Where the Rio Grande winds its way through desolate countryside between Texas and Mexico, there is a large bend in the river. On the north side of this bend is a national park aptly named Big Bend National Park. Measured in land area, it is one of the larger national parks (over 800,000 acres). Measured in number of visitors per year, it is among the smaller parks, at 300,000-400,000 visitors per year.
You have to really want to come here. This place is hard to get to (that is even true for me and I live in Texas). It takes me 9 hours to drive here from the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The nearest major airport are over five hours away (Midland or El Paso). This place is truly in the middle of nowhere.
And that is part of it’s charm. This park is a big remote desert scape for the most part.
Due to the vast size of Big Bend National Park, you should plan on only seeing part of it during your visit (unless you have a lot of time to spend here). Otherwise, you will spend an enormous amount of time driving around. It is many miles between different parts of the park, and you will only be able to go about 40 miles an hour (and that is on the main road).
If you have not been here before, I recommend you start your exploration in the Chisos Mountains part of the park, which is right in the middle of it. This is actually an area of fairly dramatic mountains, which is surprising given the flat terrain all around. The area you’ll want to head to is called the Chisos Basin, which is in the middle of all the mountains. In addition to having mountains, there is much more vegetation in this part then in the rest of the park. While the rest of the park feels like a desert, this part doesn’t. The mountains give you great opportunities for hiking and scenic views. In addition, there is plenty of camping, there are Ranger offices, there’s a convenience store, and even a small hotel here.
The Best Views
We are photographers, so we are always looking for the best views to serve as background for our pictures. I’m going to give you the three best in the Chisos Mountains area. I have listed them here in order of easiest to get to two hardest.
Window View Trail
This is by far the easiest one to get to. You need walk less than half a mile. Further, you’ll walk on a paved path and there are benches along the path. From here you will have nice views of the mountains surrounding the Chisos Basin. Most people prefer sunset for this trail, and that makes a lot of sense since you can get back to your car/hotel/campsite easily in the dark.
Note: Don’t confuse this Window View Trail with the Window Trail, which is a much longer (5.6 mile) trail! They both begin at the Chisos Basin Trailhead.
Lost Mines Trail
In terms of “bang for the buck,” the Lost Mines Trail is probably your best bet at Big Bend National Park. By that I mean that this trail has the most striking views while keeping the amount of effort to a moderate level.
The Lost Mines Trail is a 4.8 mile trail (round trip) requiring a moderate level of effort. There is a small parking area at the base of the trail, which is only about a mile from the Chisos Basin Campground. There are moderately steep uphill parts to the trail, particularly at the very beginning and near the end. Along the way there are some night nice views. In fact, if you don’t have the time or the inclination to hike the whole trail, you can just walk up about a mile and get some pretty nice views. The real payoff, however, is at the end of the trail. At that point the trail opens up to a larger area with views in all directions. Per the park literature, what you are looking at from here is Pine Canyon and the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico.
If you do one thing in Big Bend, I think this is the one to do. It is just a great hike that is not too difficult but gives you great views.
While the South Rim offers perhaps the most dramatic views and all of Big Bend National Park, do not underestimate how hard it will be to get there. Getting there involves a 7 mile hike with 2,000 feet of elevation change. Of course, you will need to double that distance to get back. There’s a lot of up-and-down as well, although no scrambling or anything overly strenuous. Still, given the length I would describe this hike as fairly challenging.
Now let’s talk about the pay off. Through the entire hike you will be walking through trees and other vegetation. At the end, you will reach cliffs where there is an abrupt change in scenery. All along the cliffs you will overlook a vast desert. It is striking. These are perhaps the best views in Big Bend National Park.
I can promise you the hike back will be no fun. It is just a long way. If you wait for sunset on the South Rim, the hike back will be even less fun as you’ll be walking in the dark. That is definitely doable – I walked much of the trail back in the dark on my last visit there and had no difficulty staying on the trail – but not a lot of fun. There are back country campsites along the trail to the South Rim if you want to catch sunrise or sunset (or night photography) along the South Rim.
Perhaps the top reason to come to Big Bend National Park is night photography. Big Bend is one of the darkest places in the entire United States. Check out the DarkSiteFinder map:
The dark spot in the middle of the map is Big Bend. As such, there are few better spots to capture the stars or the Milky Way. When I am serious about capturing the stars, this is where I go.
What to Bring
In short, bring everything. You’ll want wide angle lenses for landscapes and you’ll want the big telephotos for wildlife. You’ll want the big tripod for your night photos. You’ll want scaled down versions of your kit for hiking.
Normally I try to give you a flavor of what you will need and what you won’t, but there is just nothing you won’t need here. Bring it all.
Navigating Big Bend
Big Bend is one place you will want a paper map. Cell service is terrible. Obviously wi-fi is out of the question. I recommend the National Geographic Big Bend Trails Illustrated Map. It has all the roads and trails of the park. It is also waterproof and tear resistant, so it will hold up over your trip. I have used mine several times and always find it invaluable.
Where to Stay
There’s actually a hotel here called the Chisos Mountain Lodge. It has both rooms and cabins and is located right at the Chisos Basin Trailhead, which is where you pick up the trail to head to the South Rim. Every time I have been to Big Bend National Park, however, it has been full. Therefore, I cannot attest to whether it is nice or a dump. You will need to make reservations well in advance if you want to stay here. It is really the only non-camping option as the next nearest hotels are probably over 50 miles away (in Terlingua to the west or Marathon to the north).
If you are up for camping, there is a pretty nice campground nestled within the Chisos Mountains. It is appropriately called the Chisos Basin Campground. There are mountain views in every direction. There is generally availability unless you’re coming during spring break or a holiday weekend. You can arrive anytime of the day or night. You just pick a spot and then leave your money in an envelope ($8) or near the entrance to the campground.
If you are up for some backpacking, there is ample opportunity for backcountry camping in the area. As mentioned above, there are many campsites along the trails toward the South Rim. They will all be marked on the National Geographic map referenced above. The upside is that these campsites are very remote and in fairly scenic spots along the way. The downside, of course, is that you will have to haul all of your gear in and out. Again, the hike should not be underestimated.