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The Complete Guide To Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is huge, covering over 800,000 acres. Whether you are searching for a lower elevation hike at 1800 feet near the Rio Grande River or climbing 8000 ft high in elevation to the mountain peaks of the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend has a wide variety of hikes, viewpoints, and adventures awaiting. Therefore, you will need more than a couple days to explore this beautiful park.

In this complete guide to Big Bend National Park, we will uncover how to have an epic adventure within the park. 

A girl (Emily) standing in the Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park

Jake and I spent 4 days exploring the park, but you could easily find so much more to explore if you have the time.

Plus there are 3 campgrounds located in different areas of the park making it easy to get right on the trail without much-added driving time. And plenty of official primitive camping spots around the park if you have a high-clearance vehicle and/or 4×4 (permits still required).

But within this guide we will go over our favorite adventures, along with cool adventures on our list that we didn’t get to.

Cattail Falls Trail

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Are Pets Allowed in Big Bend National Park:

Unfortunately, Big Bend National Park is not pet friendly. You are allowed to bring them into the park via vehicle, but they are strictly only allowed on road-ways or kept in a vehicle.

But do note, the temperatures in summer can rise above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and in winter can reach below freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit).

So plan accordingly for your little furry friends. 

Safety In Big Bend National Park:

Clouds Rolling Over Chisos Basin in Big Bend National Park
Clouds Rolling Over Chisos Basin in Big Bend National Park


Big Bend National Park is located in the Chihuahuan desert and climbs higher in elevation to Chisos Basin. Always pack a gallon of water per person on any hiking adventure. There are potable water fill-up stations in all the campgrounds and visitor centers. 


There are a few wildlife animals you need to be aware of when hiking in Big Bend National Park. 

Black Bears & Mountains Lions:

Big Bend National Park is the home to black bears and mountain lions.

Always hike in groups and let someone know where you are headed and when you will be back from a hike.

If you do encounter a black bear or mountain lion, DO NOT RUN. Black bears can usually be detered by just talking loudly and giving them space to go your separate ways.

But with mountains lions you should try to be as loud, big, and threatening as possible. They are usually deterred by thinking that it’s not worth the fight.

But with both animals the goal is in increase your separation without turning your back on them. But if either animal gets aggressive, fight back. Report any wildlife encounter to a park ranger. 


There are also javelinas (wild boars) prevalent within the park. Javelinas tend to be more scared of humans, but if food is involved they could get aggressive. Therefore, keep all food in proper storage containers (more details below). 

Food Storage:

Because the wildlife listed above is prevalent within the park, you must store any food and scented items in a vehicle, bear-proof box, or bear-proof canister if you are not physically with the food. Bear-proof boxes are located at all campsites within the park.

If the wildlife gets hold of human food, it harms everyone involved, and usually, that animal has to be put down. Therefore, respect this rule and keep the wildlife wild. 

Venomous Creatures:

There are 4 different rattlesnake species that live within the park. Along with copperhead snakes, scorpions, tarantulas and centipede’s.

Most venomous creatures only come out during the hotter months or at night. And most won’t harm you unless they feel threatened. Therefore, keep your distance and be sure to use flashlights if hiking at night.

Seek immediate medical help if stung or bitten by one of these poisonous creatures. 

No Swimming:

As tempting as it can be to go for a swim in the Rio Grande River in the hot summer sun, it is strongly discouraged. There are strong currents and large drop-offs.

There are rafting trips you can partake in to get on the Rio Grande River (more details below). 

Border Safety:

Big Bend National Park shares the border with Mexico for 118 miles. You must have proper documentation to cross the border. The Rio Grande River is the barrier between the two countries. The park asks you to report any unusual or suspicious activity. 

If you do wish to cross the border, you can get there via the Boquillas Crossing. There is a port of entry near Boquillas Canyon which you must pass through first with proper documentation. You are then ferried across the river in a small rowboat which costs $5 roundtrip. 

Do note, that right across the border you might find some locals selling their crafts. Some of these shops are considered illegal goods, so check with the Port Of Entry Staff where to properly purchase “legal” goods in Boquillas. 

