Things We Wish We Knew!
Big Bend National Park is an extremely unique park, with 3 totally different climates (desert, river, and mountains) to explore, kayak, hike and drive. Despite having some great guidebooks that provided solid advice, there were some things we were unprepared for.
The following tips are things we learned from our trip and wish we would have known when visiting one of our favorite parks so far!
1. Give Yourself Plenty of Time
No one visits Big Bend on a whim and we found out soon enough why! It's just too far away and too big to make it a quick weekend getaway! It's pretty much guaranteed to be 5+ hours drive from wherever you are coming from as it is located on right on the border of Mexico and Texas. Once you arrive, you are likely to still have another 50 minute drive to get to either of the two campgrounds (Rio Grande or Chisos Basin). Therefore, you definitely want at least 4-5 days to explore the park. A week would be best! We ended up extending our trip by three days just because it took so long to get there!
Furthermore, all of our guide books warned us it was a big park, but we were definitely not mentally prepared for just how big! Sometimes it takes over an hour just to get to a hiking spot. So it is very important when planning any visitor center trips, hikes, or river trips throughout the park to give yourself plenty of travel time.
To give you an idea, we had the inspiration to get up early and watch the sunrise over the Santa Elena canyon (which we highly recommend) so we needed to leave the Rio Grande campground an hour before sunrise just to make sure we arrived on time! Make sure to account for plenty of travel time when picking activities in this park.
2. Bring Your Passports!
What? Yes you heard us! Bringing a passport to a National Park might seem like an unusual thing to do, but because Big Bend sits right on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, there is a unique opportunity to 'row a boat' across the river to the Mexican town of Boquillas del Carmen! For those that have their passports with them, you can head down to the border crossing and pay a local Mexican boatman to row you across 30 feet of shallow river for a small fee of $5 per person! It's definitely a fun experience!
The small village of Boquillas is just about a half mile or so from the edge of the river and you can get there by either walking, renting a burro or hopping in the back of a pickup truck. We chose to ride the burro and it made for some great pictures and funny memories!
Once in town, there are people everywhere selling souvenirs and there are two restaurants and a little bar. We ate at the Falcon’s restaurant on their deck overlooking the Rio Grande River while enjoying homemade chile rellenos, enchiladas and fresh margaritas on a hot day.
There was nothing in our research about this fun little half-day trip, so if we didn't happen to have our passports with us, we would have missed out big time! What made it particularly special was that this border crossing was closed for 11 years for security reasons after 9/11. So grab your passports and don't miss out!
3. Stock Up On Provisions
Big Bend National Park is a long way from civilization, including grocery stores. That means that it is important to pack enough food, water, and anything else that you might want or need while camping in the park.
There is a convenience store near the Rio Grande Campground, and while they carry many food and drink items, their prices are very high.
For water, we carry a couple of reusable water bottles and a 5 gallon jug. Many national parks have free bottle fill stations and we just fill up as needed. It is worth noting that at Big Bend, there is severe drought so they ask that each person not use more than 5 gallons of water per day, and to conserve whenever possible.
There are several gas stations in the park, so in a pinch, you can fill up, but these stations definitely take advantage of the fact that they are the only game in town. Be prepared to pay extra for the ability to fill up in the park. Luckily, we stocked up on food and gas before making our way to the park, otherwise we would have been paying for it. Being properly prepared and provisioned made our trip to Big Bend a great experience!.
4. Bring Your Swimsuit
No matter what activities we got into during the day, we loved finishing the day with a sunset dip in the incredible natural hot springs near the Rio Grande Campground.
Years ago, a health spa was built so people could access the healing qualities of the hot springs. Today, there isn’t much left of the health spa, but there is still the man-made hot tub-like area where the spring filters up and it sits overlooking the Rio Grande River.
After a long day of hiking, nothing was better than sitting and relaxing in the consistently 104 degree hot spring water watching the sun set over the river. An absolute must!
5. Bring Good Hiking Shoes
Big Bend is a hiking park! There are over 150 miles of hiking trails throughout the park and we happened to find some of the most amazing landscapes in the Chisos basin portion of the park. This is the mountain region of the park, and some of the hikes are long distances and have significant elevation gain.
A hike that isn’t to be missed is the Southeastern Rim trail. It has some of the best views in the park and tons of wildlife. The way we hiked it, it was a 12.4 mile hike with 2000 feet of elevation gain, although you can make it longer or shorter based on your needs.
A tip if you are doing the whole 12.4 mile hike: do the hike counterclockwise. Many hikers go clockwise, which requires you to ascend swiftly and steeply up a long series of switchbacks. Hiking counterclockwise allows for a longer but much less steep ascent, which we found to be easier and less tiring.
Regardless of which hikes you do in the park, good shoes will make your hikes that much more enjoyable.
6. Float Down The River
Oh boy do we wish we would have done this! Unfortunately we found out about it a little too late in our trip, but you can bring your own kayak or rent one from a local outfitter and float down the river!
With miles and miles of Rio Grande cutting through the park, this would have been such a fun delight during the hot days. The water was warm and the sun was perfect. We'll have to come back and do it sometime soon!
7. Bring a 4x4 Vehicle
There are many areas of the desert portion of Big Bend that have great hikes, homes and artifacts from early homesteaders and ranchers, and beautiful backcountry camping, however they require 4 wheel drive and decent ground clearance to access.
Our hybrid sedan has taken us many places on this trip and many places within Big Bend, but it just could not make it down some of the really rocky roads, especially since it had rained a few days before our arrival. There was one road that a ranger said we should be okay going down, but in fact nearly got stuck ¼ of a mile from the main road!
With a 4x4 vehicle, some very interesting parts of the park become accessible.
Those are our tips for visiting this amazing park! Let us know what you think or if you have any more we simply must know!