Twenty-five Truck Camper Magazine readers share their best tips and tricks on where to camp, hike, off-road, and explore in Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and the surrounding areas. All Angela and I can say is, “look out for mountain lions!”
Angela and I visited Big Bend National Park in 2005 during our first cross-country truck camping adventure. We haven’t been back since and, after reading everyone’s amazing Big Bend advice, we are itching to return.
One of our favorite stories from that inaugural trek happened in Big Bend. Upon entering the Chisos Basin Visitor Center, we discovered a rather large stuffed mountain lion. Angela looked up at the mountain and asked the ranger, “Do you really have mountain lions here?”
“Yes, we see mountain lions now and then. There have been about 150 sightings in Big Bend National Park. They can be quite dangerous. If you encounter a mountain lion, maintain eye contact, stand up straight, back away, make lots of noise and – if it approaches – yell and throw rocks towards it.”
Well, that did Angela in. She still wanted to go on the recommended hike, but she was completely freaked out about the possibility of encountering a mountain lion. In fact, she literally carried a baseball-sized rock for the entire hike.
And then, just around a corner, we both heard something through the trees. Something was there. Something was moving. And we could almost make out an animal – much bigger than a squirrel.
Angela held her arm back, rock ready to fly. I had my camera up, ready to record.
And then three small deer calmly walked out.
We’ve been laughing about, “the mountain lion” ever since!
While hardly helpful (unless you meet a mountain lion) that’s our best personal story from Big Bend National Park. Thankfully, over two dozen Truck Camper Magazine readers have actual tips and information about where to go, where to camp, and what to see and do. Pick up another rock, Angela. We’re going back.
2016 Ram 2500
2016 FWC Flatbed Hawk
The entire Big Bend Ranch State Park is a dirt road network of old ranch roads. Other than the main road to the ranger station, the roads are rarely maintained and it is a more remote experience. All roads dead-end either at the end of a cliff or bottom of a canyon with campsites along the way.
We like Fresno Canyon Road (pictured above and below) which ends at the ruins of Crawford-Smith Ranch well down in the canyon.
There are several hikes and campsites accessible from the road. All camping requires a permit and sites can be reserved in advance through the state park system.
Lower Shutup Canyon (pictured above) is one of the hikes we have enjoyed. There is little signage on the roads and hikes. A good map, a GPS, and the knowledge to use them are a must.
There are no services in the park other than water and showers at the ranger station. Most times you can get ice. There is no fuel so bring extra if you plan to explore a lot.
Expect some desert pinstriping from the narrow roads and not so friendly vegetation. All of the campsites are nice. One of our favorites is Guale 2 (above) at the end of a road looking out toward Mexico.
If you’d like a more remote experience at Big Bend National Park, I’d recommend a driving loop around the perimeter including Old Ore Road (above) and River Road (below).
Above and Below: River Road Camp and River Road mud
This park is large and it easy to spend a week just to see the highlights. All of the primitive campsites along the way are nice. They all require permits which can only be obtained at the ranger station when you arrive at the park.
There are plenty of hikes to walk along the way. One of our favorites is Earnst Tenja (pictured above), a small side canyon accessed from the southern end of Old Ore Road.
On the way home, we often stop at Davis Mountains State Park in Fort Davis, Texas (pictured above). There are hiking and biking trails in the park and it is close to the McDonald Observatory which is worth a visit. From the park, it is only a one hour run up to I-10.
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2019 Northern Lite 10-2 EX LE
In February 2019, my mother and I visited both Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park. We were excited to do some sightseeing and explore and Big Bend National Park did not disappoint.
I definitely recommend the easy hike along the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. Also be sure to stop by the Fort Leaton State Historic Site off FM 170 about 4-miles east of the road leading into Big Bend Ranch State Park.
We found Big Bend Ranch State Park even more spectacular. While at Big Bend Ranch State Park, we camped Agua Adentro Pens campsite and horse corrals located about 15-miles in along the main road. Here I experienced nightly visits from pack of very large javelina. Man are they big!
While at Big Bend Ranch State Park, we made the 27-mile drive along the main road to the ranger station.
There is a beautiful drive along a maintained gravel road that can be rough at times. The ranger station has a nice display and shower facilities.
Dave and Carolyn Thalman
2013 Ram 2500
2013 Northstar 850SC
Our trip to Big Bend in 2013 was our first trip with our truck camper. We decided to stick with the park campgrounds and not venture too far off the beaten path.
We spent two nights at Chisos Basin Campground in the center of the park and two nights at the Cottonwoods Campground near Santa Elena. In November, both campgrounds were lightly used and the sites were generous.
Chisos Basin had a shelter at each campsite, but we didn’t use it much. It was dark by 6:00pm, so we didn’t cook or eat outside. We loved the diversity of the scenery in the park. The landscape was very different from what we east coasters are used to.
We hiked at each of the campground locations and at Rio Grande Village. The Rio Grande village trail and the Santa Elena (Cottonwoods) trail both led to the river and were easy. The Chicos Basin Loop Trail was a little more challenging. It is manageable for someone with mild mobility issues.
Since Big Bend is such a trek from home, we spent a week or more in that part of the world. We visited Guadalupe National Park, Carlsbad Caverns and attended a star party at the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, New Mexico. The star party was one of the highlights of the trip and definitely worth the time.
Bob and Jean Fouty
2013 Ford F-250
2014 Hallmark Cuchara
We enjoyed the Pine Canyon Trail hike (pictured above). The trail is a continuation of the road and proceeds up into a box canyon to the base of the mountain.
Then the trail winds through lush vegetation, quite different from the surrounding high desert environment. We even noted a few arbutus trees, which are more usually found in coastal climates. At the trail’s end, a small spring spills water down the cliff face.
For our overnight stay, we chose a dry camping spot in Pine Canyon. There were five spots spread out over about 4-miles of narrow dirt road. The pads were fairly level and had a bear box for food storage.
There was no picnic table or fire pit. The nearest water is at the visitor’s center and was limited to five gallons per day.
The funky town of Marfa is nearby and worth a visit.
