Big Bend holds a special place in my heart, as it was where I had my first National Park camping experience, shortly after moving to Dallas. I went with a group of co-workers in the same rotational program I was in – we were a close-knit bunch and I have fond memories of that trip. I returned later that year with some college friends who also happened to live in Texas, which only cemented my passion for this park.
Ever since those two visits, I have remembered how much Big Bend has to offer. With 1,200 square miles of pristine wilderness, it would take too many trips to see the whole thing. During my stay in Marfa in January of 2022, I visited Big Bend three times; I simply could not get enough. And as with many places, I have discovered just how much more is waiting to be explored.
the chisos Basin Region
The Chisos Mountains are mountain range in the central-southern section of the park. The range is fully contained within Big Bend National Park, making it the only such range in the United States. The Chisos Range is also the most southerly mountain range in the country. The Chisos host some of the most popular trails in the park, including Lost Mine Peak, the South Rim Trail, Emery Peak, and the famous Window trail. If you are visiting Big Bend during the warm months of the year, the Chisos offers some respite from the heat, situated at 5,400 feet above sea level.
During our first visit, my brother and I camped on the outskirts of the Chisos, in an area I was previously unfamiliar with. Before this trip, I had discovered that Big Bend offers what they call “backcountry camping”, which is similar to dispersed car camping. These roadside campsites are away from the large campgrounds, and offer more privacy and solitude. For our first night, Nick and I camped at Nugent Mountain, a small mountain just beyond the perimeter of the Chisos Basin. We arrived on Friday evening just before dusk, only to find a sprinter van parked right in our spot. I was anxious about “campsite poaching”, as we were arriving so late in the day. It was also getting close to dusk, and we were hoping to enjoy the sunset in privacy. Luckily the owners of the sprinter van caught on to our frustration, and left promptly before the sun set.
The first morning, I woke up to twilight engulfing my tent. It would be sunrise soon, so I peeked outside my tent to get a quick view of my surroundings. I saw some low-hanging, wispy clouds to the east, which were already catching color from the sun – at this point below the horizon. I sensed that these clouds might soon glow with more intensity, so I woke up my brother so he could see it for himself. The following sunrise was superb – it still stands as one of the most beautiful I have witnessed in all of 2022. I snapped the photograph below, and I love it for the composition of prickly pear cactus in the foreground, and the distant silhouette of the Sierra Del Carmen to the east.
Since Nugent Mountain and its surroundings were new to me, we drove some backroads that first morning. Nugent Mountain is located on Glen Springs road, which connects to Pine Canyon Road. Along the drive we saw some other, really cool roadside campsites. This road eventually terminates at the Pine Canyon trailhead, which essentially connects to the backside of the Chisos Basin. While we did not hike it, this trail seemed very low-key and quiet. If I were to come back to Big Bend, I would consider doing this hike.
Since we had a leisurely morning we decided not to take on a very difficult hike, and opted for the popular but short Window Trail in the heart of the Chisos Basin. This was my third time doing this trail, as it is a must-see for new visitors to Big Bend. The last time I was here, there was actual water seeping out of this drainage. In the photo below, you can see how the drainage of water over time has sculpted this slot into a smooth surface. It is so smooth that it can be dangerous getting close to – beyond the Window is a sheer drop-off to the desert floor.
Nick and I spent more time in the Chisos Basin during a second visit to the park. This time we had a campsite in the actual Chisos Basin campground. While busy, it is always a joy to be able to camp here. The Chisos Basin offers restrooms, sinks for dirty dishes, and a camp store (which happens to sells beer from breweries I remember in Dallas!) A tip for those wanting to visit: most of the National Park lacks reliable cell phone coverage. If you find yourself in a bind, the Chisos Basin Visitor Center has free WiFi. I may have even used this WiFi to download an offline episode of a TV show I was watching at the time – which is certainly a luxury.
During that second visit Nick and I hiked the South Rim Trail, a route which encircles the high periphery of the Chisos Basin itself. There is a side trail on this route which takes you up to Emory Peak, a prominent summit offering sweeping views of the Basin and surrounding desert floor. At 7,825 feet, Emory Peak is the tallest mountain in the park, and second highest peak in all of Texas (dwarfed only by Guadalupe Peak, which surpasses 8,000 feet). While these elevations might not seem extreme for Colorado standards, keep in mind that the desert floor surrounding them is much closer to sea level (1,800 feet, at its lowest).
I didn’t join Nick for the Emory Peak summit – partially because I had already summited it twice, but more so because I was feeling nauseous on the ascent up to the Emory Peak/Boot Canyon junction. Instead, we diverged – myself completing the South Rim loop early, and Nick summiting Emory Peak and completing the loop a bit later. I don’t have many photos from that journey, as I was more focused on the hike than actual photo opportunities. Plus, the midday sun was putting out harsh lighting.
