Driving Big Bend National Park
This is the first of a series that will explore the entire Big Bend region. This entry focuses on driving the park.
I remember the first time I visited Big Bend, I had NO idea what I was doing or what to expect and just picked a few hikes on the fly while there. I didn’t know there was an amazing ghost town restaurant experience nearby or lodging that looked straight out of the old west and not in a cheesy way – that completely added to my trip. I did, however, discover one of my favorite hikes and felt the palpable energy that drew me back time and time again. I’ve passed through the entrance gates over 100 times and I am going to share what I have learned with you.
First, you need a place to stay. Let’s talk about Ten Bits Ranch (XB). The first time I visited XB, I had an unerasable smile glued to my face. The property was everything I wanted and even exceed expectations. The cabins were well-architected, decorated, and felt truly authentic. It’s also surrounded by some very cool geological features, like Chimney Rock, and looks straight out of a Road Runner cartoon.
Over 500 acres and growing, you are free to explore the property and discover all it has to offer. During one multiday visit, I never made it to the park as I just kept exploring the property around me by day and taking astrophotography pics at night. When visiting, XB is always my first pick to stay.
Pro Tip: Ten Bits is amazing, they’ve been booking up often and well in advance. Plan ahead.
Now that we’ve established a base camp, let’s start exploring. Big Bend is not just a National Park, it’s an entire region with endless amounts to discover. We’ll start with the National Park, the superstar of the region. Larger than Rhode Island, Big Bend National Park is the only park that contains an entire mountain range, the Chisos Mountains, within its borders. From desert to alpine, to the river, what BBNP has to offer is certainly vast.
Whether you come from the north (Alpine) or the west (Study Butte), make your way to Panther Junction, the main visitor center. Here you can talk with a ranger, get maps, books, souvenirs, and just get your bearings set. I always like to talk to the rangers first when I visit a new park and get their recommendations. However, I’m going to list out my driving recs for you below.
I often get asked, “what can we do if we are with someone who had their legs bit off by a chupacabra”, or something along those lines. Even if you’re in good health, I still recommend driving the park.
Note: There is a color-coded map at the bottom of this article to help you visualize the proximity of each section in the park.
Driving (and maybe some short-short walks)
From Panther Junction, because that’s where I said to go first, to:
Rio Grande Village
Yellow in map image below
Head east on Park Route 12 towards Rio Grande Village, which is at the very end of this road. This drive offers you incredible views of Sierra del Carmen, a mountain range in Mexico. They are prominent the entire 20-mile trip. You’ll see the landscape change as the Chihuahuan desert opens up and is dotted with ocotillos reminding you of some sea plant at the bottom of the ocean because of their awkward growth. You’ll pass through the famous Big Bend tunnel and make it to Rio Grande Village. This area gives you river views and there is also a short nature trail and a general store to take advantage of.
There’s Boquillas Canyon Road just outside Rio Grande Village that you can take to the Boquillas Canyon Lookout. Here you can get some great views of Boquillas Canyon and Boquillas, a tiny village in Mexico. The port to visit Boquillas has been closed but that is a whole other adventure altogether. Ever hear of Robert Earl Keen’s Gringo Honeymoon? That song’s about visiting Boquillas.
Along Park Road 12, you’ll see many roadside points of interest and you can stop and read about the landscape, history, and wildlife as you see fit. You can also stop at the Hot Springs District. The old general store is visible from the parking area, but you can also take the quarter-mile hike to the actual hot springs. Warning – the Hot Springs District gets BUSY because white chicks seek this Insta-Op so their hunger for likes can be satisfied. Nah, I’m kidding. It gets busy because of that and it’s just a very intriguing destination. I highly recommend the book “Big Bend: A Homesteader’s Story ” written by J.O. Langford, the guy that homesteaded this particular part of the park. An incredibly interesting book that will really connect you to the whole area.
have You can also stop at Dugout Wells where there is still a working windmill and the short Chihuahuan Desert Trail. This is also a good place to stop for a picnic.
