If you're looking for a more rugged experience, Big Bend National Park offers some of the best desert hiking opportunities in the United States. Although the park doesn't offer the breathtaking views of the Grand Canyon or the wildlife viewing opportunities of Denali, for experienced backpackers the park is an incredible place to visit. The problem with exploring the backcountry of Big Bend is being able to plan a trip. Trail conditions can change radically after a sudden rainstorm or due to rockslides. Your best bet for planning a backcountry trek is doing a lot of research prior to your visit, or making your plans around what is available based upon recommendations by the park officials. Above all plan for the unexpected and be flexible, but also plan for total solitude on the trail, a Big Bend specialty.
Many backcountry trails are based on old roads that use to crisscross the park and lead to historic areas. The park is extremely unforgiving with its extreme desert environment and some trails are completely unmarked. Backpackers should use topographical maps, be skilled in using a compass, desert survival and cross country techniques. Indication of available water in the backcountry should be considered only a recommendation and not a fact.
Camping is also complex at Big Bend National Park. None of the four campsites in the park accept advanced reservations. If you get to the park and your planned campsite is full, you might have to drive 25 to 100 miles to find accommodations outside of the park! The best strategy is to arrive as early as possible.
The center of camping is located in the southeast corner at Rio Grande Village near Boquillas Canyon. Two campsites, the Rio Grande Village Trailer Park and the Rio Grande Village Campground are found here. The Rio Grande Village Trailer Park is the only campsite designed specifically for recreational vehicles. The campground's 25 sites located in a grove of cottonwood trees provide full hookups, picnic tables and fire pits. Showers, flush toilets, potable water, grocery store, and ice are also available. The 100 site Rio Grande Village Campground is designed for tent campers and doesn't have any hookups. It shares the same facilities provided at adjacent Village Trailer Park.
The Chisos Basin Campground offers 63 campsites. Although recreational vehicles less than 24 feet in length can be accommodated, you are going to have a hard time getting one down the road to the campground. There is a dump station but no hookups. Campsites have picnic tables and grills. Flush toilets and potable water are available but showers are not.
The Cottonwood Campground at Castolon is the most primitive of the improved campgrounds. With 35 sites, there are no hookups. Each site has a picnic table and a grill. There are pit toilets and potable water and a nearby store. Shade is somewhat more limited at this site that is not ideally setup for recreational vehicles.
Of course Big Bend National Park isn't just about land based activity. The Rio Grande River borders 118 miles of the park. An additional 127 miles of the Rio Grande east of the Big Bend makes up the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River and is administrated by Big Bend National Park. Float trips range from nine to over 130 miles.
The most popular float trip is the 21-mile paddle down Colorado Canyon. The Colorado Canyon put in is located in Big Bend Ranch State Park, just west of Big Bend National Park. The river snakes it way through Class II and Class III rapids before ending at Lajitas at the western tip of Big Bend National Park.
Santa Elena Canyon offers the most exhilarating float trip on the Rio Grande. Starting at Lajitas the river flows for 20 miles to the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon. The last seven miles of the trip passes by sheer limestone walls that rise up 1,500 feet. Sunlight only reaches to the bottom of the canyon for a few hours a day. Rock Slide Rapids is the most difficult run in the park, sometimes reaching Class IV difficulty at times of high water. The pull out is located in Big Bend backcountry so be sure to check on road conditions.
Mariscal Canyon is the most spectacular paddle in the park. The ten-mile trip starts at the Talley backcountry campsite and ends at the Solis backcountry campsite. In between the put in and the pull out, 1,400 feet high limestone canyon walls shoot up over Class II and Class III rapids. Access will require a four-wheel drive and will require a lot of coordination. Be sure to check with park officials. Also due to the remote nature of this area car clouting is a very serious problem, so make sure you secure all of your valuables.
If you want to explore the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande a five to ten day trip is waiting. Starting at La Linda in the eastern part of the park paddlers can go to Dryden Crossing, 83 miles, or to Foster's Ranch, 119 miles. You can even continue another 18 miles to Langtry, Texas, home of the Judge Roy Bean Saloon and Museum, an infamous and colorful character in west Texas history. This is a truly wild experience through the vast expanse of the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area.
Despite being in the middle of a brutal desert the park is alive with wildlife. A number of lizards, snakes and insects call the park home, as does cougars and black bears. There has been tremendous debate on whether to reintroduce the gravely endangered Mexican Gray Wolf to the park, an idea that currently isn't supported by the state of Texas. Forty-five different cacti species call the park home and surviving in the searing heat, their barbs defending the soft plant from thirsty animals.
If you are looking for a spectacular desert getaway but don't want to deal with the crowds at places like Grand Canyon National Park, then Big Bend National Park just might be the answer. When the weather turns colder in the fall and winter, Big Bend comes alive as an incredible, Texas sized, outdoor destination.
Just The Plain Facts
Name: Big Bend National Park
Location: Southwestern Texas
Nearest Major Air Service: Midland, Texas, El Paso, Texas
Fees & Permits: $10 per vehicle, or $5 per motorcycle, bicycle, or person. Backcountry permits are free.
Why Visit: Great wintertime destination. Cooler, green mountains sit in the heart of the Chihuahua desert. Excellent whitewater paddling through deep canyons, unique wildlife.
When To Visit: November to May
Essential Gear: Depends on a wide variety of activity. Sunglasses, hat, sunscreen, lip balm, camera, binoculars, and plenty of drinking water. Other gear is strongly recommended.
You Should Know: The desert is incredibly unforgiving. Do not underestimate the power of the sun. Stay out of washes as flash floods can happen at any time, even if it isn't raining in your particular location. The park is very busy during the Christmas holidays and spring break in March. Make sure your car is in excellent working order, nearest major services can be over 100 miles away. Bring everything you will need including, cash, medications, and gear with you to the park.
More Information: Big Bend National Park, PO BOX 129, Big Bend National Park, Texas 79834, (915) 477-2251.