Big Bend National Park is an absolute JEWEL of a National Park. Camping and Hiking Big Bend is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that you will NOT regret.
Before we get started, take a good long look at the image below. This image is NOT Big Bend. This is Horseshoe Bend in Page, Arizona. Many people get this confused. You won’t.
Big Bend is BETTER than Horseshoe Bend. There is SO much more to explore, such better camping, and the hiking is as good as anywhere in the United States!
Before we get started, let’s state something obvious: Big Bend is not easy to get to. The closest big city is El Paso, Texas, which is about 5 hours by car. Having said that, Big Bend is SO MUCH MORE THAN worth the trip.
Big Bend has incredible panoramic views, stunning cliff-side walks, unique window overlooks, relaxing hot springs, and the most beautiful starry night sky on earth. All that, and the cherry on top is the best camping experience of any National Park in the country.
Now, since Big Bend is a drive to get to, you will want to maximize your time here. If you can spend more than a week, do it! We think a week is the minimum to account for travel and adequate exploration of the park.
If you can get two weeks of exploring, you will be able to explore the ENTIRE park! And you will not spend any more money on camping (more on that later…) as permits are good for 14 days.
Without further ado, let us be your guide. All of the reasons why Big Bend is the most underrated park in the United States, and why you NEED to put camping and hiking Big Bend on your bucket list!
Lost Mine Trail
When you enter Big Bend, your first stop should likely be Panther Junction, the national park’s Visitor Center. This is where you can fill up on water, get information & permits for camping, buy a souvenir, etc.
Coming from Panther Junction, your first drive should be up to the Chisos Basin, a visually INCREDIBLE 9 mile jaunt from Panther Junction. On this route, the first major hike you will pass is Lost Mine Trail.
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Lost Mine Trail is a bit less than four and a half miles round-trip, with an elevation gain of just over 1000 feet. That makes it a relatively moderate hike, one that most anyone should be able to make.
However, a reminder that with ALL of these hikes you are in South Texas. What else is in South Texas? The sun… In a BIG way. It can get HOT in the middle of the day. Make sure to check the forecast, plan ahead, and PLEASE bring enough water!
Once you trek up the 2-plus miles to the top, you are greeted with a STUPENDOUS view of the Chisos Mountain Range at the center of Big Bend.
In our opinion, what stood out at Big Bend was the 360-degree views on every single trail. No matter where you look, you are treated to a view that will bring a tear to your eye.
Since Lost Mine is a relatively moderate hike, it is a great one to kick off your Big Bend experience. You’ll get to stretch your legs, break the rust off, and get an excellent example of what hiking in the Chisos Mountains is like.
The Window is our best bet for your second hike in Big Bend. If you are ambitious, you can absolutely conquer this one on the same day you do Lost Mine. If not, just take on this challenge the next day!
The number 1 reason that this should be hike number 2: the trail-head is located right in the heart of Chisos Basin. That means it is basically right on-the-way after Lost Mine Trail, so geographically it makes the most sense.
The Window is a little over 5 miles round-trip, but it is a hike DOWN into a canyon (a bit less than 1000 feet elevation drop). What does that mean? Yep, on your hike out, you will have to hike UP. This is the only main trail in Big Bend that is a hike down.
Again, WATER! Especially if you are doing The Window after Lost Mine Trail, you need to adequately prepare and bring water. If you take away ANYTHING from this article, it should be to bring enough water when hiking Big Bend.
The Window trail is unique in more than a few ways, but one thing we found striking was that you can almost see The Window from the trail-head. In fact, there is a short version of the trail that totals less than a mile round-trip.
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However, this ‘Window’ you see at the top is not THE Window. The ‘Window’ at the top is a GORGEOUS view of the valley framed between 2 mountains, forming a huge ‘V’ in which the land spreads out for miles and miles.
The TRUE Window does not make itself visible until the bottom of the trail. You’ll go from hiking a typical mountain trail, to hiking through a canyon as a stream passes down the canyon’s center.