2016 Ram 3500
2016 Northstar Arrow U
I was actually camping just outside of Big Bend National Park when I decided I needed a truck camper. It was late January and I woke up in my tent freezing cold. I told myself there must be a better way. As soon as I got home from that trip I discovered Truck Camper Magazine and the rest is history.
In my opinion, Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park are ideal places for truck campers. Many of the campsites are in remote areas with no hookups and wouldn’t be a fun drive in a regular RV.
The visit to Mariscal Mine is always one of my favorites. Keep in mind that River Road can be rough at times and is probably best suited for a pop-up camper. I like walking up to the top of the mine. From there you can take in a great 360-degree view of the park.
I think the best time to visit is in the winter during a new moon. The region has some of the darkest skies in the United States. If you like stargazing, the McDonald Observatory (pictured above) in the Davis Mountains is great. They occasionally have times for the public to view objects through their large telescopes.
Above: Fort Davis State Park
Rattlesnake Mountain is a solo site that is easily accessed by any vehicle down Old Maverick Road. If you are going to the Big Bend region I would suggest any secluded solo campsite. You will be amazed at how quiet it can be out there.
Be sure to check with the rangers about which sites are secluded. The map can be deceiving. For instance, Grapevine Hills Road has some campsites that appear to be at least a half-mile away from each other on the map, when in fact they are directly adjacent.
Above: The lower part of the Window hike
The Window hike in the Chisos Mountains is a pretty easy one. When I did it there was a black bear just off the trail. It leads to an overlook of the western side of the park. But beware! The hike goes downhill so you are walking back uphill on the entire return.
I also enjoyed the Balanced Rock hike (pictured above). My friend and I woke up early before twilight when there was a full moon. We didn’t need flashlights because the moon was so bright. Then we got to enjoy the sunrise from the Balanced Rock. In my opinion, this is another easy hike.
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2012 Lance 1191
Oh my gosh! In the early 1990s, I trained military student pilots in low-level navigation over Big Bend. I always wanted to see it from the ground. It’s spectacular!
Last year our son graduated from Texas A&M. After years of living in Texas and not visiting the park, we drove from New York to Texas and spent three days at Big Bend National Park. It is worth it!
May is off-peak, so some stuff is closed. It’s also getting warm and there isn’t much traffic.
On the first night, Chisos Basin was full. While we waited for a Chisos Basin site to open, we stayed at the Cottonwood campground with another European truck camper. Nothing is around Cottonwood besides nature, which we enjoyed.
We moved to Chisos Basin the last couple of nights and saw a couple of bears there. Chisos Basin has a limited number of sites for a truck camper, but everything at Cottonwood is big.
As you see in the picture, we took the Jeep and used it to explore. My Ford F-350 four-wheel-drive truck could have done the job with the camper dismounted. We loved the hidden discoveries that occur by driving on every trail road and stopping to explore anything that looks interesting. One example is Mariscal Mine.
Big Bend is seriously worth the drive. But, top off the tanks before leaving Marathon. It’s a long drive with no service stations. Panther Junction (inside the park) has gas and diesel, but it’s pricey.
Check out the primitive sites RV campers can use in Big Bend. All of them are on the NPS website.
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2016 Four Wheel Grandby
Several of our friends told us to go to Big Bend National Park because it is amazing. And it is! After traveling from the flatlands of the mid-west to the north Texas oil fields, the sheer size of the volcanic mountains was a sight to behold, even on a hazy day.
We entered Big Bend from the west at Maverick Junction (pictured above) and drove to Panther Junction Visitor’s Center after Howard took a short, easy hike to Croton Spring from the primitive campground. I stayed at the campground with Kiah, our Cattle dog.
The desert landscape was just beginning to bloom so a week later might have been a better time to visit. We visited in March 15-17th, 2020.
The Basin Drive dead-end trip was a great way to see the geology of the park close up. Ross Maxwell Drive (pictured above) that connects to unpaved roads from the north and east had amazing long vistas of castle-like volcanic plugs and mule’s ears.
We stopped at all the overlooks along that drive and all of them were worth spending time to see the long and short vistas. Sotol Overlook was particularly good because of the 360-degree vistas. We were with our dog so we did not hike to Burro Mesa Pour off, which would have been fun to see.
The area around Santa Elena Canyon overlook, where the Rio Grande flows through a narrow canyon, had a traffic jam in the afternoon. To avoid the jam, we went directly to Terlingua Abajo primitive campsite which is a few miles away.
A very strong thunderstorm rolled through shortly after we arrived so we didn’t get to do the hike we planned because of deep, slippery, red mud. We were lucky to be able to drive out of the campground in the morning because the road into the camp was full of water. Four-wheel drive and experience with slippery mud made it possible to leave while it was still very wet.
We were going to drive Old Maverick Road, an unpaved road, but a deeply washed section that crossed Alamo Creek forced us to return to pavement. A canoe trip through Santa Elena Canyon looked interesting but, the dog.
All the campgrounds along paved roads were full since mid-March is Spring Break for many universities. We were confident that we could handle the unimproved road into Terlingua Abajo Campground off Maverick Road and got the last open site.
To say that it was unimproved was an understatement. The road was in an arroyo that had steep walls and tight corners filled with good-sized boulders. A long shallow mud hole that filled to over a foot deep in the rainstorm was between the arroyo and the campground. We were glad to have four-wheel drive and a camper that was not top-heavy.
There are many more primitive sites along the river and off the unpaved road, but they would have been inaccessible after the rainstorm.
Houston and Gail Jones
2019 Ram 2500
2018 Lance 650
This visit was part of a two month trip from Pensacola, Florida to visit our daughter in Carmel Valley, California. We had planned to do the trip over the 2018 Christmas holidays but our Capri camper, truck, sailboat, and condo in Panama City, Florida were badly treated by Hurricane Michael. We bought the new Lance to live in while recovering from Michael and moved to Pensacola.
We had fun driving down US 385 through the very small towns of Marfa, Alpine (lots of murals and home to Sul Ross State University), and Marathon (home to the Gage Hotel and White Buffalo Bar).
While in Big Bend we camped in the very rugged and beautiful Chisos Basin campground with no electricity. We are glad we got it for two nights instead of moving to the Rio Grande Village campground. The campgrounds were full each night and no reservations were allowed. Even with the campgrounds being full, the park did not seem crowded.