The photos above and below were each taken at other roadside campsites: Rice Tank and Harts Draw, respectively. After having taken advantage of Big Bend’s “backcountry camping” sites, I have concluded that this is the choice way to camp in the National Park. If you find yourself visiting the park, I highly recommend at least checking these out. Another nice option at Big Bend is that there are a number of backcountry sites unavailable to reserve online, and can only be added to an existing trip at the Visitor Center, in person. This is helpful for more flexible travelers who might want to extend their stay.
lost mine peak
During our second trip, I stayed an extra night in the Chisos Basin with the goal of trying out an unfamiliar trail for sunrise. I had heard how wonderful Lost Mine Peak was from a friend in Dallas who was very familiar with the park. For some reason I had never hiked this trail, and this trip was my opportunity. I woke up about two hours before sunrise, and headed to an empty and dark trailhead.
Immediately before the trail is a sign which warns hikers about bears and mountain lions that frequent the area: “do not hike alone; do not let children wander, etc.” Well, I would be breaking one of those rules this morning. And while I did not witness any cats or bears, I did appreciate how ideal the trail would be for them. There are a lot of perches and switchbacks on the ascent where I had to clear my throat, cough, or loudly talk to myself – just to feel some peace of mind about making noise for potential critters to hear me. Luckily I seemed to truly be alone, but there is no way of knowing for sure.
I eventually made it to the top of Lost Mine Peak, and enjoyed an incredible sunrise. There is a flat area at the summit, spotted with gnarled trees and interesting rock formations. One of them, pictured below, reminded me of a hand; palm facing outward opposite to the rising sun. This vantage point was fantastic as I was able to watch Casa Grande (the peak pictured to the right) slowly bathe in this dawn light, and see the shadows retreat from the horizon. The summit is high enough that you can see the desert “sea”, stretching around and engulfing the Chisos Basin.
One of these days, if I am to return, I would like a try at summiting Casa Grande. There is access to the peak from this very trail, in this middle section which connects the initial ascent to the final climb up to the peak. I did some researching and not only is this possible (yet difficult; requiring a lot of bushwhacking), there are actually aspen trees on the flanks of this mountain. I find that amazing that such alpine-associated trees would be living so far south in the United States, and surrounded by a desert ecosystem! Sky Islands like the Chisos are a fascinating geologic and ecological concept.
rio grande village
Visiting Big Bend National Park would not be complete without experiencing the Rio Grande river, which cuts through the park like a winding snake. The river is responsible for the park’s namesake, since its meandering flow creates a “bend” in the far southern reaches of Texas. What’s also interesting is the national boundary this river creates. In the photo below, you are looking at two countries – separated by a natural feature. Mexico is on the left, while the US is on the right.
While this cannot be said about all the places along the border my brother and I visited (Bisbee and Ajo, for example), the border crisis is not particularly evident in Big Bend. In fact, there seems to be an unspoken arrangement between the inhabitants of nearby town of Boquillas Del Carmen in Mexico, and the rangers in the park – Mexicans freely cross the river to offer to sell artwork, and foods like tamale. In fact, at the location pictured below, I watched a Mexican cowboy riding his horse back into Mexico at sunset. It was such an iconic sight; reminiscent of scenes from a Western movie.
I highly recommend the Rio Grande Overlook trail near the village, on the far eastern side of the park. This trail takes you up to a tall hill overlooking the village, Boquillas del Carmen in Mexico, and the meandering Rio Grande river. On one side you can the Chisos Mountains far away (almost an hour, by car), and on the other the beautiful northern reaches of Chihuahua, Mexico. The trail is very doable for all types, including small children. I advise hitting this trail at sunset, for on a clear evening the sun casts its final rays of the days directly onto the Sierra del Carmen mountain range in Mexico (pictured below).
Big Bend National Park is so incredibly immense, that there are smaller regions my brother and I explored together, and a few I visited alone during my third and solo trip to Big Bend. If you have made it this far into this blog post, I would suggest prioritizing visiting the places above, before any of the locations in this section. My reason for this is that all the locations above are fairly large, central, and offer more “bang for your buck”. At the end of the day, however, it is your trip so you may prioritize what you want. Here are some notes about some of those other wanderings in the more low-key regions of Big Bend National Park.
Nine Point Mesa & Dog canyon
My brother and I booked a second roadside campsite during our first trip to Big Bend in January. Called “Nine Point Draw” or “Nine Point Mesa”, this campsite is located on a minor dirt road just off the Main Park Road. It is near the park entrance we used, so we figured it would be a nice choice to camp, before having to leave the park the following morning.
We had just completed a quick hike to The Window in the Chisos Basin, so by this point it was late afternoon and we wanted to get to our next campsite before sunset. While the turn to Nine Point Draw is right off the main park highway, it is very easy to miss. Possibly because the white, sandy texture of the ground blends in so well with the road, we actually passed the turn on our approach, and had to double-back to get to it.
