Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park Entrance - photo by Dustin Hodges (Omigod, Dibs!™)
For New Year’s 2020, my wife, daughter, dog and I took a week long road trip through Texas and New Mexico to celebrate the New Year as a family unit. We explored several places along our route and drove many miles. One place that we had always wanted to venture to was Big Bend National Park because neither of us had ever been and we had always herd how great it was and had seen wonderful pictures and video content of the park shared by people on social media. So, we made it a destination we’d visit on our New Year’s 2020 road trip, put a pin on the map, and added Big Bend to our itinerary.
One of the largest national parks, Big Bend is relatively uncrowded much of the year, and when we visited the park on January 1st and 2nd, we were pleasantly surprised how uncrowded the park was. With fewer people at that time of year, this allowed for easier access to parking areas throughout the park, more enjoyable trail hikes, less crowded viewpoints for pictures, and no waiting times to use the restrooms throughout the park.
Big Bend is a massive park and there are lots to do there, and the views are spectacular. The terrain is desert, with a variety of vegetation and wildlife. We happened to have seen a few javelinas ourselves run across the road on one of the two days we went to the park. There’s lots of mountain terrain, cliffs, and of course the Rio Grande that runs along the southern border of the park.
Javalinas north of Big Bend National Park on Hwy 385 - video by Dustin Hodges (Omigod, Dibs!™)
When we visited in early January 2020, the entrance fee was $30 for a 7-day pass, which if you think about it, is not bad for a place that takes several days to explore anyway. Big Bend is located far from any major city, and is about 100 miles from the nearest bank, pharmacy, hospital, or grocery store. The park has several camping grounds and a lodge within the park to stay, so it’s really a destination that you should plan to settle for a couple days or so to get the full experience, much cheaper than staying at a hotel in Fort Stockton 2 hours away, like we did.
Like I had mentioned before, on our trip to Big Bend we had our 1-year old daughter with us and our dog. We didn’t bring any camping gear with us and we didn’t have a camper to sleep in, so we ended up staying in the Best Western Plus in Fort Stockton for two nights, driving back and forth those two days to visit Big Bend. We enjoyed the driving and scenery, and our hotel stay, so it was no big deal for us, but you may want to consider how you want to plan your visit and where to stay, perhaps. We’ll leave some links below under Other Resources on campgrounds, lodging, and other options for places to stay if you need that information.
Here are some bullet points of some things we discovered while at Big Bend National Park:
- There were plenty of porta-potties and restrooms all throughout the park, which was very nice.
- Most of the park is paved road, although some sections have improved dirt roads and primitive dirt roads, but most of the areas of interest throughout the park you’ll want to see have paved road access.
- There are several visitor centers throughout the park with exhibits, bookstores, mini-theater, restrooms and other amenities.
- There’s a Border Patrol and Homeland Security checkpoint along Hwy-385, further north of the park.
- Service animals are allowed in all facilities and on all trails unless an area has been closed by the superintendent to protect park resources.
- The Mountain View Restaurant, located in the Chisos Mountains Lodge, provides the only full-service dining inside the park. The restaurant has a grand vista of the Chisos Basin and surrounding peaks and is open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
About Big Bend & Geography
Big Bend National Park - photo by Dustin Hodges (Omigod, Dibs!™)
Located in West Texas’ Brewster County, situated next to the Mexico border is Big Bend National Park. Big Bend has National significance as the largest protected area of Chihuahuan Desert Topography and ecology in the United States.
Big Bend’s territory encompasses over 800,000 acres of diverse land, which includes a 118 mile (190 km) stretch of the Rio Grande River that runs along the Texas/Mexico border, the entire southern border of the park, where there is a big bend along the river’s route. Big Bend is very large and very remote. The nearest city to the park is Alpine, TX, the county seat of Brewster County. Alpine had a population of around 6,000, according to the 2010 census. You’re so far out when visiting Big Bend, that you’re 100 miles away from the nearest bank, pharmacy, hospital, or grocery store. So, you must plan your trip accordingly and be vigilant about safety when participating in activities in the park.
