Road Trips and Destinations

Camping Road Trip through Big Bend Country

More from Outdoor Living Newsletter December Outdoor Living Newsletter

Canoeing through Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park

Big Bend Country is a lonely, desolate but beautiful place. Located in the south western most edges of Texas and known to early explorers as El Despoblado - "The Uninhabited Land" - Big Bend Country is made up of wide desert landscapes stretching as far as the eye can see, punctuated by the only mountain ranges you'll find in Texas and the great curve of the Rio Grande from which the region takes its name. It is vast and seemingly empty, one of the remotest regions in North America and one of the last few places on Earth unspoiled by man-made structures.

This seeming emptiness, though, is entirely deceiving. Big Bend boasts of rich and diverse flora and fauna, many of which are endangered and not found in any other place in the world. The region is home to more species of bats, birds and cacti than anywhere else in the U.S.

And for all its desolation, humans have tried to conquer this land for millennia. The human history of Big Bend Country extends at least 10,000 years. It is a country Native Americans from the Chisos, Comanche and Mescaleros once called their own. It is the backdrop of many Wild West stories, of pioneers, frontiersmen and outlaws. And beyond the Rio Grande lies Mexico, a fact that adds depth and color to the history and culture of the region.

Big Bend Country is wild country. You can explore it and admire it, but you can never conquer and tame it. Enjoy its untamed beauty with the suggested six-day itinerary we have set here.

When to Go

The best time to visit Big Bend Country is from October to May. Big Bend Country is desert country, part of the greater Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico. It is scorching hot and dry in this region in the summer months, especially from May to June. On the other hand, the spring and fall months can be warm and pleasant, and winters are quite mild, sometimes with light snow. There are occasional thunderstorms and flash flooding from mid-June to October. The weather is changeable from autumn to spring; it can be warm and dry one moment and rainy the next. The adage "If you don't like the weather, just wait a minute" is very popular in this area.

How to Get There

The starting point of the camping road trip is Balmorhea State Park. If you're coming from the east, drive westward on Interstate 10 to Balmorhea Exit (Exit 206). From there, drive south on FM-2903 towards the city of Balmorhea, and then west towards the State Park on Route 17. If you're coming from the west, take the Toyahvale/Fort Davis Exit on I-10 (Exit 192), then east on Ranch Road 3078.

How Long Should the Trip Be?

We recommend six days to sample the highlights of the region.

What to See and Do

Big Bend Country may be a desolate place, but there are countless outdoor activities you can enjoy on a camping road trip here. If you're a hiking enthusiast, there are hundreds of miles of hiking trails you can explore - Big Bend National Park alone has nearly 200 miles. You can also discover the area on horseback, on a bike, or on a motorbike if you want. If you're into kayaking, canoeing or rafting, the Rio Grande passes through five towering canyons providing an experience not to be missed. There are also hundreds of miles of scenic routes you can leisurely drive through.

Do you like watching wildlife, maybe take wildlife photographs? As mentioned earlier, Big Bend Country is home to diverse desert wildlife, with 600 species of vertebrates and 3,600 species of insects living there. Big Bend Country is also a birder's paradise - there are 450 avian species to look out for. Sightings of roadrunners and coyotes (not necessarily chasing each other), of black bears and peccaries and golden eagles are also common. And did you know - there are spots in Big Bend Country where you can go swimming and fishing, almost unheard of in a desert habitat?

If you're a student of history, whether human or natural, there are old settlements you can visit, trails where you can track down fossils, and rock faces where you can clearly read the geological history of the region. Lastly, if you're an astronomy enthusiast, Big Bend Country is one of the best places for dark-night stargazing, as it is one of only twelve parks on the planet with pristine dark skies certified by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Six Day Visit - Balmorhea State Park to Fort Stockton - About 525 Miles

