Driving into Big Bend National Park, it’s tough not to conjure up images of John Wayne riding into the sunset in one of his great Western movies. This vast national park in the southwest corner of Texas along the Mexico border is one of the largest but least visited national parks in the United States. You’ll find it at the end of the road in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert. During the summer, the park is all but shuttered due to the harsh desert conditions. But its rugged beauty is inspiring and a winter visit is well worth the long drive to get there.
Make a Plan to Visit Big Bend
What? It can’t be November already. Between the games and the bake sales, the school calendar ate my life.
Somehow I still need to get a Winter Break trip together. Flipping through my trusty atlas, I spot it—Big Bend National Park. I’ve always wanted to go.
I’ll pitch the idea to the kids at dinner.
Idea pitched and accepted—now all I have to do is make a few reservations since we’ll be traveling during their busy season.
We can sneak away before Christmas and still be home for the big day. Or leave the day after Christmas to enjoy a little trip before everyone heads back to school.
Getting To Big Bend National Park
I get the kids up early, like dark early, and we’re packed and on the road before breakfast. Headed west for the horizon.
Big Bend National Park is in a remote corner of Texas and you will have to drive there. It will take at least six hours for travelers leaving the larger cities of Texas. The closest airport is El Paso, Texas, which is close to 300 miles northwest of the park. You won’t find public transportation in or around Big Bend.
It’s open every day, all day. Admission is $25 per vehicle for a 7-day pass or you can use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80).
There are two tiny towns outside of Big Bend National Park, Terlingua and Marathon. Both have limited services—think gas stations and some limited lodging only.
Big Bend National Park for Kids
We enter Big Bend at Maverick Junction, just south of Terlingua. The first thing that hits me is the vastness of the park. It feels like we are driving through a movie set of an old Western—I keep looking for John Wayne.
At the Castolon/Santa Elena Junction, we turn south to where the road ends at the border. We stop at the Castolon Visitors Center, where we find a picnic table to make some sandwiches outside the 80-year-old general store.
After lunch, we walk in to the Visitors Center to grab the Junior Ranger booklets that the kids complete while exploring. Once they’re done, we’ll turn them in to a Park Ranger for a really cool patch—a great activity for school-aged kids.
There are 24 camping sites with limited services at Castolon’s Cottonwood campground.
Santa Elena Canyon
Driving next to the Rio Grande, I begin to understand the draw of western movies. There’s a serene peace and beauty in the desert.
At Santa Elena Canyon, we get out to look around. This section of park features sheer canyon walls. In the afternoon sun, it has a raw, rugged beauty. For adventurous families, you can raft the Rio Grande on a guided float trip through this area.
After a day of exploring, we drive into Terlingua where I reserved a camping cabin at Far Flung Outdoor Center. Holiday lights greet us.
I am delighted to find our cabin is immaculate and well-equipped with a kitchenette, a large bathroom with a shower and WiFi, a luxury in Big Bend ($159/night with two queen beds). The lodging is limited in Big Bend and I lucked out with one of the nicest places to stay.
Since the restaurants in the Big Bend region are limited, with long waits, we grab some burger patties, a bottle of wine and a bag of marshmallows. Outside we find a grill with a picnic table to enjoy dinner under the stars.
Big Bend is a designated International Dark Skies Park, so outdoor lighting is minimal in and around the park. Just remember your flashlights or lanterns.
Chisos Mountain Basin
We wake up refreshed and head back to Big Bend NP, passing the Castolon/Santa Elena Junction and on to Chisos Mountain Basin Junction. This is the center of the park.
It seems we have found all the visitors in Big Bend. They are walking around the Chisos Mountain Lodge and restaurant, the Visitor Center, the general store or on one of the seven trail heads. Arrive early in the day; parking is limited.
The Chisos Mountains is the only mountain range located entirely within a national park. As you drive out of the Chihuahuan Desert, the landscape becomes greener and trees appear, providing cover for more animals.
At the Visitor Center, we check out our hiking options. I spot a map detailing the recent encounters with black bears and mountain lions. The kids watch a video explaining what to do if you meet one on a trail.
Family-Friendly Hikes in Big Bend
We’re prepared to hike even after I read about bears and mountain lions.
The first trail is the Window View Trail, an easy, paved .3-mile walk to an unbelievable viewpoint. This is a great trail for strollers and younger kids.
The Chisos Basin Loop Trail is next for us; it’s a moderate 1.8-mile round-trip hike. This one is a great option for families with older children. It gets away from the buildings, but you shouldn’t encounter any bears or mountain loins. My boys insist on carrying rocks to protect us after watching the video, just in case.
A 2-mile hike is about all the kids can do. Chisos Mountain Basin is not recommended for trailers longer than 20 feet due to the tight S curves. The campground features 60 sites with running water.
Now we’re hungry so we find an oasis with picnic tables at Dugout Wells, just pass Panther Junction.
Rio Grand Village
Heading southeast, we drive into the Rio Grande Village and stop at the Visitor Center. This area also features a 100-site campground, a general store, a gas station and showers under the shade of cottonwood trees.
Continuing farther east is the Boquillas Canyon Overlook, where you can see Boquillas Del Carmen, a very small and isolated Mexican village. On the rocks, there are handmade souvenirs made by the villagers.
If you want to visit Boquillas Del Carmen, there is a Border Crossing, open Wednesday through Sunday, and you need a passport to move between Mexico and the United States.
The sun is low on the horizon and we need to head back. But first, we stop by the Panther Junction Visitors Center to get our Junior Ranger patches and enjoy the last rays of the day in Big Bend National Park.
Tips from a Traveling Mom
- Keep at least half a tank of gas in your tank. Gas stations are scare out in Big Bend and sometimes they’re out of gas.
- Buy a map, the cell service is IFFY and data is most likely unavailable.
- Bring water, Big Bend National Park suggests visitors to its desert location use only 5 gallons of water per day.
- Bring food for every meal. The restaurants are limited around Big Bend National Park.
- If you want to visit Mexico, bring your passport or passport card, the border crossing is closed on Monday and Tuesday.
- The camping and hotel rooms in the Big Bend area fill up fast during holidays; make reservations ahead of time.