View of the ground - photo by Dustin Hodges (Omigod, Dibs!™)
Big Bend is considered a desert, and the temperatures vary dramatically from day to night, as well as during its seasons. Fall and spring are usually warm and pleasant, but the summers are hot, where May and June are considered the hottest months. The months of July through October are when afternoon and evening showers occur more frequently than other times of the year, and the winter months are usually mild, although cold winter blasts are possible, along with light snow.
Big Bend National Park is considered a very important spot for paleontologists, where the oldest recorded tectonic activity in the park is from the Paleozoic era. We follow geologist_rambling on TikTok, and if you visit her page you’ll see that she put together a terrific brief video clip on Texas geology, that includes Big Bend National Park geology and its fossil deposit history.
Fossil Dinosaur Skull - photo by Dustin Hodges (Omigod, Dibs!™)
While in the park, you may experience ancient fossils for yourself to get a glimpse at what the creatures of the territory were like millions of years ago at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit. This incredible display of art, science and history is a newer addition to the park where you can see displays of what the marine environment used to be like in the area many years ago, you can see the gallery of giants from the Cretaceous era, as well as learn of what the volcanic activity was like millions of years ago in the region.
The Fossil Discovery Exhibit was a great spot within the park for us to stop at and show our young daughter the fossils of ancient creatures, and see the views of the surrounding terrain. They have a covered seating area there, with picnic tables that sit adjacent to large fossil displays and even have porta-potties with hand-sanitizer inside, each close by to take care of business if needed.
Chisos Mountains - Big Bend National Park - video by Dustin Hodges (Omigod, Dibs!™)
Natives lived and passed through the Big Bend area for thousands of years. Their presence is evidenced by pictographs and archaeological sites throughout the region. A particular group of natives that lived in the Big Bend area in the past were the Chisos Indians. The Chisos Indians were a loosely organized group of nomadic hunters and gatherers who probably practiced limited agriculture on a seasonal basis.
The Chisos appear to have been a relatively large nation, subdivided into bands that sometimes acted independently and sometimes acted in consort with the other bands. Thus, some Chisos bands began to be named as independent nations in the early 17th century, but by the 1680s they were acting together against the Spanish.
The Chisos were foragers who subsisted on small game, mescal, snakes, and bison and carried dried meat with them. The bison they obtained in winter hunts north of the Rio Grande. They also ate horses.
Chisos Mountains - photo by Dustin Hodges (Omigod, Dibs!™)
The Chisos Mountains are, no doubt, named after this native tribe and are the heart of Big Bend National Park. They extend twenty-miles from Punta de la Sierra in the southwest to Panther Junction in the northeast. It is the only mountain range totally contained within a single national park.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Chisos Indians and this old native culture in Big Bend National Park’s past, we suggest reading Foraging Peoples: Chisos and Mansos. There you’ll find an extensive article on the Chisos Indians and their history done by Texas Beyond History.
Things to see and do
When it comes to Big Bend National Park, there’s something to do for everyone. At Big Bend, you can hike, take river trips on the Rio Grande, go horseback riding, ride on bicycle trails, take a motorcycle trip with your crew, take vehicle tours, and even take air tours. Of course, there’s plenty of sightseeing to do as well.
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive - photo by Dustin Hodges (Omigod, Dibs!™)
One of the best ways to really enjoy the park is just by driving through it. Big Bend is a huge park, and the roads through it take you through some very scenic areas. The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive in Big Bend is one stretch of road in particular that has some great scenic driving and plenty of areas to stop off the side of the road to enjoy a quick walk to scenic view points and overlooks to get better perspectives of the park. Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is a thirty-mile stretch of paved road in the park that leads to the Castolon Historic District and Santa Elena Canyon, my personal favorite of the entire park. All along this road you’ll find many historic and geologic features that this region is most-known for.