We took the Ross Maxwell scenic drive and hiked the Santa Elena Canyon to great scenery. The 200-foot canyon walls were carved by the Rio Grande River.
I punctured my left knee on a Spanish Dagger plant while scramble hiking up a ledge and it was plenty sore.
We traveled to Boquillas Canyon (pictured above and below) and took a leisurely hike back up the river to see the canyon and were treated to a group of wild burros.
We also visited Rio Grande Village, the burned-out remains of the old Texas Ranger station, and the fort at Castalon Historic area.
It is a magnificent visit to see such breathtaking carved natural monuments. I am so glad we made the effort and saw as much as one could in two days!
On the way out, we really enjoyed the small quaint towns of Marfa (above) and Alpine. The White Buffalo Bar in the Gage Hotel (below) was a treat. I wish we had time to go to the Davis Mountain Observatory.
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2018 Travel Lite 770R
We spent four days in Big Bend. We were overwhelmed by the vastness of this dry, rocky country as we drove in on Highway 118 from Alpine.
It is so big with impressive formations everywhere we looked. No matter what time of day, the sun showed off the colors of the mesas, buttes, washes, gulleys, mountains, deserts, canyons, cliffs, etc. The dramatic scenes took our breath away over and over.
We all took a variety of hikes. My son kayaked. We drove the backroads. In general, we felt like we had the park all to ourselves.
We boondocked at the wayside just east of Marfa to try to see the famous Marfa lights. However, we really love the town of Alpine, especially the Cow Dog food truck!
We camped two nights at Cottonwood, one night at Chisos Basin (pictured above), and one night at Rio Grande Village. We paid $8 per night at all campgrounds since we have a senior pass. The campsites were all standard with no hookups. We secured a campsite at each campground by mid-morning to ensure we had a site for the evening.
The Santa Elena Canyon Trail hike is short, and a nice way to get into this wonderful canyon. I chose the “wading through the mud” crossing, which was definitely adventurous!
The Lost Mine Trail is excellent and is known for its iconic views. It’s also a very popular hike. Since parking is extremely limited, we did this hike early in the morning. We were the first to the top that beautiful day! Lost Mine Trail is of medium difficulty, but trekking poles are recommended.
The Window Trail is also excellent, but difficult/tricky in spots. It is a good trail for seeing the sunset. We also hiked a few hours one day on the Chimneys Trail (pictured above). This is a good flat hike for exploring the colors, rocks, land formations, and plants of the desert. It is highly recommended that you go in from Ross Maxwell Drive as the Old Maverick Road is very rough.
Above: The Mules Ears Spring Trail
We watched the sunset from the nature trail that is connected to the Rio Grande Village. This was lovely because we could hear the Rio Grande River flow over a shallow rocky area, watch the wildlife settle in for the night, and see the color show on the canyon walls across the river.
Our last hike was the Boquillas Canyon Trail (pictured above). This was a very peaceful and beautiful morning hike that followed the river through the cliffs. We saw donkeys and wildflowers.
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2015 Arctic Fox 1140
Above: Yucca plant in Big Bend
I have been on most of the back roads in Big Bend National Park and the only one that may be difficult is Black Gap Road. It is unmaintained and has technical portions but may be passable with high clearance four-wheel drive. The old Ore Road has several sand and gravel spots that could also be difficult.
There are several don’t miss sites if you are traveling the backcountry. I recommend Mariscal Mine, an old mercury mine. I also recommend Ernst Tinaja, a water feature in a canyon along the Ore Road.
River Road is a very nice drive. It is a 50-mile backroad with campgrounds and plenty of Mesquite trees and brush to scratch the sides of your camper. This road is always on our travel plans when we are at Big Bend.
We like to camp in the Cottonwood Campground near Castolon. There are no hookups and no generators are allowed, so it is peaceful. Some of the sunsets from along the road near Cottonwood are amazing. The sun setting on the Cerro Castellan (pictured above) is terrific.
If you are into hiking, the Chisos Basin has several scenic trails from the Windows hike to a hike to the top of Emory Peak. They can be a day hike or an overnight trek. All backcountry camping in the Chisos Basin or driving on the backcountry roads require a permit or fee from one of the visitor’s centers.
We have had our truck camper at several backcountry campsites; Pine Canyon (above and below), Grapevine, Paint Gap, Terlingua, and Ocotillo.
When we were down at Rio Grande Village we took the opportunity to cross over the river to Boquilles (pictured below), which is a small Mexican town. Don’t forget your passport, or you will miss the chance to go to Boquilles for souvenirs or lunch. The boat ride is a few dollars and fun.
There are several companies that offer canoe or raft trips on the Rio Grande river if you are into that kind of excitement.
There is an RV dump in the Chisos Basin and Rio Grande Village has a dump and propane.
Frank and Polly Foley
2019 Ford F-350
2018 Northstar Arrow
We have been to Big Bend many times. Our last trip was in the middle of February 2018. It was very busy and all of the campgrounds were full. We got a three-day backcountry permit. I would recommend the backcountry roads for only very rugged four-wheel-drive vehicles.
We camped at three backcountry sites; Gravel Pit #1, Camp deLeon and Terlinqua Abajo. We have camped at Cottonwood and Chisos. Love them all.
Cottonwood had very nice pit toilets with well-spaced private shady sites. Chisos has a dishwashing sink and flush toilets. A fairly easy and really wonderful hike is the Window Trail from the Chisos Basin campground.
Our last night was Terlinqua Abajo (pictured above), which is very rough and remote. I don’t think we would have climbed out of there without four-wheel drive. Obviously, there were no facilities. It’s just a place to park, but there is an easy walk to the river and good photo opportunities. Access is not for the faint of heart.
If accessing the park from Route 385, spend some time in Marfa.
2015 Ford F550
2016 Chalet Quad Slide
We headed to Big Bend Ranch State Park in February because the rest of the country was freezing at the time. We planned for a week but stayed for two because there was so much to see and do.
We had never heard of the Solitario (pictured above) before we arrived. It is a 10-mile in diameter crater in the ground that is filled with rocks dating back 500-million years.
