Updated: Feb 13
With spring around the corner some families turn their attention to planning their spring break vacations. If you're still looking for an extraordinary place to visit that is really far off the beaten path your family should consider visiting Big Bend National Park in southwestern Texas.
My obsession with visiting Big Bend National Park started decades ago when I saw some pictures of it in an airline magazine. It seemed like another planet, a world vastly different from South Florida where I grew up. Before that only John Wayne westerns had shown me endless blue skies and towering buttes that dwarfed the 6'-4" actor. Those pictures and movies were my sirens. Go west, young man!
In April 2019, we finally visited the 800,000 acre park for its 75th anniversary. We went during spring break and the park wasn't very full. The weather was wonderful with star-filled evenings that were cool (no more than a hoodie was needed) and warm days. The hottest it got while we were there was 86 degrees which isn't bad when you consider it gets into the triple digits in Texas in the summer. For some of our friends to the north, it might as well have been full-blown summer. TIP: Spring is a great time to visit not just because of the weather, but also because there are hardly any crowds.
We drove from Austin. Since we are a large family it is usually cheaper for us to drive a rental SUV and we find a lot of interesting places or eateries to visit along the way to our destination. If you're driving to Big Bend from anywhere, expect a big drive. We drove for seven and a half hours and that was just so we could check into our accommodations in Terlingua, Texas. If you opt to fly to El Paso, Texas, expect at least a four and half hour drive to the park after you rent your car. TIP: Top off your gas in Terlingua. You will drive a lot in the park and you don't want to run out of gas or have to pay for gas in the park which was a lot more expensive than in town.
We chose to stay in Terlingua because it is just a few miles outside of the main entrance to Big Bend National Park. There were plenty of other places to stay, including tent camping, cabins and lodges inside the park itself, but given the size of our family and the fact that we wanted to check out the funky little town of Terlingua, we opted to stay at the Big Bend Holiday Hotel, specifically at the Teacher's House. Now you should be warned that we have some pretty low expectations from hotels. We use hotels solely to sleep and shower and we spend the majority of our day exploring, so our bar might be set lower than other families. We have heard great things from friends about the Lajitas Golf Resort. That said, staying in Terlingua was a good call for us even if we saw the occasional scorpion in our hotel, something we are accustomed to in Austin. TIP: Be ready for a complete lack of connectivity. Many hotels say they offer WiFi, but ours was "down" and there is no signal in the park at all until you hit a visitor center.
The kids explored the "ghost town" which is actually an old cinnabar mining town that was abandoned long ago. There are a lot of old buildings (ensure to give your kids a good warning about rattlesnakes sunning themselves and make sure you know where the nearest ambulance/EMT service is located in case they get bitten). The town has a cemetery that looks like something out of a movie and while there are a few places to eat, the best place to eat by far in town is the Starlight Theatre, an old theater converted into a restaurant. The beers and margaritas were really, really cold, but it is not uncommon to wait for more than two hours for a table, so my advice is get there early, like when they open, or if you're in a big group, consider breaking up your group so you can get seated faster. We waited for two hours for our party of six and then another 40 minutes for food and our server helped herself to a 20 percent gratuity. TIP: You won't miss anything if you skip this place. The food is good, but I think given that it is the only place in town like it, travelers are a little generous in their reviews of it.
The trading post next door to the restaurant is pretty cool for souvenirs and the crowd that hangs out around the restaurant's exterior bar is colorful and adds to the flavor of the place. Also in town is Big Bend Stables offering a variety of different rides at varying prices and locations. We decided to take the sunset ride in town and even in April, with the sun falling, it was warm and the ranch hands required everyone to have a large bottle of water or canteen with them or they weren't allowed to ride. TIP: Those ladies worked hard. Remember to tip them if you go.
We divided our visit to the park over a few days. The park is massive. You will not see it all so plan your trip and see the things that you think might interest you. The park gets more than 400,000 visitors per year, but depending where you visit/stay, you will see some of the 450 bird species and 75 different mammals who call the park home, including bear and javelinas. TIP: Get up before sunrise and hit the road so you are entering the park at sunrise. You will not see a soul and the sunrises are majestic.
Of course the Rio Grande, Chisos Mountain Range, Chihuahuan Desert and the U.S./Mexico border are all things to see. There are numerous opportunities to hike, camp, backpack, kayak, raft, mountain bike, horseback ride, stargaze, and bird and wildlife watch in the park that got its name from a bend in the Rio Grande. In addition, there is also a lot of history to absorb.
Thousands of years ago ancient natives lived in Big Bend and there are numerous archaeological sites with pictographs to explore. The conquistadors crisscrossed the region more than 400 years ago and white and Mexican settlers established agriculture near the river's banks. Remnants of some of those farms are still there and pepper the landscape.
Here are some of the must-see points of interest at Big Bend according to the Alvarez family:
1. Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, including the Sam Nail Ranch, Sotol Vista Overlook, Mule Ears Viewpoint, Tuff Canyon, Castolon Historic District (we heard part of this burned down in a wildfire last year after we visited), and Santa Elena Canyon.
3. Boquillas, Mexico TIP: make sure you have your passports and check the State Department website and NPS website for any travel advisories
4. Desert hikes in the park are rated mostly easy to moderate and some are a casual stroll down a dusty, often scenic trail. Some are also rated strenuous and take you several miles from the parking areas. TIP: Know your limits. The desert is a deceptive place. Don't wander off without proper supplies and gear. People die here. If you're going to go into the back country, go when it is coolest.
5. Mountain hikes in the park are rated mostly strenuous with some moderate trails. Only one is rated as easy. TIP: Attempt these only if you're an experienced hiker and only if you're in pretty good shape. The elevation in parts of the park can reach about 8,000 feet, so be ready to take it slow and let your body adjust.
To help save some money, we packed a cooler daily. Sandwiches, fruit and snacks were great along with drinks like Gatorade to help us replenish. We found picnic tables and enjoyed lunch in the shade. If you're traveling by plane and do not bring a cooler, you can buy a disposable cooler cheap at a gas station and then leave it behind at your hotel for another family to use. You can also pack collapsible lunch boxes that can easily fold up into your luggage and will work for an individual. TIP: Sunscreen, bring it along with a hat to keep you from burning.
To avoid dehydration, start drinking plenty of water a few days before you arrive and continue drinking while you're there otherwise you will likely end up with a headache, cramping and some brown, stinky pee.
Overall, Big Bend is one of those places you have to see. If you're in Texas, make the trek. Three to five days is enough to see things at a leisurely pace without feeling like you're rushing. If you're traveling from outside the state, add a couple of days just in case.
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