Now we’re talking! Big Bend is my home park… So I’ve got lots of good insight for you here.
I’ve been making the 9 hour drive to this remote National Park for the last 15 years (over 20 times!), and I can’t think of a better place to go. What is it that keeps me going back?? Well, if you like to explore, find solitude, star gaze, hike… you’re in luck. And if you like 4×4 roads, there are over 150 miles of dirt roads (more than any other park in the continental U.S.!) for you to drive and explore.
During a few weeks in March/ April every year, the desert comes alive with color. Texas wildflowers dot the vast, wide open spaces of Big Bend, and the otherwise drably colored desert flora become neon green with life.
But it’s not only Spring that is magnificent in Big Bend… Winter is actually one of the favorite times of year for seasoned BBNP adventurers. And it’s really simple… the Chihuahuan desert stays quite mild in temp throughout the whole season. A great place for snow birds to escape the cold get a little r+r.
You know, come to think of it, I’ve been in every season… and they each have their benefits. Fall is nice and mild. Summer’s pretty hot, but you get to see some of the most spectacular lighting storms you’ve ver witnessed.
Let’s just get something out of the way here early… Yes, there are snakes. Well, and lots of other creepy crawlies. It’s a desert, so you can expect many of your phobias to run wild… unless you’re like me and you love these fascinating creatures. But let me calm your fears… Though they are there, it is pretty rare that you come across any snakes, tarantulas, locusts, centipedes, etc., unless of course, you’re looking for them. :)
But you might not be expecting some of the other amazing fauna of Big Bend. There are javalina, jackrabbits, black bear, bobcat, mountain lion, deer, and so much more.
So why is Big Bend the Nation’s least visited National Park?? Well, one of it’s greatest strengths is also a weakness in some folks’ eyes. It is REMOTE. The closest airport is in Midland, Texas (MAF), which is about 4 hour drive. You can also fly into El Paso (ELP), but you’re looking at closer to a 5 hour drive. From Dallas, it’s a 9 hour drive and from Austin, it’s 7.
But it’s exactly this very remote aspect that makes it so special in many ways. Ever visited Yosemite or Yellowstone in the summer? Then you’ll know how difficult it can be to hear yourself think! Even in the backcountry, it is common to pass dozens of hikers and backpackers in some of the more popular parks. I know, I know… it doesn’t keep me from going either. But the benefit of Big Bend is that you can have a once in a lifetime personal experience with nature in one of our Nation’s (and the world’s, for that matter) most spectacular natural treasures. If you’ve ever been, you know what I mean… don’t fool yourself by leaving this park off your bucket list because it’s a pain to get to.
Trust me on this.
Where to Stay
National Park tip #2: If you recall my NP tip #1 from Mount Rainier, you’ll be thrown a bit for a loop at BBNP. Big Bend is in Texas, which has very little public land left, so the park is surrounded mostly by private ranches. And it is such a huge piece of land (over 800,000 acres!), that you really do want to stay in the park, to get the most out of your time.
So where to stay??
Well, you may be drawn to the designated campsites, like Rio Grande Village, Cottonwood, or Chisos Basin, but in my opinion, the “backcountry” drive up sites are the best. You’ll pay around $14 per night for the maintained campgrounds and likely have loud neighbors. If you instead go to the office at Panther Junction and ask for a backcountry drive up site, you’ll pay $12 for a full week! No facilities, but plenty of nature and solitude… now that’s my kind of experience.
If you need the amenities of home, well you too are in luck! The Chisos Mountain Lodge offers several rooms and private cabins, nestled in the beautiful Chisos Basin, at reasonable nightly rates. And with a restaurant just a short walk away, it’s quite a comfortable stay. We prefer to get away and rough it, but to each their own…
What To Do
Hiking is one of the most common and popular activities at Big Bend. There are hundreds of miles of trails that span every ecosystem of the area including the surprisingly robust Chihuahuan Desert, the high mountain desert plateau of the Chisos Mountains, and the flood plains of the mighty Rio Grande river. Be advised though, depending upon what time of year you visit, it is recommended that you bring 1 gallon of water per person per day you will be out.
