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Breathtaking, stunning and awe-inspiring. Three words that come to mind when thinking about the Big Bend area of Texas. While it can be challenging to get to, ranking 8th in the least visited national parks, the trip is beyond worthwhile. There are so many things to do near Big Bend that you should plan for a week to see all the area has to offer. Beyond hiking and gorgeous vistas, the towns of Terlingua, Marfa, Alpine, Lajitas, Presidio offer other unique opportunities to explore the region.
When Hampton Inn by Hilton offered me the opportunity to be on their Real Travelers Panel select a location for a three day stay in one of their hotels a significant amount of thought went into choosing where we would spend our time. As I would be 28 weeks pregnant with twins at the time of the trip, we opted to stay in Texas.
My husband and kids had visited Big Bend in West Texas back in 2014. However, I had received a jury duty notice late enough that I couldn’t get out of it. We decided to visit again – me, my husband and our 14-month-old son. From pictures of their trip, I was ready for uniquely Big Bend views and scenery. It did not disappoint. This Big Bend trip became something of an “oblication”- part vacation, part work obligation as my paramedic husband explored some rescue squads in that area for opportunities. For such a remote region the area boasted plenty to do. Plan for extra time to explore the surrounding area. Read on to learn about things to do near Big Bend Texas.
Things to Do Near Big Bend National Park, Texas
What You Need To Know About Visiting Big Bend National Park, Texas
Chances are if you are traveling to the Big Bend Texas area, you plan to visit Big Bend National Park. Located in Terlingua, this park has options for hikers and those looking to drive. Plan ahead of time and study a map before you go. There are plenty of drives through the park that you can do in a regular vehicle. However, there are also multiple backcountry roads that are high clearance 4×4 vehicle only. There are few paved roads within the park. To understand the full enormity of the park if you enter at the Persimmon Gap entrance it will be another 30 miles to hit the Chisos Mountains!
We entered via the Maverick entrance. The entrance fee is $25 per vehicle. Big Bend’s busy times are Thanksgiving week, the week between Christmas and New Years and spring break periods in March. At other times per year, the booth may be unattended. There will be instructions on which visitor centers will be open. You should plan to stop by one to pay for your pass.
TravelingMom Tip: The state of Texas is HUGE. If you’re coming in from another area make sure you understand the distance you will cover to get to Big Bend Texas. From Austin, the capitol located in Central Texas, it takes roughly 7 hours to get to Big Bend Texas. From Dallas? Close to 8 hours. From Houston? 8.5 hours. Plan a day to get there.
Visitors Centers at Big Bend National Park
There are 5 different Visitor Centers in Big Bend National Park. Two operate year-round: Panther Junction Visitor Center and Chisos Basin Visitor Center. Both have interactive exhibits and Big Bend Natural History Association bookstores, as well as restroom and water filling faucets. Park rangers are on hand to provide information and brochures to help you identify yuccas, javelinas and roadrunners.
Castolon Visitor Center, Persimmon Gap Visitor Center and Rio Grande Village Visitor Center are open from November to April. All have exhibits and restrooms.
Family Friendly Hikes at Big Bend National Park
Things to Know Before Hiking at Big Bend
Weather in Big Bend National Park can be unpredictable. One thing that you can predict? It is going to be HOT during the summer months. From April through roughly late September, plan to carry at least a gallon of water per person. Also, plan on packing and bringing in the majority of your water. While there may be water filling faucets at the visitor centers, don’t rely on them. The park has altitude variations from the Rio Grande carving through the Chihuahuan Desert (1,800 ft) all the way up to Emory Peak (7,832 ft) in the Chisos Mountains. Dress in layers and plan to hike early in the morning before the temperatures rise.
Big Bend National Park is a remote park. Although there are some great EMS services in Terlingua and Alpine, response times can be lengthy, and in the case of traumatic injuries, the closest high-level trauma hospital involves being flown by helicopter. Be cautious and know your limits. Do not push yourself too hard. Stop to rest and assess other members of your party. A vacation loses its appeal when you need to be flown hundreds of miles because of a medical emergency.