Best Time To Visit Big Bend National Park:

beautiful fall colors in Cattail Falls canyon in big bend national park
Beautiful Tree Colors on Cattail Falls Trail

Peak season at Big Bend National Park is in Spring and Fall when the temperatures are more desirable. Jake and I visited in winter and got lucky with some gorgeous sunny days where we were still in shorts and a t-shirt. But Big Bend National Park can also get below freezing and have snow in the forecast. 

Summer can also be a desirable time to visit with temperatures usually in the 80’s up in the Chisos Mountains. But down in the desert floor temperatures can rise over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. 

If you want to avoid the crowds, the winter season tends to be a bit less crowded. But some trails and roads could have snow and ice making it more difficult to hike or drive. And sometimes certain areas can temporarily be closed to the public for safety precautions. 

Best Hikes On The Complete Guide To Big Bend National Park:

There are TONS of hikes within the park. But in this complete guide to Big Bend National Park, we are going to list our top 8 favorite hikes within the park. But the list simply doesn’t stop here. You might also enjoy other hikes within the park, therefore, consider using the AllTrails App, National Parks Service Website or using the brochure you get when entering the park to find the best hikes for you. 

Santa Elena Canyon:

A girl (Emily) standing in the Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park
Santa Elena Hike

Santa Elena is one of the most popular hikes within the park. And the complete guide to Big Bend National Park wouldn’t be complete without a visit.

The Santa Elena Canyon trailhead is located in the Southwest edge of the park near Castolon.

It’s a short 1.5 mile hike with 610 ft elevation change. The hike is well-maintained and comes to an abrupt stop as you can no longer follow the path parallel to the Rio Grande river without crossing (which is not allowed). 

The hike takes you alongside the river, encompassed between tall canyon walls. Toward the end of the trail you will meander through tall, lush vegetation.

You will know when you reach the end as there is a large boulder blocking you from continuing on the path. The views at the end only keep you craving more. 

Cattail Falls:

The trickle of water falling from Cattail Falls in Big Bend National Park
Cattail Falls

If you are looking for another water source within this desert landscape, Cattail Falls should be added to your complete guide to Big Bend National Park.

Unfortunately, Jake and I visited in winter when this waterfall is only a little trickle. But we could imagine it in late spring being a highly sought after destination.

You aren’t allowed to swim in the water though, which can make the hike out dreadful during the hot summer months as there is no shade for the first couple miles. 

The hike is 5.7 miles with 685 ft elevation change. The hike is exposed most of the route, so be sure to pack plenty of water and try to avoid peak sun in the afternoon.

You will gain a little shade when enjoying the falls at the end destination. You can’t explore further as the canyon wall comes to an abrupt stop at the falls.

But there is another trail you can explore along the same route about a mile back from the falls. Oak Spring Trail connects Cattail Falls Trail to Windows Trail. So if you are up for a big adventure, you could hike along that trail to as far as you would like or even up into the Chisos Basin Area. (More about hikes in the area below)

The Window Trail:

Jake and Emily standing in "the window" which is a split in a canyon with a view down to the valley floor
Window Trail

The Window Trail is another very popular hike within the park. To hike all the way to

“The Window” and back is 5.2 miles with 948 ft elevation change. But if you just want to view The Window from a distance, there is a very easy viewpoint just .3 miles from the parking lot. 

We highly suggest hiking down to the window. The hike climbs down a well-maintained dirt trail to a gap in the mountains that offers a beautiful view of the desert floor down below.

For the last ½ mile you will be hiking through the bouldering mountains, encompassed by its beauty.

Jake and I got lucky enough to see a Peregrine Falcon (fastest bird in the world) coming in for a drink of water in one of the sitting pools. Which made the whole experience magical!

Emory Peak:

View of Emory Peak From the trail below

Emory Peak is the highest Mountain Peak in the park. But standing 7,825 ft high makes it a challenging climb to the top.

The hike to the summit is 11 miles with 2400 ft elevation change. You can locate the trailhead at the Chisos Basin Trailhead.

If you want to feel like your are on top of a mountain, be sure to add Emory peak to your complete guide to Big Bend National Park.

As you get toward the top, the last section of the trail requires some moderate rock scrambling.  But the views at the top will be well worth the trek as it offers stunning panoramic views.

