This year I marked off one of my bucket list travel destinations – Big Bend National Park in Texas. Yah! Having visited 35 US National Parks, I can say it is one of the most unique and rugged landscapes I’ve had the chance to experience.
While the park appears desolate on the outside, it contains plenty of wildlife, and you’ll most likely see roadrunners, javelinas, and if you venture further into the park, maybe even a cougar or a bear. There is a wealth of flora and fauna with over 1,200 species of plants, and at certain times of the year, cactus blooms with brilliant colors. With all the plants, come birds, and the park boasts 450 different species. In the heart of the park, the elevation gain in the Chisos Mountains turns the desert into a wooded landscape with Douglas firs, Ponderosa pines, and Madrones with plenty of scenic vistas at every turn.
I also experienced things I didn’t expect like the historical and quirky small towns close to the park as well as the beauty of the adjoining Big Bend Ranch State Park with its main road rated as one of top 10 scenic drives in the state of Texas.
If visiting Big Bend National Park is on your bucket list, here are eight tips to guide your first-time visit.
I’d like to thank Visit Big Bend for hosting me in May 2018. #visitbigbend
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First Timers Guide to Visiting Big Bend National Park
#1 Getting to Big Bend is Part of the Experience
Big Bend is not close to an international airport which makes getting to West Texas part of the adventure. Unless you live in Texas, you’ll want to rent a car to give you the freedom and the ease of exploring the area on your own terms. For international airports, there are two city options, El Paso or Midland/Odessa.
Flying into El Paso, Texas
The most popular route is El Paso. From here, it is a 5-hour drive to Lajitas. I would suggest driving in from the west side and taking FM 170 through Big Bend Ranch State Park (start in Presidio and end in Lajitas) for it will take you along one of the most scenic drives in the state of Texas.
Depending on when your flight arrives, you might want to spend the night in El Paso and then head off early the next morning. I’m a huge fan of Hilton brand hotels, and you’ll have options near the airport like Home2 Suites by Hilton El Paso Airport and Hampton Inn & Suites El Paso-Airport. If you want a boutique hotel downtown, check out the Hotel Indigo El Paso Downtown and the Camino Real El Paso.
Flying into Midland/Odessa, Texas
We flew into Midland/Odessa. From here, the drive is around 2.5-hours to the small town of Marathon. This route makes it a little easier to fly in and start driving toward Big Bend on the same day. If you’d prefer to recoup from the flight, there are plenty of brand hotels in the area like Homewood Suites by Hilton Odessa, Best Western PLUS North Odessa Inn & Suites, and Courtyard Mariott Odessa.
If you arrive in the morning or afternoon, I would suggest driving to Marathon that day, as from there you’ll only be a 45-minute drive to the park border.
#2 Be Prepare for a Border Crossing Check Point
Big Bend shares 118 miles with the Mexican border, and during your trip, you’ll see Mexico in the distance as well as right across the Rio Grande. Because of its proximity, there are border crossings where you will most likely be asked to show ID. If your starting point is Marathon, there is a border crossing checkpoint for entry and exit near the park. Be sure to bring your driver’s license or passport!
#3 When to Visit Big Bend
Weather-wise the best time to visit Big Bend is from late September to mid-May. Peak times are from November through April, and if you are traveling during this time, you’ll want to reserve accommodations well in advance. No matter what time of year you travel be prepared for changing weather. During our trip, where the temps pushed the mid-90s, we experienced a hall storm!
Fees to enter the park are:
- $30 vehicle
- $25 motorcycle
- $15 biker/hiker
- $55 Big Bend Annual Pass
Essential Items to have on hand:
- driver’s license or passport
- bathing suit
- bring layers
- sturdy shoes/hiking boots
- water shoes
- light jacket to protect from wind, rain or sun during the day
#4 Stay in a Small Town Near Big Bend
We stayed in the small towns of Marathon, Terlingua, and Lajitas. Marathon is a 45-minute drive from the park border. Terlingua is around a 15-minute drive. Lajitas is around a 25-minute drive. Each town has its own vibe and charm.