Bird Watching is another popular activity in and around the park. Big Bend’s location, near the 100th meridian in the middle of the continent and along a migration route, is ideal for bird diversity throughout the year. It is also the year round home to some fascinating species, like the Peregrine Falcon, Mexican Jay, Colima Warbler, and Roadrunner.
With 42 backcountry campsites in the Chisos mountains accessible only by foot, Big Bend boasts some pretty epic backpacking. However, due to rocky conditions, high temps, very dry air, and the extreme remoteness of the backcountry, novice backpackers are discouraged from testing their limits here. Each year, park rangers respond to emergencies when hikers are not prepared for the heat and extreme conditions of the desert. Please be sure to check in with the backcountry permit office before embarking on your journey… permits are required and will give you a heads up on any dangers you might encounter.
Big Bend is known as one of the most outstanding places in North America for star gazing. In fact, it has the least light pollution of any other National Park unit in the lower 48 (according to NPS). This is the best of surprises to visitors when they see the Milky Way in its full glory for perhaps the first time in their life. Realistically one can see approximately 2000 stars on a clear night here compared to perhaps a few hundred in a medium sized city.
So if you’re in to astrophotography like me, this is the place for you! You might even want to consider joining me for my annual Big Bend night and landscape workshop.
There really is nothing like Big Bend. You have to see and experience it to understand. And as you’ll surely come across, those who have been, never stop making their pilgrimages back to that magical swath of desert. Some more frequently than others, but it is said that “you never go to Big Bend just once in your lifetime.”
What to See
I’m guessing if you’ve read this far, you’re in. “So,” you might be asking, “what are the main sights to see?” Well, there are several very famous spots, but just know that there are also many hidden gems in Big Bend that may not be on any of your maps or guidebooks. That’s okay, you can definitely find some them… you just have to be a little resourceful and very respectful of these precious few secret places. People are usually happy to share their favorite off-map trails.
Since this is simply an introduction, and by no means a comprehensive guide, I will only mention a few of my favorite spots. I’ll leave the rest up to you… And if you’re really interested in a guided experience, and you’d like to see all of my favorite secret spots, come with me in March!
The Dodson Trail gives you unparalleled views of the Chihuahuan Desert and Mexico to the South.
The River Road is a most exciting (but very dangerous) 4×4 road that gives you access to the most remote campsites in the park, but also some of my favorite views. Be warned that this is an incredibly remote, oft void of any human activity for days, 4 wheel drive high clearance vehicle road. Many people have gotten themselves stuck out here and had to hike for days to get out without ever seeing another soul… Not naming any names here…
The view from Emory Peak is quite spectacular. It’s the tallest point in the park at just over 7,800 feet.
The area around Panther Junction provides amazing views for sunset and sunrise. You can look back into the desert to the North or watch the light dance on the Chisos to the South. Either way, you won’t be disappointed. Dusk and dawn out here is well worth losing sleep, I promise.
Santa Elena Canyon is one of the most famous sights in the park. Ansel Adams even photographed this… it is a must see.
There is so much information on this lesser-known park, I could seriously spend months writing about this special place, revealing so many of its secrets. But here’s where I leave you… with a simple call to action. Go. See. Explore for yourself, and experience why this is one of America’s greatest treasures!
P.S. with all of these #findyourpark posts of late (and many more upcoming), I wanted to let you know about a wonderful organization that works hard to help preserve our Nation’s most magical places, The National Park Foundation. In honor of the NPS Centennial this year, I have put together a special collection of (some never before seen) my favorite National Park prints. Please check it out and know that 5% of all the profits from the sale of this artwork will be donated to the Foundation. We will be visiting almost all of the 59 National Parks this year, so check back often as we will be updating the page regularly. Thank you so much for your support!
Want to learn photography and enjoy a guided experience? Check out my exciting, NEW workshop dates:
Big Bend NP // Night/ Landscape // 2016
Isle of Skye // S C O T L A N D // 2016
Highlands // S C O T L A N D // 2016
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