3 Days Visiting Big Bend National Park
Texas girls trip to Big Bend National Park and the surrounding towns: Terlingua, Marfa, and Alpine
North AmericaUnited States4 days / November 2021
Highs & Lows
Hiking the varied landscapes of Big Bend!
Not sure if we witnessed the Marfa lights... or just headlights.
They say everything is bigger in Texas, and that includes visiting Big Bend National Park. Spanning over 1200 square miles, there was plenty to explore here during my 5 day trip. In November 2021, I visited with a group of friends ready for an adventure. What an adventure we had! Even with 5 days in the national park, we barely scratched the surface on all the amazing hikes and natural beauty to be had.
We based ourselves in the town of Alpine, Texas. The town was lovely and I am glad we had the opportunity to visit. However, the distance from the national park made for some very early mornings and we all could have benefitted from a little more sleep. In the future, I will be sure to book far ahead if I’m looking for accommodation for a big group.
Each day of the trip, we enjoyed spending our mornings and afternoons hiking. After our hikes, we took some time to explore, and sample the food, in Big Bend’s surrounding towns. On this trip we visited Terlingua, Marfa, and Marathon.
Big Bend National Park is huge. It takes an hour to drive from one entrance to the park to another. We found it best to plan ahead and visit the park in sections.
If you’re up for a full-day hike and a challenge, this one’s for you! We made sure to get an early start for this 10.5 round trip hike. The hike begins near the Chisos Basin visitor’s center. It passes through varied landscapes from open desert, forest, and features an open rock-face climb. The 25 foot rock scramble requires no special gear. Just be careful near the edges. It was a fun challenge and we were rewarded with some stunning panoramic views of Big Bend.
The Window Trail:
One of Big Bend’s most popular day hikes, at 4.5 miles the hike is rated as moderate. We got an early start for this one, and I am glad we did. On our hike out, we saw many people making their way down the trail. In the cooler months, the trail can get crowded in the afternoon.
What makes the hike so unique, and popular, is the window shaped rock formation at the top. It is an amazing viewpoint, but be careful not to slip! The slick rock in the window leads right to a steep drop off down the cliff.
Santa Elena Canyon:
A short 1.7 miles, this hike is also rated as moderate. The trail begins at a picturesque entrance to the Santa Elena Canyon and follows the river until the canyon walls meet the water. We enjoyed this hike close to sunset after a short morning hike and an afternoon of scenic drives.
Unique things to do while visiting Big Bend National Park
Visit the Hot Springs:
The day after our long hike up to Emory peak, our group decided to get up early for a nice warm soak in Big Bend’s natural hot springs.
In the early 1900s, the site of the hot springs was once a popular tourist attraction. People visited to soak in the healing waters. In 1909, a bathhouse was built by J. O. Langford. Suffering from malaria, he had raveled from Mississippi in search of a cure. Finding the natural hot springs on the banks of the Rio Grande, he built a bathhouse and health center. Today, all that remains is the foundation where you can sit and soak.
If you want to visit the hot springs, arrive at dawn. It is a very popular spot and fills up fast. On weekend afternoons, the line to enter the parking lot can be an hours long wait.
Visit the Mexican town of Boquillas:
Big Bend is the only national park to have an official border crossing. Crossing the border into Mexico, you can visit the nearby town of Boquillas.
To cross the border legally: Enter the border crossing at the official US customs and border patrol office. Walk down the path to the river. From there, you can take a rowboat across to Mexico for $5. Once across the Rio Grande, you can walk a mile into town, or go by horse for a small price. Since it was such a short distance, we opted to walk.
The trail took us along a sandy desert path to Boquillas town. The town consists of a handful of shops, restaurants, and a few houses. Be sure to bring cash–Boquillas is incredibly remote and has no ATMS. US currency was perfectly fine for us.
We stopped in one of the restaurants and enjoyed some cabrita (goat) tacos and cold beers. It was a welcome treat after a morning spent hiking.
An old ghost town, Terlingua was a unique addition to our Big Bend trip. You can still visit many of the original buildings from its days as a mining town, including the old jail!
