Many people have tried to pin down what it means to “do” Big Bend. The fact of the matter is this: people of all ages, walks of life, socioeconomic status, and nationalities come and visit the Big Bend. On top of that, people visit with wildly different interests and itineraries.
As you can imagine, that makes writing a “what to do” article very difficult – especially if you need it short enough to fit into a space like this. My name is Chase Kincannon, and I'm the owner and developer of Fossil Knob Ridge. I’ve been coming here several times a year for over 20 years and the list of things I haven’t done is still longer than the list of things I have.
Here, I’ll give you a little bit of Big Bend 101, as most of the questions I get are from folks who have never been here before. I’ve put together a couple of suggestions for itineraries to help you plan your trip. I’ll also touch on some of the “so you’ve been here before” ideas, but if you’ve been here, you probably have some ideas of your own…
Big Bend National Park
The national park is the main attraction, the largest and most famous feature of the area. It seems like BBNP graces the cover of Texas Monthly about once a quarter – and for good reason. This park is 801,163 acres of intense and varied beauty. I’m not going to try to explain Big Bend National Park here – many other have done a very good job of it already. And, if you’re on this website, you likely already have a working knowledge of Google. I just want to help you figure out what the main sights to see are.
The crown jewels that you absolutely have to see before you leave the park are the Chisos Basin and Santa Elena Canyon.
The Chisos Mountains are the only mountain range completely encapsulated in one national park. They are located in the center of the park. Fortunately for us visitors, the CCC cut a paved road all the way up into the basin of the Chisos (they’re sort of bowl-shaped, hence the term “basin”. The road tops out around 5,000 feet, and in the basin there is a lodge, campground, restaurant, and world-class hiking. Driving up to the basin gives you the fascinating experience of leaving the desert and entering an entirely different alpine ecosystem. The plants, animals, weather patterns, and temperatures are strikingly different in the basin, and you get to experience it in a relatively short drive.
If all you do is the very short (and paved/ADA friendly) Window Overlook trail, you can’t say you’ve been to Big Bend unless you’ve driven up into the basin. Two of the most iconic hikes in the park are very accessible from the basin if you feel the need to stretch your legs. The Window Trail and the Lost Mine Trail are intermediate level hikes that have huge payoff for relatively short trails.
Santa Elena Canyon is on the western end of the park; getting there necessitates traversing the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, aptly named. Tons of awesome roadside exhibits along this route help explain the area and the incredible geology you see. The canyon itself is the major icon of the park. At the base of the canyon are scenic overlooks, picnic areas, as well as a short hike into the very mouth of the canyon.
Big Bend Ranch State Park
BBRSP is not like any other state park. First off, it’s huge and most of it is undeveloped. At first, I thought, “how disappointing!” I wanted lovely paved RV spots, neatly carved trails, and full hookups. This ain’t that kind of park. I also used to think of BBRSP as a kind of “little brother” to the national park. As a little brother myself, I should have realized that if this is true, that might actually make it the better park!
Here’s what I have come to realize about BBRSP, after all these years of vacationing sort of adjacent to it: when you’re in the national park, you feel like you’re able to observe the mountains, the geology, the wildlife, et cetera. When you’re in the state park, you feel like you’re part of the mountains, the geology…
Texas FM 170, better known as “River Road,” runs east-to-west through the state park. In Lajitas, 12 miles west of Terlingua, you’ll find the Barton Warnock Visitor Center. You MUST stop here to obtain an entrance permit, otherwise you could be ticketed for stopping inside the park. It’s a great place to learn the lay of the land in the state park and get your T-shirt and coffee mug.
Drive River Road west from Lajitas. Take it slow and enjoy the international boundary. Definitely stop at the top of Big Hill (I personally stop at the pullouts on both the east and west sides). Kill the engine. You need to sit here for a few minutes – it’s one of the only places I know where you can experience true and absolute silence. It can be deafening, and, if you’ll permit me, a very spiritual experience.
