Visiting Big Bend National Park (Part 1: Camping/Hiking/Driving)

In this part of my Big Bend National Park trip report is the obvious camping bit, which as I age include more and more creature comforts.  We’re just one step away from an RV.  I’ve also included the short hikes we took to some well known attractions, and all the scenic driving in between.  Big Bend is a huge park, and it wasn’t uncommon to drive 30-60 minutes from here to there, and back again.


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After a 12 hour drive to Big Bend from Houston, I was eager to set up camp.  I prefer to stay in The Basin, which is up in the Chisos Mountains in the center of the park.  I think everyone else prefers to stay there as well, because we could only find a site with no covered picnic area (first come, first served, sadly).  I think we got there too late in the day.  And let’s just say we creepily stalked some campsites around us to see who would be leaving the next morning, and we were able to snag one with a cover for the rest of the trip.  It isn’t the sun shading that I craved so much as the covered structure over the picnic table that is perfect for hanging hammocks (ENO DoubleNest Hammock).  These were a permanent fixture during the rest of our stay.  Our camp chairs are nice and all, but collapsing in a hammock at the end of a long day with a glass of wine and an episode of Battlestar Galactica was bliss.  I otherwise don’t really care where the tent goes, so long as there’s a blow up mattress in there and enough headroom so I can stand up while I’m changing clothes like a normal person.




My pickiness doesn’t stop in the tent, as I prefer to have a few creature comforts in the “kitchen” as well.  I like to camp/picnic with unbreakable wine glasses like the stainless steel ones above (GSI Outdoors Stainless Steel Glacier Nesting Wine Glass).  These stems unscrew from and are stored inside the bowl.  I also brought my new Vinotrek insulated wine bottle (Vinotrek Double Wall Insulated Stainless Steel Growler Bottle for Wine), also unbreakable, to try out.  As ridiculous as it looks to pour a bottle of wine from one vessel into another, the double walled Vinotrek kept wine at a constant temperature, despite the typical fluctuations of desert climate throughout the day and night.




I also camp with this old picnic cooler that I picked up several years ago at some winery (but I found a Navy one on Amazon: Picnic at Ascot- Ultimate Insulated Picnic Cooler with Service for 4 – Navy).  The main reservoir is a cooler with side space for two wine bottles and a large front pocket with a full 4-person picnic set.  This picnic cooler was perfect for transporting camping utensils (GSI Outdoors Destination Kitchen Set of 24) and food from home.  I had everything I needed to make two semi-gourmet dinners (recipe for campside chicken arrabbiata here).  Oh sure, we could have boiled some water and eaten out of a bag…buy why?




It was really easy to cook potatoes and salmon on the grill at the campsite, and it was a nice treat to sit down to a civilized table setting.  Yes, that’s a tablecloth, and yes, that’s a bunny vase with flowers in it…don’t judge me.




Ok, I like s’mores and all, but camping during Easter weekend prompted an impulse purchase of Peeps, Ghirardelli chocolates, and Belvita wheat crackers, which I thought would travel well from Houston.  I melted the Peeps on a layer of foil, while I heated the crackers and chocolates in the same method.  Beware, these are MESSY.  I looked like a toddler smashing a 1st birthday cake with the amount of chocolate all over my face and hands.  But they were GOOD.




One thing we had to do is watch the sunset from the Chisos Basin Restaurant (or their patio, specifically).  That was a beautiful sight shared by many a seasoned camper.  The campsites are roughly a half mile from the lodge and worth the hike during daylight but not so much after dark.  We drove up there, and you should too.




There too many trails in the park to visit in one trip, so we did a few short hikes.  As a runner, I wear a Garmin Forerunner 220, and I realized that I could log our hikes in the same way I log a run.

The maps above reference the following hikes:

  1. Trail from the campsite to the lodge, moderate, .5 mile, ~15 min one way
  2. Grapevine Hills Trail (to see Balanced Rock), easy, 2.2 miles, 60 min round trip
  3. Lost Mine Trail, moderate, 2 miles, 50 min round trip (we did not go all the way up to the summit this trip)
  4. Window View Trail, easy, .5 mile round trip
  5. Rio Grande Village Nature Trail (including walk off-trail to river), easy, 2 miles, 50 min
  6. Boquillas river crossing to Boquillas del Carmen, easy, .8 mile one way, 20 min
  7. Sam Nail Ranch Trail (not logged), easy, .5 mile loop, 10 min
  8. Santa Elena Canyon Trail (not logged), easy, .5 mile round trip, 15 min (only to river edge)





Balanced Rock (Trail 2 pictured above) is one of the most photographed attractions in the park.  The hike to the rock was easy and pleasant, and I highly recommend seeing it.  What’s so great about a rock balanced on another rock?  If you have to ask, we can’t be friends.




As we drove all over the park, it was easy to spot the locations where there are natural springs, as there were bright pops of green (Cottonwood trees) in the middle of grey/brown desert.  One of these locations is Sam Nail Ranch (Trail 7), an old abandoned homestead with two windmills and what’s left of an adobe.  It’s only a short .5 mile loop.  Watch out for bees and flies, because it is an oasis for them too.  This is a great trail for birdwatching, plant identification, and wildlife spotting.






Another well known attraction is Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio Grande River (Trail 8).  There’s a huge fault (Rio Grande Fault) here at the river that extends down into Mexico, and it made an impressive canyon that you can see from miles away.  In the pictures above, Mexico is to the left, and Texas is to the right of the river.  I’d like to do a canoe trip up river on one of our future trips.







Rio Grande Village Nature Trail is an easy and beautiful trail with gorgeous views of the Chisos Mountains and the Rio Grande.  You may also find metates (mortar/grind holes) in the limestone left by people of unknown origin and age, and a USGS benchmark.  This is also a great trail for birdwatching, plant identification, and wildlife spotting.




Driving from point to point in the park is always scenic, and it took us longer than most since I stopped often to take pictures of just about anything that bloomed.  I would recommend having a park map and geologic map handy when driving around to give you a better appreciation of the scenery.




At one stop, Boquillas Canyon Overlook, overlooking the Rio Grande and Mexico, you might find the “mysterious appearance” of handcrafted beaded things such as scorpions, roadrunners, and ocotillo. Have you seen them?




Pictured above is the Rio Grande Tunnel, built in 1959.  Still looks new, doesn’t it?




A month before we visited, a powerline caused a fast spreading fire through a small portion of the park near park headquarters.  We stopped at this spot, which was near the road, to see the damage.  It looked like the fire singed everything to a crisp.  However, there were signs of recovery already as cacti and yucca had some new growth.





We had a great time camping, hiking, and driving all over the park.  We even made some new friends, not that it’s uncommon for me to treat a strange dog as it were my own…




Next: Visiting Big Bend National Park (Part 2: Fauna)