Big Bend National Park: 1-Day Itinerary of the Best Things To Do at Big Bend (Texas)

by | June 2022 | 0 comments

*All photos are protected by copyright and the property of Briana Nickas unless they are stock photos or otherwise noted.

So you want to visit Big Bend National Park in Texas, but you’re short on time and only have 1 day to spend there? You’re in luck! This post will give you the perfect 1-Day Big Bend Itinerary.

Back in 2015 when we were visiting Capitol Reef National Park in Utah, we were eating at a restaurant when we started chatting it up with the couple next to us who were also visiting the Park. We swapped stories about our travels, and they mentioned that Big Bend National Park was one of their all-time favorite places. 

They were originally only going to stay for a couple of days but ended up extending their trip and staying for a week or two. Even though it’s our goal to see all the National Parks in the USA, Big Bend made it to the top of our list at that point for the next National Parks we wanted to visit.

So while we were on a cross-country road trip from Colorado to South Carolina, we took a detour to visit Big Bend National Park. From the RV Park we were staying at along the I-10 in Fort Stockton, TX, we drove about 100 miles each way to visit Big Bend for the day.

With just one day to visit the Park, we made sure to hit up the highlights. And I’m going to share them all with you to make sure you have an epic day in Big Bend National Park too!

Best Things To Do at Big Bend National Park Texas

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Info for Big Bend National Park in Texas

Big Bend National Park

• Location: Southwest Texas on the border of Mexico

• Entrance Fee: FREE with America the Beautiful Pass OR $30 for private vehicles and all passengers (15 or less) for 7 days

• Camping: there are 4 campgrounds in Big Bend National Park (Rio Grande Village RV Park is the only one with full hook-ups)

source of map: NPS.gov

How to Get to Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is located in Southwest Texas along the Rio Grande River as the border of Mexico. It’s not close to any major cities and is pretty isolated out in the middle of nowhere.

Due to its remote location, it’s less crowded. But getting to Big Bend can be a bit of a challenge. If you’ll be flying into Texas, here are the airport options:

Want to visit Big Bend National Park in Texas but short on time? You’re in luck! This is the perfect 1-Day Big Bend Itinerary. #bigbend #bigbendnationalpark #visittexas Click To Tweet

Midland/Odessa

The closest airport to Big Bend National Park is Midland International Air & Space Port located 235 miles from the Park headquarters.

El Paso

El Paso International Airport is the second closest airport to Big Bend National Park at 330 miles from the Park headquarters. But it’s more accessible.

San Antonio

Another option is San Antonio International Airport. But at 447 miles away, it’s the furthest airport from the Park headquarters.

Best Time of Year to Visit Big Bend National Park

We were there on December 4th, and the mild weather was perfect! It started out a little chilly in the morning when we were hiking the Lost Mine Trail. But we quickly warmed up from the exertion. By the end of the trail, I had stripped down to a tank top.

It also got warmer throughout the day while still being cool enough to soak in the hot springs later. And in addition to the lovely weather, the Park wasn’t very crowded during that time. Score!

As for the other seasons, spring is the busiest time, especially during Spring Break. Summers get hot with June-August being the hottest months getting average max temps of 92-95℉. But it can get above 100℉, so plan accordingly. Bring plenty of water and wear sunscreen and hats. 

Get Your Annual National Parks Pass Here!

There can also be some heavy thunderstorms and flash flooding during the rainy season from May-September. Fall and winter are pretty mild, but temps can drop. So come prepared for different weather conditions and bring layers. 

Also, keep in mind that the holidays are busy during the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. You’ll want to make reservations ahead of time. For all the deets on average temps each month and current weather info, visit the Weather page on the Big Bend National Park’s website.

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One Day Itinerary for Big Bend National Park

Here’s the perfect one-day itinerary to hit up all the must sees and dos at Big Bend National Park.

