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Big Bend Bound: Crafting Your 3-Day Adventure

The unparalleled beauty of the landscapes and mesmerizing dark skies at Big Bend National Park make for an essential bucket list experience. I’ll highlight and recommend some of my favorite things to see and do to help you make the most of your West Texas visit.

By: Erin Newman-Mitchell + Save to a List

The new and improved Big Bend Station is a charming hotel found right at the intersection of 170 and 118, just as you arrive into the Terlingua-Big Bend area. Located just minutes from Big Bend Station, both Terlingua and Big Bend National Park are easily accessible, making it a conveniently situated accommodation. The hotel offers a delightful gift shop, outdoor seating with toasty modern fireplaces, picnic tables with incredible and scenic views of the Chihuahuan desert, and is conveniently located next door to a country store, which also happens to be the only gas station in the area.

Our room had a cozy feel yet contemporary vibe and made for the perfect place to comfortably unwind after an afternoon in the neighboring ghost town of Terlingua or a day out in the expansive Big Bend National Park. The room’s amenities include a sizable flat screen with satellite TV, a small refrigerator, microwave, comfy beds, and a clean bathroom with a shower and bathtub, all of which you’d be hard-pressed to find in the rural area of Big Bend County.

The room at Big Bend Station

DAY ONE:

We arrived at Big Bend Station in the early afternoon, eagerly checked in, and explored the room and property. After resting for a bit, we drove into Big Bend National Park where we took a drive down Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, stopping at Sotol Vista Overlook for jaw-dropping views of the western side of the park. Looking far into the distance you can spot a gap in the mesa, which is Santa Elena Canyon 14.5 miles away. 

Views, views and more views from Sotol Vista

As we returned to town, ascending Ross Maxwell during golden hour, we admired the way the light spanned across the desert and illuminated the Chisos Mountains in a breathtaking display. We arrived back in Terlingua right at dinner time and grabbed a bite at the restaurant located in the gas station adjacent to Big Bend Station.

Mesa in Big Bend National Park backlit by a stunning sunset and vibrant clouds

DAY TWO:

We awoke early because if there’s one thing you don’t want to miss in Big Bend, it’s catching the sunrise. Before sunrise we wandered around Terlingua, the old mining town turned tourist attraction, stopping to visit the historic cemetery. After grabbing a coffee, we made our way into the park and up through the Chisos mountains, where we hiked the short (.3 mi) but scenic Window View Trail. I highly recommend this trail as it’s mostly paved, and flat and has great views of the Window, an overlook into the desert of Big Bend from high above. (If you have more time the Window Trail itself is a bit more challenging but certainly rewarding hike, taking between 2-3 hours with 900 ft elevation gain). 

The view from the Window View Trail looking down through the valley at the "The Window"

After the hike, we checked out the visitor center and the Chisos Mountains Lodge Restaurant which has great views of the area all while dining!

Following the morning spent in the Chisos Mountains, we made the hour-long drive down to Santa Elena Canyon, stopping at Homer Wilson Ranch midway. Located along Blue Creek Trail, on a fairly effortless 0.5-mile hike, you can visit the historic ranch, which happened to be one of the largest ranches during the twentieth century, home to thousands of goats and sheep at that time.

Homer Wilson Ranch from the trailhead
Close-up of Homer Wilson Ranch

About 22 miles down the road is the magical and mystical Santa Elena Canyon, one of the key features of Big Bend National Park. While you can paddle upstream (another highly recommended activity if you have time), we opted to hike the intermediate Santa Elena Canyon Trail, which follows alongside the Rio Grande between the canyon walls for about 1.3 miles. It’s surreal to find oneself surrounded by the canyon walls, of which one side belongs to the United States and the other to Mexico.

The Santa Elena Canyon trail leading around the bend and further into the canyon.

After our time in the canyon, we decided to head back to town for dinner and instead of taking the regular paved road back, we took Old Maverick Road, a scenic 14 miles of rough washboard roads that connect the park entrance to Santa Elena Canyon. For dinner, we joined many of the town locals for a BBQ cookout at a new place known as “The Windmill” where community events are held weekly.

After an evening at the Windmill, we were given a great dark sky tour by a local guide (thanks Randy!) working for Big Bend Overland Tours. Distant from any metropolitan area, Big Bend National Park is categorized as an International Dark Sky Reserve and has some of the darkest skies found within the lower 48 states, perfect for stargazing. In this area, escaping light pollution is effortless given its minimal presence. And once you do, don't forget to look upward to witness the spectacle of millions of stars – a sight like no other.

Big Bend Station under the night sky

Day 3:

On our last day, we awoke early once more and despite having little time left before having to make the 7.5-hour road trip home to Austin, Texas, we took a final drive through the park in an attempt to catch the sunrise. How the light reaches across the desert landscape and grazes the mountains is awe-inspiring and the tranquility of the early mornings in the park is truly an experience. I highly recommend catching a sunrise in Big Bend National Park – it's among one of my favorite highlights of the trip.

The Chisos Mountains bathed in the warm glow of the morning's golden hour light

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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