Big Bend National Park is all about The Big. First off, it’s in Texas, in the southwest corner where Big open skies and Big broad lands spread out across Big expanses of desert, mountains, and river basin. There are Big extremes: temperatures that range from over 100̊ F down to below zero and 6,000 feet of elevation change, both of which combine to support Big life: more than 1,200 species of plants, and over 4,200 species of animals inhabit, grow within, or migrate through the park's boundaries.
An escape to Big Bend in the wintertime usually means average highs in the 60s and average lows in (pleasant) mid-30s—given the northern and mid-latitudes of the United States appear to have already arrived at January temperatures in November/early December, this might be a welcome trip for some!
But one should define “trip” before one goes, because the park is massive, covering over 800,000 acres, bordered by a 118-mile stretch of the Rio Grande that separates the park from Mexico. It’s simply not a park one can see in a single day, but if it’s one day you have, the park suggests an easy itinerary that departs from the park headquarters and visitor's center at Panther Junction and includes a leisurely 30-mile journey down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which provides excellent views of the Chihuahuan Desert, where pronghorn and roadrunner are common fixtures among the creosote bush and lechuguilla. The first stop is 10 miles from Panther Junction down Grapevine Hills Road, which leads to a one-mile hike to Balanced Rock along the (2-mile round-trip) Grapevine Hills Trail which rises slightly up within an eroded exposed laccolith.
Back down the road after the hike, you can take a short walk at Sam Nail Ranch to sit near a working windmill pumping water and to hear javelina scrounging nearby in the bush. The road passes by a dry waterfall in a box canyon at Lower Burro Mesa Pour off, a view of Mule Ears Peaks, and Tuff Canyon, where three overlooks provide views of the volcanic ash after which the canyon is named. If you aren't pressed for time, you can also stop to visit the Castolon Historic District, which provides a perspective of the park’s ranching history. But the real point of a one-day trip to Big Bend is Santa Elena Canyon.
Towering 1,500 feet above the Rio Grande, the canyon's limestone walls combine with the river to mark the boundary between the United States (right) and Mexico (left). The Santa Elena Canyon Trail follows the river upstream into the canyon and bottoms out on the canyon's floor. By this time, it's likely going to be late afternoon, so heading for dinner and lodging means you can go back the way you came or via Old Maverick Road, which passes by the Teringla Creek Badlands until it connects with the park's main road back to Panther Junction.
Chances are that a taste of the park’s wonders in just one day will compel longer exploration. So, if you have a long weekend, then you can look into full-day hiking in the Chisos Basin in the park's center (stay at the Chisos Mountain Lodge), a float trip on the Rio Grande that ends at Santa Elena Canyon, and a drive to Rio Grande Village in the park's eastern side.Owning or rentinga 4WD vehicle allows you to take advantage of the park's primitive roads, which require high-clearance vehicles. Many of the sites of interest, campsites, and trails along the Rio Grande in the park's south and along its eastern half are only accessible via 4WD, which provides a more secluded, private experience in the park. One such site is Ernst Tinaja, a "watering hole"in the middle of fantastic rusty red geology!
Full day hikes are the easiest from the visitor's center at Chisos Basin and the Chisos Mountain Lodge. You can start with the 1.8-mile Chisos Basin Loop Trail for a pre-breakfast hike and then commit to The Window Trail or Lost Mine Trail nearby–both are popular in summer months when it's too hot to hike in the desert.
Back down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, the 4-mile Mule Ears Spring Trail passes through the foothills of the Chisos Mountains, dry creek beds, and leads to the fern-and cattail-lush spring itself. There's also the 5-mile Chimneys Trail, where volcanic dike formations bear the artwork of ancient Native Americans.
If you can't get Santa Elena Canyon out of your mind, there are several outfitters just outside the park's boundaries that offer half-day or full-day trips.You can usually choose from a leisurely canoe or kayak trip or be a bit more adventurous and book a rafting trip. These usually put in up river at Lajitas with the goal of navigating the at-times Class IV rapid at Rock Slide Rapid.
A major draw to the park is its bird watching, which can be found mostly on the park's east side. The park's 450 species of birds can add significant progress to one’s “life list”, whether it’s at the wildly popular Rio Grande Village and Boquillas Canyon or Cottonwood Campground, and Boot Canyon. With the Rio Grande forming a waterway of life, the pinyon-, oak-, and juniper-forested canyons, desert scrub, grasslands, and natural springs provide a natural meeting point for northern birds who migrate south for warmer temperatures while at the same time tropical birds migrate northward for springtime breeding. Only nesting in the U.S. within the Chisos Mountains from spring to fall, and just one of over 50 wood-warbler species that either, the Colima warbler is considered Big Bend’s chief attraction for the avian enthusiast. In addition, there are waterfowl, flay catchers, doves, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, vireos, hawks, falcons, sparrows, thrushes, thrashers, wrens, and more!
A popular stop along the road to Rio Grande Village is Dugout Wells, where the remains of ancient Native American settlement can be seen along the ½-mile Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail, where you can watch birds beneath the shade of cottonwood trees.
If you're up for it, a strenuous march along the 12-mile Marufo Vega grants the adventurous soul canyon and river bottom hiking with no shade or water, and temperatures above 100̊ F. Bring your Camelbak and sunscreen!
A perfect end to a Big Bend trip is first-class stargazing, thanks to the park's classification as an international dark-sky park (care of the International Dark-Sky Association), which verified in 2012 that Big Bend has the darkest skies in the "lower 48", providing crystal-clear views of the Milky Way's countless stars and bright planets.
Roadrunner By NPS Photo / Amy Gibson https://www.nps.gov/media/photo/gallery-item.htm?pg=1843193&id=900B4FB3-155D-451F-67FCD5FC54270BB0&gid=92602FA9-155D-451F-670D2BD28DC1E0DA
Javelina By Wing-Chi Poon - Own work by uploader; at Cottonwood Campground, Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4394434
Balanced Rock By Sefor4 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41996956
Mule Ears Peaks By NPS Photo / Blake Trester https://www.nps.gov/bibe/planyourvisit/ross-maxwell-scenic-drive.htm
Santa Elena By Michael from Minnesota (@Michael)-https://www.flickr.com/photos/nameless-profile/4726366390/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22694387
Ernst Tinaja By NPS Photo / Jennette Jurado https://www.nps.gov/bibe/planyourvisit/suggested-itineraries.htm
Window Trail by NPS https://www.nps.gov/bibe/planyourvisit/suggested-itineraries.htm
Boquillas Canyon By G. Fisseler https://www.nps.gov/bibe/planyourvisit/riverregs.htm
Star Gazing Chisos by Viktorwills - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73898939