Know Before You Go: Big Bend

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Big Bend is one the largest national parks in the United States. At over 800,000 acres, it’s roughly the size of Rhode Island! It’s also one of the least visited national parks, averaging only 300,000 visitors per year. By comparison, Great Smoky Mountains National Park averages 11 million visitors per year, and the Grand Canyon has 5.9 million. The area has many unique activities and sights to experience, but planning for a trip there can be a little complicated due to a lack of information online (which stems from it being one of the least visited parks). So to help y’all out with any trip planning you may be doing, here are 26 things to know before you go: Big Bend edition.

1. Big Bend is very remote, even for us Texans. So, while you’re in the neighborhood, you should visit some other West Texas gems!

Marfa is a nice little day trip. The McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis is a great place to visit while you’re in the area. And there’s also the ghost town of Terlingua.

2. A 7 day pass into the park is $25

The park fee stations are open from around 8:30 AM to 4:00 PM. If you arrive when the fee stations are closed you will still be able to enter the park but there’s an honor system that asks visitors to pay when the fee stations are open, so you will have to make your way to a visitor center at some point.

3. Chances are, it will be HOT during your visit.

We went during mid-November, and the temperatures in the Chisos basin were decent (still a little warm, but this area is at a much higher elevation and has more shade from surrounding mountains) but the temperatures in the rest of the park were in the 90s. One of the park rangers remarked that we “chose the hot time of year to visit.” WHAT. It was mid-November… if that’s the hot time then what do they think of June-August?! Most mornings were cold, and we were glad we brought good sleeping bags and jackets, but as soon as the sun came out it would get real toasty real fast. So be prepared for those temperatures. From what I hear, January is usually a safe bet to get those cold(er) temperatures all day.

4. Certain campgrounds and stores are only open seasonally.

Visit the Big Bend website for more info on the closures.

Our campsite (#41) at Chisos

5. There are three established campgrounds: Chisos, Rio Grande Village, and Cottonwood. All cost $14/night.

These have bear boxes at every campsite, bathrooms, RV hookups, picnic tables, and grills at every campsite. They also have bathrooms and drinking water spigots.

7. Chisos is widely regarded as the best campground.

It’s up in the mountain basin, so the temperatures are cooler during the days and nights. All of the campsites have gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains. The trailhead to the Window Trail is right in the campgrounds. The bathrooms are nice and clean. There are minimal bugs flying around pestering you. And the campground is close to the lodge, which means you can actually venture up for a nice meal instead of camp stove cooking every now and then!

At the end of the Window Trail

8. BUT the only public showers in the park are located at Rio Grande Village.

Yep. You read that right. The only public showers in the park are not centrally located. They’re located about half an hour away from the central hub of Big Bend activity. The showers are next to the camp store and cost $2 for 5 minutes. The machine only takes quarters but the store can make change for you, and there’s a change machine outside the showers as well. The showers are not luxurious by any means, in fact, the shower head just kind of harshly sprays you, so don’t get your hopes up for a nice hot shower after those days of roughing it.

9. Cottonwood is the most “primitive” of established campgrounds.

The bathrooms don’t have running water, so they’re basically like established port-a-potties and there’s no sink in which to wash your dishes. They do have spigots for drinking water so you can wash your dishes in the grass if needed.

Cottonwood also has its own pack of resident javelinas!

10. Backcountry camping permits are first-come-first-serve, only reservable in person up to 24 hours in advance, and cost $12/night.

If it’s the busy season, you may not be able to get on that trail you’re wanting if you’re not able to reserve in time. The day before you’re planning a backcountry camping experience, go to any of the visitor centers and ask a park ranger what’s available. If your trail has available campsites, you will be able to purchase a permit.

11. The South Rim trail is the best for a backcountry hike/camp.

Views from the South Rim are amazing and at a 14-mile round trip, the trail is not easy to do as a day hike.

12. Water resources like springs are scarce.

The campsites all have drinking water spigots, so just make sure you fill up at every opportunity and before you go on a hike. You’ll have to pack all your water when backcountry camping. This will add significant weight to your pack, so prepare for that.

Make sure you pack a water bottle, or two!

13. There is one lodge in the Chisos basin, but rooms are in high demand and book up fast.

I’ve heard that for peak season the lodge can book up a year in advance, so be mindful of that if you’re planning to stay there during your trip and haven’t made reservations yet.

14. There are also primitive car-camping sites off the roads.

If you want some privacy, the experience of backcountry camping without the hiking/big backpacks, or if all the campsites at the three main campgrounds are already taken, you should consider the primitive car-camping sites. You’ll need a backcountry permit to reserve one of these sites, and when you purchase from the rangers to arrange this, ask them to advise on any car requirements to reach the campground. Some of them are right off the main (paved) roads. Others may be in areas only reachable with 4WD, high ground clearance vehicles.

