big bend national park texas

Big Bend National Park: Two Days of Mountains, Desert, and the Iconic Rio Grande

January 25, 2020

 

If you had told me back in September that our family would be spending our next Christmas in Big Bend National Park, a gorgeous national park in Texas, and crossing the border into Mexico for a few hours as well, I would not have believed you. But life has a way of changing on a dime. And I’m so glad the opportunity to explore this area for a couple days came our way.

Our family found ourselves in a unique position shortly before the holiday season. We are usually planning any family travel we do well in advance, around my husband’s vacation time at work. However, he left his old job at the end of October, and didn’t start his new job until early January. So since he had some unexpected time off, and the kids and I were obligation-free over the Christmas holidays, we seized the opportunity to take a 3,000 mile road trip through six southern US states (plus a quick visit to Mexico).

Our family has a goal of visiting all 50 states, and we try to visit as many national parks along the way as we can. Knocking six new states off the kids’ list, plus one new country (Mexico) was super exciting!

This visit to Big Bend National Park was the first leg in our epic road trip adventure. Be watching for more posts about the rest of the road trip soon!

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park

The first thing to know about Big Bend National Park is that it’s really remote. It’s 700 miles from Dallas, and cell phone and data connections were pretty spotty. But it’s unlike anything you picture when you think of west Texas.

We only had two days in Big Bend. It’s an enormous park with a lot of opportunities to hike and explore, so as always, we didn’t have enough time to do all that we wanted. We definitely could have spent much more time in the park, exploring and hiking. But because we were covering 3,000 miles in 12 days, we were only able to devote two days here. (I will share on the whole adventure in an upcoming post.)

Below are some of the highlights from our visit.

Santa Elena Canyon Big Bend National Park

Santa Elena Canyon

Our adventure started on Christmas Eve with a drive down the Old Maverick Road to the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. Santa Elena Canyon, in the southwest part of the park, has high canyon walls and lovely views. Terlingua Creek runs through the canyon. It’s a fairly easy hike overall, with some scrambling to get in and out of the out-and-back trail.

From Santa Elena Canyon, we drove on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to the Castolon visitor center (which was gutted by wildfires in May of 2019) and finally drive into Chisos Basin for a quick scope of the area. Wow. The whole drive was so varied and beautiful.

At this point in the afternoon we decided to leave the national park to check out Terlingua Ghost Town. See more about that adventure later on in this post.

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Boquillas Mexico Big Bend National ParkBoquillas del Carmen, Mexico

One of the more unique experiences you can have when visiting Big Bend National Park is to cross an easy, safe border crossing over to Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico. You can learn more about Our Christmas day visit to Boquillas del Carmen in my in-depth post, including more specifics about the logistics of border crossing.

The village is very small, but they do have many opportunities to shop for locally made souvenirs. There are also a couple different restaurants from which to choose some local cuisine. Boquillas del Carmen is very safe from the violence that plagues other border cities and communities in Mexico.


Big Bend National Park

Lost Mine Trail (the abbreviated version)

After visiting Boquillas del Carmen we decided to do some light hiking. First we went to the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Basin area of the park, which is located in the center of the park itself. This is a mountainous, stunning area. When I think of west Texas, I do not think of mountains. Even though I knew they would be there, it was a surprise to see them.

The full Lost Mine Trail route is 4.8 miles round trip. For several reasons – a hiking boot malfunction for me, general fatigue for all of us, and the time of day – we decided to just go up the first mile of the trail to the Juniper Overlook, which was just beautiful. My main photo at the top of this post is from that overlook. I know it would have been amazing had we made it all the way through the trail, but the planets just did not align for us this time.

 

Big Bend National Park

The Window View Trail

With only a short time left before we needed to leave for dinner, we decided to get a quick glimpse of the “money shot” found at the Window View Trail. This is a very short, handicap-accessible path that gives you a gorgeous view of “the window.” It only took a few minutes, but the views were well worth it.

 

While in the Area

Starlight Theater

Go to Terlingua Ghost Town

About five miles south of Story Butte (a small town just outside the national park), you will find Terlngua Ghost Town. It’s not 100% abandoned, as there are businesses and guest houses going strong, but there are ruins of homes and buildings that once were. The community is in the national register of historic places, and its claim to fame is that it hosted the first ever chili cookoff. Quite the claim to fame!

Terlingua Texas Starlight Theater

We ate Christmas dinner at the Starlight Theatre, an absolutely charming restaurant with great food and a fantastic atmosphere in Terlingua. Next door is Terlingua Trading Company, another must-see in Terlingua. It has room after room just packed with charming gifts for any occasion. You can even drink a beer inside or on their massive porch.

Lodging Tips

The most ideal lodging at Big Bend would be to stay in the lodging within the park. However, like many national parks’ lodging, their lodging books up to a year in advance. Since we were planning this trip about a week in advance, most of the lodging in the park and nearby was taken.

We ended up at Terlingua Ranch Lodge. There were many great things about this staying at this lodging, but I will say that it was about 40 minutes outside the park on what felt like the longest road in the world at the end of a long day. While we liked the lodging we used overall, if you have the ability to find lodging in or closer to the park, I would highly recommend it.

 

It takes some effort and commitment to get to Big Bend National Park, but I can’t recommend it enough. Such a beautiful, stark, varied landscape, with fun to be had in the area as well.

 

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Two days in Big Bend National Park    Two days in Big Bend National Park