Top 10 Things to Do in Big Bend National Park

by Jon D. B.
top-10-things-to-do-big-bend-national-park

Historic hot springs, Dark Sky stargazing, and desert canyon hiking are just the beginning in Texas’s grand Big Bend National Park.

This remote and rugged landscape was once nothing but nature and miles of dirt roads. But through decades with the National Park Service (NPS), Big Bend has become one of the most popular Texas destinations – and one of the top national parks in America.

Over 500,000 visitors travel the park each year, with dramatic vistas, diverse wildlife, fascinating history, and nighttime dark skies above making for trips of a lifetime. In kind, we’ve gathered the top 10 things to do in Big Bend that you won’t want to miss on your ultimate Texas excursion.

10. See the Balanced Rock via Grapevine Hills Trail

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Distance: 2.2 miles round trip
  • Begin 6 miles down Grapevine Hills’ dirt road at parking area

One of the most unique formations in Big Bend, Balanced Rock has become famous for just how out of place it looks. Pictures don’t do its size justice, either. This is one you’ll have to see to believe, and the gorgeous views surrounding Balanced Rock are a major bonus.

To get to the formation, take the park’s Grapevine Hills Trail, a fantastic, moderately-difficult trek through varying geological wonders. Prepare for a steep incline in the last quarter mile as you come to the famous boulders. Here, you’ll cross steep, rough bedrock amidst plenty of scrambling.

Please keep in mind the road to this trail is “very rough,” the park states. Don’t attempt it with a minivan, RV, or any passenger car with low clearance.

Once on the trail, stay on the trail, and watch carefully for the directional arrows that point the way to the balanced rock.  There’s no shade, either, so dress & plan accordingly. As always in Big Bend, watch for snakes!

9. Hot Springs Historic District & Trail

Cynta de Narvaez soaks in the Big Bend National Park hot springs near Terlingua, Texas. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Distance: 1 mile round trip
  • Begin at Hot Springs parking lot

Take a walk back in time by visiting Big Bend’s Hot Springs Historic District. Here, you’ll see ancient pictographs are along the cliff wall, and several historic buildings. But the main attraction is the 105°F water bubbling up from a hole in the old foundation of the Hot Springs bathhouse.

To get there, Big Bend maintains a two-mile gravel road that descends down a rough, narrow wash to the historic district. This is where the trailhead resides, and the hot spring itself requires only a half-mile walk. Or, a 1 mile round trip will allow you to see everything, including the bluffs of the Rio Grande, remains of a historic resort and homestead, and more.

8. Hike the Chisos Mountains

North America, USA, Texas, Big Bend National Park, Chisos Mountains and Casa Grande in evening light from Chisos Basin Road. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

We can’t recommend seeing hiking the Chisos Mountains enough. But Top 10 lists will always be a matter of opinion, so this recommendation is a bit more of the “choose your own adventure” type.

There’s 7 main trails in Big Bend that offer varying vistas, and each holds its own merits. These are some of the most rewarding day hikes in the national park, especially for those looking to beat the heat of lower elevations in summer months.

Ready to choose your Chisos adventure? Click here for NPS’ full list of Chisos Mountains hikes.

Please keep in mind that both black bears and mountain lions are active in the mountains. For wildlife info and safety on the park, see our Big Bend National Park Wildlife: Animals You’ll Spot, Including Venomous Species, in Incredibly Diverse Park.

7. Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

North America, USA, Texas, Big Bend National Park, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Cerro Castellan and Tuff. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Looking for a more relaxed view of Big Bend, or a way to unwind after that mountain hike? Take to the picturesque thirty-mile stretch of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.

This gorgeous drive leads to the Castolon Historic District and Santa Elena Canyon, and you’ll find the park’s most famous historic and geologic features along the way, including:

  • The Sam Nail Ranch
  • Blue Creek Ranch Overlook
  • Sotol Vista Overlook
  • Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff
  • Mule Ears Viewpoint
  • Tuff Canyon
  • Castolon Historic District

But the highlight is seeing Santa Elena Canyon (featured below on our list) from above. The Rio Grande spent millions of years slicing this 1,500-foot vertical chasm out of pure limestone. Big Bend holds one of the most magnificent canyons anywhere as a result. And as you stand atop in Texas, you’ll look directly across to Mexico’s mirroring canyon wall.

6. Big Bend National Park is South’s Best Dark Sky Site

Vast Stars Over Big Bend National Park wilderness with rising sun and milky way

One of the best perks of Big Bend is its status as an International Dark Sky Park. According to the park, their lands grant access to the darkest measured skies in the lower 48 states.

This means unparalleled views of the night sky (as seen above). From glimpses of the Milky Way, to more stars than you’ll ever see anywhere else in the southern U.S., turning your Big Bend excursion into a Dark Sky experience couldn’t come more highly recommended by Outsider.

To do so, the staff and volunteers of Big Bend offer several different types of night sky interpretive programs throughout the year. These include star parties and moonlight walks, and each program encourages learning about the importance of dark night skies.

Or, feel free to observe yourself by taking to Big Bend areas away from development and light pollution. Even a simple pair of binoculars can allow you to see more stars than you ever will by naked eye.

