Texas’ gift to the nation is an apt description for Big Bend National Park.
I first fell in love with the area on a high school camping trip for Dr. Joe Kuban’s ecology studies class. Think 9 hours on a rickety school bus, primitive camping, nothing but hot dogs and Pop-Tarts to eat, and no showers for a week.
And a wilderness experience like no other, explored with teenage abandon, not a parent in sight.
Hiking the Santa Elena Canyon, a canyon steeper and narrower than the Grand Canyon. Trekking through the Chihuahuan Desert, a desert oasis brimming with plants and wildlife. Exploring mountains rimmed with pine forests. Wading in the Rio Grande River.
Big Bend is one of my favorite places to explore with my own kids. Thankfully, I’m fueling my adventures with better food. And showers. No need to torture yourself with stinky kids on the way home.
Yes, it’s a Texas-sized drive to get to Big Bend (just over 9 hours from Dallas). But definitely worth it.
Here are my tips for the ultimate Big Bend National Park adventure with kids.
Travel to Big Bend National Park
Where to Stay Inside the Park
Chisos Mountain Lodge is the only non-camping lodging located within the park. This simple, but convenient lodge has basic amenities like a gift shop, laundry, and free parking. Its 72 rooms start at $156 a night and book up well in advance.
There are 3 campsites inside the park. Rio Grande Village Campground (100 sites) is the largest and main campsite in the park and is open year-round. A camp store with showers/laundromat and a park visitor center are nearby, though, on a recent visit, the showers/laundromat were closed due to COVID-19. The smaller Chisos Basin Campground (60 sites) and Cottonwood Campground (24 sites) are also available. Reservations are required for all campgrounds. Reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance by visiting recreation.gov or by calling (877) 444-6777.
Rio Grande RV Park (25 sites) is located adjacent to the Rio Grande Village Store. For reservations call (432) 477-2293.
Where to Stay Outside of the Park
If you are like me and prefer not to sleep on the ground or in an RV, there are plenty of hotel and vacation rentals available in the West Texas communities near Big Bend National Park. The towns of Terlingua, Marathon, Alpine, and Fort Davis are just a few of the places that are a day trip’s drive from the park. Search on vrbo.com or airbnb.com
On a recent family trip to Big Bend with 4 adults and 5 kids, we rented a large 2 story guest house at the foot of Blue Mountain in Fort Davis. Our host, Nancy O’Brien, was a treasure trove of information on the region. Minutes from the McDonald Observatory, the area has the darkest night skies in the lower 48.
Lajitas Golf Resort is located between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend State Park. Rich in natural beauty and Old West history, the resort offers golf, spa, and equestrian activities. It also operates charter air service to and from Dallas if you prefer to fly rather than drive.
What to Do Inside the Park
Start your adventures with a stop at Panther Junction Visitor’s Center to pick up the latest updates on weather, river, and road conditions. It’s also a ranger station. A gas station and convenience store are located nearby.
Hiking is the most popular activity in Big Bend National Park.
If you plan on doing any hiking with toddlers or young children under 50 or so pounds, I would highly recommend a hiking backpack child carrier. Trust me, when the thrill of the hike has worn off and little legs are tired, and you are still 2 miles from the car, you will be glad you have it.
Santa Elena Canyon is one of the most impressive views in all of Texas and provides a great opportunity to swim in the Rio Grande River. Swim (or more likely wade) halfway across and you’re in Mexico.
The drive to the canyon includes 3 breathtaking stopping points at Sotol Vista Overlook, Tuff Canyon Overlook, and Mule Ears View Point. No need to hike to take full advantage of the views—you simply drive up and get out at all 3 stops. You can drive directly down to access the canyon, with restrooms and picnic tables available in the parking lot. Once there, it is a very short walk down a well-worn path to the mouth of the canyon and the Rio Grande River. You can set up camp to play on the beach (the river is shallow), or, if you are feeling adventurous, cross the river and hike up into the canyon.
The Chisos Mountains Basin is one of the most popular places to visit in the park. In addition to 7,800 feet mountains and an alpine valley, you will find a restaurant, camping, stables, and another Visitor Center. The 0.3-mile Window View Trail is a short paved trail easy to do with small children. Be on the lookout for white-tailed deer and javelinas.
For a great desert hike, the Upper Burro Mesa Pouroff trail located off the Ross Maxwell Scenic Road is 3.5 miles (roundtrip). My kids enjoyed this hike on our recent trip, especially going down the rock slide towards the end. My youngest did need a piggyback ride for a little bit on the return trip. Warning, there is a huge drop-off at the end of the trail so don’t let your kiddos wander too far ahead.
Did you know T-rexes once roamed Texas? For the dinosaur lovers in your family, the Fossil Discovery Exhibit is a full open-air museum featuring casts of fossils found in the park, as well as the history of ancient life in the park.
What to Do Outside of the Park
The ghost town of Terlingua is located just outside of the park. The living residents of the ghost town have built their homes in the ruins of the old mining town. There are bars and restaurants, shopping, and roadside attractions.
The McDonald Observatory is located in nearby Fort Davis. On scheduled evenings, they offer an outdoors, open-air stargazing tour. The darkest skies in the lower 48 allow for an unaided-eye tour of the evening sky including major constellations, bright stars, and other objects of interest including the Moon, planets, and satellites. Fort Davis Historical Site and Davis Mountains State Park are also located nearby.
Where to Eat
As there is only one restaurant on Big Bend National Park located at the Chisos Basin Lodge, you will need to purchase food and drink (and meal plan) before you arrive at the park. The nearest Wal-Mart is 133 miles away in Fort Stockton.
Speaking of drink, bring plenty of fluids, at least a gallon per person per day. This is a desert climate at altitude. Don’t ruin your vacation with dehydration and overheating.
Outside of the park, there are plenty of dining options. The quirky Starlight Theatre Restaurant and Bar in Terlingua was a big hit with my kids.
Best Season to Visit
The peak months to visit Big Bend National Park are November through April, with the rainy season being between mid-June and October.
Summer in Big Bend, like the rest of Texas, can be brutal.
For up-to-the-minute information on Big Bend National Park, including the latest COVID-19 restrictions, be sure to check out the National Park Service’s website.