Our Top 10 Fun FREE Things To Do in Big Bend National Park! Big Bend National Park is amazing in that if you get tired of the desert, you can drive less than an hour and be in the mountains. Or if you get tired of cactus and brown, simply drive closer to the Rio Grande river where everything turns lush and green. Such a unique eco-system. According to the rangers, it may be the only one in the world. It is also the only national park with a mountain range entirely contained within the national park boundaries – the Chisos Mountains. Spectacular!
Everyone hikes to the iconic Santa Elena Canyon and the Balanced Rock. These are the iconic photographs used most often in Big Bend National Park promo materials.
However, when most visit a national park (any national park), they barely scratch the surface. According to the rangers at Grand Canyon for example, 95% of visitors never take ONE STEP below the rim. To us that’s almost unbelievable. We spent 10 days at Big Bend National Park and we feel like we barely scratched the surface!
Top 10 “Off The Beaten Path”: Big Bend National Park
1. Take in the sunset from the nature trail in the Rio Grande Village campground. Or sunset from just above the trailhead at Boquillas Canyon. Both have essentially the same westward sunset view. High above the Rio Grande meandering through the valley and off into the mountains in the distance. Or maybe take in sunsets from both locations!
2. Boquillas Mexico US Border Patrol Crossing. May be the only place in the US where you can leave the country in a rowboat, enjoy a “real” Mexican margarita, buy a handmade souvenir and be rowed back to the US. Technically this one is not free – it costs $5 to be rowed roundtrip. But you’re allowed to wade across the Rio Grande, and then it would be free, so I’ve included it anyway!
3. Soak in the Hot Springs … where better to relax in 105 degree water during a 105 degree day? Cool off by wading in the river next to the hot springs/hot tub. Be careful with the depths and current! It was very shallow while we were there.
4. Hike a mountain trail – we hiked Lost Mountain Mine trail giving us a totally different perspective on Big Bend National Park than the desert and river oasis.
5. Take in a Ranger Program/Walk. Unfortunately the Starry Nights program is at the Chisos Basin Campground, high in the Chisos Mountains. Great place to view dark skies, but we opted to skip it because of the narrow winding mountain road leading up to it (and back down well after dark). We did attend other ranger programs – there are an amazing variety of birds, well worth an hour spent at a ranger birding walk. Even the desert ranger talk was fascinating. I love learning new things, especially about the national parks we’re exploring.
6. Sunrise at Santa Elena Canyon. OK, so this one is not off the beaten path, but sunrise is spectacular. And just after sunrise is the perfect time to enjoy the Santa Elena Canyon hike.
(After this, we drove Maverick Road which is a barren desolate 4 wheel 14 mile river wash drive through the desert to the west entrance to the park – but you do get to see Gilberto Luna’s “jacal” – a low dirt roofed dugout house where a legendary Big Bend character named Gilberto Luna, who subsisted on crops cultivated in a dry wash, fathered more than fifty children, and lived to be 108. Amazing how nice and cool it is inside the dugout house versus the harsh desert outside! Step inside and see for yourself.
7. Drive the Ross Maxwell Scenic Road – Everyone that comes to the park drives the Ross Maxwell Scenic Road. It’s one of the main events. But it is well worth taking a day and stopping at each and every point of interest. We hiked the Lower Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail which was an easy walk. We also stopped anywhere we saw a point of interest plaque.
8. Wade in the Rio Grande! One hand in Mexico, one hand in the United States!
9. Stop, sit quietly & look around. Birds are everywhere. Lots of which we’d never seen before. Be sure to take some time and watch – especially in the campgrounds, Rio Grande Village, Chisos Basin and Cottonwood Campgrounds where the trees attract more birds than elsewhere. Having a bird ID book is helpful. We use the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America.
10. Big Bend Ranch State Park. River Road Scenic Drive. We left this to our last day, almost an afterthought which turned out to be a major mistake. Big Bend Ranch State Park is every bit as scenic (maybe more so?) than Big Bend National Park. The scenic drive winds along the Rio Grande in spectacular fashion with vistas around every curve. We wish we would have camped in Lajitas a night or two and spent a bit more time hiking the trails. Be sure to stop at a visitors center – there’s one at each end of the drive – and get a brochure showing the highlights and don’t miss spots on the drive.
The one trail we hiked, Closed Canyon, was easily accessible and I always love a slot canyon. The movie set was fun to explore and scenic as well.
So what were some of your favorite epic memories from your visit to Big Bend National Park? Please comment and share so others can make their must do lists for when they visit Big Bend! Cheers! Jan