Day One - Balmorhea State Park to Davis Mountains State Park - 65 Miles

  1. Take an early morning dip at Balmorhea State Park. Balmorhea State Park is remarkable for many things, but most of all for the San Solomon Springs. San Solomon Springs is a series of artesian springs whose waters feed the largest spring-fed swimming hole in the world as well as support life in this portion of the Chihuahuan Desert. The swimming pool has an area of 1.75 acres and stays at 72-76 degrees year round and is so clear that you can still see the bottom even with a depth of 25 feet. You can also snorkel or scuba dive. Check out the fish - it is the home of two species of endangered fish, namely the Pecos Gambusia and the Comanche Springs pupfish. Spend at least an hour at the Park.
  2. Drive 31 miles south on Route 17 to Fort Davis National Historic Site. Established in 1854, Fort Davis was once a strategic military outpost on the frontier. Its purpose was to keep western Texas, especially the San Antonio-El Paso Road, safe from Comanche and Apache raids. Soldiers stationed at Fort Davis went on regular patrols of the road as well as accompanied mail coaches and wagon trains.

    Today, you can have a glimpse of the life these soldiers led by taking a self-guided tour of Fort Davis. This Historic Site has five furnished buildings preserved and housing exhibits from that bygone time. You can also explore 20 other buildings and a hundred or so ruins at the Fort. There's a 15-minute video presentation available at the Visitor Center, and at scheduled times, staff members and volunteers dress up and conduct a retreat parade. Allow one hour minimum.
  3. From Fort Davis National Historic Site, continue South on Rte.17 for a few miles then turn East on Rte 118 to Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center. Owned and operated by the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center covers 507 acres at the foothills of the Davis Mountains. These acres include grasslands and hills teeming with life. The highlight of the Nature Center is its botanical gardens and greenhouse. The gardens are divided into four sections: The Arboretum, The Wildscape Garden, The Pollinator Garden, and The Cactus and Succulent Collection. The Arboretum and Wildscape Garden features trees and shrubs native to the Chihuahuan Desert. The Pollinator Garden is designed to attract pollen carriers such as bees and hummingbirds. The Cacti Collection, housed in a 1,400-square foot greenhouse, contains some 200 species of cacti and succulents found only in the Chihuahuan Desert. Three separate hiking trails, totaling 4 1/3 miles and of varying difficulties, will take you further into the desert and allow you to see surprisingly diverse yet equally breathtaking sceneries in the area. Take at least an hour to view the gardens.
  4. Drive West along Rte. 118 for 20 miles to McDonald Observatory. Big Bend Country is stargazing country, and the best place to get up close and personal with the stars is at McDonald Observatory. The Observatory has a daytime program that will let you have a look at live telescopic images of the sun, as well as see the inner workings of the research facility. At night, the Observatory has Star Parties where you can have access to telescopes at the Visitors Center and watch the skies. You'll need tickets to participate in these activities. Spend the rest of the afternoon and evening at the observatory.
  5. Spend the night at nearby Davis Mountains State Park or at another campground in the area.

Day Two - Davis Mountains State Park to Big Bend Ranch State Park - 120 Miles

  1. Spend your morning exploring Davis Mountains State Park. Located at the foothills of the Davis Mountains, fondly referred to by the locals as "The Alps of Texas", Davis Mountains State Park is unlike any other State Park in Texas. It is higher in elevation than the other parks in Big Bend Country and receives a lot more rainfall. Thus the flora you will find here is a combination of flora common to the desert plains and plants and trees found in cooler climes, such as oaks, ponderosa and juniper. This State Park is an excellent spot for hiking and mountain biking, with 12 miles of trails. Some of these trails connect the State Park with Fort Davis National Historic Monument. Davis Mountains SP is also a favorite of birdwatchers, with sightings of white-winged doves, Montezuma quails and curve-billed thrashers quite common. A highlight of the State Park is the Indian Lodge, a historic hotel built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Spend your morning and early afternoon here.
  2. Drive South 90 miles on Rte 17 and Rte 67 to Presidio and Fort Leaton State Historic Site. The story of Fort Leaton State Historic Site is a typical frontier tale of the 1800s, filled with thrills, mayhem and danger. The adobe fort was established in the mid-1800s by bounty hunter and tradesman Benjamin Leaton and his wife Juana Pedrasa. Through Leaton's albeit ruthless efforts, Fort Leaton became an important stop in the Chihuahuan Trail, standing at the confluence of Rio Conchos and Rio Grande. Its location led it to become a thriving farm and trading post, while its fortifications promised safety to travelers from the Comanche and Apache raids - for a steep price.