Above: 500 million-year-old wave of rocks
We rode our horses into the Solitario for an overnight adventure. There are three primitive camping spots, which can also be reached with a four-wheel drive vehicle.
Big Bend Ranch State Park is filled with evidence of ancient people. It is not labeled with placards and signage. You need to chat with the rangers and vaqueros, learn about the history and then set out to find it.
We found shaman pictographs at what must have been a ceremonial spot. We also found lookout points that served as communication between distant people.
There were signal stones and fire pits as well as caves for living and protection (pictured above). We saw more pictographs and remnants of the different ranch inhabitants, their stone walls, buildings, wells, animal enclosures.
This is a rugged and remote country. There is no cell service and very little water. There is no fuel. I recommend that you take two spare tires and a compressor if you have it.
The ranger’s station has water, WiFi, maps, a bathroom with a shower, and a small store. The main road is passable without four-wheel drive. But, it is a slow 27-mile journey from the paved road to the ranger’s station.
All camps are primitive. Very few have water. If you travel with horses, as we did, you can camp at the ranger’s station or one of four horse camps. They all have corrals. A ranger will drop a water trailer for the horses, if you ask.
During the two-weeks we were there, the rangers did three rescues and this was a slow time of year for them. It was an amazing place to visit, but be prepared to take care of yourself, and be sure to have a map.
Travel Route 170 from the Ranch toward Big Bend National Park. It follows the Rio Grande. There is amazing hiking, camping, rafting, and views.
You will find rafting guides in Terlingua. There is a great visitor center on 170 in Lajitas where you can learn the geological history of this area. It has an amazing museum. They also have water here for campers to refill.
We camped at the Sauceda Ranger’s Station. We were allowed to camp here because we had horses. We used no hookups. They said there was electricity but we don’t need it. There was a large corral for our horses and water. It was $18 a night.
There is a very modern bunkhouse at the Ranger’s Station. It has beds with real mattresses, a shower, commercial kitchen, common area with leather couches, tables, free WIFI, grills and a fire pit. I saw many bicycle travelers using it. Remote campers would come here to get water and take showers, both of which are free to campers camping anywhere in the park.
Be sure to hike to the shaman pictographs and ceremonial site. From the main road, it’s just before the ranger’s station. Park at Los Ojitos trailhead. Follow the trail down into the riverbed. This hike is steep and the trail is covered in loose rocks. The views are amazing!
Once you get into the riverbed take a short detour to the right. Follow the riverbed to the box canyon wall, which is only a few hundred yards. In the winter it was dry and towering. If there is water you will find a waterfall here.
Return to the trail intersection and continue past the trail, staying in the riverbed. The first intersecting sandy riverbed that comes in from your right is what you are looking for. Again, this is only a couple hundred yards.
Within a half-mile, you will see a small cairn on the left. This marks the footpath up to a large boulder, which is only 50-yards from the riverbed. Take your time and explore all sides.
2016 Chevy 3500
2017 Lance 1172
Above: Sotol Vista Overlook
Big Bend National Park is a long way from most places but, as you approach the entrance, the vistas just keep expanding. Once in the park, it is still a good 40-minute drive to the main ranger station. The park itself is enormous and there is so much to see and do. We’ve been visiting this park for close to 30-years and we still discover new things every time we go.
A truck camper is such a perfect fit for Big Bend National Park. The campground in the Chisos Mountains (pictured above) is size-restricted due to hairpin turns. The campground is well maintained and has no hookups. It is so beautiful!
The other two main campgrounds are Rio Grande Village (pictured above) near the river on the western side of the park, and Cottonwood on the east. All three campgrounds are near some amazing hikes. There are a number of backcountry sites that are accessible to a truck camper. Most don’t require four-wheel drive, but high clearance is advised for many as they can be rough.
On our last trip there in late December, we stayed for several days in the Chisos Basin. Then we stayed a couple of nights at an RV park in Study Butte (pronounced Stoody Beaut). The rest of the nights we camped in Rio Grande Village.
Chisos Basin and Rio Grande Village have camp stores and a dump station, Cottonwood does not. Note that it can get pretty hot along the river and the lower campgrounds from about May through September, so you may want to be able to run your air conditioner during the day. As with most National Park campgrounds, the cost is minimal.
If you check the schedule, you can use your passport and be approved to cross the river into the hamlet of Boquillas, Mexico for a nice day trip from inside the park.
Plan your trip for a new moon and you will be rewarded with some of the darkest skies in the Lower 48. Amazing stars and the Milky Way will come out to greet you.
Just a few not to be missed hikes include South Rim (difficult with serious elevation gain, but amazing 360-degree views into Mexico), Emory Peak (difficult), Lost Mine Trail (moderate difficulty going up, great views), Window Trail (moderate difficulty, view along the creek to pour-off draining entire Chisos Basin is worth it), Santa Elena Canyon (easy and beautiful hike up a canyon with the Rio Grande and a view of Mexico), Boquillas Canyon (easy canyon walk along the river), and Pine Canyon (moderate difficulty up a beautiful tree-line box canyon below the Chisos).
Above: Santa Elena Canyon hike
There are so many amazing places to see in this enormous park.
Just outside the park, I recommend that you visit the Terlingua ghost town. Grab a cold beer and chat with the colorful locals. If you are staying in the area for a while, Big Bend Ranch State Park is pretty special. Notably the drive between Terlingua, through Lajitas and over to state park on Highway 170 has been called the, “prettiest drive in Texas.”
A trip to the McDonald Observatory for a star party is a great excursion in the area as well. Stop by Balmorhea State Park on the way for a dip in the gigantic spring-fed swimming pool.
Jim and Joan Thompson
2011 GMC 3500
2013 Lance 1191
We really enjoyed Big Bend! Both times we stayed at the Stillwell Ranch private campground the evening before we planned to enter the park.
Stillwell Ranch is just north of the park on 385. The RV park is just a large, open area, but it’s reasonably priced. We chose the cheapest rate, which was $10 per person for dry camping.