Fossil Discovery Exhibit at Big Bend National Park

You can start with a quick stop at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit if you’re into that sort of thing. The Exhibit features fossil specimens on display and includes information about the geology of the Park. There’s also a short trail that leads to a panoramic view of geologic points of interest. 

You’ll find a shaded picnic area as well along with fossil-themed climbing structures for children to enjoy. The Exhibit is open from dawn to dusk daily, but be aware that the parking area is not recommended for RVs or trailers.

Fossil Discovery Exhibit at Big Bend National Park

Hike the Lost Mine Trail at Big Bend National Park

Lost Mine Trail

• Distance: 4.8-miles roundtrip

• Elevation: 1,100 feet

• Difficulty: Moderate

• Trail Type: Out & Back

• Hiking Time: 2.5-3.0 hours

• Location: Chisos Basin

Parking: limited parking at mile 5 on Chisos Basin Road (NOTE: with sharp curves and steep grades, Chisos Basin Road is NOT recommended for RVs over 24-feet or trailers over 20-feet.)

• Pets: NOT allowed

Get an early start to the day to hike the Lost Mine Trail for some amazing views! The landscape at Big Bend National Park is like no other (flat) area of Texas we’ve experienced before. We enjoyed the diverse terrain and were grateful we had the opportunity to experience it. 

A total of 4.8 miles with over 1,100 feet elevation gain in less than 2.5 hours rewarded us with some sweeping views along the Lost Mine Trail. With only one day to spend at Big Bend National Park, this hike is a fabulous way to begin your day!

If you don’t have the time or energy to do the full trail, you can hike just the first mile of the trail to marker 10 for a scenic overlook of Casa Grande and Juniper Canyon. That would cut the hike down to just 2 miles roundtrip versus the full 4.8 miles.

Want to hike the full trail? You won’t be disappointed! Beyond the first mile, the trail takes a steep climb in and out of vegetation. The end flattens out at a ridge offering a stunning view of Pine Canyon and the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico.

The Lost Mine Trail offers some of the best views in all of Big Bend National Park! If you love to hike and want to experience a different side of Texas, don’t miss this hike!

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Take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

When you have limited time to explore an area, scenic drives are a fabulous way to see some scenery as you cover a decent amount of ground.

While cruising along the 30 miles of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive in Big Bend National Park, we took in the geologic features Big Bend is known for. The drive offers informational exhibits and several scenic overlooks along the way, including Sotol Vista, Mule Ears, and Tuff Canyon.

Continue the drive to the end where you’ll find Santa Elena Canyon where limestone cliffs tower over the Rio Grande River dividing Texas from Mexico. This brings you to your next activity!

Explore Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon Trail

• Distance: 1.7-miles roundtrip

• Elevation: 157 feet

• Difficulty: Easy

• Trail Type: Out & Back

• Hiking Time: 1.0 hour

• Location: at the end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

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Learning about the Rio Grande River in elementary geography is one thing. Seeing it in person dividing two countries with Mexico just on the other side of the river bank is another!

There’s a Santa Elena Canyon Overlook, but you can also venture into the canyon with the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. A short hike will take you up the Rio Grande River through Santa Elena Canyon with the canyon walls towering 1,500 feet high over you.

After crossing Terlingua Creek, the trail takes you up some paved steps to a viewpoint where you can take in the river from above. You’ll then head back down to the water’s edge, continuing along the river into the canyon. Eventually, the canyon wall meets the water, and you can’t go any further.

Take in Sunset in the Hot Springs

Hot Springs Historic Trail

• Distance: 1.0-mile roundtrip

• Elevation: 144 feet

• Difficulty: Easy

• Trail Type: Out & Back or Loop

• Hiking Time: 0.5 hour (plus soaking time)

• Location: Hot Springs parking lot (NOTE: There’s a 2-mile gravel road that descends down a rough, narrow wash to the Hot Springs Historic District and trailhead area. RVs and oversize vehicles are NOT allowed on the one-way sections of the Hot Springs Road.)