Sam Nail Ranch
Sam Nail Ranch - photo by Dustin Hodges (Omigod, Dibs!™)
Some places of interest along Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive we got to see during our own trip to Big Bend National Park was The Sam Nail Ranch. Sam Nail Ranch is one of many homesteads that were once active in the Big Bend. You can still see, up close if you’d like, a dilapidated windmill that’s just hanging on by its old wood frame and iron hardware on the Sam Nail Ranch trail. There’s another windmill that still pumps water and attracts a variety of birdlife and other wildlife in the area. Now, Sam Nail Ranch acts as a shade and habitat for desert wildlife.
Sam Nail Ranch Windmill - photo by Dustin Hodges (Omigod, Dibs!™)
One of the most fantastic viewpoints in the park has an interesting rock formation that gives the appearance that you’re looking at the ears of a mule. Mule Ears Viewpoint gives a unique viewpoint along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive that presents spectacular views of some of the park, right from the parking area. There’s even a 2-mile long trail that leads to a delightful desert spring if you’re up for a hike.
Mule Ears - photo by Dustin Hodges (Omigod, Dibs!™)
Santa Elena Canyon
Santa Elena Canyon & Rio Grande River - photo by Dustin Hodges (Omigod, Dibs!™)
As mentioned earlier, my personal favorite part of the park is right on the Texas/Mexico border along the Rio Grande River, and that’s Santa Elena Canyon. The Rio Grande has sliced a 1,500-foot vertical chasm out of pure limestone to form one of the most magnificent canyons in the park. We actually discussed how fantastic this part of the park is on Show #25 of The Road Trip Roadcast, a podcast from Omigod, Dibs!, entitled, “Big Bend, from New Year’s 2020 Road Trip”.
As you look down Santa Elena Canyon, the left wall of the canyon is in Mexico, while the right wall is in Texas. A fabulous trail follows the river upstream then drops down to the canyon floor. Taking a float trip through the canyon is also an enjoyable venture. Santa Elena Canyon access is near where Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and Old Maverick Road meet. Old Maverick Road is considered to be an improved dirt road, but through our own experience driving on this road in January 2020, there were some pretty rough spots and deep ruts cut into the road due mainly to erosion, so you may want to take this road with caution, especially if you take a small car, RV or motorcycle through the park.
Fossil Discovery Exhibit
Fossil Discovery Exhibit - Cretaceous Era Fossil - photo by Dustin Hodges (Omigod, Dibs!™)
A great thing about Big Bend is its history. Big Bend has a history dating back millions of years and they have fossils of the once local wildlife and plant life to showcase that history. Fossil Discovery Exhibit is a replacement to the previously named Fossil Bone Exhibit and was officially opened to the public on January 14th, 2017. The Fossil Discovery Exhibit is a multi-room shelter where visitors can learn more about the 130 million years of geologic time represented in the park.
The exhibit is a self-guided exhibit designed to feature four ancient ecosystems that make up the park’s diverse geologic and paleontological history:
- The first display focuses on the park’s submerged past during the Early Cretaceous Period when the park’s location was underwater.
- The exhibit transitions to a coastal floodplain environment during the Late Cretaceous Period.
- The next display in the exhibit features the inland floodplain environment, representing a time when Big Bend was crossed by rivers and forests about 72 million years ago.
- As visitors leave the inland floodplain display, the exhibit interprets the major extinction at the end of the Cretaceous Period which resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs and led to the diversification of mammals.
There are far too many things to mention of sights to see and activities to do within Big Bend National Park. Like us, you may have to spend two days or more just to really experience most of what the park has to offer, but we’re sharing a link below that is for one-day, three-day, and week-long itineraries under Suggested Itineraries for you to be able to better schedule your time at the park during your visit. We’ve also added some links to maps of the park as well as for other resources you may be looking for, for your trip to Big Bend National Park.
- Suggested Itineraries
- Things To Do
- Scenic Drives
- Big Bend National Park Map
- Visitor Centers
- RV Camping
Road Trip to Big Bend National Park
Check out our road trip crew’s video below! Big Bend National Park was one of many places they visited in late December 2019 through early January 2020, as part of their New Year’s 2020 Road Trip. Thanks for watching and happy and safe trails.