Both times we left Stillwell Ranch campground the next morning while it was still dark, and arrived at Cottonwood about 9:00am. And both times we were able to get a site even though there are only 24-sites total. Cottonwood (pictured above) is our favorite place to stay because it’s quiet, has a lot of interesting bird life, and is cheap with the Senior Pass. I think it’s $8, or $16 without the pass.
The other reason we like Cottonwood is that the sites have enough shade to be comfortable in February, but enough sun to keep the solar going. No generators are allowed, and there are no services except some filtered drinking water that you carry to your site.
There is no dump station, no hose for the drinking water, and no electricity. But, the sites are large, the camaraderie is great (we met so many nice people there) and there are quite a few good hikes in that area of the park.
On our last trip, we were told by the host that the site we chose was right beneath the perch of a great horned owl. The previous camper had left with owl-droppings all over their rig. We moved to the site next door since we were going to be relying on a roof-mount solar panel for a week!
Sure enough, not only were we entertained at night by the various calls of these owls, but we also discovered that the tree at the back of our site was the mating perch. Three evenings in a row, at almost exactly the same time, we saw the pair of owls mating.
On our first visit, we really didn’t know what to expect. We were a little disappointed by how brown and dry everything seemed to be, but the desert grows on you! We had beautiful, sunny days with temperatures in the low 70s.
The second-year we witnessed the desert in bloom because of a very wet winter. It was amazing! The hills were covered with Texas bluebonnets, and we saw all kinds of cacti in bloom. The desert really has a beauty of its own.
From the Cottonwood campground, it’s not far to Santa Elena Canyon (pictured above). If you go early, you’ll likely see the sunrise light up the walls of the canyon along the Rio Grande. The hike into Santa Elena Canyon is easy and beautiful. We’ve done quite a few hikes in Big Bend, and that’s one of our favorites.
2013 Ford F-350
2002 Lance 1161
I visited Big Bend National Park during January of 2018 by myself and this last December 2019 with my wife. She went the second time because I told her what a great experience it was. There are stories of extreme heat during the summer months so the busy season is January 1st through mid-April.
The views, rock formations and mountains are amazing to see for someone living east of the Mississippi. I would also encourage a day trip to Santa Elena Canyon in the southwest part of the park. One can see the cut in the mountains from 30-miles away and can take a short walk right down to where the water goes through the canyon.
There are shelters still standing from earlier times, and coyotes are plentiful.
The main roads are paved and some of the gravel roads can be a little steep. This is not a problem for a truck camper. I do not believe I ever needed to shift into four-wheel drive. There are signs limiting the length of trailers.
For two nights we camped at Rio Grande Village RV campground with hookups in the southeast section of the park. The campground is next to the Rio Grande River. We also dry camped at Chisos Basin in the central part of the park, which I strongly recommend.
Rio Grande Village also has many dry camping sites. Reservations are strongly encouraged at all NPS campgrounds during the busy season. There are also many options for off-road primitive camping, which I plan to do next trip.
From Rio Valley Village campground one can drive a couple of miles to the Bouqillas Canyon Overlook. From there you can take a short walk of a mile or so down to the river and skip a rock into Mexico.
There are trinkets and walking sticks for sale along the trail next to a milk jug to insert money, and you can see the entrepreneurs right across the river. They ride a horse across the river occasionally to collect their money. The rangers know this trade occurs, but it did not appear that they had a problem with it.
If you return east through south Texas, South Padre Island is also nice. You can camp on the beach for free. There is a fee to get onto the beach at entrance #5, but there was no fee at entrance #6.
2017 Ford F-450
2018 Lance 850
Above: Rio Grande Village, no generator zone
We live in South Texas. Big Bend National Park (BBNP) is one of our favorite places to spend a week or two. Camping in the park began with our fifth wheel and motorhome.
We have stayed in the park twice in our truck camper since we bought it in June 2017. There are many places in the park that are too fantastic to describe, so it is difficult to single out one specific spot.
My favorite drive in the park is the Glenn Springs Road. It is usually passable with high-clearance vehicles, and sometimes cars, but four-wheel drive is occasionally necessary. Glenn Springs Road would be my recommendation for people with a limited amount of time to see the park.
Another nice drive that is mostly passable by cars is the Dagger Flat Auto-Trail. It ends in a Yucca Forest that is one of the quietest places I have ever visited.
Above: Old Ore Road, don’t let the condition of the road in these pictures fool you. This is a must-have four-wheel-drive road with Texas pinstriping guaranteed along the way.
We tow a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and have been down every road in the park at least once with the exception of the west end of the River Road. Since the heat is not a problem for us, we tend to visit the park in late October or early November before the crowds arrive. Unfortunately, that is the end of the wet season.
Above: Campground utilization board located at Panther Junction Visitor Center in the middle of Big Bend National Park in February.
The unpaved roads are not in the best condition. This keeps us away from River Road West.
After we retired, we stayed in the park for a week in early February. We barely recognized our favorite national park because of the crowds. We were not able to explore the unpaved roads although they were easier to navigate in February than in October since the washes were so much drier. We felt the number of unskilled off-road drivers made it dangerous.
Above: Rio Grande Village Campsite #90, February 2019. This was a last-minute reservation, so it wasn’t the best spot in the park but definitely comfortable.
We mostly camp in the no hookup Rio Grande Village campground run by the national park service. We have, on a couple of occasions, moved for a few days to the full hookup concession campground when the temperatures were dropping below freezing at night. There are no hookups in the NPS campground, but there is water in the area (unthreaded spigots). There are also three flush toilet restrooms with dishwashing sinks and a dump station with potable water.
The full hookup campground is a parking lot with back-in spots and some picnic tables behind the spots (first come, first serve on the picnic tables). It is not a pleasant camping experience, but it is not bad when electricity is needed to help with the cold.
The freezing temperatures are not as much of a problem in our truck camper as when we were camping in a fifth wheel and motorhome. I doubt we would need to move if there was a sudden cold snap while in the truck camper.
A big advantage to camping at the Rio Grande Village campground is that some of the no generator spots are nicer and more private. I am not sure if we were bad boondockers in the fifth wheel and motorhome or if those rigs just used more electricity, but we needed a generator if we were staying more than a couple days.