Two great and short hikes are accessible from River Road, the Hoodoo Trail and Closed Canyon. Hoodoo Trail offers great scenery, a magnificent overlook, and swimming in the Rio Grande. Closed Canyon gets you inside an epic canyon that leads down to the Rio.
Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River
The canyons are arguably the most famous feature of this area. Really, the only way to truly experience them (or even see them from inside) is from the river itself. Local outfitters offer daily trips in either canoes or rafts, whichever is appropriate for the water level that day. Single-day trips can often get you all the way down Santa Elena, or at least quite a ways into it if the water level is down. Outfitters like Far Flung and Desert Sports offer excellent guided tours. You do not need to be an athlete to take a river trip. Book well in advance if possible.
Three days in Big Bend:
Day One: BBNP. I used to give a full-day introductory tour of the national park. We would start by driving all the way up to the basin first and doing either of these two hikes, followed by lunch at the basin restaurant. Then, we’d drive back down and catch the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to Santa Elena and exit the park via Maverick Road (unpaved, check park conditions before taking Maverick). This was a full day for sure, but it’s a great way to get an intro to the park. Hit the most popular features, and you’ll likely leave knowing what you want to come back and spend more time doing.
Day Two: BBRSP. Start with breakfast at La Posada. Head west on 170 and stop at the Barton Warnock. Make the drive on River Road, stopping at Big Hill. Drive further and enjoy either Hoodoo Trail or Closed Canyon. Head back for a late lunch at the Candelilla Café at Lajitas. In the afternoon, stop by the Terlingua Trading Company (next to the Starlight Theater) and pick up a self-guided tour pamphlet of the Terlingua Ghost Town. Go walk through the Ghost Town and the famous cemetery. Head back to the Trading Post for souvenirs and a six-pack of cold snacks. Then, experience the Front Porch while you wait for a table at the Starlight Theater. It opens at 5 and quickly builds a 2+ hour wait, so it helps to be there at 5 or ready to entertain yourself (the porch can be VERY entertaining; I once met a baby kangaroo there).
Day Three: I like to suggest you give yourself a bonus day with no itinerary. If you’re staying at Fossil Knob Ridge, you have damn nice accommodations to relax and enjoy. Read a book and soak up that view, take a nature hike on the property, grill some dinner, build a campfire, and let sunset be a two-hour event as the stars poke through and reveal the unbelievable nighttime Terlingua sky. Download an astronomy app (I like Star Walk) and see how many constellations you can find.
If you’re feeling like you need more adventure, or if you’ve been here before and are looking for something beyond the introductory tour, here are some ideas for more excursions.
• Hot Springs – located on the eastern end of the national park, a visit to the hot springs always does something good to my soul. You’ll see ruins of an early-20th century resort, pictographs and petroglyphs, and yes, bring your swimsuit! The hot springs are for bathing and are alongside the Rio Grande, so you can dip in and out of the cool river to the hot, spring-fed water.
• Boquillas del Carmen – made famous to many as the setting of Robert Earl Keene’s “Gringo Honeymoon,” BdC is a small village on the Mexico side of the Rio Grande on the eastern edge of the national park. Hit the hot springs in the morning and then head to Mexico for lunch (passport required). At the river, the locals will row you across the river and you can choose how you want to cover the ¾ mile trail to town: on foot, in a pickup, or on the back of a burro. Bring 1’s. In town, you can get a tour guide to show you how they live in this VERY remote region, and it is truly fascinating. More popular is the bar and restaurant, where it’s really easy to spend an entire afternoon. Note when the border crossing closes lest you spend the night…
• Far Flung Multi-Day Trips – FFOC offers some really interesting multi-day trips, mostly on the river. The only way to see some of the backcountry canyons is on a multi-day trip. Visit their website for more info, and tell them you’re staying at FKR.
Here are some other “It’s my second trip to Big Bend” suggestions. I’ll just list them and let you research whether it sounds like fun to you.
