Three Days in Big Bend National Park | Travel Journal
Let’s talk about Big Bend!
I want to share with you everything about our trip to this stunning national park and my favorite photos!
Even though we have traveled quite a bit here in the US and abroad, with and without the kids, I don’t consider myself super adventurous in the sense that we don’t often do camping, long hikes, and things of that sort. But we (well, mostly me LOL) have a new dream of visiting ALL 63 National Parks. Big Bend is the 6th park we have visited so far.
Big Bend is remote and unheard of for many, but it is just beautiful! You not only have the desert and the Rio Grande River, but also layers and layers of magical mountains surrounding it with a hazy golden light over them. The towns near the park are very, very small. There is only a handful of restaurants and convenience stores. This is why I recommend some preparation beforehand so you can enjoy this trip to the fullest. I am definitely not an expert and this was our first time there, but I’m sharing what we brought with us, what we did inside the park, and how we enjoyed our time there with three kids ages 4, 11, and 13. I hope that this info can help you and inspire you to make a trip to beautiful Big Bend!
We visited in mid-March, arrived on a Wednesday and left on a Sunday (5 days/4 nights).
We entered the park and left daily THREE days in a row (Thursday, Friday and Saturday). See below how we divided the park to explore it. We never camped or lodged inside the park.
WHERE WE STAYED:
We stayed in Terlingua, a town very close to one of the park entrances.
Accommodations are not that abundant but you can find a bit of everything. Lots of people camp inside the park and do backpacking too. There is only one lodge inside the park. Other than that, I found limited options for places to stay. Airbnb is great. Also, the visitBigBend.com website has a list.
March is a popular time of the year to visit because of the great weather. Summer can get too hot and those temperatures can be dangerous in the desert. During the popular months, look for lodging plenty of time in advance. Against my own advice, and in good Urquisa fashion, I found my Airbnb two weeks before the trip, because yeah, my travel planning is always very spontaneous!
Our Airbnb was an RV, equipped with everything you could think of. Kym, the owner, was just incredible! She went above and beyond! The trailer was super clean. It had warm water, electricity, Wi-Fi, a fully equipped kitchen, a BBQ grill, a TV, and even a real bathroom that was built right next to the trailer. I felt like it was a mix of camping and glamping, ha-ha. This is the link to her place. I totally recommend her.
Name on Airbnb: “Cozy Caravan with incredible views”
WHAT WE BROUGHT
– We packed everything we would need for “easy” hiking. Since we went with our 4-year-old, we knew we were not going to do strenuous hikes, so we had regular sneakers, no hiking boots, and we were fine!
– Clothes for layering, but nothing crazy. You can experience all kinds of temperatures there. During our stay, we had that kind of spring weather where nights are in the 40s and days are as hot as 80 degrees. The 40s were actually the temperatures very late at night (when I was photographing the Milky Way) and early in the morning, so we didn’t need anything heavy during the day.
– Bathing suits.
– River towels (although our Airbnb had some too).
– A first aid kit. I bought this first aid kit on Amazon. It had 250 items in a small bag, everything from band-aids to a flashlight and a tactical knife LOL. I also brought a small bag with over-the-counter medicine like Benadryl, Tylenol, etc. My daughter suffers from epilepsy and heart problems, so I am always prepared with an oxygen saturation monitor, blood pressure monitor, and a thermometer too.
– River shoes, if you want to get in the river or have any river adventures.
– Bags to pack wet stuff on the way back from the river.
– I brought bug repellent but never used it. I’m sure you would probably need it at other times of the year.
– All the food we needed. We cooked every breakfast, one lunch and only one dinner. We knew we were gonna eat out, so we didn’t want to bring too much food. We put a cooler in the car and stopped at one of the last decent-sized towns (2 hours away from the park) to buy practical things we could put on the grill, things to make sandwiches, and snacks. Also…
– Water! You need to drink a lot of water because it is the desert.
– I bought this mini portable toilet for me and the girls. It is only for peeing. We used it 4 times and it worked really well. I was so thankful because I knew my hyper overactive bladder was gonna bother me. I used it mostly inside the car and disposed of the bags afterwards.
– We brought binoculars and it was fun to look for birds and bears. We never saw any black bears but there are many in the Chisos mountain area. There are also mountain lions, javelinas, coyotes and rattlesnakes. Follow instructions and precautions for dealing with these animals. We never saw any. We only saw sheep, cows, wild horses and a big bird grabbing a snake and flying away.
– A trail map. The “Hiker’s Guide” that they sell at the visitor center is the best! There is little to no cell phone reception in Big Bend. If you are traveling with kids, you want to make sure you know what to expect and choose the trails that are easy or maybe easy to moderate. Even if you are not traveling with kids, this guide will tell you the length of every trail, level of difficulty, and the views you will find. There are trails for EVERYONE at Big Bend, so this guide was wonderful and helped us plan our days.
