Named after a right-angle bend in the iconic Rio Grande, Big Bend National Park covers a vast swathe of southern Texas that has historically been home to cowboys, ranchers, and smugglers. Indeed, it is no surprise that Spanish colonists once called it terra desconocida; a strange, unknown land. While the outlaws of old may be long gone, the park remains one of America’s wildest and remotest landscapes. Today, you can go hiking and camping in Big Bend National Park.
Ranging from the natural grandeur of the Chisos Mountains to the cactus-dotted Chihuahuan Desert, the park covers over 1500 square miles. This then makes it seem a daunting destination for backpackers to explore. However, this backpacking guide to Big Bend will showcase ten of the best campsites in the area. This is so you can have an unforgettable experience in the Lone Star State.
Rio Grande Village Campground
Perched on a tree-shaded bluff with spectacular views into Mexico, the Rio Grande Village Campground is Big Bend’s largest and best-known destination for backpackers. Located at the very end of Park Route 12, the campsite sits at a heady 2000 meters above sea level. This makes it one of the hottest areas of the park during Big Bend’s long summers and the coldest during the winter months. While these temperature extremes may put some backpackers off, it is also one of the best-equipped places to pitch a tent in the entire park. It has running water, flushing toilets, BBQ grills, and plenty of shade provided by thick foliage and overhead shelters. What’s more, there is space for around 100 tents. This means that even in peak-season, there is often space available if you arrive early in the day.
The best-known activity in the vicinity includes the picturesque Rio Grande Nature Trail. It is undoubtedly the most renowned short walk in the park with its wildflower meadows and riverside vistas. Another off-the-beaten track options for backpackers staying at Rio Grande Village is the Hot Springs Historic Trail. This trail takes you to a turn of the century bathhouse complete with a natural spring for bathing and hiking in the breathtaking Boquillas Canyon, one of the deepest and longest in North America.
Chisos Basin Campground
Big Bend’s Chisos Basin Campground is set apart from all the national park’s other designated areas for pitching a tent thanks to its resplendent setting—high in the rugged mountains. What’s more, at over 5000 feet above sea level, the campground also has a pleasant temperature range; cooler weather during the day and, thanks to the climactic quirk of temperature inversion, warmer nights than most other areas in the park. Located at the very end of Basin Junction, just off Gano Springs Road, Chisos Basin has 60 sites for pitching tents. However, though there are flushing toilets, there are no shower facilities.
What the campsite may lack in creature comforts, it more than makes up for with its unrivaled array of activities. Chief among these is the iconic Lost Mine Trail. It takes you up towards the summits of Lost Mine Peak, Casa Grande, and the Sierra del Carmen. It also offers jaw-dropping vistas. For a less exerting but more romantic experience, take the Window Trail to catch the sunset at what is known as the Window; a gigantic ‘v’ shape cut into the mountains that perfectly frames the setting sun.
Overlooking the Rio Grande at the park’s western edge is Cottonwood Campground. It is accessible via a breathtaking drive along Santa Elena Canyon Road. This campground only has 25 spaces for camping. Those lucky enough to bag a spot at Cottonwood will be rewarded with unrivaled bird watching and the chance to laze in some much-needed shade beneath the site’s gigantic cottonwood trees.
However, the chief draw of this area of the park is watching wildlife. This includes bright orange vermillion flycatchers, impressive great horned owls, and javelinas, which often roam close to Cottonwood Campground itself. Beyond this, exploring the nearby Santa Elena Canyon is an unforgettable experience. It is best done by raft or canoe, which can be rented from the visitor’s center at the campsite.
For history buffs, it is also worthwhile checking out the now crumbling ruins of Castolon. It is once one of the most prosperous towns in southwest Texas. Also, the most important remnant of this town is the eerie Dorgan House. It contains a still-standing wooden fireplace and can be accessed from the Dorgan House Trail.
If you are an experienced backpacker who knows how to be entirely self-sufficient and wants to spend a night under the epic desert sky in splendid isolation, then there is no better camping experience than simply pitching a tent at the side of Big Bend’s quiet roads. To experience Big Bend like this, you will need to apply for a free backcountry permit. The much-needed permit can be acquired at Chisos Basin Visitor’s Centre and Panther Junction. What’s more, it is best to check the weather forecast, as when it rains, the backcountry roads become impassable.