Emory Peak Trail (BBNP)
Oak Springs Trail (BBNP)
Grapevine Hills/Balanced Rock (BBNP)
Ernst Tinaja (BBNP)
Contrabando Trail (BBRSP)
Mesa de Anguila (Lajitas)
Off-Roading (4wd high clearance only)
Old Ore Road (go north to south)
Glenn Springs Road, including Mariscal Mine
BBNP River Road
BBRSP interior drive – most of the state park is only accessible by unpaved roads. You have to drive almost to Presidio to get on it, so it makes for a long day, but it’s unequivocally worth it.
Most unpaved roads outside the parks are private and the locals universally do not appreciate tourism on their driveways. Yes, even though their driveways are twenty miles long and have some epic views. Please stay out of Terlingua Ranch roads and any other “no trespassing” or “private” or “no thru traffic” roads.
Astrotourism – bring a telescope and set it up outside your cabin. Even amateurs can easily find constellations, planets, and even some deep sky objects in the most basic of telescopes. I’ve even seen the Andromeda Galaxy and the Orion Nebula through binoculars out here, it’s so dark. Download an astronomy app and see how late you can stay up.
Places to Eat
We have a surprising number of restaurants here. Keep in mind, most places here are on “Terlingua Time,” and you might want to call to make sure they’re open when you want to eat. Better yet, check their hours and plan ahead!
· Starlight Theater- Terlingua favorite, home of the famous Terlingua Porch. Live music most nights. Fantastic food.
· Chisos Mountain Lodge- in the National Park, a great lunch spot during park exploration. View > Food… (In the Chisos Basin in BBNP)
· Chili Pepper Café- easy Study Butte lunch spot
· Candelilla Café- an upscale café in Lajitas
· Long Draw Pizza- A+ scratch pizza Thursday through Sunday evenings. Don’t take your cell phone in or she’ll kick you out.
· DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ- Near Study Butte, you’ll pass by this food truck complex on your way in, the definition of Texas BBQ
· La Posada (y poco mas) – breakfast and coffee right at the foot of the road that takes you to Fossil Knob Ridge
· Taqueria El Milagro – authentic taco shop located in the Ghost Town, don’t be afraid to order the plate of 5 – these are street tacos!
· Rio Bravo – another authentic Mexican food joint, located in Study Butte right off 170
· Paisano Food Trailer – chili, tacos, breakfast to dinner, located in front of the Paisano RV park on 118 near the Cottonwood
· High Sierra Bar and Grill – live music most nights, located at the intersection of Ghost Town Road and 170, fantastic burger and fries
· Big Bend Motor Inn Café – located inside the gas station at the intersection of 118 and 170 in Study Butte, reliable hours and reliable good eats.
Many times the difference between a good trip and a bad one are the supplies you have on hand. Let me tell you, for a guy who burns easily, forgetting sunscreen will absolutely ruin my Big Bend trip no matter what time of year. Fortunately, you can get a surprising variety of provisions at a couple of places in the area, although it tends to be on the expensive side.
· Cottonwood Store – a fantastic combined grocery store/hardware store/farmers market/lumber yard/general store located on 118 just south of Study Butte towards the national park entrance.
· Lajitas General Store – if you’re west of Terlingua, your best shot is the Lajtias trading post/general store
· Big Bend Motor Inn also carries a good variety of groceries and sundries.
Gas – there are only three places to get fuel down here: the Motor Inn (118 and 170), Panther Junction in the national park, and the trading post in Lajitas.
So you want to break up the drive home?
I get asked where to stay the night if you want to break up the trip home into two days. Terlingua is about two hours from Marfa, Fort Davis, and Marathon. Books have been written on each and are all worth their own trips, so I can't possibly cover it all here.
One of the true Texan bucket list items I can't recommend enough is a star party at the McDonald Observatory, located just north of Fort Davis. A stay at the Indian Lodge at the Davis Mountains State Park is also a unique experience. Book both well in advance.
Our absolute favorite hidden gem is the Marathon Motel. This restored 1940s motel has an amazing adobe plaza, nightly star parties, and enough charm to keep us coming back year after year.
Marfa has some rather famous accommodations, including the Hotel Paisano, frequented long ago by movie stars during the making of the movie, "Giant."