– Passports. You will need these if you plan to cross into Boquillas. There is a port of entry inside the park, so you can visit this town in Mexico, eat there, spend some time and come back. There are even horses or burros you can ride into town. During our stay, this “Boquillas Port of Entry” was closed because of Covid-19, so we couldn’t do any of that. Because of the border opening, you can see Border Patrol vehicles around here and there is also a checkpoint on the way out of Big Bend (not inside the park). The checkpoint was closed on our way back, but we saw people being stopped on the day we arrived.
– Backpacks to carry all the things you need throughout the day. I had a backpack with wipes, a first aid kit, lots of water, pants/sweaters in case the weather changed, sunscreen, etc. The other backpack we carried had towels, bathing suits, and a change of clothes for everyone. We knew that we needed to be prepared to get into the river anytime the kids wanted to.
HOW WE DIVIDED THE PARK IN 3 DAYS:
Big Bend is huge! It covers 800k+ acres and is one of the largest parks in North America. It can take an hour or more to go from one end of the park to the other. We found that, for us, the best way to see everything was to divide the park into different areas.
Here is what we did.
– EAST: Hiked the Boquillas Canyon and enjoyed the river.
– WEST: Santa Elena Canyon, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and all the stops along the way.
– CENTRAL: The mountains! We visited Chisos Basin, hiked the mountain trails, and ate at the Chisos Mountains Lodge (only restaurant and lodge inside the park). This day, we also drove part of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive again and stopped by Sotol Vista to see the sunset. It was the most magical sunset I have ever witnessed!
– NORTH: We didn’t go north ourselves, but there is a dinosaur fossil exhibit to visit there and another visitor center.
WHERE WE ATE:
On the way to Big Bend from Houston, we stopped at Fort Stockton. We ate at Mingo’s Burritos. It was so good! Ask for asadero cheese!
We had dinner twice at the Starlight Theater in Terlingua. It was amazing! The french fries are the most best-est in the world in my opinion!
We ate once at the High Sierra Bar and Grill. That was very close to the RV where we stayed, but our food was just ok 🙁 The agave wine margarita was good though!
We had one lunch at the Chisos Mountains Lodge. It was to go (because of COVID). We had BBQ pork sandwiches and cheeseburgers. It was ok too. The burgers were better.
Other than that, we cooked a little at our Airbnb. We made burgers, wraps, sandwiches and some Venezuelan arepas on the grill. We brought lots of fruits and some snacks.
THINGS WE LEARNED:
– Make sure you fill up on gas in Alpine, because that is the last town before Big Bend. It was like a 1.5-hour drive with nothing around. Nothing. Once you are in the Big Bend area, fill your gas tank often because there are not many gas stations.
– If you have a 4WD, you will be able to take more roads inside the park and see more things. Beware of flash floods on these roads. Read before you go.
– If you are traveling with kids younger than 5 years old, you won’t be able to do any river adventure activities like canoeing tours.
– Be careful! Watch out for the flora and fauna. All the plants are sharp and spiny.
– Bring everything you need for your stay, because everything in the area is a bit limited.
– There are a LOT of things to do, even with small children. Lots of people were there with little kids! We do not regret going with our 4-year-old at all, though in my opinion, if you cannot carry your child in something like a backpack carrier, maybe wait until they are older than 5.
WHAT WE WISH WE COULD HAVE DONE OR PLAN TO DO IF WE COME BACK:
TRAILS. Like I said, there are trails for everyone, but since we had our little one we couldn’t do the moderate to strenuous trails, especially in the mountain area.
RIVER ADVENTURES (ages 5 and over). Raft the Rio Grande!
THE HOT SPRINGS. These were closed because of COVID-19.
Visit BOQUILLAS and eat some tacos there. Supposedly, goat tacos are very recommended.
DINOSAUR DISCOVERY EXHIBIT. Lots of dinosaur remains discovered in Big Bend, so very interesting to see.
Visit the MCDONALD OBSERVATORY.
EXPLORE the Marfa and Alpine areas for sure!
There were a lot of STOPS we didn’t make while driving around the park, like ruins, short walks, and so many lookout points.
THE HIGHLIGHT OF THE TRIP:
Besides witnessing the majesty of Santa Elena Canyon and seeing the incredible sunset at Sotol Vista, STARGAZING was the true top moment for me. I woke up at 5 am to photograph the Milky Way. My husband was annoyed because I had already woken him up the night before and made him stay up late the first night to take the photo. After two days of trying and researching, I downloaded a chart and realized that 5 am was going to be prime time. I ended up waking up by myself and going outside in total darkness to set up my camera, but when I saw what I saw and I took that photo, I forgot I was scared of the darkness and a tear came down my cheek!
MORE PHOTOS FROM THE TRIP: