Advice for Busy Times

Busy day at Santa Elena Canyon

Once relatively unknown, Big Bend National Park is now experiencing a major increase in visitation and with it a greater demand for both frontcountry and backcountry camping. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in even more visitors seeking out the qualities of this special place. The primary visitor season is October through April. Thanksgiving, Christmas-New Years, Spring Break, and all holiday weekends see the most visitors.

Visitation has increased by 50% since 2016.
Annual visitation is now nearing 600,000 visitors per year.

Please plan ahead and consider visiting during other times of the year to maximize enjoyment of Big Bend, and the remote sense of peacefulness that it is known for.

Traffic Control and Limited Parking

During the busiest times, visitors will find limited parking at many of the park’s most popular areas and trailheads. Visitors to the Lost Mine Trail, Chisos Basin, Hot Springs, Boquillas Port of Entry, Boquillas Canyon, and Santa Elena Canyon Trail may experience delays. When all parking is full, rangers establish “one-in, one-out” traffic control measures in these areas. Visitors should have alternate itineraries planned. The park website is a great resource for trip planning.

campground full sign

From November through April, park campgrounds are full.

Be Prepared For Full Campgrounds

From November through April, the Chisos Mountains Lodge and all of the park’s developed campgrounds will be full every night. Currently there are no first come-first serve campgrounds in Big Bend. All available campsites require reservations. Campers can make reservations online up to six months in advance, with a limited number of campsites reservable up to 14 days in advance. Please make camping or lodging reservations to ensure that you have a place to stay before driving all the way to Big Bend.

There are NO overflow campsites or “boondocking” in Big Bend National Park, and no nearby public lands outside the park.

During this time, the park’s primitive backcountry campsites also fill to capacity most nights.

If you plan on visiting Big Bend during these times and do not have reservations, it is best to come prepared with alternative plans for lodging or camping outside of the park. If you camp in parking lots or along park roadsides you will be cited.

What should I do if the park is full when I arrive?

There are several options for staying in private campgrounds outside of the park near both park entrances. For a listing of area lodging options, visit the website.

Is Big Bend National Park Safe? Advice from a Park Ranger

Upper Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail, Big Bend National Park.

I was recently in Big Bend National Park and had a thrilling four-day adventure. Big Bend is really three parks in one with mountains, desert, and a river basin. It also shares 118 miles of border with our neighbor to the south, Mexico.

If you are planning a trip to Big Bend National Park you might be wondering if it is safe.

Big Bend National Park is a safe destination for outdoor enthusiasts such as hikers. A recent study from a law firm found that Big Bend had only 16 deaths among 4.4 million visitors from 2007 to 2018.

But don’t take my word for it. I asked a Big Bend National Park Ranger all about safety in the park. Here are her responses.

Is Big Bend National Park Safe?

U.S. National Park Ranger Annie Gilliland writes:

Sometimes visitors ask us this, and it’s difficult to answer. I think it depends on each individual’s perception of safety. If you’re used to being in rugged, wild places far from towns or cities, you will likely feel fairly safe. If you’re not used to that at all, you might be more nervous. I don’t feel that it’s any less safe than any other large national park. You can see the parks that typically have the highest fatalities in various reports like this one:

As long as people use their common sense and do some planning – carry enough water, don’t hike when it’s too hot, tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back, and have a backup plan if your first idea didn’t work out – you can safely enjoy this amazing place.

That is sage advice from Park Ranger Gilliland. I think folks ask whether Big Bend National Park is safe primarily because of Mexico’s proximity and its aqueous border along stretches of the Rio Grande river.

Honestly, I would wager that you are statistically much more likely to suffer injury from a car accident or heat exhaustion in Big Bend National Park than any issues related to border crossings.

We hiked all over the park in December 2020 and it was perfect. If you want mild, sunny days for hiking in the middle of the winter then consider a trip to Big Bend National Park. My son and I swam in the Rio Grande river at Boquillas Canyon in the mid-afternoon and we were fine. A gentleman across the river was selling ‘alebrijes’. He had them displayed on the U.S. side and was sitting across the river on the Mexican side.

Rio Grande River at Boquillas Canyon, December 2020.

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How Many Serious Accidents Are There in Big Bend National Park Each Year?

U.S. National Park Ranger Annie Gilliland writes:

In 2020 there were 393,908 visitors to Big Bend. The park was fully closed for three months. It was busier during open months than ever, and if it had been open all year, we would have likely seen our highest yearly number.

The statistics from the law firm study reported 16 deaths in 4.4 million visitors from 2007 to 2018. I would take those odds any day! Big Bend National Park is safe.

Boquillas Canyon, Big Bend National Park

What Are the Most Likely Hazards for Hikers in Big Bend National Park and How to Avoid Them?