Keep in mind the speed limit is 45 mph so a 40-mile round trip can take longer than anticipated. If you are short of time, this would probably be a leg I drop because the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and The Chisos are just staggering.
The Chisos Mountains
Blue in map image below
From Panther Junction, head west about 3 miles on Gano Springs Road/Panther Junction Road/Maverick Drive – whatever your map is calling the road at the time, just head west 3 miles until you get to Basin Junction that takes you into the Chisos Mountains.
There is a certain thrill driving into the Chisos. You start on a relatively flat road as you begin to see mountains engulf you. The desert landscape punctuated by the geological formations of the rising Chisos makes one pause and exclaim, “I can’t believe this is Texas!”. The entryway is a magical accent into what the early indigenous folks called the Ghost Mountains – which is supposedly what Chisos transcribes to.
You then being to wind your way up as you watch the desert quickly turn to Alpine. Go slow! Bear cubs and javelinas can be around any corner. You’ll pass the trailhead for the Lost Mine Trail, one of the most popular and stunning hikes in the park. See the previous article for the details. Eventually, you will get to the Chisos Basin Visitor Center. There is also a vintage motel here that gets booked a gajillion years in advance and a restaurant I never know is open or not. I actually have never been. There is also a small store for provisions and souvenirs.
The Park Rangers are always on standby here. Even in the middle of Covid, after the reopening, I was the only person in the basin but they had their outdoor table set up with maps and pointers to help guests along the way. Gosh darn, those BIBE Park Rangers are always so nice and helpful. When the visitor center is open, there’s a small museum of the mountains and what you might stumble upon and you can also stock up on maps, books, and other souvenirs. This area is also a trailhead to many of the mountain hikes, but since this is the “Driving” Article, I will only mention the Window View Trail which is only a short walk to view the beautiful and magnificent vista that sinks down into the basin’s west side. This is where you get your sunset pics, folks. But too much left to do, let’s move on!
Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
Red in map image below
This is the main event. The road’s namesake, Ross Maxwell, was named after the first superintendent of Big Bend National Park. Heading out of the Chisos, you’ll head west (take a left) on Panther Junction Road and go about 9.5 miles until the next paved road. Ross Maxwell winds south through insanely scenic views of the Chisos, desert vistas, and a volcanic wonderland with many easy stops along the way. Many of the park’s trailheads start along this road. It’s about 31 miles all the way to Santa Elena Canyon, but you can spend days exploring everything that this scenic route has to offer.
Again, since this is the driving tour, I’m only going to mention quick stops. Quickly into this route, you’ll want to stop and take pics of the Chisos in all their glory. From this vantage, you are looking at the other side of “The Window”. So if you followed this trip to a T, you just looked at the opposite side from The Window View Trail.
This drive will speak for itself. You’ll be in awe at all the sites you’ll see and how the landscape changes every couple of miles. That’s why this drive is so intriguing! It’s not like driving I-45 from Houston to Dallas, which is NOTHING. It’s a new adventure every few moments. Here’s what you’re going to pass along the way.
Sam Nail Ranch
Short hike you can quickly do. An old ranch that obviously is rich with underground moisture. You can always identify a spring or water source in the desert by the Cottonwoods that crowd the area. There are old ruins of the ranch home, dilapidated windmills, and even one where the water still seeps up giving the area its lush landscape. This feels like a deep green oasis in the middle of the Chihuahuan desert. And if you like to birdwatch, grab your binoculars.
There are many roadside stops along the way. I will list each for the leg and give a quick hint of what they are, but this would get even more lengthy to go into each one in detail.
- Big Bend, Volcanic Heart of Big Bend
- Fins of Fire, volcanic dikes
- Sotol Vista, nice view and you can see Sanata Elena far off
- Goat Mountain, 29 million years of volcanic activity
- Mule Ears Viewpoint, see the iconic twin peaks
- Tuff’s Canyon
- Cerra Castellan
- La Harmonia Store
- Land of Distances – Chisos view and a map to point out Emory Peak – the highest peak in Chisos
- Dorgan home area – many homes ruins and Grand Canyon Farm
- Santa Elena Overlook
You’ll soon enter an area that may look like another planet. White ground accented with deep red round and oval rocks. This is the base of Castolon Peak. There is an official stop not too far down the road, but I like to pull over safely in several sections here just to take in this staggering contrast of volcanic leftovers.
