Following my last post, The Ultimate Big Bend National Park Driving Tour, there’s another question I get asked often, “We only have one day in Big Bend, what should we do?” That’s very subjective based on individual preferences and passions. Even hikes have different points of intrigue to offer such as amazing mountain vistas versus staggering geological formations. It really just depends on what YOU want:
- Drive and sightsee?
- History and/or Geology?
- Get some easy Instagram pics to say you have been there then run off to Marfa?
- Have the richest experience in a 12-hour+ timeframe?
For this post, I am going to go with the latter and try to detail out a one-day itinerary where everyone could look back on the trip and say, “WOW! That was freakin’ amazing!” I’m confident we can accomplish that.
Although my first recommendation would be to try to get at least 3 full days, I know that’s just not feasible for many folks. That’s ok, after this trip, you’ll be back. They always come back.
Ok, for you enneagram type 1’s, here’s a minute-by-minute itinerary.
7:00 AM – 11:00 AM
I can already hear you, “7:00 AM?!” You WANT to get at these trailheads early, especially during crowded seasons. Here’s why:
- Parking fills up
- You’ll have to wait for your turn for pics at the Window
- Temps are nice and cool
7:00 AM is perfect, you won’t have to fight anyone. Plus we have a lot to pack into one day. Do keep in mind it may take you an hour or more to drive to the following destinations, which means you probably need to leave your hotel around 6am. Also, in this day trip, we won’t be stopping for lunch, so pack a cooler with lots of good snacks to get you by until Dinner. I have a great recommendation for dinner, though.
Hike the Lost Mine Trail or The Window Trail (1)
You have to pick one:
- Lost Mine Trail offers an alpine hike with staggering mountain vistas
- The Window Trail offers amazing geological formations and an astonishing view to the desert floor
With either trail, you should be done before 11:00 AM. The average time is about 3 hours. Each trail is close to a 5-miles roundtrip, depending on where you start. You can do this! The Window was my first real hike ever and I was in horrible shape, but I did it and that kicked off a new passion.
Very important: You need to bring lots of water. About 2 liters per person, more in the summer. Pace yourself on the way up.
For The Window, I usually try to park at the campsite trailhead to save time. See trail description for more info.
Lost Mine Trail
15 Minute Break
11:15 AM – 12:30 PM
Drive the Ross Maxwell portion of the Driving Tour
See Driving Tour post.
Take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to the Burro Spring Trail, which is about a 40 min drive from the Chisos Basin. We’ll give you a few extra minutes to give you time for some photo stops. If you’re ahead of schedule, also check out Sam Nail Ranch which is along the way. It’s a very cool old ranch site with ruins and desert oasis.
12:30 PM – 2:00 PM
Hike the Burro Spring Trail (2)
This is a relatively short beautiful hike and should take about an hour and a half. I think this is one of the most underrated hikes in Big Bend. I love this hike at sunset, but we got things to do. Let’s move on.
Burro Spring Trail
Burro Spring Trail
15 Minute Break
2:15 PM – 3:00 PM
Continue on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to Santa Elena Canyon
It should take about 30 minutes to drive to the Santa Elena Canyon trailhead, but we’ll give a few extra minutes for stops along the way. There is so much to see on this road. You’re going to be amazed as this desert tour starts to look like you are on another planet. You’ll pass many historical structures and ruins along the way too. There’s also a stop for the Santa Elena Canyon overlook where you can get a view of the famous canyon.
3:00 PM – 3:20 PM
Santa Elena Canyon (3)
At the Santa Elena Canyon trailhead, hike to the Rio Grande where the opening of the canyon is right in front of you. It’s about a 5 min walk.
Dorgan House along Ross Maxwell Scenic Drivce
Santa Elena Canyon
3:20 PM – 4:30 PM
Old Maverick Road and on to Terlingua Ghost Town (4)
Let’s drive up Old Maverick toward the park’s west entrance. Note, although well maintained, this is a dirt road. You’ll need to take it slow. It’s only 14 miles but should take close to an hour to complete. If you have been putting off getting your worn tires replaced or it has recently rained, it may be best to avoid altogether. This route offers new fascinating views of the park and you’ll also pass an interesting historic house called Luna’s jacal. And once you hit the paved road, you head out west to Terlingua Ghost Town
Update / Disclaimer (10/5/2021)
There has been some concern in the discussions about have a 4x4 for driving Ross Maxwell. I just drove the road twice this weekend (10/2/2021) in my 2 wheel-drive 4-Runner and had no issues. While there may be a couple pieces of the stretch that may feel sketchy in a Corolla, I managed just fine with no worries. At the same time, I grew up on ranch roads where we plowd our Ford LTD through situations that shouldn't be meant for those vehicles. Maybe it's experience. I saw a car driving making no attempt to avoid any rocks that are jutting out and plowing right over them. You have to drive the dirt road smart, avoid what you can. Avoid rocks jutting out, you can recognize these because they hace black tire marks on the side from people that didn't avoid them. The park has put up a 4x4 sign on the road. I don't know if thats recent or I just never paid attention. If the road is wet, yet 4x4 is required. I guess I'd say a high-clearance vehicle with good tires. And with that, ultimately, travel at your own risk. I took some photos of the roughest parts. This includes slight rocky inclines and sandy dry creek beds. 99.5% of the road looks like this first pic, although the storm over the Chisos was threatening me.