In the truck camper, we can easily camp for over a week with just solar power. We supplement our 90-watt solar panel on the roof with a portable 160-watt solar panel for a few hours every day, and our batteries stay fully charged without any problems. There is abundant sunshine in the Big Bend area, so solar is a fantastic option to stay out of the generator zone.
We talk about camping in a backcountry campsite every time we go, but the unpaved road conditions are different at each park visit. We would not take our truck and camper down an unpaved road without first driving the road in the Jeep. By that time, we are already settled in our Rio Grande Village campsite and not wanting to move.
As our truck and truck camper age, I may not be as opposed to the Texas pinstriping that is likely to happen along most of the roads leading to the backcountry campsites. The backcountry campsites along the unpaved Croton Springs, Paint Gap, and Grapevine Hills roads are always easily accessible. Also, backcountry campsites along the beginning of Glenn Springs Road are almost always accessible, although we have seen the wash just past the road entrance become treacherous for a top-heavy vehicle.
During February 2019, we stayed at Maverick Ranch RV Park in Lajitas (pictured above) for a week so that we could more easily access Big Bend Ranch State Park (BBRSP). We thoroughly enjoyed staying in the RV park. It was comfortable with great amenities and friendly Winter Texans.
Above: Cottonwood Grocery Store, a favorite just before the entrance to Big Bend National Park on the Study Butte/Terlingua side.
We drove the Jeep to the Sauceda Ranger Station which is 27-miles into BBRSP from the only entrance to the interior of the park just east of Presidio. About a quarter of the way down the road, we decided we would only camp in one of the campsites along FM 170 or the very first campsite along the road to the ranger station. After that point, we were afraid there would be no dishes left in our cabinets (or anything else for that matter). The road was not particularly hard to navigate, but it was rough.
2001 Ford F-350
2012 Chalet DS116RB
Big Bend National Park is enormous! We visited in early April for four days and had to stay in two different campgrounds to see the whole park.
We stayed at the Rio Grande Village Campground first and did two highly recommended activities:
1. Hot Springs Trail. This is a nice hike to a hot spring right beside the Rio Grande River. You can either just take your shoes off and soak your toes, or bring a bathing suit to get the full hot springs effect.
2. Crossing into Mexico. We took our scooter to Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry (in the Park), showed our passports, and crossed thru this tiny port of entry. We then walked a path to the Rio Grande River, took a rowboat across for $5, got on burrows for $5 (pictured above), and rode into the tiny town of Boquillas del Carmen in Mexico. We had a nice walk around town, had an authentic Mexican lunch, and returned. This is a highly recommended trip. We felt totally safe.
We then drove all the way across the park and stayed at Cottonwood Campground. From here we took our scooter to the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. This trail was my favorite because it was a nice hike through a shaded canyon on a relatively moderate trail, ending at a beautiful entry into a cool flowing river.
Our entire experience of Big Bend was spectacular! The scenery was great, but be prepared to camp without power. This is generally okay for us, however, even in early April, it was over 100-degrees every day and night, which made it tough to sleep!
2012 Ram 3500
2013 Adventurer 80W
I don’t like to stay campgrounds and prefer to boondock and explore the backcountry wherever I go. I tried to research just how remote and rough the Big Bend backcountry was, but detailed information was a bit limited.
I also knew that the amount of people visiting Big Bend has increased tremendously in the last couple of years and that there were sure to be big crowds in March.
Ultimately, I came up with a plan to enter the park at Panther Junction, obtain my backcountry permits, start on Glenn Springs Road traveling River Road east to west. From there I would make it to the Castolon section of the park exploring the southwest corner of the park while camping on Old Maverick Road. Then I would exit the park at Maverick Junction and proceed west along Route 170 to Presidio.
This was the second week of March, right before the quarantine. As I feared, the park was packed. Entering at Panther Junction there was nothing but signs that everything was full and there were people all over.
I rushed to the permit office and spent 35-minutes waiting in line to see the ranger about permits. They had a dry erase board showing all backcountry sites except for those along Old Ore Road that were full. Having done some research I knew Old Ore Road was supposed to be fairly rough and that while a truck camper could make it, it would be difficult.
When I finally got to talk to the ranger he told me some people had canceled their permits along River Road because it was too remote and rough for them. My options were limited. Since I didn’t want to backtrack once I got onto Glen Springs and River Road, my only option was one night at Elephant Tusk at the south end of Black Gap Road. I had also read that Black Gap Road was very rough and shouldn’t be attempted with anything other than a four-wheel-drive truck with a suspension lift.
However, the ranger assured me that if I approached from the south end at River Road that I wouldn’t have any problems. I topped off a couple of water bottles and set off.
It should be noted that River Road is a pretty rough, rutted, and a wash-boarded road. There was no substantial rain while I was there and wasn’t any the week before I got there.
Glenn Springs and River Road aren’t really maintained once you get outside of the first several miles that are more traveled. There are hiking trailheads at Pine Canyon and Juniper Canyon on Glenn Spring and west of the hot springs and Rio Grande Village on River Road.
My big one-ton truck has stock suspension and AT tires and did the drive no problem. That said, she’s a big top-heavy long bed carrying 2,000-pound camper with full of food, water, clothes, and recovery gear.
While a half-ton with a pop-up could fly down the rough road, my manual transmission one-ton didn’t get out of second gear as I maneuvered over the rocks and ruts. The going was very slow and it took about four hours to get the roughly 25-miles to my first campsite at the south end of Black Gap Road.
It should also be noted that most of the spurs and roads off of River Road, like Black Gap, aren’t very wide. Junipers and Ocotillos reach over into the road and provide memorable desert racing stripes for large vehicles even if you try to maneuver carefully. While it was slow, it was scenic and it was the backcountry with far fewer people, especially the farther I went along the road.
There are plenty of places to stop and explore along River Road depending on your interests and how much time you have. There’s everything from the Mariscal Mine, abandoned water tanks, and hiking trails that appear from nowhere. If you want the backcountry, it’s worth exploring.
Once I got past the Marical Mine, I don’t think I saw more than six vehicles the entire time and three of them were Border Patrol. Yes, it’s a rough road and the second half is more sand and ruts than the first. If you like to get off the beaten path, it’s worth it.
