A Road Trip Through Big Bend National Park
Take a beautiful drive through one of America’s true hidden gems: Big Bend National Park, winding along the Rio Grande in West Texas.
Seems like there’s a lot of talk about the U.S.—Mexico border these days, usually from folks who don’t live anywhere near it and who perhaps have never even been there. That’s a shame, not just for all the rich cultural and political implications of understanding the region, but also because it is home to one of the most beautiful jewels in our National Park Service: Big Bend National Park. Here, in West Texas, the Rio Grande winds through stunning limestone cliffs, the warm breezes quickly dry you after a paddle downriver, and the vistas are as limitless as the dreams of the people who’ve traversed this borderland for centuries. In hopes that you’ll embrace this unique landscape, Budget Travel shows you how to get here, find reliable lodging and good eats, and get the most out of one of the least-visited—and most majestic—of our parks.
Texans, getting to the beauty of Big Bend ain’t easy. But that’s one of the charming things that have kept the park a “hidden gem.” The nearest airport is in Midland, more than 160 miles to the northeast. Best known as the city where future vice president and president George H.W. Bush made his name in the oil industry, and where one of his sons, future president George W. Bush, did the same, Midland has been booming in recent years thanks to the hotter-than-ever business of drilling and refining oil. But even Midland’s residents admit that it’s not exactly a tourist magnet, and most of the Big Bend-bound will pile into their rental cars and head southwest on Interstate 20.
Spend a comfortable night in Marathon at the Gage Hotel (102 NW 1st St., Highway 90 West, Marathon, Texas, 432/386-4205), which includes a historic original hotel plus a variety of rooms, suites, and houses on the property at a variety of price points, including 16 rooms in the original hotel, 20 adobe brick rooms in the Los Portales property surrounding a courtyard with a fountain, and a number of historic homes. A steak or seafood dinner at the on-site 12 Gage restaurant (102 NW 1st St. Highway 90 West, Marathon, Texas, 432/386-4205) is utterly called for, followed by a drink at the White Buffalo Bar, even if you belly up to the bar just to see the massive head of the distinctive eponymous animal mounted on the wall. Next morning, spend some time getting to know this authentic western town. Don’t leave town without chowing down—you won’t find restaurants on your drive through the park. Shirley’s Burnt Biscuit (109 NE 1st., Marathon, Texas, 432/386-9020, legendary fluffy biscuits with sausage gravy and fried pies including apple, cherry, pecan, nad peach) is a highly recommended spot for breakfast or lunch—their huge biscuits and satisfying sausage gravy are the fuel you’ll need for a day in the park, and, if you have room, their array of fried pies (don’t judge, just enjoy) won’t disappoint either.
Because Big Bend National Park has ample spots for picnicking but few places to actually buy food, make sure your car is stocked with snacks or lunch and plenty of water (a gallon per person per day is recommended). Then hit U.S. 385 South toward Big Bend. You’ll soak up about 69 miles of expansive West Texas scenery on your way to Panther Junction. Stop at the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center for maps, brochures, and to ask park rangers for advice about the day’s weather and park conditions. At Panther Junction, take some time out to explore the Panther Trail, a self-guided nature tour that is a nice introduction to the desert landscape you’ll be exploring (a trail map is available at the visitor center), before driving the 19 miles to the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which will take you through the heart of the park. The trip from Panther Junction to the western side of the park and its stunning Santa Elena Canyon can be done in one day, but if you intend to stop at many of the overlooks (and we suggest that you do!) or take the hiking trails that allow you to explore dry waterfalls, canyon floors, historic ranches, and other one-of-a-kind sights here, you should consider either camping in the park or returning after a night in a hotel to spend at least one more day taking in this amazing place.
The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is one of those unforgettable stretches of road that unfolds before you in a series of vistas and experiences. Like better-known drives in better-known parks, such as Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, and Glacier, this is a carefully plotted out route that is literally part of the land, allowing you both convenience and authenticity at the same time.
Stop off at the Sam Nall Ranch, the evocative remains of one of the many homestead ranches that once dotted this landscape. Here, you’ll see an original windmill that still pumps out water and is a magnet for some of the park’s thirsty wildlife, including javelinas, painted buntings, green-tailed towhees, and mockingbirds.
The Blue Creek Ranch Overlook offers another look at one of the ranches that were active here before it became a park. You’ll look down at the Homer Wilson Ranch and, if you like, follow a short trail down to the ranch buildings and to additional hiking opportunities on the Blue Creek Canyon and Dodson trails.
Don’t miss the Sotol Vista Overlook—one of those awesome spots that our National Park Service does so well. Here, high above the floor of the desert you’ll be able to scan the western side of the park and whet your apetite for the majestic Santa Elena Canyon, which you’ll see in the distance. (Don’t worry, you’ll get to the see the canyon up close later in the day and it’s worth the wait.)
Burro Mesa Pour-Off requires you to pull off on a mile-and-a-half side road to get to the clifffs of the Burro Mesa, where you can take a short half-mile hike into a canyon and savor the desert foliage and a waterfall that does not, in fact, "pour off" at all—it’s dry.
From the Mule Ears Overlook you’ll take in the distant twin peaks and won’t have to ask how they got their funny name. If you’re up for more hiking and can afford to add some time to your stay, find the two-mile trail from teh overlook’s parking area that takes you to a desert spring. Another overlook along the highway lets you view Tuff Canyon (named for the volcanic ash taht formed the rocks—which isn’t actually "tough" but rather soft.)
Castolon Historic District will seem like a bustling little city compared with the trails and overlooks you’ve been enjoying. It’s a preserved district that was a cavalry camp at the turn of the last century. Spend some time at the visitor center, but the most fascinating place in the district is La Harmonia Store. On the surface it’s an ordinary convenience store, but the shop’s history is extraordinary, dating back more than a century to the days when the border between the United States and Mexico was far more porous than it is today and government resources were stretched thin. The store played an important rold in the coming and going of Americans and Mexicans back and forth across the border, touching on not only commerce but also law enforcement and even international relations.
If you’re not quite ready to move on to the far western side of Big Bend just yet, you can spend a night at the nearby Cottonwood Campground for $14 per night (no hook-ups, just 24 campsites with pit toilets, grills, and clean running water.)
Big Bend saves the best for last. The Santa Elena Overlook provides a stunning look down Santa Elena Canyon, cut into the limestone over the eons by the Rio Grande. Marvel at the 1,500-foot- high canyon walls and the fact that the left wall of the canyon is in Mexico, the right in the United States. If you’ve got time, or if you come back after a good night’s sleep, follow the trail along the river that takes you down to the canyon floor. Better still, contact Big Bend River Tours (FM 170 West, Terlingua, Texas, 432/371-3033, offers floats, hikes, and other tours of Big Bend National Park) and sign up for a float down the gentle, shallow waters of the Rio Grande with the canyon walls on either side.
Tuckered? Of course you are. Drive into Terlingua dusty and damp and check into the El Dorado Hotel (Highway 170, Terlingua, Texas, 800/371-3588), a reliable option near the park in this former ghost town. Yes, you read that right—the mining community of more than 2,000 cleared out after WWII and in the ’70s folks began coming back. These days, the hotel and its High Sierra Bar & Grill (Highway 170, Terlingua, Texas, 432/371-3282) are a great outpost for visitors to the western side of Big Bend.
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