Summer vs. Winter
Here’s where you get to call an audible pending how spent you are or how much daylight you have left. This can also be a good tapping-out point if you had enough for the day and don’t have FOMO for the reset of the tour.
Check when sunset is. Remember, it’s still light after sunset, so also check “last light”. You can Google it. If it’s getting dark, go straight to Starlight Theatre for dinner. See more on Starlight and Terlingua below.
If you have some daylight and stamina left, let’s keep the fun going!
4:30 PM – 6:15 PM
Continue down RR 170 into Big Bend Ranch State Park (5)
If you can make it, this is one of the most scenic drives in Texas. Drive into the state park and take in the vast vistas and geology along the Mexican border. It’s absolutely beautiful! You’ll pass through the quaint little resort town of Lajitas, where the Governor is a goat. You can turn around after the big hill, you’ll know it when you get there, the vistas of the Rio Grande and the mountainous terrain are staggering. Find the La Cuesta campground just after the descent to turn around. It’s about a 40-minute drive there from Terlingua. Note, you may need gas in Lajitas and last time I was there, it’s unleaded only. So you may want to fill up in Study Butte (Terlingua).
Big Bend Ranch State Park East Entrance
Blue Bonnets along RR 170
Terlingua Ghost Town and the Starlight Theatre for Dinner (6)
See details about Terlingua and the Starlight below.
Since you still should have a few hours of daylight left, let’s fill this up as much as we can. There are still some life-altering vistas and hikes to see. But, if you’re out of stamina by this point, just follow the winter hours. Let’s go have more fun!
4:30 PM – 5:30 PM
Drive RR 170 to Closed Canyon, Big Bend Ranch State Park (5)
Drive to closed canyon, a super cool slot canyon, is about 45- 50 mins down RR 170. Just the drive itself is worth this trip. See the description on RR 170 in the winter section above. You can also opt to skip closed canyon and drive to the Hoodoos. A cool open exploration area with interesting rock formations and river access.
5:30 PM – 7:00 PM
Hike Closed Canyon
This 1.5-mile round trip is a fairly easy hike and you can shorten it as much as you want, just don’t go as far into the canyon. The canyon starts relatively wide and starts to close in as you progress.
Or the Hoodoos
You can also opt to skip closed canyon and drive to the Hoodoos. A cool open exploration area with interesting rock formations and river access. It’s about 45 minutes to closed canyon and about 55 to the hoodoos. But again, the drive is well worth it.
Amazing along RR 170 and the Mexican Border
7:00 PM – 7:45 PM
Drive back to Terlingua
Terlingua Ghost Town and the Starlight Theatre for Dinner (6)
Having dinner in a ghost town is cool. Starlight Theatre is actually an old theater built for the miners a long long time ago. Now it serves as one of my favorite restaurants in the world. I’ve been to Starlight more than any restaurant. They open at 5:00 PM and if it’s crowded (holidays) you can get in line to put your name down. They won’t start getting names until 5:00 PM, but it’s first come first serve seating. While you are waiting, check out Terlingua Trading Company next door, which is a cool gift shop. You can also buy a six-pack of beer there and sit on the famous porch and just kick back for a bit. Even if the wait for Starlight is long, this is a kick-ass experience that you’ll want to revel in. You can also visit the Terlingua Cemetary. Terlingua is an experience. And the people make it. Don’t be an entitled city fool, just relax and chill for a bit. Let Terlingua time soak in and forget about all your worries for the evening.
Whew, that’s a packed day. But a perfect day. You can’t get better than this.
If you happen to follow this itinerary, let me know how it worked for you. If you made any modifications, let me know what you did differently. I’d love to hear from everyone that finds this helpful.
I also want to mention a few things. Our parks are some of the last places on Earth that are set aside for wildlife and our adventuring spirit. We have to respect these parks. Leave nothing behind, if you see an opportunity to improve (pick up litter, etc.) do so. Let’s all have a collective effort to do better as humans and collectively make this world a better place. Gratitude and reciprocity. Show respect to the locals, tip generously, and live in the moment and live the worry-free life for this day.
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Here are a couple of videos I made…