Wednesday through Sunday from November to April, and Friday to Monday from May to October — but whenever you go, make sure you’ve packed your valid passport.
Once a robust mining town, the small village of Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico, now offers just a few shops and restaurants, so while it’s a great experience to cross the border here, it’s not an all-day affair. While you’re in the Boquillas area on the U.S. side, walk the short 1.2-mile Boquillas Canyon Trail to get a stunning view of the canyon and river below. Plan to camp the night at Rio Grande Village campground. Alternately, you could plan to head back to the lodge at Chisos Basin.
Day Four: Leaving Big Bend
After just a few days in Big Bend National Park, one thing is for sure: you’ll go back. If your plans for this trip have you leaving the park north toward Marathon, head north through the desert toward Persimmon Gap Visitor Center. In Marathon, order a nice meal and do some high-end shopping. If you’re aiming for the west, spend some time in Terlingua Ghost Town, a quirky remnant from the area’s mining heydays, and Terlingua, home to an internationally recognized chili cook-off. Whichever direction you’re headed, enjoy the ride.