We finally located the road, which was lined on either side by equally-spaced rocks. The road took us behind this so-called “Nine Point Mesa”, to a roadside campsite totally hidden from view (and sounds) from the main highway. This is another reason it was so easy to miss. My first impressions of this seclusion were very favorable; this campsite felt like it was in the middle of nowhere. We also had two hours to spare until sunset, so I grabbed a beer and did some cursory exploration of the surrounding region.
As I write this almost nine months after this evening, I can recall such minute details about that sunset – the cool breeze sweeping the landscape, the reds and pinks plastered on the surface and the sky. The sentiment that lingers all these months later was just how pleasant the evening was, to all our senses. Compared to the Chisos Basin or the Rio Grande Village, I could understand how one could find Nine Point Draw flat, monochrome, and lifeless. However there is something about the simplicity and minimalism of this spot that was aesthetically pleasing. I think this is a common characteristic of the desert – at first glance it can appear desolate and dull. But after some time, the desert starts to show you its colors.
Another perk of Nine Point Draw /is its proximity to Dog Canyon, a short hike in the northern reaches of the park, closest to the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center. While there is an official trailhead, Nine Point Mesa was close enough that Nick and I simply walked across the desert along a wash, and found our way into the canyon. This trail is very easy, and can be accomplished in less than two hours. Along the way you will notice plenty of desert flora: various shades of prickly pear, the ubiquitous creosote bush, and even desert Christmas cactus. Within the canyon itself are remnants of the park’s aquatic past – if you look carefully at some of the rocks, you can find imprints of seashell-looking fossils from millions of years ago.
You would think after three visits that I would have run out of things to see at the park, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a scene pictured on the National Park brochure of Joshua Tree-looking rock piles, at a location called the Grapevine Hills. I had never visited this section of the park, and I am glad I found the time to do so on one of my later visits. The Grapevine Hills are located on an improved dirt road north of Panther Junction, in the central portion of the park. This road is a long and bumpy one, so if you are in a low clearance vehicle, I would take it slow and easy, and be patient. My Subaru Outback handled it just fine, but there was one part that was rough enough that I am not 100% sure a 2WD car could pass. If you are driving to Big Bend in a passenger car like this, I would give the ranger station a call beforehand to check road conditions.
The Grapevine Hills are a fascinating geological feature in the park. As I alluded before, the rocks remind me of those that I have seen out in California – specifically Joshua Tree and Alabama Hills. There is something aesthetic about the simplicity of this landscape, as all that dominates the scene are these rocks, Yucca plants, and the occasional prickly pear cactus. The Hills are also home to Big Balanced Rock, pictured below. This is another quick trail that is doable for all types. I think I spent less than two hours here, before heading back to camp before another sunset.
the West side – Mule Ears and santa elena canyon
The section of the park I know the least about is the west side, along the Ross Maxwell scenic drive toward Santa Elena. I remember at least driving this road once, during my second Big Bend trip while I was living in Texas, more than six years ago. Back then we had hoped to hike Santa Elena Canyon, yet it was closed for flooding damage. On the ride back to our campsite those many years ago, I recall seeing all kinds of wicked rock formations – including two peaks known as the Mule Ears. During my 2022 visits, I made sure to check out both the canyon and so called “Mule Ears”.
The Mule Ears are made of rhyolite material – compacted ash from an ancient volcanic eruption. Over time, this cemented ash eroded into the twin “ears” that can be seen today. I would later encounter rhyolite rock formations at Chiricahua National Monument, in February of 2022, which you can read about here. The Mule Ears also hosts a natural spring along the trail. It is hard to imagine a freshwater source existing in this harsh desert ecosystem, yet you can find one on this trail, along with the amphibians which depend on it.
The west side: santa elena canyon
Last but certainly not least is Santa Elena Canyon. I had seen this canyon photographed time and time again when researching about Big Bend National Park, and this winter I was finally able to visit it. The canyon here is also an easy, brief trail appropriate for all levels of fitness. Without any stops, it might take you an hour and a half, or two hours tops. It had taken me so long to make it to this canyon, as it is the farthest stop along the Ross Maxwell Scenic drive, on the west side of the park. The canyon walls are magnificent, reminiscent of the Grand Canyon itself (albeit, a smaller version). I didn’t spend much time here, but was glad to make the stop and finally check this off my list.
My visits to Big Bend National Park in 2022 were comprehensive, spanning each of its corners: Santa Elena Canyon in the west to Chisos Basin in the center/south, and Dog Canyon in the north to Rio Grande Village in the east. Big Bend is large enough to keep one busy for over a week, and even then you will not have seen it all. Everything described here was seen across three separate visits to the park. It is one of my favorites, and is why I decided to return after all these years (2016!) There are still some remote, hard-to-reach places within the park that – with a better vehicle – I would love to explore one day. I hope this post provides some inspiration for a Big Bend visit, or at least some ideas for things to see in this marvelous Chihuahuan Desert wonderland.