Since visiting Big Bend for the first time, I was dreaming of pitching our tent at the stunning Chisos Basin campground. We snatched a spot in the busy holiday period and spend Christmas Eve under a sky full of stars.
Big Bend is one of the least visited national parks due to its remote location on the border of Texas and Mexico. Flying into the closest airport still entails a four-hour drive to the park entrance. We drove in from Dallas and spend a night in Marfa on the way. This quirky little town is definitely worth a detour.
After brunch in Hotel Saint George, we hit the road again. From Marfa, it’s a two-hour drive to the Panther Junction Visitor Center in Big Bend. We stopped in Alpine to fill up on groceries before driving into the park.
We set up camp at the Chisos Basin campground. Located in the middle of the Chisos Mountains, the views here are nothing short of spectacular. It’s also the perfect base for some of the best hikes in the park. You’ll need to plan ahead for a trip in high season (November-April) as reservations fill up weeks in advance.
This was our first winter camping adventure, so our packing game was not on point yet. It took a lot of instant coffee and sunrise to warm us up after the first night. Daytime weather in December is sunny and perfect for hiking, but nighttime temperatures can drop below zero.
Sunset at the Window View Trail
As soon as we finished setting up, we headed to the Window View Trail for sunset. This short and paved trail departs from the Chisos Basin Visitor Centre, right next to the campground.
Sunsets in Big Bend are really out of this world. With two happy campers as a result.
Emory Peak via South Rim Trail
The next morning, we warmed up on a day hike. The Emory Peak via South Rim Trail is a diverse 13-mile loop that took us six hours to complete. We hiked clockwise, starting off with spectacular views of the Chisos Basin coated in fall colors.
After all the hiking miles without bear encounter in the Northwest, we couldn’t believe our eyes: of the 30 black bears living in Big Bend, one crossed paths with us.
We did not hike the extension to Emory peak and continued straight towards the South Rim. Each time you turn a corner, a completely different landscape emerges.
But the best views are yet to come. The stretch along the South Rim was our favorite part of this very impressive hike.
Rio Grande Village – Nature Trail & Hot Springs
We spent our second day at a more leisurely pace in the east side of the park. The drive alone makes it worthwhile to head in this direction.
The Rio Grande river makes up the natural border between the US and Mexico. The short Rio Grande Nature Trail leads up to a viewpoint overlooking both countries.
After our quick and freezing shower bag-wash the previous day, we were eager to soak in Big Bend’s natural hot spring. We were pretty disappointed to find a crowded, brownish-looking pool. But as soon as the crowds disappeared, so did the mud. When it gets too hot, you can switch over to the Rio Grand for a refreshing dip.
First Timer Itinerary
This was my second time around in Big Bend, so we skipped some of the more popular stops. The below activities fit into a weekend itinerary for a diverse introduction to the park.
Day 1, AM: Lost Mine Trail
This 4.2-mile trail delivers stunning views from start to finish. The trailhead is located two miles from the Chisos Basin Campground. There is a small parking lot that fills up quickly, so start early.
Day 1, PM: Window Trail
Not to be confused with the paved Window View Trail, the Window Trail is a 5.2-mile trail departing from the Chisos Basin Campground. It leads up to a somewhat underwhelming viewpoint of the window. For better sunset vistas, sidetrack onto the Oak Spring trail for about half a mile.
Day 2, AM: Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
This incredibly scenic drive will take you to the west side of the park. It’s the only paved road that leads up to Santa Elena Canyon. We didn’t get that message and made our way down the Old Maverick dirt road with a sedan: not recommended.
Day 2, AM: Mule Ears Trail
The Mule Ears Trail departs from an overlook along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, about halfway to the Santa Elena Canyon. While the other hikes offer dessert views, this one takes you straight through it. If you can bear the desert heat, continue to the crossing with the Smoky Creek Trail for up-close views of the Mule Ears.
Day 2, PM: Santa Elena Canyon
At the end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive awaits Santa Elena Canyon. There is a short trail into the canyon that gives a sneak peek of its beauty. But the best way to experience the canyon is undoubtedly from the water. When we make it to Big Bend another time, it will be to kayak and camp in the stunning Santa Elena Canyon.