Once you reach the canyon, it isn’t far until you reach The Window, where the aforementioned stream flows over a cliff. At this point, the canyon is only 10 feet apart, and acts as a true window, framing a picturesque paradise of desert and mountains spread beneath you.
The Window is the most unique sight you’ll find hiking Big Bend National Park. You simply MUST give it a try. If you make The Window a full day’s experience, you can pack a picnic to enjoy in the canyon, hidden from the sun by the canyon’s cliffs. You will NOT regret it.
Have you ever been on top of the world? Not like after you hit a home-run in your work softball league, like LEGITIMATELY on top of the world. That is what it feels like atop Emory Peak, the tallest peak in Big Bend,
At 7,825 feet in elevation, Emory Peak is not a mammoth mountain worldwide, however it is HUGE compared to the surrounding desert. The hike itself is eight and a half miles round-trip, with an elevation gain of 2,400 feet.
That is nothing to sneeze at, especially in South Texas. What am I going to stress here? You got it, water. But don’t take it from me, take it from momgoescamping (everyone listens to Mom…). Here’s what she has to say about how to calculate how much water to bring hiking:
- How Long Will You Be Hiking? – Usually trail guides will list the distance and the estimated time it will take to complete the trail. Be honest with yourself when looking at the time. Don’t assume you can “finish the trail faster” because you are in good shape. And, if you know you are in bad shape, add some extra time.
- Calculate Cups per Hour – The general rule for how much water to bring when hiking is as follows: Adults: 2 cups (about 1/2 liter) of water for every 1 hour of hiking. Children: 1-2 cups of water for every hour of hiking
- Factor in the Weather Conditions – In hot or humid conditions, calculate 4 cups (1 liter) per hour!
- Is There a Reliable Water Source on the Hike? – Remember to never drink stream or river water – even if it looks clean.
- Factor in Your Thirstiness
Okay, enough about water, you get the point. Once you reach Emory Peak you can see the entire world. Okay, that is a slight exaggeration, but it truly feels that way.
You are truly the highest human being within your eyesight, which is hundreds of miles around, 360 degrees. What is even cooler? More than half of your view is not even the good ol’ United States of America!
Since Big Bend is named for a bend in the Rio Grande river, and the Rio Grande divides the USA and Mexico, the river actually wraps around the Texas land. Therefore, if you think of your view as an 8-slice pizza, about 3 slices of your view atop Emory peak are the USA, and 5 slices are Mexico.
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Emory Peak, as the tallest peak in Big Bend, is also in our opinion the most challenging hike. It isn’t ridiculously hard, however it is no joke. Make sure to be adequately prepare for a full day hike up and down.
This jewel of Big Bend is more than worth the trip. Pro tip: pack a few clementines to enjoy at the top. They will be the best clementines you’ve had in your life, guaranteed.
South Rim Trail
South Rim Trail is the most famous trail in Big Bend. Many, if not most, of the overlooks you’ll see in pictures online are from South Rim.
This trail is also unique from the other trails in Big Bend in that it is a loop! Our favorite kind of trail. You will never see the same thing twice!
This fact is especially impressive considering South Rim Trail is 11 miles round-trip, with an elevation gain of over 2,000 feet. 11 entire miles and you will not come across the same stunning view twice.
Every step will be a new experience. Every blink of an eye a new sight to behold.
We’ve talked enough about water, so just bring enough. Especially on this monster of a hike that will take the better part of a day. Our advice? Pack a lunch!
For our money, there is not much better than a mountainside picnic with an incredible view. You will have the challenging part of the hike out of your way, enjoying a sandwich, granola bar, and fruit as your eyes soak up the mountain masterpiece.
Now, if you are a seasoned, experienced hiker, it is possible to complete Emory Peak and South Rim in the same day. The two hikes share an initial ascent from the Chisos Basin before they split off.
When they do split, the remaining hike up Emory Peak is 3 miles round-trip, so the total hike if you do both in the same day is about 14 miles.