The Castolon Historic District
Ohhh this one is a bit painful to talk about. Once a beautiful and well-preserved piece of history that included a quaint little store that once served as an old post office now is just a burnt-out shell due to a 2019 fire. This is also where the seasonal visitor center resided. There are still a few ruins easily visible in the area. There is another structure that has since been set up to receive visitors, but I have yet to stop here. I guess I am still in denial.
And eventually, you’ll make it to the Santa Elena Trail Head where you can follow into the canyon. This is the main feature for many that come to Big Bend. You can take the short walk to the Rio Grande and peer into the mouth of the Canyon. Makes for some great photo’s and you don’t have to venture into the canyon.
Protip: If there has been recent rain, sometimes crossing Terlingua Creek to continue on this trail (into the Canyon) is difficult or even impassable. Typically not a problem though. But hey, this is the driving part of the trip, right?
Old Maverick Road
Orange in map image below
Old Maverick is an improved dirt road that stretches from the entrance station on the west side of the park all the way down to Santa Elena. Before Ross Maxwell road, it actually WAS the way to get to Santa Elena. It’s another scenic drive that offers many different perspectives of the park, such as the Terlingua Creek badlands. You’ll also pass an interesting structure called Luna’s Jacal (hah-KAHL), a low-structured old farmers’ house built from local materials in the early 1900s.
The dirt road is about 14 miles long, but because it’s been washboarded (closely worn/eroded grooves that start to appear on dirt roads that make for a bumpy ride), it will take you about an hour to complete the trek. Most cars can handle this easily at the right speed and if it hasn’t rained. Don’t attempt after a rain.
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.
Main Park Road
Starting at Persimmon Gap, the north entrance to the park, most people make this drive if they happen to be coming from Marathon. It’s about a 26 mile stretch from the north entrance to Panther Junction. This is where you’ll be introduced to the Chisos Mountains. When J.O. Langford settled here in 1909 he quoted, “There is a strange, mystic beauty about that mountain range, something compelling and mysterious that grips you the first time you see it and never afterward leaves you.” There is quite a bit of history through here you can read about at the roadside attractions. Do stop at the Fossil Exhibit. It’s well done and gives a fantastic tour of Big Bends’ prehistoric beginnings. You can also see Quetzalcoatlus, the largest flying creature known in history – it was found right here in Big Bend. You can also take the Dagger Flats Auto Tour that takes you through the desert landscape.
Panth Junction Road
Purple in map image below
If you enter the park from the west side, you’ll travel Panther Junction Road on the way to the Panther Junction Visitor Center. This is a lovely scenic rought that winds through the badlands, past ocotillo groves and winds around some hills offering staggering views of the Chisos. Like all the drives we discussed thus far, there are several roadside exhibits you can stop at along the way and read about the land, its fuana, and wild life. You’re bound to travel this road either by entering the west entrance, as mentioned, or making your way back through the park after completing Old Maverick Road.
Big Bend has no off-roading. Stay on the road! If you want to have 4×4 fun, go try Black Gap road – but only if you have a 4×4 and are experienced.
Ok, congratulations if you read this far. We are going to wrap it up here. Please always keep in mind that our world lacks respect and reciprocity. Respect the land, the park, the rangers, the locals. Show gratitude for all of these as well and what nature and our Creator give us. Let’s keep this land perfect forever. Please.
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-Adam D. Brower
Big Bend Guide
Here’s a video I made.
And here’s a visual of the drives.
- Yellow – Rio Grande Village
- Blue – Chisos Mountains
- Red – Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
- Orange – Old Maverick Road
- Green – Main Park Road
- Purple – Panther Junction Road