My husband is definitely an outdoor man. Living in Vermont for years, he was constantly out in the woods on hiking trails – usually with one of our kids in a backpack carrier. I love to hike too, but pregnant with twins has its limitations.
We chose two hikes in the park: the Santa Elena Canyon Trail (roundtrip 1.7 miles) and the Hot Springs Canyon Trail (roughly 5 miles round trip- we did not do the full loop). These were both simple enough for me to complete and would be perfect for kids or novice hikers.
Hiking the Santa Elena Canyon Trail
The Santa Elena Canyon Trail is along ledges of the rock face. The trail is very clear with a lot of steps built in. You’ll ascend to over 150 feet above the river below.
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One thing to be aware of (especially if you have clumsy children like me) is that you are high up with no rail along the side. Small children should be taken firmly by the hand or ride in a carrier. The views are worth it and I still recommend this hike — just take proper precautions. You have to cross Terlingua Creek to get to the trail, so if visiting after a heavy rain, you may not be able to get to the trail head.
TravelingMom Tip: Big Bend National Park has something for everyone. If you’re looking for a more strenuous hike check out the South Rim Trail. This 12.6 mile loop trail can be done as one long day hike or a one night backpacking trip (choose this option and add on the Emory Peak trail for an extra challenge). The Lost Mine trail is what I’d consider moderate- at 4.8 miles roundtrip it’s a good choice for adventurous families.
Hiking the Hot Springs Canyon Trail
The Hot Springs Canyon Trail had the ruins of a former “hot springs resort,” varied plants and cacti, some detailed Native American petroglyphs, and actual hot springs pool right on the edge of the Rio Grande River. You can sit in the hot springs pool and look across to Mexico. Be sure to wear a swimsuit under your clothes on this hike or you’ll miss out on a great opportunity for a unique soak!
Hiking to Balanced Rock on the Grapevine Hills Trail
This easy hike culminates in a really neat photo opportunity with a boulder balanced between two rock formations. This hiking trail is good for all skill levels and is a short 2.2 miles roundtrip.
Make it an International Trip
One of the coolest parts about Big Bend Texas is that you can actually visit Mexico too with a valid passport! You park at the Boquilla Crossing parking lot. From there you have two options. You can walk across the river at Boquillas Crossing (it is not always low enough for this to be safe) or you can take a rowboat ride ($5 roundtrip, no charge kids under 7) across Boquillas Canyon. You’ll walk about 3/4 mile to the village. Be sure to check in with Mexican officials and pay the entry fee (roughly $3).
While in town you can buy handcrafted items (wire sculptures of lizards or textiles are abundant). Enjoy a meal in one of Boquillas two restaurants.
Things to Do Near Terlingua, Texas
If you’re looking for free things to do near Terlingua, look no further than the ghost town. Buildings remaining from when Terlingua was a mining town are scattered about, and you can wander and explore to your heart’s content.
Pick up a free map for the Terlingua Ghost Town from Terlingua Trading Company. This store offers a little bit of everything and is the perfect spot for anything you might have forgotten.
Looking for a bite to eat in Terlingua? The Starlight Theatre is located in the Ghost Town area and offers a varied and eclectic menu ranging from boar to quail to brisket to antelope and of course the famous Terlingua Chili. A must visit if you’ll be in the area!
And of course, the most popular thing to do in Terlingua? The National Park!
Big Bend Ranch State Park- A Hidden Gem
Big Bend National Park may be low in attendance but high in name recognition. It’s surprising how many folks haven’t heard of Big Bend Ranch State Park which is located pretty much “next door.”
With a motto of “Welcome to the other side of Nowhere,” this state park is truly remote. Many visitors report never seeing another person during their visit! With miles of trails, schedule several day loop hikes or take a scenic drive along River Road, and stop off for quick little hikes and stunning photos off the road.
The National Park is stunning. but my husband and I both agreed that Big Bend Ranch State Park stole our hearts. We are already planning a return trip to hike some of the trails. The River Road drive whet our appetites for more. These pictures tell more than I possibly could.
