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We almost didn’t go to Big Bend on our trip out to Utah from Florida in March. It’s pretty far from everything and quite literally in the middle of nowhere.
I knew I wanted to go to Guadalupe Mountains National Park since that was a lot more on the way. I mean, it’s like 35 minutes from Carlsbad Caverns, after all.
BUT I decided I couldn’t be all the way out there and just not go to Big Bend. One thing that really got us though was our tendency to not plan things out.
We didn’t realize how far we were staying from the park. Then we didn’t realize how big the park actually is (it’s huge). And then we had no idea where to even start.
So we drove all the main scenic roads, stopped at Santa Elena Canyon, saw the hot springs, dreamt of going to Mexico, visited the visitor centers, and ate at the lodge in the park. It was a lot of driving. Like, a lot.
So while I can’t confidently share lots of hikes in the park, I sure can share things to do that aren’t hiking in Big Bend making it the latest addition to my not hiking in the parks series!
This series has become a favorite of mine and you should plan to see even more of them around here. Whether you don’t want to hike, can’t hike, don’t like hiking, don’t feel like hiking, whatever, there are tons of other things to do in Big Bend.
As usual though there are a few short walks on here. All are under one mile round-trip, some are paved, and all are classified as easy. But if you don’t even want to do those, there are still tons of other options.
National Park Pass + Other National Park Deals
- If you’re planning on visiting multiple parks (3 or more) on this trip or within the year, I would highly recommend getting a national park pass. It’s $80 and you can get it at the park entrance. It will pay for itself in about three parks. It’s so worth it and I buy one every year! They’re also great for gifts for the park lovers in your life.
- To help plan the best national park trip ever, this Ultimate National Park Planning Bundle is perfect! You get two ebooks and a planner, saving 50% by getting them as a bundle! If you want all the details, this is the bundle for you. Buy the Ultimate bundle here.
- This National Park Planner (one of the ebooks from the bundle above) is perfect if you just want some guidance in your planning. Buy the planner here.
- Get yourself a little National Park notebook to write all about your adventures while you’re on the road. These from Field Notes are all very cute! If you want one for all of the NPS sites (400+!) then this one is for you!
- Before your trip, get some national park apparel for your trip! Homage is donating 5% of sales from the national park collection to the National Parks Conservation Association this year. Buy national park shirts here.
- Consider reading some of these books set in national parks before your big trip, on your adventure, or once you get home to take you back to the parks until next time.
- Planning a big national park trip? Check out these other posts: National Park bucket list, Make the most of a National Park trip, National Park camping packing list, My favorite National Park hikes, More National Park hikes I love, Underrated National Parks.
Go to Boquillas, Mexico
The crossing is currently closed. Check the park service page for updates.
This is one thing I so wish I did and is creeping higher up on my national park bucket list. That’s right. You can visit Mexico from Big Bend National Park!
There is a border crossing at Boquillas and you can either walk across the river if the level is low enough or pay $5 to take a boat if you don’t want to get wet. From there you can walk into town the half mile or pay a small fee to get a ride in on a burro.
Once you get there, you check in with Mexican immigration officials and pay $3 to enter the protected area that Boquillas is in. You can wander around the town, buy some local handicrafts, and enjoy some delicious food.
The Port of Entry is at the border is open Friday through Monday from 9:00 am – 6:00 pm (May 1 – November 1) and Wednesdays through Sundays from 8:00 am – 5:00 pm (November 2 – April 30).
This is definitely one of the most unique things to do in a national park since Big Bend is the only park you can visit Mexico from.
YOU DO NEED A PASSPORT TO VISIT BOQUILLAS.
Walk the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail
This is a 0.5 mile round-trip walk featuring both cultural and natural history. It’s a nice shady area perfect for picnicking and birdwatching.
It is six miles southeast of Panther Junction. This is not paved, but if you want a nice short walk in Big Bend, this is perfect, especially since it’s shady.
On your way out to the hot springs you can see pictographs! I don’t know why, but I never really thought this would be something to see in Big Bend, but it’s really not that surprising.
