How To: Big Bend National Park

Big Bend is named for the great curve of the Rio Grande, where—legend has it—Pecos Bill lassoed a wild tornado and carved a series of river canyons. I spent New Year’s weekend exploring and hiking throughout Big Bend, and it was absolutely magical. Now that it’s over (why do all these amazing hikes have to end?!), I’m excited to share with you some do’s and don’ts that I learned in the process!

Do: Plan Ahead

I know, this one seems obvious, right? Well, I decided exactly eight days ago that I was going to spend the weekend hiking at Big Bend. Unfortunately, with my lack of planning ahead, everything within the National Park was booked. The campsites, the hotels, the lodges… all booked.

It’s super fun to be spontaneous, as long as you’re willing to pay for it. This trip, I paid for it in having to stay outside of the National Park. I found the last available Airbnb for the weekend, and I snagged it right away. It’s located in Marathon.

Marathon is the closest “city” to Big Bend, but it’s still 70 miles away from the National Park. It’s also not much of a city. Situated on the Comanche Trail, Marathon was founded as a railroad stop for cattle ranching in the early to mid 1900’s. It hasn’t grown into much more than a run-down town of three streets and one stoplight. It has a couple restaurants, a gas station, and a small (but well stocked!) grocery store. The views from the city are spectacular – the mountains sprawl into Marathon’s backyard.

But wouldn’t it be better to be surrounded by mountain views while staying in the National Park? I’m not bitter or anything… but it does pay to plan ahead. 

Do: Bring Enough Water

Big Bend is a desert. The only water I saw on any of my hikes was in puddles from a recent storm. I wouldn’t trust it for drinking water (even with a filter). I packed out 2.5 liters of water a day, and it was the perfect amount for me.

Near the visitor’s center at Chisos Basin, there’s a drinking fountain as well as a place to fill water bottles. Near Panther Junction Visitor’s Center, there’s also a water bottle filling station and potable water near the parking lot. I can’t speak for the other visitor’s centers as I didn’t stop to look.

They sell water, other drinks, food, and souvenirs at the visitor’s center. They also sell park passes. The front booth was unmanned both days that I visited. In order to purchase a pass, one must go to the visitor’s center or have an annual pass.

Another important note—not about water, but about fuel! Since it takes 70 miles to drive in from Marathon, and you’re most likely going to be driving in from somewhere else before that, gas is an important consideration! The national park has a gas station conveniently located right near Panther Junction Visitor’s Center. There’s also a gas station in Marathon.

Do: Arrive Early

Chisos Basin is the most popular area in the entire national park. What this means is that by the afternoon, parking is at a premium. I arrived the first day around one p.m., and I was in a line. The parking lot in Chisos Basin was completely full, and they were only letting one car in for every car that left. Don’t get stuck in that frustrating, albeit necessary, car line.

My second day, I knew I wanted to hike the South Rim Trail, which began in Chisos Basin. I got to the park by seven so that I could get in and park by eight (yes, it takes an hour to drive from the entrance to Chisos Basin). Once the hike began, it was absolutely perfect! Starting early meant fewer hikers on the trail, and I was able to move at my own pace. Definitely plan to get there early!

Do: Follow the Rules

Again, this one seems obvious. However, the speed limit for the majority of the park is 45mph. It’s very slow… and definitely enforced. There are many rangers out here in Big Bend, and I saw a car pulled over for going too fast.

Don’t: Forget to Smile

Day after day this park has blown me away with its magnificence and beauty. Coming in at a stunning 801,163 acres, Big Bend ranks 15 for the largest National Park. It’s mile after mile of jaw-dropping mountains, hills, valleys, and natural structures. There’s seriously so much to see. Along with the landscape, the wildlife – though scarce – is pretty neat too. While in the park, I saw multiple Mexico Jays (they’re such a vibrant shade of blue!), a coyote, and a mule deer.

I hope you get to visit soon! If you do, let me know about your trip! If you’ve already been, what important info have I left out that you wish you would have known ahead of time?

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Comments 6

  • Shane C : Jan 4th

    Hi there. Glad you got to experience Big Bend. Yes it is very big and beautiful but Terlingua is the closest city to Big Bend, not Marathon and it is has more to offer. From Terlingua to the Chiso basin I think it’s something like 30 minutes. So next time you go you have to check out Terlingua. A lot history there with the ghost town Starlight and the Trading Post and General Store. Lots Airbnb and hand full of good grub from Long Draw pizza, DBs Rustic BBQ, Starlight, High Sierra and El Milagro. There is also a grocery store and a gas station and probably a little more than whatever Marathon had. So next time you planned on taking a trip to Big Bend Bank of Terlingua if you can’t get into the National Park. Happy hiking.

    Shane C.

    • Shane C. : Jan 4th

      Hi again.
      I just wanted to say sorry for the poor spelling and bad grammar. Talk to text and my phone hate me plus I don’t know how to edit any of it on my phone especially while I was doing all this in lovely Houston traffic. Anyway wanted to apologize again please forgive me and as I said before happy hiking

    • Sam Francart : Jan 5th

      Hey Shane! Thanks so much for this addition!! Good to know, and I definitely wish I’d known this before I booked my stay in Marathon! It sounds like Terlingua is the way to go in the future!! I appreciate you adding this in!!

  • Michael : Jan 6th

    Are you sure you saw a wolf? Coyotes are much, much more common. Great article! I love Big Bend.

    • Sam Francart : Jan 27th

      Hi Michael! Thanks for you comment! I was driving and it was just off to the side of the road, so it’s very possible it was a coyote rather than a wolf! I’ve updated the post to reflect this. Thanks!


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