Moonrise over the Chisos

15. Big Bend sits under the darkest skies in the lower 48, so take the opportunity to do some stargazing.

Any time you look up at night when you’re in the park, you’ll be able to see the Milky Way. The park usually does a good job at posting notices for any cool meteor showers, etc. that may be coming up. We found out the Leonids meteor shower would happen during our visit from an information board in the visitor center and were thrilled to have the opportunity to watch it in the park’s dark skies.

16. Bring a headlamp, lantern, and/or a good flashlight.

I mentioned before that Big Bend is in the darkest region of the lower 48, so everything is minimally lit to preserve that. You’ll definitely need a personal light source in your tent and to help you find your way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. We both this mini “lantern” to hang in our tent at night and it was amazing! We also purchased headlamps earlier in the year for Hurricane Harvey and were excited to get to use them in Big Bend.

On the Grapevine Hills Trail

17. Pack for a range of temperatures.

Like I mentioned before, it was cold in the mornings (probably 40/50s) but as soon as the sun came out from behind the mountains, I was stripping down out of my jacket and layers because the temps would rocket up to the 80/90s range by midday. Make sure you pack a good jacket, but at the same time, don’t forget a pair of shorts.

18. Bring a swimsuit.

You won’t want to miss the hot springs on the Rio Grande!

19. Use a bear bell when you’re hiking.

Matt was so paranoid about bears and mountain lions during our hikes. And there were some trails with creepy caves and areas where they could definitely be hanging around. We passed a few hikers with bear bells, and I would definitely recommend hanging one like this from your backpack when you go to Big Bend. For our next trip, we definitely will be using them.

20. Bring your passport just in case you want to do a border crossing into Mexico at Boquillas.

Read more about doing a border crossing here.

21. Invest in a good pair of hiking boots, and make sure you break them in before your trip.

I kept seeing people in the park wearing Vans and Converse complaining about how dirty their shoes were getting or how much their feet hurt. I even saw them on the trails. If you’re going to hike, wear hiking boots. They’re made to get dirty, and they protect your feet and ankles. Just make sure your boots are broken in before you go. If you purchase them new, wear them to work, walk around in them at home, go do some smaller hikes at a local park or nature center. Hiking in new boots can give you blisters, and you definitely don’t want that ruining your trip.

22. Be mindful of your gas gauge.

Gas stations are few and far between in Big Bend. So make sure you have enough gas to get where you’re going and back just in case. In the park, you can fill up at Panther Junction and Rio Grande Village.

23. You probably won’t have any cell coverage in the park.

The only place I had service in the park was the Panther Junction area. Otherwise, I would have to connect to the wifi when I was at the visitor centers, camp stores, or the lodge.

24. Make sure to bring lots of food with you!

The only option for eating out is at the lodge. You could buy food from the camp stores, but it’s all pretty pricey. We just did a grocery run before our trip and brought lots of tuna, soup, granola bars, trail mix, etc. We were glad we had a lot of “ready to eat” food because we were frequently on the move and didn’t have time to sit and eat lunch.

25. Most of the time there are burn bans in place, which means no campfires. Bring a propane camp stove if you plan on cooking food.

We purchased this Coleman Cooking Stove for $39 and were very pleased with it during our trip.

At the Closed Canyon Trail at Big Bend Ranch State Park

26. Make sure to visit Big Bend State Ranch State Park!

We explored the park a bit on the last day of our trip by doing the Closed Canyon Trail. Honestly, I thought the drive out to that trailhead was more scenic than the actual scenic drive in the national park. I was blown away by the sights at the state park and wish we had allotted more time to spend there. Maybe next time!

For more posts and content on Big Bend, visit my BiBe Index page.

Happy wanderlusting, friends!

3 Comments

  • Nicky

    Great tips! We’re hoping to do this trip next year and I’m definitely going to get me one of those bear bells! I’m also going to practice tiptoeing too…!

    December 8, 2017 at 4:31 pm Reply
  • Hanna

    These are such helpful tips! I have been itching to explore more national parks and your descriptions are convincing. That’s also a great tip about stopping by the other places in the area like Big Bend State Ranch State Park!

    December 8, 2017 at 4:40 pm Reply
  • Anisa

    I grew up in Texas but still have not made it to Big Bend. These are very useful tips, some are great for a lot of hiking trips. Pinning for future reference

    December 10, 2017 at 6:32 am Reply
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