It was cool seeing rock are outside of Utah (though I liked it more in Utah.) If you’re a fan of history and archaeology, this is a great stop for you. And if you’re planning on soaking in or seeing the hot springs, it’s already on the same trail.
This is an easy walk on the way to one of the best things to do in Big Bend: relaxing in the hot springs along the Rio Grande.
Hike the Lower Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail
This is a one-mile round-trip gravel trail at the end of Burro Mesa Spur Road off the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The trail takes you through a gravel drainage and ends in a box canyon.
The trail ends at a 100-foot pour-off that was created by countless floods that rip through the area, especially in the summer.
Relax in the hot springs
This is a one-mile round-trip trail that takes you along the Rio Grande to some 105 degree hot springs that you can soak in.
You’ll pass the remains of a resort, the pictographs mentioned above, and an old homestead on your way there. This is a must do on any visit to Big Bend, whether you decide to actually soak or not.
Visit the Sam Nail Ranch
This is an easy 0.5 mile loop starting at mile three of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. It takes you through the homestead of Jim, Sam, and Nena Nail.
There are remnants of their home and two windmills, one of which still works today. This is another great spot for birding and wildlife spotting.
With how remote the park is, this is a must-do more than most parks. It’s so far from everything, the views of the stars would be phenomenal.
Set up shop long the Rio Grande (maybe near the hot springs), near Santa Elena Canyon, or in one of the campgrounds (if you’re camping there) for a great view of the night sky. Really, even a pull off along the road would even be good.
This is definitely one of the best things to do in Big Bend, hiking or not. Relax under the stars and be ready to have your mind blown by how many you can see.
Walk the Window View Trail
This is an easy 0.3 mile paved loop starting at the Chisos Basin Trailhead. This is wheelchair accessible and has wonderful views of the surrounding Chisos Mountains and Chisios Basin. It’s another wonderful spot to enjoy the sunset without a long walk back in the dark.
Do a river trip
Kind of like the Grand Canyon, the river is a great way to see Big Bend. You can either do a half day trip or a multi day trip.
You can either bring your own gear, rent gear, or hire a guide and outfitter that will take care of everything for you. If you’re not familiar with the area or river trips like this, I would absolutely go with a guide.
Permits are needed for overnight river trips. There are four canyons to choose from, too. Santa Elena Canyon (a Big Bend classic), Boquillas Canyon (3 days, good for beginners), Mariscal Canyon (the shortest run, but also exciting), and Lower Canyons (5-10 days, wild, and remote).
If you want something adventurous to do in Big Bend, look no further (but actually keep reading because there is more good stuff below.)
Walk the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail
This is a 0.75 mile loop starting at campsite number 18 at the Rio Grande Village Campground. The first 100 yards are wheelchair accessible, crossing a boardwalk through a wetland.
This is a prime spot for wildlife spotting and bird watching. The trail gradually takes you up a limestone hill with panoramic views of the Rio Grande, the Chisos Mountains, and the Del Carmen Mountains. This is the perfect spot to enjoy a sunset.
Do some biking
Good news! Biking is allowed on ANY road in Big Bend! That’s right. That means there over 260 miles of road for you to bike in the park. Regular bikes and e-bikes are allowed, just not on any trails.
But still, it’s going to take a loooong time to cover those 260+ miles. If you like biking, this is a must-do. Just use a lot of caution if you’re biking on any of the main paved roads.
If you have a shuttle available there are plenty of great one-way bike routes, but if not, just remember you do have to go both ways, something I always used to forget biking around at home.
This would be a great way to see the park at a little slower speed but still experience it in an intimate way.
Try some birdwatching
If you’re a bit of a bird-nerd like me, this is a great place to do some bird watching! Some of the best places in Big Bend for birding are:
- Rio Grande Village (the nature trail, the campground, the cottonwood trees and floodplain behind the store, and the Daniels Ranch area: 305 reported species in this area!).
- Chisos Mountains (the campground, the window trail, Laguna Meadow, Boulder Meadow, and Boot Canyon: 312 species reported here!)
- Cottonwood Campground (along the river, along the road to Santa Elena Canyon, and the weedy fields along Castolon: 284 species reported here!)
- Dugout Wells and Sam Nail Ranch (the spring and surrounding cottonwoods and shrubs: 195 and 188 species reported in the areas!)