    Though the Leatons became prosperous, they also made enemies. Benjamin Leaton was later killed. Mere days after his death, Juana married Edward Hall to protect her family's interest on the fort. They were not very successful, however. Eventually, the property was foreclosed and taken by John Burgess, Leaton's erstwhile partner who was later accused of murdering Hall. Burgess himself met his end at the hands of Leaton's son William. The Burgess family stayed at the property and then sold it to the Texas state government.

    The story of the Leatons remains alive in exhibits at the Fort. You can explore what remains of their adobe fortress, either on your own or on a half-hour guided tour. Fort Leaton is a day-use park and also serves as the western visitor center to Big Bend Ranch State Park.
  3. Spend the night at a campground or RV park near Presidio.

Day Three - Big Bend Ranch State Park to Lajitas - 60 Miles

  1. Head east on FM 170 for a few miles to Big Bend Ranch State Park. Big Bend Ranch State Park, covering 311,000 acres, is the largest State Park in Texas. Though remote and desolate, this Park has some of the most beautiful scenery in this portion of the Chihuahuan Desert. Among the features of the Park are its rock formations; viewing them is akin to looking at a geologic time capsule.

    An especially interesting feature of Big Bend Ranch State Park is the Colorado Canyon, made entirely of volcanic rock. The Rio Grande passes through the Colorado Canyon and offers some exciting Class II and Class III rapids, perfect for leisurely kayaking and canoeing. Outfitters that provide kayaking and canoeing tours through Colorado Canyon include:
    Big Bend Ranch State Park also has miles and miles of multiuse trails on which you can hike, bike or ride on horseback.
  2. Contine East for 50 miles along the edge of Big Bend Ranch State Park by following scenic FM 170, also known as the River Road. It is named such because it closely follows Rio Grande. This scenic drive is one of the most breathtaking drives in the U.S., as scenic as the Blue Ridge Parkway and Big Sur Coast Pacific Coast Highway. It is a twisting undulating desert road with the Rio Grande on one side and the Bofecillos Mountains on the other. The scenery varies mile on mile. There are stretches that will take you to the middle of nowhere, while there are stretches where you will pass through farmlands and stunning rock formations. And all the while, you will mostly stay close to the banks of Rio Grande, and the greenery on its banks provides a stark contrast to its desert backdrop. Throughout the drive, you will see red-hued desert Bofecillos mountains lining your horizon.

    As you drive stop off at the must-hike trails into Big Bend Ranch State Park:
    1. Rancherias Canyon Trail. Hiking the Rancherias Canyon Trail will take you tramping on ancient lava beds. Stretching 4.8 miles one way, the trail is very scenic and dotted with cottonwood trees and other greenery. At the end of the trail, you will find yourself at the base of Rancherias Falls. The Canyonland begins after 2 miles or so, so you can also enjoy a shorter hike if you prefer.
    2. Closed Canyon Trail. Though only a short hike, less than a couple of miles long one way, Closed Canyon Trail provides a challenge even to experienced hikers. This trail will take you through a pass only ten feet wide and flanked by 200-foot stone walls on both sides. Some areas are steep and require a little climbing.
  3. A mile east past Lajitas on FM 170, stop by the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center. The Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center showcases exhibits on the human and natural history of Big Bend Country. Here you can learn how plants, animals and humans adapted to the inhospitable conditions of the Chihuahuan Desert, as well as how culture developed in the area. The exhibits are available in English and Spanish, and you can join a guided tour. The centerpiece of the Center is its two-acre botanical garden, which contains flora native to Big Bend Country. The Center was named after Barton Warnock, a renowned botanist who specialized in the region. It also serves as the eastern visitor center for Big Bend Ranch State Park.
  4. Spend the night at a campground or RV park near Lajitas.

Day Four - Lajitas to Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park - 45 Miles

  1. Spend the day exploring the Chisos Basin. Driving to Chisos Basin can be a trial and is not recommended for RVs longer than 24ft. The drive from Lajitas along FM 170 and TX 118 to Big Bend National Park is easy enough. But once you make the turn on Chisos Basin Road just off TX 118, the drive gets really interesting. The road is steep and winding, and it will take you up to high ground, some 2,000 feet above the desert floor. It will test your skills as a driver, but it will take you past magnificent reddish rock formations dotted with cacti and other desert plants.

