Tips for Your First Ride to Big Bend National Park
In March, I made it to Big Bend National Park by motorcycle for my first time. With the park being so remote, it can be a logistic challenge to fit it into your trip itinerary. However, it’s definitely worth your time to visit Big Bend if you haven’t yet. Especially if you’re on a motorcycle! Big Bend National Park comes highly recommended by riders in the state of Texas.
If you’ve never been to Big Bend before, this blog should help you get a feel for things to know before you go, including where to stay, what to pack, and things to do inside Big Bend National Park. Even if you don’t plan to get there via motorcycle, there are plenty of helpful tips throughout the blog.
About Big Bend National Park
If you’re born and raised in Texas and you’ve never been to Big Bend, there’s a valid reason for that. Big Bend is buried deep in west Texas. And I mean, DEEP. The Big Bend is actually a region of west Texas, but the park itself is situated right along the U.S.-Mexico border, sharing 118 miles of the Rio Grande River, which runs through the park. (If you’d like to learn more about the Big Bend region, I highly suggest visiting the Museum of the Big Bend in Alpine. You can learn more about that, here.)
Due to its remoteness, Big bend is one of the least visited national parks, with roughly 4-500,000 visitors per year. To put that into perspective: 4 million people visit Yellowstone annually. In addition to the park being so isolated, beneficially, Big Bend National Park is a Dark Sky Park, and has the darkest skies in the continental United States. If you enjoy star gazing, this is the place for you!
El Paso is the closest major city to Big Bend National Park, and is 300 miles away. Midland, TX is the closest airport, at 200 miles away. From Austin, you’re looking at a 450 mile trek. No matter which route you take to get to Big Bend, it’s going to be an adventure.
The closest Eagle Rider motorcycle rental locations are in San Antonio and Austin. If you plan on flying in and renting a bike, you’ll need to start your journey in one of these two cities.
Best Times to Visit
The park’s busiest time of year is between October and April when the park sees “colder” temperatures. Yes, this is the desert, so even a cold day in January could be 80 degrees. March, particularly during Spring Break, is the park’s absolute busiest month. March and April are months in which the desert sees significant wildflower blooms, so this also draws crowds to the remote desert region. If you can, try and plan your trip before or after March if you want to avoid the crowds.
Big Bend National Park is significantly less busy from May to September due to the heat. If the blistering summer heat wasn’t going to scare you away from visiting Big Bend, maybe the tarantulas will. From June – August (definitely August), tarantulas migrate and mate in west Texas, making your chances of seeing one of them highly likely. I’m personally not a huge fan of spiders. While tarantulas are completely harmless to humans, I’d rather not “up” my chances of seeing one crawl across my tent, or the roadway for that matter. (Insert a Harry Potter meme of Ronald Weasley crying about spiders, here. That’s exactly what I look like when I see a spider. Why couldn’t it be follow the butterflies?!)
Fees & Permits
The entrance fee is currently $30 per vehicle and $25 per motorcycle. This fee will cover access for an entire week. I always recommend that anyone who enjoys National Parks to purchase an Annual Pass. They’re $80 for 12-month access to all National Parks and even other areas. You can purchase one at any National Park entrance station.
Camping fees start at $14 per night in addition to the entrance fee. If you’re on an ADV or overlanding vehicle, and plan to take advantage of the dirt roads throughout the park, there are numerous primitive campgrounds. These primitive campsites require backcountry permits, which are $10.
Things to Do in Big Bend National Park
Roads to Ride
There are 123 miles of paved roads within Big Bend National Park. Many of which offer pristine views of the Chisos Mountains and surrounding desert landscape. The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is 30 miles one way, and has been considered one of the top scenic drives in the state of Texas. A second must see, is the Chisos Basin Road. While it’s a short six mile venture into the basin, the road sees steep grades and hairpin turns, and isn’t recommended for RV’s and large vehicles.
If you enter the park from Marathon/Persimmon Gap entrance station, you’ll get to have a beautiful view of the Chisos as you make your way south on highway 380 to Panther Junction. If you take a left in Panther Junction, the main park road will take you 20 miles south to the Rio Grande Village campground and Boquillas border crossing. This road is also where you’ll find the Rio Grande Tunnel, the first tunnel ever constructed on a Texas roadway.
