Even though the big in Big Bend National Park refers to a giant curve in the Rio Grande, it could just as easily refer to the park itself (bigger than the state of Rhode Island), the views (immense and sweeping), or the river (definitely grande!).
Big Bend National Park was the main reason for my recent Texas road trip, but the other park that I added along the way – Guadalupe Mountains National Park – turned out to be wonderful too in its own way.
Big Bend had been on a my travel radar for a while – ever since I watched the 2014 Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke movie Boyhood. For some reason, the movie scene of a sunset hike along the Rio Grande stuck with me through the years. It turns out the scene was actually shot at the nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park, not the national park, but the effect was the same. I just had to visit the area.
Early in the summer of 2021, I finally began planning a trip to Big Bend. Since I was going to be in West Texas, I decided to check out the state’s other big national park, Guadalupe Mountains, as well.
Before I knew it, I had the makings of an epic national park road trip. From my base in the west-Texas city of El Paso, I headed first to Guadalupe, then to Big Bend. (I also ended up adding New Mexico’s lovely White Sands National Park to the trip, but that’s the topic of another story!)
Here’s how my 2-parks-in-4-days road trip went:
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
At just two hours east of El Paso, Guadalupe Mountains National Park makes a great day trip from that city. As I was planning my road trip from my home in Arizona to Big Bend, via El Paso, Guadalupe Mountains seemed too close and too good to pass up.
It turned out to be a spectacular detour, despite a couple of missteps. Since Guadalupe is so remote, I had decided to camp when I got there. The park’s campgrounds don’t take reservations, so I knew I needed to arrive early to get a spot at the Pine Springs Campground, the one closest to the visitor center.
When I arrived before noon, I was happy to score a great spot on a somewhat secluded campsite that was at the bottom of a set of concrete stairs, right in the midst of the park’s forest/desert terrain. I set up my little tent and went off to explore. When I got back to the campground at about dusk, I sat down next to my tent to eat a salad I had picked up along the way. Then, with the sun setting, I made a final trip to the vault restroom located not far from my site, leaving my leftovers by the tent.
That’s when my night of camping started to get interesting. By the time I returned to my tent, darkness had fallen, and I was ready to relax inside my tent. But as I walked down the stairs to my tent with my cell phone flashlight illuminating the way, I immediately noticed several pairs of glowing eyes staring back at me. I was dismayed to find that a family of skunks had moved in, and were circling my tent. I screamed – definitely not the smartest move. Thankfully, the skunks were not intimidated by me and continued to wander around my tent, with no defensive spraying involved.
Even so, I decided right away that I couldn’t sleep in my tent. I knew I would be worrying all night that my visitors would return. So, as soon as I was sure the skunks had vacated the area, I ran back down to the campsite, quickly retrieved my sleeping bag and air mattress and made a little bed in the back of my SUV. It tuned out to be a good move for more reasons than just the skunk visit. In the middle of the night, I awoke to a major thunderstorm – lightning flashing, rain pouring down, and wind rocking my SUV.
Lessons learned: A secluded campsite comes with some risks. Also, it pays to pack up any food right away, even if you’re just going a short distance.
Despite my camping mishaps, I loved my visit to Guadalupe Mountain National Park. I spent the day checking out the park’s historic Frijole Ranch, the Pinery Trail (the site of the region’s first mail station), and the McKittrick Canyon Trail. The park has 80 miles of trails, so there are many options available at all skill levels. Ambitious hikers might want to head to Guadalupe Peak, the highest mountain in Texas, at an elevation of 8,751 feet.
I suggest stopping by the Pine Springs Visitor Center upon arrival at Guadalupe Mountains for a map and tips about hiking. Although there is no official scenic drive in the park, approaching and departing the park on Highway 62 offers plenty of great views, along with trailheads all along the way.
My favorite Guadalupe hike: My favorite was definitely the McKittrick Canyon Trail. Daytime temperatures were well into the 80s when I visited in late June, but about a mile and a half into the hike, I came upon a little stream of cool water. It made for a great spot to rest and refresh. If I had had the time and had done the training, I would have loved to add the Guadalupe Peak Trail as well. Something to shoot for on the next trip!
What I loved about Guadalupe Mountains National Park: It is remote, rugged, and fantastically scenic.
Tips for visiting: Be sure to stock up on supplies and gas on your way to Guadalupe Mountains, because you won’t find much at the national park visitor center other than souvenirs and maps. El Paso is about two hours to the west, and Carlsbad, New Mexico is about an hour to the northeast.