U.S. National Park Ranger Annie Gilliland writes:

Dehydration! We are constantly preaching to people about carrying enough water. There are no truly reliable sources of water here. The minimum recommended amount is one gallon per person per day, which can be a heavy weight if you’re on a multi-day backpacking trip.

I agree with Park Ranger Gilliland’s assessment, and I would say that a gallon is an absolute minimum for an entire day. You have to remember that Big Bend National Park is also around 3,000 ft. elevation on the desert floor, so if you start hiking up, you can reach elevations above 7,000 ft. High altitudes plus desert conditions will dehydrate you very, very quickly.

The trail heads for a few hikes that were just a couple of hours recommended 2-3 liters of water per person. I wrote a blog post on hiker hydration covering all you need to know about hiking and staying hydrated in different scenarios.

Hiker Safety Sign at Upper Burro Mesa Pour-off trail.

U.S. National Park Ranger Annie Gilliland writes:

Heat is also a huge factor here. At the lower elevations, summer temperatures frequently stay above 100 Fahrenheit all day, and many trails are fully exposed. We recommend hiking early in the morning or not at all on the hottest days. Many people head up into the Chisos Mountains, where temperatures are a little more bearable to hike during the summer.

We visited the week before Christmas in 2020 and found the weather to be absolutely perfect. The skies were a clear, beautiful blue. The sunsets were almighty. Daytime temperatures were in the low 70s F. I can imagine that in the summer it would be deathly hot.

U.S. National Park Ranger Annie Gilliland writes:

Finally, there are typical warnings for being in a desert – don’t harass wildlife, and it won’t harass you (we have venomous snakes, scorpions, and other stinging/biting insects here as well as bears and mountain lions), watch yourself around thorny plants, and be aware of your surroundings so that you don’t lose the trail.

On our trip we saw zero bears or mountain lions. We saw one tarantula, many birds, one javelina, and one coyote.

Is Big Bend’s Proximity to Mexico a Safety Concern?

Big Bend National Park Ranger, Annie Gilliland writes:

I wouldn’t say the proximity to Mexico is a big safety concern, it just adds another layer to how we do some things. The park cooperates with the Mexican government where possible so that natural and cultural resources can be protected on both sides of the river. Mexican and American fire crews have also joined forces to control wildland fires in the past.

Border Patrol agents live and work in the park with us. Illegal border crossings do occasionally happen through park land, but they typically don’t create major threats for park visitors. Any incidents like theft involve communication between governments.

I live on the South Texas border closer to the Gulf of Mexico and so after nearly five years in this environment, I know from experience how safe it is.

In Big Bend National Park we saw people crossing the river on horses. It appeared they were selling items at a nearby parking area. They were local Mexicans that came to make a living. They were polite and friendly.

Big Bend National Park is extremely remote in the U.S. and even more remote on the Mexican side. Given the Chihuahuan desert’s vastness, illegal border crossings are difficult and risky due to environmental hazards.

What About COVID-19 and Big Bend National Park, Is It Safe?

Big Bend National Park Ranger, Annie Gilliland writes:

Again, Big Bend isn’t necessarily safer or less safe than anywhere else relative to your chances of catching COVID-19. However, we are far from hospitals or any specialized medical care. While you’re not necessarily more likely to get sick here, people do need to recognize that local medical resources are stretched thin and are far away. Help may not be quickly available. This is the reason that the park fully shut down when we had an active case among park staff. It’s also the reason that the border crossing into Mexico is closed.

The small town of Boquillas on the other side is even farther from medical care. We are seeing more people than usual visit national parks right now, likely due to a completely understandable desire to get out and do something active. We’d just like to remind everyone to please continue to follow CDC guidelines when they visit these isolated places.

In December we had some hikes to ourselves. Imagine being in a national park on a named hiking trail and not seeing anyone else. This is why, Big Bend National Park is such a great choice for hiking during and after the pandemic. There are smaller crowds than other national parks because it is so remote.

We carried masks with us and would put them on to pass other hikers. The more popular sites in the park are where you find more people and COVID-19 is more of a risk. Santa Elena Canyon is like the Old Faithful of the park. Everyone goes to see it and so we found it hard to socially distance on the trail into the canyon.

Boquillas Canyon Trail, Big Bend National Park.

What Is Your Favorite Part of Big Bend National Park?

Big Bend National Park Ranger, Annie Gilliland writes:

This is a tough one! Big Bend has such variety. You might see it referred to as three parks in one, because of the river, the desert, and the mountains. We have a huge amount of biodiversity partially because of this. And while I love the desert, I think some part of me always wants to be in the mountains.