If you are a Dual Sport rider, you’ll be happy to know that there are even more miles of primitive roads in Big Bend than there are paved. In fact, I saw more dual sports in Big Bend than I did cruisers. You can read more about those roads, here. If getting off the highway is more your style, this is definitely a National Park that you’ll have fun in.
Outside of the park is the famed River Road. Highway 170 runs through Big Bend Ranch State Park, within feet of the Rio Grande River at times. This road is one of the best motorcycling roads in Texas.
Big Bend has plenty to offer if you want to get off the bike and into the outdoors. From easy & difficult hiking trails, border crossings, and dips in the famed Langford hot springs, there’s plenty to do outside of riding.
Easy hikes include the Santa Elena Canyon, Boquillas Canyon, Rio Grande Village Overlook Trail, and the Burro Mesa Pouroff. Two more difficult (and longer) hikes are the Lost Mine and Window trails. Both are located in the Chisos Basin and are quite popular.
The Langford Hot Springs have been called “The most famous hot tub in Texas.” Depending on how you get to them (via a dirt road or a 5 mile round trip hike), you’ll get a pretty good view of the Rio Grande as well as a mineral soak in a 105 Degree pool that sits on the river’s edge.
Into star gazing? You’re in luck. The skies of Big Bend are some of the clearest you’ll find in the United States.
Time Needed to See Big Bend National Park
You can ride the entire park in one day. So, if you don’t plan on enjoying any additional sights on foot, you could very easily spend one night in the park. If you wish to enjoy some of the longer hikes and an adventure across the border, a 3 night stay is recommended.
Where to Stay
In the Park, there’s quite a few camping options. There are three improved campgrounds: Cottonwood, Chisos, and Rio Grande Village + RV Park. Each campground offers easy access to different regions of the park. Outside of these campgrounds, there’s primitive campsites, and the Chisos Mountains Lodge.
- Cottonwood: Located near the Santa Elena Canyon and Castolon Historic area. This is a much smaller campground than the other two.
- Chisos Basin: In the heart of Big Bend lies the Chisos Basin Campground. This is by far the most popular campground of the three due to it being in the “middle” of the park. Due to it’s higher elevation, this campground tends to see colder temperatures, even in the summer months.
- Rio Grande Village: If a sunrise trip to the historic Hot Springs, or a lunch across the border in Boquillas are on your to-do list, the Rio Grande Village would be a great campground to stay at. There are coin-operated showers at the visitor’s center just up the road.
Chisos Mountains Lodge
- If camping isn’t your “thing,” the Chisos Mountains Lodge may be a better option if you wish to stay in the park and not in nearby Terlingua. The lodge also offers the only dining experience within the park. You can learn more about the lodging options, here.
Outside of the Park, there are a plethora of RV parks, campgrounds, motels, and Air BnB offerings between Terlingua and Lajitas. From the research I’ve done, all privately owned campgrounds in town seem to be missing a common thing that the National Park campsites have: shade. Some also do not have potable water, so do your research. I’ve stayed at the Lajitas Resort once. The pool is a nice touch in the summers when it’s hot out.
Where to Eat
Unless you plan to cross the border at Boquillas for Lunch, or to grab a meal at the Chisos Mountains Lodge, your options for food within the park are very minimal. Terlingua/Study Butte is the closest town to Big Bend. I’d suggest bringing snacks and prepackaged camping meals to cook at your campsite if you are planning to camp in the park.
In Terlingua, there are a handful of bars and restaurants to choose from, literally. This is truly the wild west, and food options are extremely limited. The Starlight theatre is a go-to for many, as well as the High Sierra Bar and Grill. If you choose to venture west towards Lajitas, the Thirsty Goat Saloon offers food, drinks, and some beautiful views of the Rio Grande.
In Marathon, Brick Vault Brewery and BBQ is a must stop for anyone traveling to or from Big Bend. Mind you, Marathon is 75 miles from Panther Junction, so I would suggest checking this place out on your way in or out of town.
