Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links
It’s a little sad to admit this, but we managed to live in Texas for SEVEN years before finally making it out to Big Bend National Park. Crazy, right? One thing that definitely stopped us from making the journey sooner was the idea that we’d need at least a week or two for the trip to be worthwhile. While Terlingua and Big Bend are certainly a haul from Austin (a 6 – 8 hour trip) we discovered that it is totally worth visiting over a long weekend.
We took our trip in November, when the temperatures were mild by day, and just a bit chilly at night. The week preceding Thanksgiving turned out to be a popular one in Terlingua, one of the small, eclectic towns that border Big Bend National Park. The few restaurants in town were super crowded, but luckily we hadn’t really come for the food. Our weekend was completely focused on exploring the park and enjoying the big skies and wild landscapes of West Texas.
We started the long drive to Terlingua mid-morning, and arrived at our campsite at Tin Valley Retro Rentals by that afternoon. Our cabin, which we found on Air BnB was made from a re-vamped vintage school bus. Equipped with solar powered lights and a small propane heater, the bus made a cozy little home for our small family.
Tin Valley is an off-grid campground located in the outskirts of Terlingua. It is actually tucked right inside Big Bend National Park where a portion of private land juts into the park’s massive grounds.
Campsites at Tin Valley are nothing if not memorable. Vintage buses and graffiti covered campers are sprinkled across the desert, placed between tipis, a gutted VW beetle, and even a grounded yacht! Rhonda, who runs Tin Valley, lives in a small cottage on-site in the company of two friendly dogs, a very social donkey, and a small army of kitty cats. We ended up snuggling up with a furry visitor in our bed more than once. Luckily, we love cats, so that was kind of a treat.
There is even a shortcut to Big Bend from Tin Valley’s site, but you’ll need a 4WD vehicle to take advantage of that route. Like much of Big Bend National Park, the terrain is rugged and challenging for folks in small sedans or hatchbacks. Since we were traveling in a Toyota Corolla we stuck to maintained dirt roads and paved highways only.
The next day was our only full day in the park, so we got up as early as possible to make the most of every minute. After fixing a simple camp breakfast, stocking our car with snacks, packed lunches, and plenty of water, we hit the road. That morning we made a quick pitstop at the gas station in Terlingua for fuel and fresh coffee, then headed into the park. Guide map in hand, we quickly plotted out a route for the day, which included a ton of scenic driving, one short hike, dipping our feet in the Rio Grande, and watching the sunset at the best spot in the park.
We started out at the Study Butte entrance, then made our way south on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. We chose the Lower Burro Mesa Pour-Off Trail for our hike. This was a super easy walk down into a dry creek-bed that ended below a massive dry waterfall. We had some geeky fun trying to identify scat along the way while CC did his best to climb every rock formation available. With a pregnant lady and a three year old making up 2/3 of our hiking party we managed to spend about an hour hiking the 1 mile trail.
On our way down to Santa Elena Canyon and the Rio Grande we passed by some really gorgeous landscapes and rock formations, including the Mule’s Ears, Chimneys, and the surrounding mountains. We stopped many times along the way to catch better looks at all of the beautiful sites we were passing. If we ever go back with more time to kill I would love to hike further into the park and explore some of these spots more thoroughly.
The first leg of the day’s trip brought us to Santa Elena Canyon, a ridiculously pretty spot where the Rio Grande carves through a narrow, high-walled canyon. The shore here was sandy and rocky, with a nice smattering of mud that CC found utterly enthralling. If I’d had the foresight to pack him an extra set of clothes for the day I would have let him wallow to his heart’s delight. As it was, he was forced to content himself with making sand angels and trying to swim to Mexico.
My kid is a magnet for water, so I wasn’t TOO surprised that this particular sightseeing adventure ended in tears. We ended up having to pick him up and drag him away from the river while he shouted “BUT I WANT TO GO TO MEXICO!! JUST LET ME GOOOOOOO!!!”. When he was safely strapped back into his car seat we plied him with snacks and got back on the road – this time heading to Panther Junction to check out the park’s visitor center.
By the time we got there our little adventurer had fallen asleep. Instead of waking him up we decided to pass the park headquarters by and high-tail it to the park’s other Rio Grande overlook at Boquillas Canyon. This drive took us around the back side of the Chisos Mountains and a surprisingly different landscape from what we had found on the other side of the park. Boqullas Canyon turned out to be a slow-moving, and shallow looking stretch of river overlooking Boquillas Del Carmen, a village just across the Mexican border.
After that, we had just enough time to make it back to the center of the park to watch the sunset from Chisos Basin. Along the way we were treated to our one and only Big Bend National Park wildlife sighting!
The tarantula was bigger than it looks here, but actually a lot less scary than I expected. This little guy jumped into the road while we were driving along, so we did a quick U-turn to take a closer look. Unfortunately CC slept through the encounter. He was mighty jealous when we showed him the video! Poor kid.
Chisos Basin turned out to be an incredible treat. The mountains in this spot cluster up into a sort of circle, creating a woodsy oasis in the middle of the desert. It’s almost surreal to drive in and immediately become surrounded with towering pines and shade. This is where the majority of the park’s bear and cougar population live, so there are signs everywhere warning folks to take care.
I would love to come back and stay at the campgrounds or lodge inside Chisos Basin. The hiking in the basin must be incredible. We ended up having a little time to walk the basin trail before sunset really kicked off. The trails here can be really steep and a little treacherous for young kids, but we kept one hand on CC at all times and somehow all made it out alive. When the sun started setting we walked to the Window Overlook to catch one of the coolest sunsets around.
The mountains form a dark silhouette against the bold colors of the setting sun, making them look almost like a window. Watching the light bounce and shadow against the mountains is really fun, but the scenery gets more amazing as the sky darkens. For the best view, be sure and stick around until the sun has completely set. When the stars come out you’ll be treated to an equally incredible view overhead.
Back at camp that night we spent a little while stargazing around the bonfire before curling up in bed.
The next morning we cleaned up and packed up as fast as we could, and hit the road once more. On the way to Big Bend we noticed a sign advertising trail rides by the side of the road. We knew CC would be too little to take a real ride, but we thought he’d enjoy seeing the horses up close and getting to meet a real cowboy. His cowboy ended up being super friendly, and offered to let CC take a spin around the corral. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that this was probably one of the greatest moments of his young life. A real horse, a real cowboy, and a real ride!
We decided to explore that last main road in Big Bend National Park on our way back home. We drove back into the park and made a bee-line for Panther Junction where we headed north toward the Fossil Discovery Exhibit, Dagger Flats, and Persimmon Canyon.
As expected, the Fossil Discovery Exhibit was a huge hit. The exhibit was filled with colorful dinosaur murals and life-size fossil replicas. Outside, the desert stretched into huge flats – perfect for spending an hour poking around the rocks and sand. We went for a long walk, found a few hills to climb, and even got to explore a massive creek bed. It was a great walk to end our trip and to get some wiggles out before our long road trip home.
Our drive out of the park and back toward civilization was as scenic as ever. We ended up getting back to the highway by that afternoon and made it into Austin around 8pm. All in all, it was a great trip. I do wish we’d had more time to explore some of the other towns (like Marfa or Marathon) and do a lot more hiking (the hot springs sounded awesome). But, at the same time, I’m glad that we got to explore Big Bend National Park at all – even if only for two days!
Do you have any favorite spots in Big Bend National Park or Terlingua? Share your Big Bend travel tips and tricks in the comments!