Pro Tip: For national park lovers looking to bag a third and fourth park on the same trip, New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park is only about a half-hour drive from Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and White Sands is about three-hour drive. Although Carlsbad would have made for an nice addition on my Texas road trip, I decided I didn’t have the time on this trip. I did add the gorgeous White Sands.
Big Bend National Park
Big Bend more than lived up to my hopes and expectations. I loved it from the moment I spotted the Chisos Mountains in the distance as I approached from the north.
Unlike Guadalupe Mountains, the campgrounds in the Big Bend National Park allow for reservations, and I had reserved a site at the Chisos Basin Campground, which sits at 5,400 feet elevation. I guessed that the higher elevation would bring cooler temperatures than the park’s other main campground, Rio Grande Village Campground, at 1,840 feet, and I was right. I enjoyed warm days of about 80 degrees and cool nights in the 60s.
The road to Chisos Basin climbs steadily into the spectacular mountain range, and wonderful overlooks are spaced all along the way. Even if you’re not camping or staying in the basin, the road in is one of the not-to-be-missed routes in the park.
If you do decide to stay in the basin, the Chisos Mountain Lodge offers another accommodation option. The popular lodge has 72 rooms and is the only lodging available in the park, so it pays to book early.
I found the Chisos Basin Campground to be wonderfully scenic, well-equipped, and conveniently located. It was the perfect base for exploring the three regions of the park – river, desert, and mountains. And the view from my tent in the morning was stunning!
During my time in Big Bend, I wanted to check out as many of the trails, historic sites, and scenic routes as a I could, and I found that a two-night stay, with basically three days available for exploring, allowed me to hit most of the recommended features.
After first stopping in at the Panther Junction Visitor Center on the afternoon of my arrival, I headed up to the Chisos Basin and checked out several of the overlooks, as well as the lodge and store. That night, I wandered around the campground and watched a family of deer graze just across the road from my campsite.
The next day, I spent a full day driving, hiking and exploring. Along the way, I was able to take in the Boquillas Canyon Trail, the Rio Grande Village, the Historic Hot Springs area, the Grapevine Hills Road, the Sam Nail Ranch Trail, the Lower Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail, the Tuff Canyon Trail, the Santa Elena Canyon, and the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The next morning, I hiked the beautiful Window Trail before packing up and heading on toward the Big Bend Ranch State Park.
My favorite trails in Big Bend
1. The first of my Big Bend favorites was the Boquillas Canyon Trail, for its steep and rugged cliffs, lovely green riverside setting, and cute burros grazing along the way. I also loved the pretty view of the Rio Grande as it wound through the towering canyon walls. At just 1.4 miles round-trip, it’s a fairly easy hike, although it does involve a steep climb up and over the ridge line.
2. Another of my favorites was the Window Trail for its classic Big Bend views bracketed by jagged rock formations. Note that the hike involves a steep drop into a canyon and heads steadily downhill for much of the route. That means that on the return hike you have a steep climb out. I suggest getting an early-morning start. At 5.6 miles round-trip, the Window Trail is rated as moderate.
Pro Tip: If you camp at the Chisos Mountain Campground, the Window Trailhead is conveniently located right in the campground.
3. Perhaps my favorite trail of all was the Mule Ears Spring Trail. I simply loved the huge views of the valley and the distant views of the rocks that strikingly resembled the ears of mules. At 3.8 miles round-trip and more than 800 feet in elevation gain, Mule Ears is rated as moderate.
Other things I loved about Big Bend: Thankfully, I didn’t run across any skunks in Big Bend, but there was a delightful assortment of other wildlife, including a baby bear, numerous deer, burros, and turkey vultures.
A couple of things to know before you go: There are five visitor centers in Big Bend, but not all of them were open when I visited in June 2021. I found great services at the Panther Junction, Rio Grande Village, and Chisos Basin centers, but the other two were closed at the time. Also, there were gas stations at Panther Junction and Rio Grande Village. After driving the huge expanses of the park, I needed to fill up at Panther Junction and found the gas to be comparably priced with other stations in Texas.
Overall, Texas’s two big national parks make for a great pairing on a road trip in the western part of the state. They are about three and half hours apart, and you will pass through some amazing ranch land and quirky small towns along the way.
Pro Tip: As long as you’re in Big Bend National Park, it would be shame to miss the nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park, where you can take in rock hoodoos, steep canyons, and even more solitude in high desert solitude.