Things to Do Near Marfa, Texas
Marfa’s name has stretched far beyond Texas. Numerous articles on things to do near Marfa exist and a large amount are by folks from far far away who came for the festivals. Locals are being priced out of Marfa. Thousand square foot homes on tiny city lots are sold as is for half a million dollars to hipsters who visit a few times a year. To say I was skeptical of Marfa would be an understatement. I mean when Vogue has a pretentious article on what to do and eat there that complains about tiny missed details you’ve got to think twice.
We didn’t end up dining in Marfa. Even during the “off season,” the restaurants were full. With an active toddler, we passed on that experience.
One thing that you shouldn’t skip though? The Marfa lights. I was ready for these to be an overhyped phenomenon. Instead, we were pleasantly surprised. A quick 20-minute drive from our hotel brought us to the Marfa Lights Viewing Center. We arrived before sunset and walked around. There was a little trail with all sorts of historical fact markers along it. A fascinating fact about the center: it was designed by local high schoolers!
Now if you read online, tons of articles both debunk the lights and prove they are real. We experienced the lights. Random orbs floating around, blinking and bouncing against the night sky. The common debunk argument is that they are car lights, but we identified singles on areas with no roads. I’d conclude that theory is invalid.
Looking for something free in Marfa to entertain you during daylight hours? Visit Donald Judd’s Works in Concrete for free Wednesday through Sunday at the Chinati Foundation.
Things to Do Near Alpine, Texas
As we pulled into Alpine, we were pleasantly surprised to see that it was a larger town than we were expecting. Home to Sul Ross University, like many college towns, it boasted plenty of restaurants and food trucks. We selected Alpine as our “home base” for this trip because of the availability of a Hampton Inn by Hilton. It’s central location ended up being perfect, allowing us to visit different towns each day.
Plan to look at McDonald Observatory’s schedule before your trip. Located 40 miles from Alpine, the Observatory offers star viewing parties and other programs with tickets ranging from $5-$12. Sadly we didn’t make it up during this trip, but it is on our must do list for the future.
A fun free thing to do in Alpine is to visit the Museum of the Big Bend. Located on Sul Ross’s campus this museum was full of history, fun facts, and interactive displays.
Hotel Near Big Bend, Texas
There are hotel options close to Big Bend National Park, and those are great for folks who plan to spend time in the park for multiple days in a row. Within the park there are campsites and the Chisos Mountains Lodge. We wanted to explore surrounding towns with an itinerary ranging from Presidio all the way through the national and state parks. It made more sense for us to stay centrally. Our days involved a lot of driving and with our 14-month-old we wanted a hotel where he could run around at the end of the day.
The Hampton Inn by Hilton offered this and more for us. I’ve stayed in tons of Hilton brand hotels. It has been my go-to business travel hotel for 11 years of working as a territory sales manager covering over 18 states. Book your next Hilton brand stay here.
Why We Loved the Hampton Inn by Hilton – Alpine
I can’t stress enough how centrally located this hotel was to sites we wanted to see in the area. We were able to pop over to view the Marfa lights in 20 minutes. The drive to Big Bend National Park took 1 and a half hours. We got to Presidio to start our River Road Drive in 1 hour and 15 minutes. Multiple food options nearby make it convenient.
Staff at the Hilton
The staff was super friendly and also very helpful on things to do and recommending places to eat in the area.
Free Breakfast and Happy Hour
This location not only has the signature Hampton Inn by Hilton free breakfast but also a night time happy hour. This was great for us. We’d arrive back in time to grab beverages and snacks to hold us over. This allowed us to have our toddler run off some energy before we enjoyed a late dinner.
Large Hotel Rooms
The room was huge! There was a ton of empty floor space which was perfect. After inspecting the room for anything the toddler could destroy, get into or hurt himself on we were amazed to discover that there really wasn’t anything major.
With a large desk and a chair on each side we had the perfect spot to eat some of the takeout dinners we got. There was plenty of room in the front entryway hall for the crib so that our son couldn’t see us once we put him down (and therefore actually went to sleep!).
The location had a large pool and an outdoor grilling area.