The entire town is dark sky compliant, making it completely absent of light pollution. It is the perfect place for some star gazing after dinner. There are many unique Airbnb glamping options such as clear bubble tents, adobe houses, and teepees. On a previous visit to Big Bend with my husband, we opted to stay in a lotus tent. We enjoyed unparalleled views of the night sky–I’d never seen so many stars in my life!
There are a limited number of restaurants and the town’s close proximity to the national park make it a popular place to stay. With our large group, the wait for dinner was too long for us so we opted to head back to our Airbnb for dinner. If you want to get in for dinner without a long wait, try to arrive around 5pm.
Famous for its art installations like the Prada store in the middle of the desert, Marfa is an interesting town to see. Downtown Marfa with its historic buildings, gives off vintage, small town vibes.
We did a little window shopping in the Western themed boutiques. I almost walked away with a new cowboy hat, but they were out of my size. If you plan on shopping, the stores here all lean toward high-end luxury prices so be ready to drop some cash.
In addition to the art scene, Marfa also has some great dining experiences. Getting a recommendation from a local shop owner, our group went to The Water Stop for cocktails and dinner on our last night. Their menu features locally raised meats and craft cocktails.
Marfa’s claim to fame comes from the mysterious lights that appear at night. It’s a complete mystery as to what causes them, and many scientists are stumped. Theories vary, and though not sure for certain if it was the mysterious lights that we saw or just some distant headlights, there was something out there on the horizon when we stopped to look. See for yourself when you visit Marfa, and be sure to stop after nightfall at the viewpoint just outside of town.
Located near the Panther Junction entrance to Big Bend National Park, the town of Marathon is home to the historic Gage Hotel. The hotel was built in 1927 and offers a step back in time and rustic luxury. While we didn’t stay at the hotel, our group did stop in for dinner at the hotel’s 12 Gage Restaurant.
The menu features West Texas cuisine with a gourmet twist. All ingredients are locally sourced. I opted for a steak, and hands down it was the best steak I’ve had in my life.
The next town over, Alpine, is the closest large town to the national park. If you have a big group like ours, it has the most accommodation options.Davis Mountains State Park is nearby. While we didn’t get a chance to visit on this trip, I will definitely make a point to get out there and hike in the future.
Walking around town in the evening, we saw deer everywhere! Our Airbnb host warned us that they can be a bit territorial so it is best to give them their space. We were lucky enough to visit Alpine during their annual Art Walk. The festival takes place the weekend before Thanksgiving and showcases local artists and musicians. Live music played in the streets, making for a lively evening to stroll about the town.
Q & A
What would you have changed?
While I loved visiting the town of Alpine, the drive to Big Bend was a little further than my liking. We booked our accommodations in September for a trip in November. Next time, I would book earlier to have more options nearby. Terlingua and Marathon are the two closest towns, each located on opposite park entrances. Marathon has a few hotel and airbnb options. Terlingua is full of unique Airbnb and glamping options, like sleeping in a bubble tent under the stars.
What tips would you give a friend?
Many areas of Big Bend are very remote and have limited cell service. I recommend downloading offline Google Maps to help with directions and also to have a physical map (you can pick one up in the park offices) just in case.
Be prepared! Visiting Big Bend National Park is very remote and cell service is limited. Pack your car and your hiking pack with plenty of water and emergency provisions, just in case you get stuck.
Not exactly nearby, the closest airport to Big Bend is 3.5 hours away in Midland, Texas. Major airlines Southwest, United and American Airlines all operate flights through Midland International Air & Space Port (Yes, that’s right, the Midland airport is also a space port. How cool is that?) Renting a car is a necessity for this trip. Big Bend National Park is huge! It took us about an hour’s drive from one side of the park to another.
Book your accommodation well in advance. Visiting Big Bend National Parks is popular and options are limited. We waited until September to book accommodations for a large group of 8 and had to stay in Alpine, which was a 2 hour drive to some areas of the park. Airbnb has the most options. If you'd like to stay inside the park, there is a lodge near the Chisos Basin Visitor's center as well as many campsites.