Watch for Wildlife
West Texas has a healthy mule deer and javelina population. You’ll likely see mule deer grazing near the highways throughout the day. Depending on the time of year, you will likely see snakes on the roads as well. At dusk, the wildlife population gets even more active, bringing rabbits and other critters onto the highways. Drive with extreme caution after dusk.
Javelina, black bears, mountain lions, and coyotes are common in Big Bend National Park. The campgrounds offer bear boxes to store your food and cooking items in when not in use because of this. I use these odor proof loksak bags that add an additional deterrent to having these fuzzy critters paying my campsite a visit. This should go without saying, but, don’t intentionally feed the animals.
The park has no cell phone coverage, and is nearly 100 miles away from the closest hospital. Know your route and gas stops prior to venturing into Big Bend country, and pack plenty of water. The visitor centers and campgrounds have potable water available.
There are visitor centers at Panther Junction, the Rio Grande Village Campground, Chisos Basin, and Castolon that sell beer, water, snacks, fuel canisters, hydration packs, first aid kits, and other common camping items, just in case. I personally wouldn’t rely on these visitor centers to have what you need, though. Due to the area’s remoteness, it’s not always readily supplied with items you may need. I would suggest stopping for any last minute essential items prior to arriving in Big Bend in places like Alpine, Fort Stockton, or Marfa.
What to Pack
Avoid Overheating and Sunburns: The Texas sun is brutal. We all know that. Tie it into a blistering, desolate desert, you’re going to want to pack a few things to hinder the heat and sun exposure. Sunscreen is a must, as well as a long sleeve shirt. Without a hat, you will absolutely burn your scalp to a crisp, no matter what time of year it is. Be sure to keep your head covered!
The desert is cold, too. In addition to packing layers to protect yourself from the sun, you’ll want to pack layers for the temperature variations. Depending on where you choose to camp, and what time of year it is, you could very well see 30 degree temperatures at night. The desert is a dry heat, yes, but it’s also a dry cold, and that can be bone chilling if you’re not prepared for it. As always, watch the weather before your trip and pack accordingly.
Stay Hydrated: I always carry a 48oz Nalgene bottle with me on my bike. As previously stated, water is almost as scarce as gasoline in this region, so make sure you are prepared. Never leave camp or a visitor’s center without your water bottle filled.
Camp Kitchen: If you plan on camping, bringing a Jetboil or camping stove to cook your meals is ideal, as food options are pretty limited in the park. I take my MiniMo with me, in addition to some DIY camp meals, on all of my motorcycling adventures.
Toiletries: Whether you plan to shower at one of the visitor centers, or take a dip in the Langford Hot Springs, you’ll want to pack a towel. I use these quick dry towels, which pack up to next to nothing in size and come in extremely handy. It also wouldn’t hurt to pack some extra toilet paper, or soap.
I also use this Stuff Travel Pack from REI to go on hikes, use the shower facilities at campgrounds, or whatever else I need. It packs down fairly tiny and is quite useful beyond being used for hiking.
Bring Your Passport. There’s a border crossing on the east end of the park, which takes you into Boquillas del Carmen. You’ll pay $5 for a boat ride across the Rio Grande, where you can enjoy authentic tacos and margaritas for lunch. The border crossing is only open at certain times and days of the week, which you can learn more about here.
Gas Stations are more common than water fountains, but they’re still sparse. Inside the park, there are only two Stations: Panther Junction and the Rio Grande Village. Outside of the park to the west, you’ll find gas in Lajitas, Terlingua, and Study Butte. To the North, there is an Alon in Marathon at the intersection of Highway 385 and Highway 90. And in Alpine, you’ll find a handful of gas stations throughout the town.
The gas station at the Rio Grande Village Visitor’s Center only offers unleaded fuel, no premium or diesel. The Rio Grande Village is a 40 mile round trip from the fuel station in Panther Junction, so I recommend utilizing the fuel options there. If you fill up in Panther Junction, venture down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to the Santa Elena Canyon, into the Chisos Basin, and then back to the Panther Junction Fuel Station, you’ll be at about 100 miles of fuel usage.