I only had to engage four-wheel drive once and my stock suspension (with airbags in the rear) was just fine. I probably could have aired down my tires some to help soften the drive a little but airing down/up isn’t a must.
Route 170 is very scenic and absolutely worth taking. There are various turnouts, day-use areas, and campsites along the road. The road was not that heavily traveled when I was there and the views are great.
You rise and fall along the river and then make a long climb up with fabulous mountain vistas. While I didn’t have the time, you could easily spend several days stopping and exploring along 170. I hope to return someday and enter the south end of Big Bend Ranch off of 170.
The Castolon Visitor Center was burned down in 2019 by a wildfire. The temporary center is in a very small stone building and isn’t open during the summer. There is a small general store next to it and a cold ice cream sandwich is a great treat in the Texas sun.
All backcountry camping at unimproved sites is by permit only. While a few sites have been released to online booking, the vast majority can only be obtained at the visitor’s centers at Panther Junction or Chisos. A list of all the sites and a map showing where they are located is available on the Big Bend website. The cost for 2020 is $10 a night at the unimproved backcountry sites.
I stayed at Elephant Tusk while traveling along River Road and Terlingua Abajo off Old Maverick Road while in the Castolon area.
Since my campsite was along Black Gap Road and I knew I wasn’t going to take the rig on it, I decided to hike most of it from south to north to see how difficult it was. It’s easy to travel on foot and took about two hours each way from Elephant Tusk campsite.
Mule Ears Spring trail was another easy, but very scenic trail. Located on the Castolon side and accessed from the Mule Ears View Point, it can easily be done in 1.5-hours each way and probably more like one hour each way by most active hikers.
The Santa Elena Canyon Trail is also in the Castolon area in the southwest corner. It’s easy and very scenic especially towards sunset. The trail goes along the Rio Grande and highlights the Santa Elena Canyon and its rock walls that climb from the river. It’s a short trail that you can make it to the end in 30-minutes.
2005 Chevrolet 3500
2007 Arctic Fox 1150
We visited Big Bend in late February. Our first stop was the Panther Junction visitor’s center where we obtained our dispersed campground permit.
When we visited the park, we could stay for up to 12 nights for $12 a night or $6 a night with a senior pass. After asking the ranger, she didn’t think we’d have any problems getting our dually to the campsites.
The campsites are very remote and you have to go down long gravel roads. They say the hot springs are worth the visit, but no duallies are allowed down the road. Our knees were getting weak and we had our dog with us so we decided to skip the hike.
The scenery is amazing and the drives throughout the park are very picturesque. The second night we stayed in Terligua Abaajo #2 campsite. It’s a very nice camping area.
We stayed in Big Bend Ranch State Park the following day. It was about 20-miles down a gravel road to get there, but it was an easy drive. We ended at a dispersed campsite all by ourselves and had a spectacular sunrise.
We dispersed camped throughout the parks. We did not have reservations thinking it wouldn’t be crowded in February. There were plenty of dispersed sites available. As far as the campgrounds, we found that some weren’t open yet and the others we full.
2015 Ford F-350
2015 Lance 1052
After purchasing our new-to-us used camper in December 2019, we drove home from California to Texas. We’re relatively new, three-year Texas residents and just recently learned about Big Bend. From research, I knew I wanted to visit Big Bend National Park sooner than later.
For our first trip, we decided to drive through the national park and explore its many offerings. We waded in the Rio Grande River, hiked a couple of trails, drove most of the available roads exploring, and ate at the lodge.
We enjoyed staying in Terlingua. Its people are warm, friendly, and gracious. The general store/market has a little bit of everything. We discovered a public book/DVD exchange. Eateries were sparse, but we enjoyed our meals at the Starlight and the barbecue hut.
Big Bend is a future destination for us to explore in greater detail. It’s a great place to relax and get away from the daily hustle and bustle of everyday life and its stresses. On our next trip, I plan on bringing our Jeep to explore some of the off-road areas.
2012 Ford F-350
2015 Alaskan 8.5
We were at the leading edge of the Big Bend National Park’s season, but it was already getting busy. Primitive camping on the backcountry roads was pretty booked up, but we did luck out and got a night in the shadow of the Chisos Mountains.
A thunderstorm moved over just before sunset which made for some magnificent colors. The next morning, the sunrise was just as glorious.
This particular visit to Big Bend National Park was part of a west Texas exploration last fall. Prior to visiting, we stopped at Palo Duro State Park, Guadeloupe National Park, and Davis Mountain State Park.
Palo Duro is the second longest canyon in the United States, after the Grand Canyon. Guadeloupe has the highest point in Texas at over 8,700-feet. It’s a steep hike up, and worth the views. Davis Mountain has several interesting hikes, and a beautifully maintained CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) built stucco lodge.
We stayed at Chisos Basin campground for several nights. It is very scenic. Rio Grande Village campground is more developed and can accept large RVs. We boondocked at one of the primitive backroad campgrounds just south of the Panther Creek visitor’s center. We could only get one night as the rest of the park’s backcountry spots were booked for several weeks.
In the park, I recommend the hike to the Hot Springs on the Rio Grande (pictured above). It’s accessible from the Rio Grande Village campground. You can drive there, too, but the five-miles round trip traverses several small canyons and great mountain views.
There is little shade, so go early and take plenty of water. There is a very interesting, ranger lead hike along the Rio Grande nature trail starting at the Rio Grande Village campground.
You’ll find several round holes in the rocks (pictured above) around the trail. Some are as much as 18-inches deep, others are less so. There are thousands of these holes in the park and are the result of a mortar/pestle action of natives pounding seeds and maize into flour.
Hiking anywhere around the Chisos Basin campground is worthwhile. The short (three-tens of a mile) Window View Trail is handicap accessible. The longer Window Trail is along a pretty flat canyon that ends in a waterfall that drops out of the Chisos Mountains. The Window Trail is around four-miles round trip from the campground. Much longer and more strenuous hikes are available in the Chisos Basin area.
2006 Chevrolet 2500HD
2006 Pastime 850
November of 2018 was our first return to the Big Bend since the late 1990s. We were younger then and spent our time sleeping on the ground.