If you are backpacking to one of the many backcountry campsites, they have bear-proof boxes you can store your heavy backpack right before the steep ascent. And there is even a composting toilet up near the top.

The trail is often icy in the winter.

South Rim:

Mountain Views along South Rim Trail in Big Bend National Park
South Rim Trail

South Rim Trail is a long and challenging hike within the Chisos Mountains. But the hike offers some stunning panoramic views of Big Bend National Park.

For the loop hike around South Rim from the Chisos Basin Trailhead is 12.2 miles with 2389 ft elevation change.

There’s lots of variety on the trail changes between the view of beautiful pinnacles in the Chisos Mountains, dense forests with cliff view of the desert floor, and finally encompassed by the canyon walls of boot canyon.

The hike is long and challenging, but with the variety of changing gorgeous views, this was one of our favorite hikes. 

You can also pair this hike with Emory Peak for an even more challenging hike, but we suggest backpacking if you want to do both. The total distance if you include Emory Peak into the South Rim Loop is 15.2 miles with 3,185ft elevation change.

The trail is often icy in the winter.

Lost Mine Trail:

Lost Mine Trail was high on our list of hikes, but there was construction being done on the road during the time we visited. You could still park in the parking lot, but it was in the middle of the construction work zone, so you only had a small window of when you could come and go from this hike. Therefore we passed on it this time. But from the reviews I’ve read and the views I’ve seen in pictures, it seems worth it! 

The hike is 4.9 miles with 1135 ft elevation change.

Just one mile into the hike, offers stunning views of Casa Grande and Juniper Canyon. Then you will hike along Juniper, Oak and Pine forest until you reach the top of the ridge. You then will have a view of Sierra del Carmen in Mexico and Pine Canyon.

Ernst Tinaja:

Ernst Tinaja

Ernst Tinaja is not the easiest trail to get to, which is why it offers solitude within the park.

The trailhead is located 4.7 miles down a rocky, primitive road (Old Ore Road). High-clearance is strongly encouraged, and if there is rain in the forecast, it might only be passable with 4×4.

But due note, those are a slow going 4.7 miles as the road is very rocky.

Jake and I traveled to the trailhead in our 2wd campervan, we just had to take it pretty slow. It took us about 45 minutes to reach the trailhead. But check the weather conditions before traveling. 

Once you reach the trailhead, you are almost at Ernst Tinaja. The hike is a short ⅓ mile hike from the parking lot (one-way).

You walk through the canyon as you approach unique layers in the rock walls. Shortly after, you will come upon Ernst Tinaja which is layered in beautiful colors of rock with pools of water built up between. It will simply blow you away with its beauty. 

We highly suggest if you do make the trek, to consider looking into reserving the campsite for the night. There is only 1 primitive spot, so you will want to try and plan in advance, but it gives you complete solitude as you explore the canyon.

This place is very fragile, so please be mindful of where you step and as always leave no trace. 

Boquillas Canyon:

View betwee the canyon of the green water between boquillas canyon
Boquillas Canyon

Lastly, if you enjoyed Santa Elena Canyon, you might as well visit Boquillas Canyon too.

Although they are quite literally on opposite sides of the park, so we only suggest hiking Boquillas Canyon if you plan on going over to the Rio Grande Village side of the park.

It is another short 1.2 miles with 229 ft elevation change. This short hike also comes to an abrupt stop as there will no longer be land you can walk on without crossing the river (which is not allowed). 

Honorable Mention Hikes For The Complete Guide To Big Bend National Park

Two rocks that look like Mule Ears At Sunrise
Mule Ears At Sunrise

Basin Loop: If you don’t have enough time to do Emory Peak or South Rim, consider doing Basin Loop which is 2 miles with 350 elevation change. It offers great views of the Chisos Mountains pinnacles. 

Hot Springs: Big Bend is home to Hot Springs. The hike is a short .75 miles to 105 degree water. To avoid crowds I would try to arrive early for a morning soak. When Jake and I visited, the Hot Springs were closed due to Covid. So check with the National Parks Service to see whether they are open or closed. 

Mule Ear Spring: Another fun hike within the park is Mule Ear Spring. The trail is an exposed 3.9 mile with 410 ft elevation change hike. The hike will lead you to a spring and offer closer views of the rock that resemble mule ears. There is also an easy viewpoint if you just want to grab a photo of the mule ears from the parking lot.

