Discover Big Bend National Park: A Thorough 3-Day Self-Drive Adventure Guide with Insights on Accommodation and Eateries

Big Bend National Park | Intro

Big Bend National Park is located in the southwestern part of Texas, at the border between the United States and Mexico. The park is known for its diverse landscapes. A significant river, the Rio Grande, flows through a vast area of desert within the park, creating both oases and canyons. As a result, the park features desert, oasis, and high mountain landscapes. In the desert, the summers are extremely hot, while winters can have significant temperature variations. The best seasons to visit are generally spring and fall. We visited in winter and found the temperature pleasantly warm throughout the day.


Generally, the only way to reach Big Bend National Park is by car, as it is a relatively remote national park with no nearby airports. Typically, visitors must fly to a nearby city and then drive for about five to six hours to get there. The closest major city is El Paso in Texas, which is a five-hour drive away. We drove from Austin, which took us seven hours. Although the journey passes through some smaller towns, there aren't many attractions along the way, with towns being closer either to Austin or to Big Bend National Park. Due to its relative inaccessibility, the advantage is that, despite the park's large size, it is not very crowded.

Regardless of which major city in Texas you're driving from, there aren't many towns to stop at during a long seven-hour journey. When we drove from Austin, we planned a half-day visit to Fredericksburg, and also took breaks in Alpine, Marathon, and Fort Stockton.


Visiting Big Bend National Park can generally be divided into three main areas: the eastern, central, and western parts of the park:

  • The eastern part of Big Bend National Park covers the Rio Grande Village and Boquillas Canyon. The main attractions in this area are along the Rio Grande River, passing through Hot Springs and Rio Grande Village, eventually ending at the Boquilla Canyon Trail. From Panther Junction, it's a one-hour drive one-way, passing through hot springs, the river, and the canyon.
  • The central part of Big Bend National Park is the Chisos Mountains area. Even starting from Panther Junction, which borders the eastern part, the actual mountainous road to this area takes less than 20 minutes. This is the starting point for many of the park's most popular hiking trails and offers stunning high mountain landscapes.
  • The western part features the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, a 30-mile scenic route passing through vast Chihuahuan Desert landscapes. Along the way, it passes the Castolon Historic District, extending all the way to the Santa Elena Canyon.

The journey to Big Bend National Park is long, and most tourists arrange a three-day or more itinerary in the park, so it's a good idea to divide the three parts of the trip into three days. You can decide which part of the park you want to visit first according to your accommodation and the route you want to take, because you have to drive to the end of the park and back again, so no matter which part of the park you want to visit first, it will be more or less the same. We entered the park on the first day and stayed outside the park, so here is the general route:

  • Day 1: In the Chisos Basin area, complete the Window Trail and Lost Mine Trail hikes.
  • Day 2. Ross Maxwell Scenic DriveI basically stopped at every point, originally I only planned to finish the Dorgan-Sublett Trail, Santa Elena Canyon Trail, but later I had time to walk the Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff, and left at 5:00pm to go to Terlingua for dinner.
  • Day 3: We drove along the road to the east to visit the Hot Springs and Rio Grande Village. Then, we headed north to prepare for our departure. On our way out, we conveniently stopped at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit, which is the only site located north of Panther Junction.

This itinerary assumes that the driving time to the national park is not included. If you factor in the drive to and from Austin, you would need an additional two days. However, if you truly only have three days and time is limited, you can condense the visit into a one-day tour of the park. This would involve skipping the eastern part, only hiking the shortest trail (Window Trail) in the central area, and then spending most of the time exploring the western part, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.

Landmarks and Top Attractions

Panther Junction Visitor Center

You will pass by this visitor center from time to time in the park, and you will definitely pass by it when you go to Chiso's Basin and Rio Grande Village, so there are a lot of people passing by it every time. Outside the Visitor Center, there is an interesting trail that introduces the various cacti and other plants in the desert, so you can learn more about them, after all, you see them all the time when you drive or climb mountains.

Fossil discovery exhibit

Located north of Panther Junction, on Highway 385, this area is also a part of the park, though it is relatively far from other attractions. The exhibit here focuses on dinosaur fossils. The region where the park is situated was once an ancient seabed. Due to significant geographical changes over time, archaeologists have discovered numerous dinosaur fossils in this area, which are among the oldest on the American continent.

The hill behind the display area is a nice spot to watch the sunset.

Window View

The highlight of Chisos Basin is the "Window View," which refers to the point where two mountains meet, creating a natural window-like formation. In Chisos Basin, there's the Window Trail, which takes you up close to the Window and comes highly recommended. However, the Window View is also stunning from a distance. If you're short on time or unable to walk far, you can take the nearby Window View Trail to the viewing platform. This trail is only 0.3 miles long and offers a fantastic view of the Window.

Lost Mine Trail

The Santa Elena Canyon is the endpoint of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Roughly after passing Sotol Vista on the drive, you can see the Santa Elena Canyon standing majestically at the US-Mexico border. On the left is Mexico, and on the right is Texas, forming a spectacular natural boundary.