The Chisos Basin and the hikes that leave from there might be my favorite area. Desert scrub transitions into pinyon-oak-juniper forests, and eventually into just pine and oak. The mountains are sky islands surrounded by a sea of hotter, dryer desert. My favorite trail might be many people’s favorite trail – Lost Mine. It will take you to spectacular views, but the small parking lot fills up early most days.

While we were visiting Big Bend National Park, we were never able to get up to the ‘sky islands’ that Ranger Gilliland refers to. The parking lots were always full, and so we were not allowed access. I would suggest going early and not bringing a 12-year old with you!

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Is Big Bend National Park Safe?

After reading U.S. Park Ranger Gilliland’s responses, my conclusion from visiting Big Bend is that Big Bend National Park is a safe destination if you recreate responsibly. Perhaps the proximity to the border might have some folks concerned. Mexico’s area that borders the park is so remote that it does not see many border crossings.

I highly recommend visiting Big Bend National Park. If you want amazing hiking in the middle of the winter, then definitely make the journey to visit the park. The night skies are famously beautiful.

How to Plan a Big Bend Stargazing Trip in 2022

Big Bend National Park is one of the largest and most remote National Parks in the lower 48 – it’s also one of the best national parks for stargazing! This mountain desert park offers a unique look at the geological history of North America while providing numerous hiking and outdoor opportunities and some of the darkest skies in the continental United States.

In 2012, Big Bend National Park was awarded full status as an International Dark Sky Park. It is one of six International Dark Sky Parks in Texas, including the nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park. If you want to experience the gorgeous night skies above the Big Bend, here’s everything you need to know to take a stargazing trip to Big Bend National Park.

This post was originally published in February 2020, and was updated in January 2022.

Table of Contents

How to Get to Big Bend National Park

Stargazing in Big Bend Sign

Big Bend National Park is located in southern Texas along the Rio Grande and shares a 118-mile border with Mexico. The region is barely populated on either side of the border and there are no major sources of light pollution in the area.

If you are flying to Big Bend National Park, your best options are Midland (MAF) or El Paso (ELP). Midland is about 3 hours from the park’s Persimmon Gap entrance. El Paso is about 4.5 hours from the Persimmon Gap or Terlingua entrance.

It is also possible to take an Amtrack train of Greyhound Bust to Alpine, TX. Alpine is about an hour from the park and had rental cars available.

Is Big Bend National Park safe?

Stargazing in Big Bend - Vincent Lock via Flickr

Photo credit: Vincent Lock via Flickr

This is a common question given that Big Bend National Park is located along the United States-Mexican border. Part of the park’s Mexican boundary is shared with the protected areas of Parque Nacional Cañon de Santa Elena and Maderas del Carmen. These protected areas along with Big Bend create a mountainous desert area that is sparsely populated.

The remoteness of the area and lack of major towns minimize the illegal drug and undocumented crossing activity. While it does occasionally happen, it is not a major concern in the park. Should you see something, please don’t stop or intervene and call 911 when possible.

Crime in the park, like most other national parks, is minimal and standard precautious apply: make sure your vehicle is locked, and keep our valuables out of sight.

When hiking along the Rio Grande, you might notice small displays of Mexican hand-crafts with prices. These items are contraband and illegal to purchase on the trails. Please don’t purchase these items, the Mexican artisans have illegally crossed the border to set-up their display and this illegal trade contributes to environmental damage such as erosion of river banks.

How to Go Stargazing in Big Bend National Park

Stargazing in Big Bend - Alison I. via Flickr

Photo credit: Alison I. via Flickr

Stargazing in Big Bend National Park is pretty easy. Most of the park’s main roads are treeless and minimal the landscape provides minimal obstructions to the skyline. The Chisos Mountains provide a backdrop for photographs without obstructing the sky.

There are several options to stay in Big Bend National Park. The park has one lodge and four campgrounds so visitors can stay overnight and not have to commute to the nearby towns when stargazing in the park.

When driving at night in Big Bend and surrounding areas, keep to the speed limit and keep a careful eye out for wildlife on the roads. The javelin are often seen near the roadways at night and hitting one isn’t good for the car or javelin.

In brief, here are some of the best places for stargazing in Big Bend National Park:

  • Santa Elana Overlook (Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive)
  • Tuff Canyon (Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive)
  • Mule Ears View Point (Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive)
  • Sotol Vista (Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive)
  • Maverick Junction (Panther Junction Road)
  • Grapevine Hills Road (Panther Junction Road)
  • Chisos Basin Overlook (Chisos Basin Drive)
  • Fossil Discovery Exhibit (Main Park Road)
  • Hot Springs (Park Route 12)
  • Rio Grande Overlook (Park Route 12)

Read on for more details about each of these stargazing spots near Big Bend.