River Use On The Rio Grande:

view of the rio grande river from santa elena trail
Rio Grande River in Big Bend National Park

If you want to explore Big Bend National Park by river, you must obtain a free permit within the visitor center. A USCG approved PFD is required to be worn for each person in the party, along with an extra PFD and extra paddle/oar. 

If you plan to camp overnight along the Rio Grande River, you must also get a permit which is $10/night. You are required to carry a fire-pan and a system for removal of human waste. 

Be sure to check with a ranger about the water level of the river and additional safety information about floating down the Rio Grande River. 

If you are interested in booking a guide, check into Big Bend River Tours or Wild Adventure Outfitters. Big Bend River Tours has tours that range from ½ day to 21 days long. So you can truly pick your own adventure! Wild Adventure Outfitters has tours that range from 1-day trips to 14 day-long adventures.

Gas Stations In Big Bend National Park:

There are two gas stations located in the park, one is located in Panther Junction and the other in the Rio Grande Village, but they are very expensive, so plan ahead to save some money.  You can also fill up in the towns right outside the park (Lajitas, Terlingua and Marathon).

Accommodation In Big Bend National Park:

Two Roaming Souls white van during a sunset at Paint Gap Campground in Big Bend National Park
Paint Gap Campsite in Big Bend National Park

Camping in Big Bend National Park:

There are 3 different campgrounds within the park: Cottonwood, Chisos Basin & Rio Grande Village.

Cottonwood Campground is located on the West side of the park, Chisos Basin is located in the middle of the park and Rio Grande Village is located on the East side of the park.

Therefore, each campground gives you a decent place to stay depending on what adventures you have planned for each day. 

Rio Grande Village is the only campground with showers. 

There are also a few campgrounds located in Terlingua, if the campgrounds inside the park are full. Or check into HipCamp for additional campsites around the area. 

Primitive Camping in Big Bend National Park:

Big Bend National Park also offers a unique primitive camping opportunity. All around the National Park there are designated campsites that allow overnight camping. Although there are no amenities, there are bear-proof boxes to hold all your food and scented items when not at the campsite. 

The cost is $10 per night and you still have to make a reservation online at

Jake and I really enjoyed the solitude at the primitive campsites. It really completed our ultimate guide to Big Bend National Park. 

Backpacking in Big Bend National Park:

A popular attraction in our guide to Big Bend National Park is the backcountry camping opportunities. There are 41 backcountry campsites located along the Chisos Mountains. During the warmer months, reserving a backcountry campsite can be more of a challenge. 

Hotels/Lodging near Big Bend National Park:

Big Bend National Park does have one lodge inside the park: Chisos Mountains Lodge. It is located in Chisos Basin and gives off a rustic vibe inside the lodge. There are also a few hotels located outside the park in the nearby towns. We always compare hotel prices on Kayak, Expedia, and Hopper.

Or if you want a more home-like feel, check into Vrbo as they offer a home away from home! There are some really fun, rustic western-vibe vacation home rentals.

Wifi/Internet In Big Bend National Park:

I usually wouldn’t include wifi or internet, because time in a National Park is usually best spent “unplugged”. But I thought it might be worth a mention that there is actually decent cell phone service in Chisos Basin. And there is wifi in Chisos Mountain Lodge, Rio Grande Village Store, and the Panther Junction Visitor Center.

Take A Virtual Tour With Us through The Park:

Takeaway | The Complete Guide To Big Bend National Park:

Window Trail At Sunset
Window Trail At Sunset

Big Bend National Park is a must-see National Park in my opinion. It can be a challenge to get to because it is located along the border of Mexico and not surrounded by much else. But I promise it will all be worth it in the end, if you make the journey. Like listed above, there are TONS of amazing hikes, backpacking trips, and even fun adventures on the river. 

My best advice is to plan your trip in advance. Campgrounds fill up fast, even in the off-season. Therefore, look into booking accommodation first, and then plan your hiking adventures from there!

We hope you enjoy this complete guide to Big Bend National Park and it helps you create your own fun adventure within the park! Don’t miss out on some of these other great vacation destinations in Texas

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