Camping is a great way to do so in the park. For a list of places you can camp to stargaze, see our Big Bend National Park Lodging: Campgrounds, Cabins, Securing Reservations in Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village and More.

5. Take Your Trip International: Float the Rio Grande

In Big Bend, floating the Rio Grande River (especially within Santa Elena Canyon) is a popular visitor pastime. A whopping 118 miles of the river are within the national park, so the possibilities are yours for the taking.

River floating offers possibly the best views of Big Bend’s canyons. To do so, the park offers half-day floats and multi-day excursions. Keep in mind, however, that these are considered international trips, as the Rio Grande is the border between the U.S. and Mexico. You’ll cross this border many times while on the river.

As of fall 2022, the park’s website says a passport isn’t required to float the river. But this may change at any time, so always check before you visit. See Big Bend National Park’s information page here to plan this trip.

Pro Tip: It is illegal to purchase items from vendors operating on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.

4. Then Visit Mexico’s Village of Boquillas

North America, USA, Texas, Big Bend National Park, Boquillas de Carmed and Cerro Del Veinte, from neadr Rio Grande Overlook. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Thanks to the Rio Grande, Big Bend sits right on the U.S.-Mexico border. And thanks to a long-standing relationship, visiting Mexico through the park’s Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry is a great option for visitors (so long as they possess a valid passport). So why not visit two countries in one day via a top national park?

To do so, head for the park’s Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry with your passport and park at the Boquillas Crossing parking lot near Boquillas Canyon. After passing through, you’ll then be ferried across the Rio Grande on a small rowboat for a modest fee of $5 per round-trip. A fair trade if there ever was one.

Once across the Rio Grande, visitors have the option of walking a half-mile to the village of Boquillas, or paying an additional fee to ride on a burro, horse, or in a vehicle. Local guides are available, but always exercise caution when purchasing services across the border.

Note: Visitors are required to check in with Mexican immigration officials upon arrival in Boquillas, and pay a small entrance fee ($3) to the Mexican Protected Area that Boquillas is situated in.

3. Hike the Lost Mine Trail, See Casa Grande

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Distance: 4.8 miles round trip
  • Begin at mile 5.1 on the Basin Road
  • limited parking

Looking for a specific recommendation for the best Big Bend hikes? The top 3 on our list are it. Up first is the Lose Mine Trail with gorgeous views of the Chisos and Casa Grande.

According to the park, Lost Mine Trail serves as “an outstanding introduction the flora and fauna of the Chisos Mountains.” And only a mile in at marker 10, a geological saddle offers stunning views of Casa Grande and Juniper Canyon.

Limitless photo ops abound on this hike, but none do the experience justice. You’ll end the trail by climbing steeply in and out of juniper, oak, and pine forests. Then, the trail abruptly levels out onto a final ridge with superb views of Pine Canyon and the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico.

2. Big Bend National Park’s own Window Trail

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Distance: 5.6 miles round trip
  • Begin at the Chisos Basin Trailhead

And then there’s Big Bend National Park’s own Window Trail (not to be confused with Arches National Park‘s). This magnificent trail first descends through Oak Creek Canyon to the Window pour-off, where panoramic desert vistas are framed by some of the most impressive geology in the Southwest. Oak Creek may be flowing during wet periods, too, making for scenic creek crossings.

Keep in mind, however, that this is a moderate difficulty trail with slickrock and no railings. Your return hike will also be uphill. For a far more accessible option, take to the paved, wheelchair-accessible Window Trail that also forks out from Chisos Basin Trailhead.

  • Difficulty: Easy; 0.3 mile round trip
  • Begin at the Chisos Basin Trailhead

This far-easier, paved trail circles a low hill with excellent views of the mountain peaks surrounding the Chisos Basin, and a view through the window itself, so you won’t be sacrificing any beauty. Benches along this trail also offer a place to sit and enjoy a classic Big Bend sunset, the park notes.

For hiking and desert safety, see our Big Bend National Park Safety: Crucial Tips for a Safe, Successful Big Bend Adventure.

1. See Big Bend National Park’s Crown Jewel: Santa Elena Canyon

Texas, Big Bend National Park, Santa Elena Canyon, Rio Grande River. (Photo By: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Distance: 1.7 miles round trip
  • Begins at terminus of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

If you have time for one single trek or experience in Big Bend, Outsiders, this is it. This is truly a fabulous trail that ranks with the best of the National Park Service. Here, you’ll follow the Rio Grande upstream before dropping down into the canyon floor, allowing for a full view of the grand Santa Elena Canyon.

You’ll be right in the mouth of Santa Elena, and it’s a wonder to behold at over 1,500 feet. But there’s plenty more to the trail. Cross Terlingua Creek, then ascend on paved steps to a breathtaking vista of the surrounding geology. Then, descend back to the water’s edge, and continue into the canyon until the canyon walls meet the water.

Whether you’re floating up the Rio Grande or hiking along Santa Elena Canyon itself, this is one for the bucket list.

For more on the park ahead of your Texas excursion, see our Top 10 Things to Know About Big Bend National Park w/ PHOTOS next.

Outsider.com