Being based out of Austin, Texas, most of the team here at RoverPass has gone camping in Big Bend National Park. If you don’t know much about Big Bend (or even if you do), let’s give you a brief overview of one of the nation’s most impressive (yet least visited) national parks. Located in Southwest Texas in the Chihuahuan Desert, right on the border with Mexico designated by the Rio Grande, the massive, 800,000+ acre park contains more than 1,200 species of plants, over 450 species of birds, 56 species of reptiles, and 75 species of mammals.
Big Bend is also a paleontological paradise, home to a great number of dinosaur bones and sea fossils. It includes an uninterrupted fossil record of the last 35 million years of the dinosaurs’ existence. Despite how impressive all of this is, it’s not the main reason visitors from around the world come here. The number one reason people come here is for the views.
The park’s hiking and backpacking trails, while also a great place for death by exposure or venomous snake bites, are enveloped by immaculate backdrops. Backcountry areas also provide excellent opportunities for mountain biking, kayaking, and horseback riding. You get the idea. Big Bend may be in the middle of nowhere (over 200 miles from the nearest airport), but it is worth the trek. While you’re planning your trip, here are all the things you should know before you go camping in Big Bend National Park.
Guide to Camping in Big Bend National Park
Choose Your Site Type
There’s an abundance of camping options in Big Bend. Your first major decision is how much you want to rough it during the night. The most “lavish” option is the Chisos Mountain Lodge. It has all the amenities you’d receive at your basic hotel. Rooms include actual, real beds and bathrooms with actual, real running water (*applause*). The lodge has a restaurant and bar and there’s a camp store with your basics and booze (if you don’t consider that a basic) for sale just down the hill. You can enjoy the majority of these amenities with the next two camping options, as well.
There are three campgrounds within Big Bend that allow RV camping: Rio Grande Village Campground, Cottonwood Campground, and Chisos Basin Campground. All three of them are difficult to get a spot in.
Named after the river it sits next to, Rio Grande Village Campground has 100 sites. The much smaller Cottonwood Campground has 24 shady sites. No generators are allowed there, which keeps the park even more quiet than the other two. Chisos Basin Campground, which I’ll discuss more thoroughly in the next section, has 60 sites, but large RVs over 24 feet are heavily discouraged due to its sharp turns.
As with the RV sites, if you’re lucky enough to get a spot, you’re in for a treat. Last time I went camping in Big Bend National Park we went tent camping at the Chisos Basin Campground. Even though it’s already at an elevation of 5,400 feet, it’s still surrounded on all sides by towering, tall, twisted cliffs. The lighting as the sun sets is especially beautiful at this campground, as it gives the rock a deep red glow. We were fortunate to luck into a spot as someone we leaving when we got there around 10 AM. Usually, however, you must get there earlier, before 8 AM, to score a spot.
If you’re in the mood for a more rustic camping experience and you have an RV or car suited for off-roading, this is a great option for you. The only amenity that back-country campsites come with here is a bear box. You’ll truly be boondocking if you stay at one of these sites, so be prepared for no bathrooms, electric, or running water. Before you put up shop someplace, make sure you have a back-country pass, which you can get at any of the visitor’s centers. While you’re there, we recommend asking a park ranger what sites are best suited for your vehicle, as some sites are impossible to reach depending on what you’re driving.
Choose Your Adventure
Chisos Mountain Basin
A deep valley of green plants nestled between volcanic mountain peaks, The Chisos Mountain Basin is the number one must-see attraction in all of Big Bend. There are simply too many hiking trails in the basin alone to do in a single weekend. If you’re going to do just one, we recommend the Window Trail. One of the most popular hikes in all of Big Bend, this 5-mile, round-trip trail leads to a gorgeous view through “the window” itself. The window is, in fact, a drainage point of the entire Chisos Basin. That’s a lot of water! As with all hikes in Big Bend, make sure to bring plenty of water and save some for the return hike. The way back is all uphill, with a gain of 800 feet in elevation.
Lost Mine Trail
For those that came to Big Bend for something more intense than The Window Trail, try the Lost Mine Trail. Officially labeled as only moderate, this out-and-back trail is no joke. Though it’s actually slightly shorter than The Window Trail, it changes over 1,300 feet in elevation. It also brings you to an elevation of 6,850 feet, offering a spectacular view. The drive getting to the trailhead is almost as breathtaking as the hike itself. The winding roads provide views nearly as magnificent as those from the peak with something the latter can’t offer: AC. Again, bring lots of water. As in, not just one bottle, but enough for multiple refills, especially if you’re going during the Summer.
Langford Hot Springs
After a day full of hiking and adventure, The Langford Hot Springs will be a welcomed change of pace. Having myself driven the 2-mile “road” to the springs before in a two-wheel drive vehicle, let me give you a piece of advice: Don’t. While it’s possible to make it to the springs and back in a standard, two-wheel drive vehicle, we recommend only four-wheel vehicles make the trip. (Plus, you’re probably not man enough for it. 😛)
Once you do make it to the springs, you’ll be treated to a soak in water naturally heated to a soothing 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Sitting in the springs on the north bank of the Rio Grande, you can easily see across the US-Mexico border.
It’s impossible to experience everything Big Bend has to offer in just one weekend. The best you can do is to prepare ahead of time. Choose where you want to stay and either reserve a spot or get there early. Plan on which trails you want to hike and which adventures you wish to enjoy. That way, when you get to camping in Big Bend National Park, you won’t have to worry about making decisions. All you’ll have to do is hike 20-some-miles or so. Easy.
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