While there are no amenities at these off-site camping spots, they are peppered across Big Bend and offer one of the area’s truly unforgettable experiences. Without any light pollution from generators, you will see the stars as you have never seen them before! Also, in the morning, you will be able to set off into the pristine desert with ease.
Rio Grande RV Campsite
If you are looking for the home comforts of an RV but nonetheless want to be based within Big Bend National Park for your backpacking experience, then it is best to roll up to the Rio Grande RV Campsite. It’s located in the vicinity of Rio Grande Village. Towering cottonwood trees shade the RV parking area, while the surrounding roads are some of the best places to spot iconic roadrunner birds. All in all, you will feel close to nature, something that can be lacking in other RV-only areas.
The facilities and activities on offer are the same as those at Rio Grande Village. However, you will be closer to the trailhead for the Hot Springs Historic Trail and the Village Store, where you can stock up on essentials.
Big Bend Resort & Adventure Park
If you are not up for braving the wilds by camping in the backcountry then Big Bend National Park offers just three designated campsites: Rio Grande Village, Chisos Basin, and Cottonwood. Unfortunately, during holidays, these sites can fill up very quickly. This then leaves some backpackers in the area wondering where they can stay. Thankfully, just beyond the national park boundaries are a host of excellent campsites that are within a short drive of Big Bend’s most iconic attractions.
One of the best of these is Big Bend Resort and Adventure Park; located just off Highway 118 near the Panther Junction entrance to the park. The site itself is massive and rarely fills up. Also, it has modern facilities which include wireless Internet. This then makes it somewhat luxurious compared to the sites within Big Bend itself. Within easy reach of the campsite is the Fossil Discovery Exhibit at Panther Junction Visitor Centre. This explains how the area that is now Big Bend was covered by a gigantic inland sea, the mountain hiking trails of the Chisos Mountains, and the historic Homer Wilson Ranch; one of the oldest structures in the park.
Rancho Topanga Campground
Another ideally located campground for backpackers who cannot get a space within Big Bend itself is Rancho Topanga. This campsite is located on Lone Star Ranch Road near the border hamlet of Lajitas. Set on a hillside overlooking the Rio Grande, the campsite is undoubtedly the most scenic out with the national park proper. It has facilities that include hot water showers and water fountains at every pitching site.
As the campsite is within a few minutes’ drive of the park’s southwestern entrance, it is ideally situated to explore the faux-ghost town of Contrabando. Amazingly, his town has been used as a set for a variety of Hollywood movies. The movies made here include the mystery-western Lone Star. However, the best hiking in the area can be found at the head of Fresno Creek. Here, you can follow a loop into the park’s desert interior.
Maverick Ranch Park
If you want to backpack around Big Bend by day and enjoy the luxury of a golf resort in the evening, look no further. Here lies Maverick Ranch Park ready to help you relax. Located in the town of Lajitas and surrounded by the area’s picturesque Painted Hills, the park is owned by the town’s top tier golf resort. All resort guests have access to the golf course, swimming pool, and spa. These facilities are perfect, in which you can unwind after a day on the trail.
The park can accommodate tents and RVs and offers luxurious facilities, including washing machines, TV, and wireless Internet.
Study Butte Park
Study Butte Park is one of the most convenient places to camp. It’s located in the town of Terlingua and barely three miles from the park’s eastern entrance. This is especially convenient when you want to stay close to Big Bend and the Chisos Mountains. It has an array of amenities and a quirky atmosphere; think a turquoise colored gift shop and a miniature Statue of Liberty. Backpackers who choose Study Butte will not be disappointed.
Located near Terlingua and within easy striking distance of the Chisos Mountains, BJ’s Park is one of the most convenient places to camp near Big Bend. What’s more, its rural location away from main roads and streetlights means the site prides itself on its lack of light pollution. All in all, it is a perfect place to stay for backpackers with a penchant for stargazing.