Where to Stay in Marathon, Texas
Out of the three, Marathon turned out to be my favorite for it has a more traditional small-town feel with great traveler amenities such as a historic hotel, restaurant, gift shop, coffee shop, etc. The town was founded in 1882 by a Greek sea captain named Captain Albion E. Shepard who said the vistas from this location reminded him of Marathon, Greece. If you are looking for a slice of modernity but want the small town feel with lots of historic charm, you’ll want to stop here.
For a town of 430 people, it has a surprising amount of lodging options, which you can read about here. During our visit, we were hosted at Eve’s Garden Organic Bed & Breakfast, and we toured the historic Gage Hotel.
Where to Eat: 12 Gage Restaurant, White Buffalo Bar, Big Bend Pizza, Oasis Cafe, and V6 Coffee Bar
Eve’s Garden Organic Bed & Breakfast
If you like B&B’s and unusual stays, Eve’s Garden Organic Bed & Breakfast features seven hand-built ensuite guest rooms made from papercrete, a courtyard with a fire pit, a sitting area in the inside garden courtyard with access to coffee, tea, and beer on tap, a lap pool, and a large greenhouse with veggies and flowers to admire.
Some of the rooms have outdoor patios, and guests receive a homemade organic, delicious breakfast each morning. I stayed in the Turquoise Room and adored it.
If you are a fan of historical and luxury hotels, look no further than the mission-style Gage Hotel. Built in 1927, the hotel features adobe architecture and the Western decor includes hanging chili peppers, hides, skulls, antlers, and mounted animal heads.
There are 45-guest rooms, including rooms in the hotel, more rooms in a courtyard setting with porches overlooking greenery and a fountain, as well as, more rooms in neighboring houses, some of which are well suited for groups.
Amenities include the award-winning 12 Gage restaurant, a heated swimming pool, full-service spa, fitness center, and a nearby 27-acre native garden. The Gage Hotel is a beautiful and an excellent choice for luxury travelers in Big Bend.
The small town of Terlingua has around 60 residents according to the US census. A former quicksilver mining company town, it is now called a ghost town. But, it is not a ghost town in the traditional sense, as people live here!
On their website, Visit Big Bend has a selection of unique lodging options in Terlingua. If you want to stay in a tiny home, teepee, or recycled shipping container be sure to follow the link.
We were hosted at two locations: Big Bend Holiday Hotel and Big Bend Casitas.
Where to Eat: Starlight Theatre, La Posada Milagro, High Sierra Bar & Grill, Chili Pepper, and La Kiva
Big Bend Holiday Hotel
The Holiday Hotel has a variety of accommodations including guest rooms, suites, and rental houses. We stayed in The Teacher’s House, which had an ensuite bedroom, a bedroom with access to a shared bathroom, a kitchenette area with a small dining table, and a large shared porch with a daybed and table and chairs, and a super fantastic view.
One of the nice things about staying at the Holiday Hotel is that it is in Terlingua Ghost Town. Its location makes it easily walk to the restaurant, cafe, gift shop, and graveyard. If you are staying in one of the rental houses, keep in mind they are spread out on the property. If you are returning home after dark via foot, you’ll need a flashlight. If you are looking for a unique experience, this is the place to stay as you’ll meet some interesting characters in the ghost town and the restaurant/bar is a happening place.
Big Bend Casitas
We also stayed at Big Bend Casitas, which is a seven-minute drive from Terlingua Ghost Town. The casitas are spacious with two queen beds, a roomy bathroom, television, a kitchenette, dining table, and a large back porch with rocking chairs and an inner courtyard with a covered picnic area and barbecues.
If you plan to do any adventuring, Far Flung Outdoor Center manages the casitas. Staying here makes it super easy to get to your river trip, jeep or ATV ride, as it is just a few steps away. Also within walking distance is a food truck and liquor store.
Lajitas is the closest small town on the west side of the park and a very short drive to Big Bend Ranch State Park. Here you’ll find the Lajitas Golf Resort.
Where to Eat: Candelilla Cafe and Thirsty Goat
Laijtas Golf Resort
Set along a bluff overlooking the Rio Grande, the Lajitas Golf Resort features 101 guest rooms, condos, cottage and rental houses, a gift shop, restaurant, and bar.
