About eight hours from the DFW metroplex, nestled along the border between the United States and Mexico, lies one of the most underrated national parks in the country. Big Bend's isolated location and desert climate discourage many families and adventures from making the trek to the far southwest, but what most don't realize is that the park is home to a large swath of beautiful mountain landscapes, steep limestone cliffs, hot springs, and easy access points to the Rio Grande River.
Haven't been to Big Bend? Now's the time to start planning your trip. Because there's only one lodge in the park and fairly limited hotel options in the nearby towns, your best bet for accommodations is to pitch a tent and go for some old-fashioned camping.
Here are ten tips that will make any camping experience in beautiful Big Bend less stressful and thoroughly enjoyable.
1. Go at the right time of the year. During the summer months, Big Bend can reach staggering heat levels that are far from conducive to a fun camping trip. If you want to sleep outside without shivering or sweating profusely, you should probably plan your trip for the spring or the fall. Although these are also the busiest times of the year, they're by far the best for visitors of all kinds. If you can, avoid the intense crowds during spring break or over the Thanksgiving holiday. Keep in mind that Big Bend is far from the most popular national park in the country, but it does receive its fair share of campers during the loveliest times of the year. The campgrounds frequently fill up, especially over long weekends.
2. Research the campsites and have multiple backup plans. Because Big Bend doesn't receive millions of visitors each year like Yellowstone or Yosemite, it only has three main developed campgrounds: Cottonwood, Rio Grande Village, and the most popular, Chisos Basin. During peak season, Chisos Basin will most likely have many sites reserved, and even the first-come-first-serve sites will fill up rapidly. Therefore, if you have your heart set on Chisos Basin, either book a site far in advance or head to the campground with a backup plan in mind. Cottonwood is a lovely second choice with spacious campsites, tons of beautiful trees, and easy access to the Rio Grande River. The Rio Grande Village has plenty of campsites and RV access points but is a bit more removed from many of the best hiking trails.
3. Bring more than enough drinkable water. Although you can purchase water bottles and find free potable water at certain parts of Big Bend, it's always better to err on the side of caution when it comes to hydration. The park's high elevation levels and desert climate mean that you'll be chugging more water than usual, even without engaging in any physical activity. The park rangers advise that you bring at least one gallon of water per person per day while camping in the area.
4. Pack lots of layers, including jackets, hats, bandanas, and long pants. The weather at Big Bend can be difficult to plan for. When I visited during April, it was easily in the upper 70s during the day and the mid-30s during the night. Therefore, layers are absolutely essential. Pack everything from shorts to beanies in an effort to stay warm during the night and cool during the day. It's also a good idea to bring broad-brimmed hats to shield your head and face from the sun, and if the wind is bad during your visit, you may want a bandana or scarf to protect your face from dust.
5. Overestimate how much gas you will need. Big Bend is enormous. Just driving from one checkpoint to another could take as long as an hour, and there aren't gas stations at every campsite or visitor center. To be safe, fill up more than you think you need to when you stumble across a gas station. There's nothing worse than fretting that you'll run out of gas between your campground and the next station, and the desert is a harsh place to be stranded on the side of the road. Another thing to note: cell service in the park is pretty much nonexistent, which is another reason to err on the side of safety.
6. Remember that you cannot build a wood fire. As sad as this sounds, you'll have to nix the idea of building a roaring fire at your campsite while you're visiting Big Bend. The dry environment means wood fires pose a serious threat, so you'll have to find another way to cook food and keep warm at night. Consider bringing a portable propane grill, which will always be allowed. If you go during certain times of the year, you'll be allowed to use the available charcoal grills at the campsites, but only if the fire warning is low.
7. Keep chapstick and moisturizing lotion on hand. The wind and dust in Big Bend are no laughing matter. I found myself reaching for my chapstick at least once every hour, and by the time I arrived back home, my lips were still dry and parched. You may want to bring some vaseline to smear on your lips to prevent them from becoming too painful, especially if you plan to hike up into the Chisos Mountains where the elevation is even higher.
8. Sunscreen is a must-have. A higher elevation in the desert means that sunburns are pretty much unavoidable. Be sure to pack a couple of tubes of sunscreen for your entire body and slather some on before you head out during the brightest hours of the day.
9. Plan your hikes and other activities far in advance. Because Big Bend is so spread out, a schedule that was thought-out before your arrival may serve you well. Do some research on what hikes, river trips, horseback riding expeditions, and other activities you're interested in, then make the necessary arrangements before road tripping to Big Bend. This will allow you to plan enough time for each activity and make all of your reservations before you leave the world of cell service.
10. Don't pack your schedule too tightly. Because there are so many things to do in the national park, you might be tempted to jam your schedule with activities of all kinds. However, don't overexert yourself, and keep in mind that the park's climate isn't what you're used to. You may need to take the first few days slowly due to the high elevation and dry weather, and you'll need to allot plenty of time for rest. Plus, you'll want to give yourself some free time to simply soak up the park's natural beauty, so don't worry about maximizing every single hour of your trip.
If you've been to Big Bend and have other comments, questions, or advice, leave them in the comments below!