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena CanyonIt is the end point of Maxwell Scenic Drive, all the way on Maxwell Scenic Drive about after Sotol Vista you can see Santa Elena Canyon standing on the U.S.-Mexico border, with Mexico on the left and Texas on the right, it is a spectacular natural border.

Hot Springs Canyon Trail

The Hot Springs Canyon Trail entrance is right next to Daniel's Ranch, and this is one of the trails that I think is a must-climb. This trail gives you a great view of the Rio Grande River in less than a mile, and we had a hard time climbing the cliffs and finally saw the big bend near the Rio Grande Overlook, which we had been admiring for a long time, but never knew exactly where it was.

For a more detailed description of the attractions, please refer to the following posts for each area:


If you want to save on travel time, it's best to stay within the park, though securing accommodation inside the park can be quite challenging. The towns around Big Bend National Park are a bit distant, and there aren't many hotels. The closest town is Terlingua, which offers a landscape similar to the Badlands on the drive to the park. You can reach the park from Terlingua in about an hour, making it the most ideal lodging location outside the park. If you can't find accommodation in Terlingua, the next best options are near Alpine or Marathon. These locations are more affordable, but it takes about an hour or more to drive into the park from there. During our three-day trip, we stayed in a hotel in Alpine for the nights before and after the trip, and for the two nights of the actual trip, we stayed near Terlingua.

Book a stay in Terlingua?

Terlingua Old Town

Terlingua Old Town was our frequent stop for meals during our trip. Terlingua itself is quite fascinating; it was once a mining town, bustling with miners. The Chisos Mining Company, founded by a Chicago magnate in 1903, mined mercury here. Around the early 20th century, particularly around the 1930s, the town attracted many people, including cheap labor from Mexico due to its geographical proximity. However, after the company went bankrupt in 1942, Terlingua's population dwindled, and it nearly became a ghost town.

Today, a small community still resides in this area, but many places, like in Big Bend National Park, have become historical sites. The remnants of its mining past provide a unique backdrop to this quaint town.

Recommended accomodation: The Summit at Big Bend

For our trip, since we hoped to stay closer to Terlingua but found all the accommodations there fully booked, we ended up booking a glamping spot located to the west of Terlingua, called The Summit at Big Bend. The location is somewhat remote, and we had to drive a fairly long stretch on an unpaved road to get there. However, once we reached our accommodation, the overall setting was quite nice. The experience of watching the sunrise in the morning and stargazing at night with the windows down was worth the price alone.

The tent is equipped with air conditioner, sofa, refrigerator, water faucet, and the outside toilet is very clean and comfortable.

Where to eat?


Starlight Theater

  • Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Price: $$

Located in Terlingua, the Starlight Theater is the most popular restaurant in the area. Known for its lively atmosphere with live music performances during dinner, it's common to find a waiting time of over an hour. However, the wait can be quite enjoyable as you can order drinks at the bar and sit outside. While the food may not be exceptionally stunning, it's consistently good. Among the dishes we tried, the Texas Antelope Burger stood out as the most delicious.

Taqueria El Milagro

  • Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Price: $

In the old town, we visited a Tex-Mex restaurant where the menu was predominantly Mexican cuisine, and the staff appeared quite relaxed and casual. We particularly enjoyed their tacos, which were priced per piece, allowing us to freely choose different flavors. We tried every variety they offered, including a cactus-flavored one. Opting for moderation, the two of us only ordered ten tacos, which were quite small – one person could easily manage ten. Additionally, we ordered Horchata as our beverage, which turned out to be the most delicious drink we had during our trip.

La Posada Milagro

  • Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Price: $$

There are a few places open in the morning where you can grab breakfast. One such spot, which also functions as a small inn, is located right in the middle of the historic area. Its unique exterior adds to the ambiance, making you feel almost as if you're about to head off to a day of mining while sitting there enjoying a burrito and coffee. The menu offers both Tex-Mex and American-style breakfast and brunch options, with all dishes being customizable. However, be prepared for potentially long lines.



  • Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Price: $$

This restaurant is located in Alpine and offers reservations, a rare find in the desert-themed itinerary of the national park. It's one of the few upscale Tex-Mex restaurants in the area. The food is exceptionally good, with the Tenderloin Tamales being more filling than anticipated. We ended up ordering a bit too much, and had to take away half of it, which lasted us for two days.

Guzzi Up

  • Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Price: $

Typically, I don't opt for pizza when traveling unless there aren't many other options. However, during this trip, due to the holiday season, many restaurants were closed, leading us to this pizzeria. One of the highlights of this establishment is its selection of craft beers, which became a pleasant surprise for us, even though we didn't come specifically for the drinks. We found the beer quite enjoyable. The pizza itself was also very well-made and flavorful.

Additionally, this restaurant demonstrated a high level of professionalism. Due to being short-staffed that day, service was slow. Remarkably, they began apologizing to new customers, explaining that they would not accept more patrons as they felt they couldn't guarantee the quality of their service. This level of customer care was impressive.

Further reading

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