    The drive may be a tad difficult, but once you make the descent to Chisos Basin, you'll be glad you took the effort. The word "breathtaking" hardly describes the place. Chisos Basin is a relatively flat depression right smack in the Chisos Mountains, with an elevation of some 5,400 feet and surrounded by peaks. And unlike the typical Big Bend Country desert scenery, what you'll find at Chisos Basin are forests of oaks and pines.

    Chisos Basin is a hiker's paradise, and you have lots of trails here to choose from, depending on what you want to see and what your hiking skill level is. To get acquainted to the place, you should start with Window View Trail, a paved trail a third of a mile long round trip. Window View Trail is an overview, where you can glimpse the best sights in the Basin, such as Emory Peak, the highest point in the Park at 7,832 feet and Casa Grande, a mountain which, as its name describes, looks like it has a big house on its top.

    Chisos Basin has its own visitor center. You can view exhibits on the wildlife on the Chisos Mountains here, and the trailhead is just a hundred yards away. Chisos Mountains Lodge is also located at the Basin.
  2. Spend the night at Chisos Basin Campground or at the Lodge. You can also stay at other campgrounds in or near to Big Bend National Park.

Day Five - Big Bend National Park - 60 Miles

Spend the day driving Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive or taking a float trip on the Rio Grande through Santa Elena Canyon.

  1. Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive - It's best to leave your RV at the campsite or the Panther Junction Visitor Center. If your RV is longer than 24 ft, you can only drive part way to Sotol Vista Outlook Anything longer cannot negotiate the sharp bends ahead. Driving along the Ross Maxwell is a must for any short stays in Big Bend NP, as it will take you to the best views in the Park. Aside from the desert landscape, you will pass by many historic sites as you drive such as the Sam Nail Ranch with its distinct windmill; Blue Creek Ranch, once the biggest ranch in Big Bend; and the Catolon Historic District, a cavalry camp built in the early 20th century. You will also see exquisite rock formations such as Tuff Canyon, a canyon built from soft volcanic ash; and Santa Elena Canyon, a limestone chasm cut by the Rio Grande and rising 1,500 feet from the riverbank. The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is 30 miles long one way. At Santa Elena, hike the short 1.75 mile roundtrip Santa Elena Canyon Trail into the canyon for amazing views. Make sure you take an old pair of shoes as you'll have to wade across Terlinga Creek to reach the trail.
  2. Float trip on the Rio Grande through Santa Elena Canyon - The river trips through Santa Elena Canyon are considered to be the main crowd-drawers to Big Bend NP. It's hardly surprising. Santa Elena's canyon walls rise 1,500 feet above the riverbank, lending to some truly dramatic vistas. The waters of Rio Grande are gentle in some sections, allowing for leisurely floating, while swift and rushing in other sections, presenting a challenge to experienced kayakers. You have two options for floating through Santa Elena Canyon, namely:
    1. Downstream river trips through Santa Elena are very popular because of the easy access to Rio Grande at Lajitas. The 20-mile float will let you see contrasting desert landscapes along the riverbank. The last few miles of the trip will take you to the largest rapid on Rio Grande, which can rise to Class IV in difficulty when the water reaches certain levels.
    2. Upstream river trips starting at the Santa Elena Canyon trailhead will require you to fight against the current when the water level is high. However, when the water level is low, the trip can become a lazy and relaxing float. Upstream river trips are also convenient if you don't want to ride a shuttle back to your starting point because you'd be returning downstream to the trailhead.

    Outfitters providing river trips on the Rio Grande through Santa Elena Canyon include:
  3. Stay at a campground in or near to Big Bend National Park.

Day Six - Big Bend National Park to Fort Stockton - 175 or 235 Miles

If you didn't do the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive on Day Five, then spend the first half of the day enjoying the scenic drive, see Day Five above for details. Then follow the itinerary below.