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On our experience hiking Big Bend, we did Emory Peak and South Rim on the same day. However, we wish we would have done them separate days. We would have had more time to enjoy the sights and sounds atop each destination.
If you do take on this challenge, get started as early as you can in the morning. You’ll maximize your hiking time during the day, and get through the challenging part of the hike before the South Texas heat emerges in the afternoon sun.
Whether you tackle these two hikes in one day or two, you will have an incredible experience. One that you will not soon forget, that is for sure.
The number 1 Big Bend destination outside of the Chisos Mountains is the Hot Springs. Located on the Rio Grande on the Southeast corner of the park, the Hot Springs are the best way to relax after a few days of hiking Big Bend National Park.
The drive to the Hot Springs trail-head from Panther Junction is about 20 miles, the last mile of which is a dirt road. From there, the hike itself is really nothing, about a mile or so round-trip, all flat along the riverside.
When we first arrived at the Hot Springs, they were very busy… However, we soon realized that the business was due to a field trip. We waited about 20 minutes, exploring the riverside, and the field trip packed up and left, leaving us with the Hot Springs basically to ourselves and a few other hikers.
Big Bend’s Hot Springs were very amazing to us, because they were located right on the Rio Grande river, which runs cold. This was surprising, since the river runs along the southern border of the USA, a place known for heat, but it was a bit chilly!
The Hot Springs are a wonderful compliment to the chilly river waters. We loved hopping into the river, swimming for a few minutes, then climbing back into the Hot Springs for a soak. It was the most refreshing and relaxing day of our stay in Big Bend!
Pine Canyon Trail is a much less-well-known trail in Big Bend, and one that we only took because it was convenient. We were primitive camping in Pine Canyon (more on primitive camping in a minute…) so the trail-head was right by our campsite!
Pine Canyon offered a moderate 4 mile hike round-trip, one that was mostly through Texas countryside and mountain forests. We hiked this at sunset, a time that we HIGHLY recommend if you find yourself in the Pine Canyon area. The sun sets right over the surrounding mountain and unveils a beautifully colored evening sky.
Camping Big Bend
We have visited National Parks across the entire United States, and are visiting more every day. Big Bend has the best camping situation of any of them, and it is not particularly close.
The first reason that primitive camping in Big Bend rocks: it is basically free. Depending on how long you go, it can be less than $1 per day. Would you rather have a gumball or a night camping in Big Bend? Easy choice…
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The camping permits are $12 each, for a stay up to 14 nights. You can use all 14 nights, or if you’re only staying 7 nights, that’s fine too. $12 is ridiculously cheap.
The second reason that primitive camping in Big Bend rocks: the sites themselves. The sites are scattered all over the park, each one with an incredible and unique view of the park and the surrounding countryside.
To get a spot, you will have to stop at Panther Junction Visitor Center. A ranger will set you up with a spot, provided there are some available. To make sure you get a spot, the earlier you go to Panther Junction the better.
We were absolutely blown away by the campsites, and you will be too. SO beautiful. FYI, there are no electric and water hookups, best to know that going in. If you need water and electric, there are developed camping options as well.
Big Bend at Night
We sort of buried the lead here… Big Bend at night is an EXPERIENCE all its own. Nowhere else on earth have we seen a night sky like we saw at Big Bend.
Big Bend is hundreds of miles from a sizable city, and as such there is absolutely ZERO light pollution. The stars shine in all there brilliance in the South Texas night sky.
In addition, there are rarely, if ever, clouds in the sky. The starry night is completely unblocked. If you ever wanted to catch a glimpse of the Milky Way painted across the night sky, Big Bend is your chance.
You can NOT go to Big Bend and not experience the starry skies. We will not let you. We will come drag you out of bed and plant your butt cheeks on a chair and point your eyes sky-ward.
Camping & Hiking Big Bend Map
For reference, here is a map of Big Bend National Park, straight from the National Park Service website. The park itself is HUGE, so you’ll need the map as reference for your trip!
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