Having the truck camper since 2006 has made a big difference in our travels since we’ve gotten older. Re-visiting the Big Bend country was very convenient with our camper.
We stayed at Rio Grande Village as well as at a campsite along Highway 170 near Big Bend Ranch State Park. This state park didn’t even exist when we first visited.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, we worked quite a few spring and fall seasons in Big Bend as river guides for Rough Run Outfitters. We specialized in canoe trips on the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River. They were mainly seven to ten-day trips through Boquillas and the Lower Canyons.
If you have the time and skills, this river trip is one not to be missed. Lower Canyon and day trips are available from outfitters currently operating in the area. They are mainly out of Terlingua and Study Butte. Also, we recommend Monahans Sand Dunes State Park for camping on the way to the Big Bend.
My advice is to avoid the park during Spring Break.
2010 Toyota Tundra
1983 Four Wheel Camper Fleet
Above: Sunrise on Lost Mine Trail
We drove to the Panther Junction visitor’s center and got a permit for primitive backcountry campsites. Some of these sites can be reached with almost any car or RV while others require four-wheel drive and high clearance.
We were there for thirteen-nights and stayed in seven different campsites, spending two nights at each site except for the last one on our departure day.
Permits for primitive campsites cannot be reserved and are first come only (this changed February 1, 2020 to a reservation system for some sites). Even being there in January, it turned out that it was easy to get the sites we wanted. I ended up canceling two nights at Chisos in favor of backcountry camping.
The south end of Old Ore Road is in much better shape than the north end. The drive to the first three backcountry campsites and Ernst Tinaja (pictured above) can be reached with most any SUV or camper van. I would suggest driving slower than I saw most people going on those primitive roads. There are many, many sharp rocks that can shred tires if driven over too fast.
Above: Road Out Of Mckinney Springs
The backcountry roads guide book we bought for $4 at the visitor’s center suggested 15 mile per hour maximum. We found that anything over 5 to 10-miles per hour is too fast for most sections of Old Ore Road. A carefully driven sedan could probably make it to Ernst Tinaja, but I don’t advise trying. Trying it with any large RV would be unwise.
Ernst Tinaja was probably our single favorite location off the beaten path. It was a fairly easy drive on the south end of Old Ore Road and then an even easier walk to a beautiful display of geology. We saw no one on the trail and only saw one other couple in the parking area after we got back to the truck.
Above: Black Gap Road, Big Bend
Be aware that dogs are allowed to be anywhere an automobile can be in Big Bend, but are not allowed on trails or off-road in the backcountry.
We stopped at Rio Grande Village to do laundry and take showers. There was a large and mostly empty parking lot with room for any size RV. The laundry has two washers and one dryer. All of them looked a little rough, but were clean and worked fine.
Showers were decent and cost $2 for 5-minutes. Be sure to pay attention to which one you use. One of the stalls has a stall that purposefully does not have hot water, and it signaled as such. My shower was plenty hot. They are not the nicest showers, but good enough.
With two-weeks of exploration, we felt we had a good overview of the park. Sure, we missed a few things, but it’s not possible to see it all in just two weeks and we figure it gives us a reason to come back again.
This park is still what a National Park should be; a place to enjoy nature. Many of my favorite national parks are now so busy during all seasons that I no longer enjoy visiting them due to the crowds and traffic.
The roads in Yellowstone are like driving in the city at rush hour. It’s hard to find a moment to yourself on many of the hiking trails in Zion.
This was not the case in Big Bend. We especially liked the backcountry campsites reachable by primitive four-wheel-drive roads. Every campsite we stayed at was located in such a way that we could neither see nor hear another human except for the rare passerby on the road. Yet we had easy access to all areas of the park including more remote locations most people never see.
January was a great time to be there. The weather was close to perfect for camping and hiking; not too hot and not too cold.
2012 Toyota Tundra
2015 Napier Topper
I took Old Ore Road for a rough and dusty trip to the shortcut to Santa Elena outlook. The view and hike were outstanding. It is a great picture spot and an even better vantage point if you hike the wall.
I heard about Terlingua Ranch Lodge (pictured above) from a friend and it didn’t disappoint. A few miles outside the south entrance and down a dusty road and we were there. When we woke up in the morning there were the most stars I have ever seen in my life. Truly breathtaking with an awesome view!
2011 Ford F-350
2011 Alaskan 8.5
I went to Big Bend Ranch State Park and camped at Guale I and II. There is difficult access to Guale II (more like a goat trail). It is gorgeous and we were the only ones there for a week. Guale I and II were $12/night and boondocking only. There is a table and a fire ring at the campsites.
2015 Chevrolet 3500
2015 Bigfoot 2500 10.6e
I didn’t take any pictures at Big Bend National Park because there was a constant haze in the sky coming from Mexico. Any scenic picture would have been a waste of pixels.
I drove one of the unpaved road trails. It was not too challenging with my four-wheel-drive truck. Cell phone coverage in the park is very spotty. Even the rigs with boosters had to move away from their camp spots in Panther Junction to find some coverage. You literally have to be next to the antenna.
The weather was forecast to be in the mid-70s for that week in December. When we got there it was in the mid-90s. We only stayed a couple of days. Panther Junction has full hookups and dry camping spots. We did not check out Chisos Basin, except for diesel fuel on our way out.
Diesel in Alpine is reasonable, but not in Marathon. It is roughly 100-miles from either town to the two stores in the park. Chisos Basin has diesel. Panther Junction does not. The price of diesel at Chisos Basin was reasonable.
There are few eating choices in Marathon. The 12 Gage Hotel has a restaurant and bar (dinner only) that is one of the best for many miles around. Alpine and Marathon are in Brewster county, the largest in Texas, which is over 6,000 square miles.
Only about 10,000 live in the county, about half of them in Alpine. Marathon must have just a few hundred. There are only about 50-kids in K-12, and three seniors. Each student’s name is painted on the street in front of the school.
We have stayed at the RV campground on the western edge of Marathon twice. The best camping spots are the single-digit spaces up the hill above the buildings. The ones close to the road are okay, but not as nice or quiet.