Our day in Big Bend National Park had the perfect end – in the hot springs along the Rio Grande River as the sun started setting. Any time we have the opportunity to partake in hot springs, we have to take advantage!

So I highly recommend finishing your day with another easy, short 0.5-mile hike to soak in the Rio Grande River hot springs while you take in the sunset! 

The Hot Springs Historic Trail takes you by remains of an old resort, a homestead, and pictographs, bringing you to the remains of a bathhouse that now holds the hot springs. Relax in the 105°F springs as you watch the river flow by and reflect on the incredible day you spent in Big Bend National Park.

After your soak, you can return the way you came. Or you can continue on a 1-mile loop trail up to the bluff above the Rio Grande, bringing you back to the trailhead area.

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Extended Trip Options for the Big Bend National Park Area

If you have more than just a day in the Big Bend area, here are a few more options for nearby places to spend some time at.

Terlingua Ghost Town Historic District

Unfortunately, we ran out of time and didn’t get to check out Terlingua Ghost Town in Terlingua, TX. But we heard it’s worth the visit.

There are no fences in the quirky ghost town. So feel free to roam around and explore the cemetery, abandoned mine shafts, and decaying ruins. Plus, it’s all free, including the fossils!

There’s also an old-timey theater turned restaurant and bar, a graveyard, a trading company, and an old jail that now houses the restrooms. Terlingua sounds like a fun place to venture through, grab a bite to eat, hunt for fossils, and do a little shopping. 

From the start of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, the historic Ghost Town is only about 17 miles and roughly 25 minutes away, making for the start of a nice little day trip.

Big Bend Ranch State Park

After visiting Terlingua Ghost Town, keep heading east about 11 miles and 15 minutes more where you’ll find Big Bend Ranch State Park. As the largest State Park in Texas, there’s plenty to see and do!

Start at the East entrance at the Barton Warnock Visitor Center one mile east of Lajitas on River Road (FM 170). Park activities include hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, 4×4 vehicle touring, rafting, and stargazing.

Depending on how much time you have, there are different itinerary ideas for 1 day, 3 days, or 1 week. Entrance Fees are just $5 daily for 13 and older or free for 12 and younger. Be aware that the State Park website has the following Extreme Heat Warning: 

“In warm weather months, be prepared for extreme summer heat. Temperatures typically exceed 100 degrees by late morning and can reach as high as 130 degrees in the sun. They remain at dangerous levels even after sunset. Carry plenty of extra water on the trails, and stay off trails in the afternoon.”

Balmorhea State Park

If you’re heading north to the I-10 after your visit to Big Bend National Park and the surrounding areas, make your way up to Balmorhea State Park

After all the outdoor activities at the National and State Parks, you can cool off in the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool! At up to 25 feet deep and covering 1.3 acres, you’ll have plenty of space to swim or scuba dive in the massive pool.

Entrance Fees are just $7 daily for adults or free for 12 and younger. There’s also a campground and motel-style lodging there.

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Wrapping Up Big Bend National Park in Texas

To be completely honest, we weren’t as dazzled with Big Bend National Park as the couple who told us about it were. But we still enjoyed an awesome day of hiking, exploring, and even soaking in hot springs. 

Plus, we got to check another National Park off our list. Since our goal is to visit all U.S. National Parks, it was definitely worth the detour! And had we been able to spend more time in the surrounding areas our visit would have been even more enjoyable.

Next time you’re in southwest Texas, make a point of checking out Big Bend and some of the other nearby highlights if you get a chance. Even if you just have 1 day, you’ll be glad you were able to spend it exploring the National Park.

Leave a question or comment here!

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Briana Nickas of Next Destination Unknown

Behind the Blog

I’m Briana Nickas, a part-time RVer who loves RVing, hiking, visiting National Parks, and taking photos. My happiest days are spent on the road with my hubby and our fur-baby Saucy (a 7-lb maltipoo) exploring the country and meeting fellow adventurers along the way… 

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