A graphic with the state of Texas with the words get outside inside of the state with bluebonnets and cacti on either side

Get Outside: Big Bend National Park

By Kaitlyn Benacquisto
Assistant Web Content Manager

Big Bend National Park is located in West Texas, about a six-hour drive from San Marcos. This park offers something for everybody, including wildlife viewing, hiking, kayaking, backpacking– you name it, Big Bend has it.

Big Bend on a map in West TX
The location of Big Bend National Park. Screenshot taken by Kaitlyn Benacquisto via Google Maps.

Since it is a national park, it’s a little pricier with a $30 fee per vehicle that is good for one week. Once inside the park entrance, you have about an hours drive to wherever you are going; however, the Panther Junction visitor center is about a half hour drive from where you enter the park. There, you can make backcountry arrangements, or just get more information. If you know you want to camp at one of the three established campgrounds though, you will make your reservation at that campground or the visitor center nearest to that campground. You will not be able to make a payment or reservation for those sites at Panther Junction. Established campgrounds–Chisos Bend, Cottonwood, and Rio Grande Village–cost $14 per night, while a backcountry permit costs $12– for the entire permit, not per night. There is also a hotel for less outdoor-inclined people.

the route and time from San Marcos to Big Bend National Park in West Texas
Directions from San Marcos to Big Bend National Park. Screenshot taken by Kaitlyn Benacquisto via Google Maps.

Big Bend has backcountry campsites for backpacking trails as well as sites off dirt roads, where you can car camp or pitch a tent. Backcountry permits can be obtained at the Panther Junction or Chisos Bend visitors centers.

My first time at Big Bend, I backpacked– which was also my first time backpacking. It was an adventure, to say the least. We hiked the South Rim, which was about 15 miles in total. I went in December, rather close to Christmas, with my friend.

The first night we arrived, my friend and I each got a backcountry permit from the visitors center. We stayed at a primitive roadside spot at Grapevine Hills. I consider myself a rather brave, adventurous person, but this was extremely spooky– there was not a soul around, no sounds of civilization, just us, nature and whatever wildlife was lurking in the shadows. We walked around the Grapevine Hills area, and encountered what I believe was a mule deer cross our path before it got dark.

After scouting out the area, my friend and I decided we should probably just sleep in the car for the night. We told ourselves we made this decision because then we didn’t want to have to deal with setting up and taking down our tent, not because we were scared. While it was spooky, I definitely recommend camping in this area if you get the chance because the view of the sunset and sunrise behind the mountains was stunning.

The next morning, we promptly started hiking from the Chisos Basin Trailhead around 7 a.m. The first stretch of this hike– we started on the Pinnacles side and ended with Laguna Meadows– was rough. I am talking a straight-shot uphill. While it was rough, it was totally doable. I was not in the best shape at the time, and I still did fine.

a trail map of the South Rim
The trail that I backpacked. Image courtesy of Big Bend National Park.

While I’m not positive, I think we stayed at SW3 or SW4 for the night, which is just over halfway and right alone the South Rim. Again, stay here if you ever backpack at Big Bend! It was an absolutely stunning spot with a beautiful view of the mountains. We enjoyed the sunset from the cliff of our site while munching on some cold gnocchi. We didn’t go the traditional backpacking food route– we survived off of Goldfish, jerky, cold pasta and really bad protein bars.

However, this spot was even spookier than our first. We hadn’t seen another human for a few hours by the time we reached our spot, so we were really, truly alone with nature and whatever was lurking in the shadows. When in the backcountry, the rangers urge you to not eat on or near your campsite, and put anything that smells, including your shoes and clothes, in the bear box provided at the sites. So, the fear of bears and mountain lions is instilled in you by all of the precautions, warnings and bear scat you encounter on the trails. Despite that we followed (most of) these precautions, it was still a long, sleepless night. It was an extremely windy night, and every time we heard a noise, my friend and I whispered to each other, “Did you hear that?” or “Do you think that was a bear?” I didn’t think I’d be scared of bears or mountain lions, but I was actually terrified. When we woke up in the morning, we did discover what looked like racoon prints, so we weren’t wrong in thinking that we had a visitor in the night. Perhaps we were a bit dramatic in mistaking the noise a racoon makes for that of a bear, but believe me when I say everything sounds much more intimidating in the dark.

We awoke the next morning and cleaned up our campsite and repacked our backpacks. The rest of the hike was easy and mostly downhill. A small deer followed behind us for a mile or so while we finished our hike through the Laguna Meadows section of the trail. We were done by around noon or so, and said goodbye to Big Bend and headed home.

I went to Big Bend again last year in November just to camp and check out some other trails. This time around I stayed at developed campgrounds: Cottonwood and Chisos Basin. It is best to have cash if you plan to stay at these campgrounds so that you can just go directly to the campground and put the cash in an envelope there, rather than have to go to one of the visitors centers, pay, find a site, and then go back and let them know what site you are at.

We did the Lost Mine Trail first. Of course, I highly recommend it. I think I highly recommend everything I’ve ever encountered at Big Bend, but it is just that kind of place. It was a moderately challenging loop hike at 4.8 miles roundtrip, but the view at the end is breathtaking. It is like being on top of the world. This trail was closed just the week before I went due to increased bear sightings, but I didn’t see one whenever I went.

Later that day, we did the Santa Elena Canyon Trail, which was near Cottonwood Campground, where we stayed that night. This trail wasn’t challenging, but it was very neat. First, in order to get to the trail, we had to cross the Rio Grande. Others who were there told me the water wasn’t normally as high as it was, but it was over knee deep whenever we went. On the side of the canyon where you hike is America, and the other side is Mexico. This trail was pretty busy whenever we went.

After a night at Cottonwood, we headed to Chisos Basin early to try to get a spot. I think this is the park’s most popular campground. During the offseason, you can’t reserve a spot in advance. Luckily, we were able to snag one. After talking to the rangers, we decided to hike the Window Trail–not to be confused with the Window View Trail. As I mentioned earlier, heavy rains had hit the area the week before, causing the rise of water in the Rio Grande, but also allowing the waterfall at the Window Trail to actually have water in it, which is a rare occurrence.

It was a 5.6 mile hike round trip, but it wasn’t really difficult because the hike takes you through a canyon rather than mountains. The hike back is slightly harder than the way there. The high water created some issues, and we had to take off our shoes and go barefoot at some points where the river was running over the trail, but it added to the adventure appeal.

This hike was so rewarding. I was speechless, feeling like I was on the very edge of the universe. I wish I had the right words to do it justice, but I don’t. It is just one of those things that you have to experience for yourself. I love every bit of Big Bend, but this view trumped everything I’ve seen.

Big Bend has left me in awe and wanting more every time. It is such a gem, and it amazes me how many people in Texas have yet to be there. And the stars! The night sky in itself is reason enough to go. It is truly a magical place, with it’s vast, varying, expansive landscapes and extreme solitude– a sublime escape from the everyday world.

Featured image by Gabrielle Hardy.

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