  1. Go hiking on the Boquillas Canyon Trail. Boquillas Canyon Trail is an easy, 1.4-mile round-trip trail that will take you climbing up a cliff overlooking Rio Grande. The climb is short, though, and soon enough you'll be descending to walk alongside the riverbank. The trail is an excellent spot for wildlife encounters in Big Bend NP. At the end of the trail is a big sand dune as well as a shallow cave. The end of the trail also offers spectacular views of the canyon's mouth.
  2. Stroll along the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail. 0.75 mile in length, the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail is an easy walk through a scenic wetland on a boardwalk where you can stop and watch the wildlife, especially the birds. Afterwards, the trail will take you to a gentle climb up a limestone hill, where you will have a glimpse of the Chisos and Del Carmen Mountains, as well as Rio Grande. The hill is also a great place for watching the sunset.
  3. Head North on Rte 385 for 100 miles to Fork Stockton and the I-10.

Insider Tips

  1. Be careful when you drive through Big Bend Country. The most common cause of injuries in the region is car accidents. Thus, watch out for wildlife, bicyclists, pedestrians and other motorists on the road. Also, observe the speed limit at all times. In Big Bend NP, the speed limit is 45mph.
  2. Chisos Basin Road and Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is not recommended for RVs longer than 24 feet and trailers longer than 20 feet. So if you have a smaller vehicle with you leave your RV at your campsite or the Panther Junction visitor center.
  3. The Rio Grande is divided right in the middle between the US and Mexico. Passports are not required for kayaking or canoeing on the river, but landing on the Mexican riverbank is considered illegal.
  4. You can cross over to Mexico from Presidio and Boquillas Crossing at Big Bend NP. Remember to bring your passport with you. For added safety, both to yourself and to the Park, avoid interacting with border merchants at Big Bend NP.
  5. Always dress for the weather. Protect your skin from the desert heat by wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants and a hat. Don't forget to put on sunscreen.
  6. Prevent dehydration and heat exhaustion by drinking lots of water. Bring at least a gallon of water per person when hiking. Additionally, start your hikes as early in the morning as possible.
  7. Check the weather first before you go. Despite Big Bend Country being desert country, the weather can be unpredictable, especially in spring and autumn. Flash floods may occur during thunderstorms, so it's best to avoid narrow canyons and ridges at such times.
  8. The Rio Grande is not safe for swimming or wading. For all that its surface appears calm, it has strong undercurrents, sharp rocks, deep holes and lots of floating debris. You can also get sick from the microorganisms found in the water.
  9. Wildlife is plentiful in Big Bend Country, but you need to observe them from a distance. Stash your food safely so you won't attract animals at your campsite. Watch out where you step or place your hands, especially when the weather is warmer, to avoid getting bitten by scorpions, centipedes, snakes and spiders.
  10. Most state and federal parks in Big Bend Country do not allow pets on the trails. If you're traveling with a pet, it's best to leave them at a kennel nearby so they'd stay safe. Doing so will also keep your pet from presenting harm or becoming prey to wildlife.

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Crystal clear blue water at Balmorhea State Park swimming pool
* Swim, snorkel or scuba dive in the crystal clear water at Balmorhea State Park
Ruins at Fort Davis National Historic Site
Ruins at Fort Davis National Historic Site
Row of houses that make up the living quarters at Fort Davis National Historic Site
Living quarters at Fort Davis National Historic Site
Cactus at Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center
Cactus collection at Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center
Telescope dome at McDonalds Observatory with scenic desert background
The remoteness and clear skies at McDonalds Observatory offer incredible stargazing
Telescope at McDonalds Observatory
Learn about stargazing at McDonalds Observatory
Historic Indian Lodge Hotel, Davis Mountains State Park
* Historic Indian Lodge Hotel, Davis Mountains State Park
Adobe fort at Fort Leaton State Historic Site
* Adobe Fort Leaton State Historic Site
Scenic view of the Rio Grande river and Bofecillos Mountains from River Road at Big Bend Ranch State Park
Scenic view of the Rio Grande river and Bofecillos Mountains from River Road
Canoeing through spectacular Santa Elenyan Canyon at Big Bend National Park
Canoe through spectacular Santa Elenyan Canyon
* Photo courtesy of Texas State Parks

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