One Day in Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park is one of the least visited parks in the United States. However, for those that take the time to get off the beaten path, they’ll find that the journey to get there was well worth the effort. In fact, you might not stop talking about how magical this hidden gem of a national park is. Even if you only have one day to spend in Big Bend National Park, you’ll still be able to see and do a lot of things the park has to offer.
I’ve been trying to get out to the Big Bend for years. As a native Texan, it’s something that you’re sort of supposed to do. As the COVID-19 Pandemic began to throw the United States into uncertain turmoil, I reluctantly headed towards the best place I could think of to spend some time off the grid: Big Bend! A weekend that is typically their busiest time of year (Spring Break) ended up being quite perfect. Since Brewster County shut down all lodging to non-residents while I was there, I ended up only getting one day in Big Bend National Park to explore. So I made the best out of my trip. Only have one day to enjoy Big Bend National Park? Here’s everything I was able to see in 24 hours!
A Rio Grande Sunset Over the Chisos
At about 6:30 pm I rolled into camp at the Rio Grande Village and began to set up my campsite. When I originally booked my campsites here, I had intended on utilizing the opportunity to visit the famed hot springs nearby, as well as enjoy a lunch in Boquillas, a small town in Mexico just across the Rio Grande. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t plan my arrival early enough to hike to the hot springs before sunset on the trail I had planned.
Instead of visiting the hot springs at sunset, I took advantage of the Overlook Trail, a short one mile, round trip, hike that leads you up a rock formation, overlooking the Rio Grande and Chisos Mountains to the West. What an amazing surprise! I found a nook to sit in and watch the sun set behind the Chisos.
A not so fun evening turned into a very slow morning.
I had originally planned to reschedule my hot spring adventure to the morning, but after waking up with an uneasy stomach overnight, my day in Big Bend National Park started off a bit slow. Instead of hiking to my “natural” shower, I utilized the coin-serviced showers at the Rio Grande Village Visitor’s Center before cooking a very filling Biscuits and Gravy breakfast.
At the time, I thought that I had maybe gotten food poisoning, but I began to realize that I had actually just gotten a mild case of vertigo, which only caused me to get sick when laying flat on my back. It continued on for about a week after my trip to Big Bend, and luckily, the worst fit of it I had was that first night at camp.
Assuming you don’t have the unfortunate luck that I did, and you’re able to get out of bed early (this is actually the best time you can go), you’d have plenty of time to go to the hot springs at sunrise and be back before noon, which is when I actually left the campground to explore for the day!
Maxwell Scenic Drive
I refueled at the gas station in Panther Junction at about 12:30 PM. Then, I headed out to the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which has been considered one of the best drives in the state of Texas by numerous publications.
You’ll more than likely pull over a handful of times to enjoy the points of interest and infographics along the way, as I did. Be sure to stop off at the Sotol Vista Overlook, where you’ll be able to see the Santa Elena Canyon and other mountain formations from the top of the hill. It’s quite the panoramic view of the western side of Big Bend National Park. The road itself is 30 miles long, and ends at the Santa Elena Canyon.
The Santa Elena Canyon
I got to the Santa Elena Canyon at about 2:00 PM, changed into my hiking shoes and shorts, enjoyed a snack, and then made my way down the trail to view one of the most popular destinations in the park. The limestone walls of the canyon rise 1,500 feet above the Rio Grande River, making you feel like an ant beneath them. With that being said, yes, this canyon separates the United States and Mexico. Between it’s geographic importance and endless photo opportunities, it’s a no brainer that this is a highly sought after destination. It’s honestly why I came to Big Bend in the first place. I needed to see that giant hole in the rocks. hah!
I hiked into the canyon, which is a 1.7 mile round trip hike. You’ll want to plan enough time to enjoy the views of the canyon, and bring plenty of water. I spent a good deal of time here, as it was a destination that had been on my list for many, many years. I recommend visiting the canyon earlier in the day, rather than later. Once the sun begins to set behind the canyon, you’ll lose daylight quickly.
Chisos Basin: the “Heart” of Big Bend National Park
With enough time (it’s around 5:30PM) to venture into the Chisos Basin on my way back to the east end of the park, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to enjoy this short but epic drive. In six short miles, the Chisos Basin Road climbs 2,000 feet from the surrounding desert landscape into a lush, mountainous habitat with Juniper and Pine trees. You’ll twist and turn through steep grades and multiple hairpin curves before you reach the road’s summit and continue to twist your way down into the basin. My favorite is the “lion and bear country” sign that you’ll pass as you make your way up the road. It is truly a different world up here compared to the rest of the park.
If you have more than one day in Big Bend National Park, The Chisos Basin offers camping, lodging, food, and some of the park’s most popular hiking trails. I highly recommend this area to anyone who has the time to enjoy it. Anyway, I made my way back down the Chisos Basin, filled up my gas tank at Panther Junction, and began to make my way back to camp.
One of the things I had wanted to do while I was in Big Bend, was to visit Mexico for an early lunch and grab tacos. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 Pandemic had the border crossing closed. Luckily, you can get a pretty phenomenal view of the small town of Boquillas from an overlook vista roughly four miles from my campsite at Rio Grande Village. I headed down the road to find it dead end at another canyon.
The Boquillas Canyon is nowhere near as popular as the Santa Elena. This could be because of how remote the Eastern side of the park is. Additionally, the two more popular attractions at this end of the park, the hot springs and Boquillas border crossing, can easily take up a day’s adventure. On paved roads, the Santa Elena Canyon is 67 Miles (or about an hour and a half with no stops for sightseeing) away from the Boquillas Canyon.
It was about 6:30pm when I got to the Boquillas Canyon Trailhead. With just enough daylight to spare, I ventured onto the 1.4 mile loop trail. Across the Rio Grande is a small farm with donkeys. A few of them had ventured across the river and were wandering the trail as I made my way into the canyon, which was a fun way to end the day. I think the Boquillas Canyon is well worth a visit. And, because it’s more of a hidden gem than the Santa Elena, you might just have it all to yourself!
One Day in Big Bend National Park: Complete!
I made it back to camp at about 7:30PM, made dinner, and passed out fairly early after such a long day of adventuring. In roughly 24 hours, I was able to get a taste of everything the park has to offer. From hiking over 4 miles worth of trails, roadside attractions, and history lessons, there was plenty to see during my one day in Big Bend National Park.
While the COVID-19 Pandemic, and my unfortunate case of Vertigo, may have put a damper on my original itinerary, this trip was nothing short of perfect. I’m already looking forward to my next Big Bend adventure, where I’ll definitely be planning a 2-3 day trip to explore the region more in depth!
For more information on Big Bend National Park, check out my blog, “Tips for your First Ride to Big Bend National Park.”