- Blue Creek (At the historic Homer Wilson Ranch, follow the trail north and keep your eyes peeled along the way. The turnaround point is up to you: 135 species reported here!)
Types of birds you can see in Big Bend:
- Lucifer Hummingbird
- Blue Grosbeak
- Yellow-breasted Chat
- Painted Bunting
- Ash-throated Flycatcher
- Inca Dove
- Greater Roadrunner
- Black Phoebe
- Yellow-rumped warbler
- Northern Flicker
- Black-crested Titmouse
- Green Kingfisher
- And SO MANY MORE!
Drive Grapevine Hills Road
This is a 6.4 mile (one-way) dirt road that takes you to the Grapevine Trailhead, which is how you get to that famous balanced rock you see in all kinds of pictures.
To get to the road, go 3.3 miles west of Panther Junction and look for it on the north side of the road. Up to the trailhead it is accessible by most vehicles.
After the trailhead, high-clearance is required, especially after rainfall. I would still use caution on the first part of the road in any car if you’re driving it after a rainfall. You never know with dirt roads.
Drive the Old Maverick Road
This is a 14-mile improved dirt road going between Maverick Junction and Santa Elena Canyon on the west side of the park. You’ll even pass the Terlingua Creek badlands.
You’ll also be able to see plenty of historic sights. The road should be passable for most vehicles, but is rough and washboardy. It can be impassible after rain and flooding. Plan about an hour for this drive.
Drive the Dagger Flat Auto Trail
This is a 14-mile round-trip dirt road that takes you through a valley with a forest of giant dagger yuccas. This is a particularly great drive to do in spring when the yuccas are blooming. It’s open to most vehicles and great for mountain biking.
Plan about two hours for the round-trip drive. Sandy areas and rain may make the road impassable. You can call ahead for road conditions on any of these or ask at the visitor center.
Go horseback riding
If you’re in the area with your own horses, you can bring them into the park! They are not allowed on paved roads, on road shoulders, in picnic areas, on nature trails, on the Santa Elena and Boquillas Canyon Trails, or the Pine Canyon Trail.
That may seem like a lot of places they can’t go, but the park is huge which leaves a lot more places to go. The Chisos Mountain (only allowed in Laguna Meadow, South Rim, and Blue Creek trails in this area) and Burro Mesa trails are day use only.
You do need a permit if you bring your horses and you also need to bring your own feed. There is no grazing allowed in the park. Unfortunately, if you don’t have your own horses, there is nowhere to rent them or get tours anywhere nearby.
Is Big Bend worth the drive?
Yes! I would just highly recommend doing some actual planning before you go because it is a very overwhelming park. I would also recommend staying as close to the park (or in the park) if you can. It’s almost two hours from most towns. Oh, and get an early start!
Is Big Bend National Park safe, being on the Mexico border?
You can read all of the park service border information here.
Yes! Though the park does share a 118 mile border with Mexico, trouble isn’t likely. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible, but it’s not likely.
There are border patrol check points all ways into the park and they do drive around as well. It is recommended to not pick up hitchhikers and to keep any valuables out of sight and locked in your vehicle if you’re out hiking.
Illegal border crossings and drug smuggling do occasionally happen in the park. If you see anything, don’t intervene, but you can make note of the time, location, and direction traveled to report it.
People in distress may also ask for food and water or other assistance. Park service recommends not making contact with them but making not of the location and time and reporting it to park service as no water in thee desert can be life threatening.
Finally, Mexican nationals sometimes make little beaded trinkets, walking sticks, and other things and leave them for sale in the park.
Park service says that if you purchase anything or leave donations, you’re encouraging illegal river crossings and they can be arrested and deported from Presidio (100 miles away) or may be fined and incarcerated.
Crafts are available for legal purchase in Boquillas or in camp stores. Those in camp stores are made by Mexican nationals and imported legally through the Port of Entry.
They receive all of the wholesale proceeds for these items. What you do with this craft information is, of course, up to you, I just want to have the information available here.
Have you been to Big Bend? What did you think of it? What is your favorite thing to do there? Did you go to Boquillas!? How was it!