Guests have a range of activities they can enjoy like the spa, chuckwagon dinners, golfing, hiking, swimming, horseback riding, clay shooting, zip lining, and SUP. If you like to be around a hub of activity with plenty of modern amenities within hands reach this is the place for you.
If you are traveling by RV, they also have an RV Park. We stayed in the Officer’s Quarters which had a large room with a sitting area, roomy bathroom, and a porch with mountain views.
Parts of the hotel are historic, and there is a small museum with a Longhorn display in the golf shop.
For activities, we participated in a chuck wagon dinner and ziplined!
Stay Inside the Park
At 5,400 feet elevation, Chisos Mountains Lodge is the only place to stay inside the park, and it has a spectacular view. The lodge features rooms and cottages that are open year-round and within walking distance of the restaurant, gift shop, visitor center, general store, and hiking trails.
I didn’t get to see inside the rooms but were told they were pretty basic with some amenities like microwaves and refrigerators. Keep in mind that some accommodations do not have air conditioning and that WiFi is only available near the store. There is also RV and tent camping in this section of the park as well.
Where to Eat: The Chisos Mountains Lodge Restaurant and Patio
#5 Exploring Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park was created in 1944. It covers more than 1,250 square miles and has the largest portion of the Chihuahuan desert in the United States. It does take a while to drive through the park, so be sure to give yourself plenty of time. There are more than 100 miles of paved roads in the park, as well as, improved dirt roads and primitive dirt roads. For your first visit, I would suggest sticking to the paved roads to help get a lay of the land.
One of the best ways to learn about the park as you drive around is to download the FREE Visit Big Bend Mobile App by Just Ahead. Once downloaded the app will pick up your location as you move through the park and tell you about some of the sights you are seeing and general things about the park such as its flora and fauna. Our group found this app very handy, although, sometimes it stopped working and we had to restart the app.
The parts of the park we explored, left me wanting to come back and explore more. Here is a list of some easy must-do hikes and activities for first-timers.
- Santa Elena Canyon. Here you can take a dip in the Rio Grande (don’t forget your swimsuit!) and hike up the 1.7-mile trail into the canyon.
- Boquillas Canyon Trail. The 1.4-mile trail takes you up to a cliff that overlooks the Rio Grande.
- Window View Trail. Paved and easy .3-mile loop near the general store at Chisos Mountains Lodge. The trail has an excellent view of “The Window.”
- Lost Mine Trail. This trail totals 4.8 miles round-trip. If you don’t want to hike the entire trail, stop at the saddle viewpoint that overlooks Juniper Canyon and Casa Grande.
- Fossil Discover Exhibit. The geology of Big Bend spans back to 130 million years ago. The open-air exhibit features displays of dinosaurs discovered in Big Bend and a short paved trail.
- Drive FM 170 in Big Bend Ranch State Park (Not in the national park)
Need to Knows: Keep in mind once inside the park there are only TWO gas stations.
The first one you’ll most likely pass is at Panther Junction, the second is right near the border at Rio Grande Village Store.
# 6 Travel Insurance For Peace of Mind
I travel a lot and have travel insurance through Allianz Travel. But, I realize that many folks might not get insurance, especially Americans traveling in the United States. West Texas is remote and rugged, and if you plan to do any hiking, the added protection is worth looking into. Allianz Travel can help you protect against emergency medical expenses, trip delays, and lost luggage! The perfect choice for flexible travelers with little or no pre-paid trip expenses!
#7 Leave Fido at Home
Pets are discouraged at Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park, and there are regulations for what trails they can and cannot be on. In all honesty, while some of the hotel accommodations accept pets, it’s not a place to take your canine friend. The temperatures can get very hot and, of course, there is the wildlife you’ll have to keep an eye out for like cougars and snakes.
#8 Don’t Forget to Hydrate
Water is a valued commodity in these parts. While you can get water at restaurants and stores, if you are traveling from a bigger city, I suggest stocking up on water before you drive to Big Bend. While it might be tempting to drink a cold beer or craft cocktail, be sure you temper that with water, as it can be very dry and hot in West Texas. (We joked that we sweated out more water than we drank.)
Visit Big Bend
To find out more about the area, including where to stay and what to do, go to Visit Big Bend.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with meals, accommodations, and activities for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.