Stargazing in Big Bend - Adam Baker via Flickr

Photo credit: Adam Baker via Flickr

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is the most scenic drive in the park. It is named after Ross Maxwell, the first Superintendent of Big Bend National Park. He designed this road to highlight his favorite geological features such as Tuff Canyon or Sotol Vista. The road ends at the start of the Santa Elana Canyon. There are numerous pullouts and scenic views that are perfect for stargazing. Spots such as Santa Elana Overlook or Mule Ears View Point provide nice foregrounds for star photos.

Pather Junction Road

Panther Junction Road runs from Panther Junction to the Terlingua entrance. This 21-mile stretch of road provides access to Terlingua, TX along with the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Chisos Basin, and the Grapevine Hills Road. Grapevine Hills Road leads to Big Bend’s Balanced Rock trail and is a great spot for night photography. Maverick Junction is a great spot for those staying to Terlingua to see the stars in the park.

Stargazing in Big Bend - Jesse Sewell via Unsplash

Photo credit: Jesse Sewell via Unsplash

Chisos Basin Drive

Chisos Basin Drive leads up into the Chisos Mountains. This curvy road leads to the higher elevations and several overlooks that look out into the desert and smaller mountain ranges. There are several overlooks that provide great sky views and some amazing rock formations to photograph in the foreground of star photos.

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Main Park Road

The Main Park Road runs from Panther Junction to the Persimmon Gap entrance. This 26-mile stretch of road provides access to Marathon, TX. The best spot on this road to stop and view the stars is the Fossil Discovery Exhibit.

Stargazing in Big Bend - Shann Yu via Flickr

Photo credit: Shann Yu via Flickr

Park Route 12

Park Route 12 runs from Panther Junction to the Rio Grande Village. This 21-mile stretch of road provides access to the Rio Grande and Boquillas Canyon. Overlooks such as Rio Grand Overlook provide clear sky views and a view all the way to Mexico.

Park Route 12 provides access to Big Bend’s Hot Spring. This hot water spring is located on the banks of the Rio Grande and is a great place to soak while enjoying the stars. The Hot Spring is reached by a 0.25-mile trail so bring a flashlight if planning to visit at night.

Big Bend Ranch State Park

Big Bend Ranch State Park is about 30 mins from Big Bend National Park – so it’s not technically in Big Bend National Park. This large state park is about half the size of Big Bend National Park. Big Bend Ranch is also an International Dark Sky Park. The state park offers similar outdoor recreation opportunities and is well known for its dark skies. There are numerous pull-offs and locations to view the stars in this state park.

Where to Stay Near Big Bend National Park

Stargazing in Big Bend - Kyle Glenn via Unsplash

Photo credit: Kyle Glenn via Unsplash

Hotels near Big Bend National Park

The Chisos Mountain Lodge is the only lodge in the park. This mountain lodge is located in the Chisos Mountains. The sky is partially obscured by the mountains but the mountains provide a great foreground for pictures.

About 30 mins north of the park is Marathon, TX. It several small B&B’s such as Eve’s Garden Bed & Breakfast.

To the east of the park is Terlingua and Lajitas. Both small towns offer a range of small hotels and unique accommodations such as Airstream or cute adobe cabins. Recommendations include Paisano Village Inn, Retro Rents or Lajitas Golf Resort.

Camping near Big Bend

There are four campgrounds in Big Bend National Park. One of the campgrounds is located near the Chisos Mountain Lodge. The other three are located along the Rio Grande. The river campgrounds offer clear sky views. The best campground for sky gazing is Cottonwood. The Rio Grande campground and RV park are located near the village of Boquillas del Carmen. This tiny village creates a small amount of light pollution.

Big Bend has a range of private backcountry campsite that can be reached via gravel and dirt roads. Some of these sites can only be reached by a high clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle.

What to See & Do During the Day in Big Bend

What to See in Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is a geologist dreamland. The park geologist position is one of the most coveted geologist positions in NPS. The area is at a crossroads of plate tectonics and has evidence of both the formation of the Appalachian Mountains and the Rocky Mountains. The park has a range of fossils from sea creators to land animals that haven’t been found elsewhere. The park has mountains, a desert, a river valley, and canyons. It is easy to spend a week or more exploring Big Bend National Park.

What to Do in Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is larger than it seems and it is a great park to do scenic drives combined with a few day hikes. There are day hikes for all skill levels and some are flat and easy while others are strenuous all-day hikes. Even in the mountains, Big Bend National Park is a desert and please be aware of the temperature and ensure you pack enough water.

Visitors can also arrange guided and unguided float trips down the Rio Grande.

Big Bend National Park - Jennifer Melroy via National Park Obsessed

Big Bend National Park - Jennifer Melroy via National Park Obsessed

Popular Big Bend hikes include:

  • Grapevine Hills Trail – A relatively flat 2.2 mile hike that leads to Big Bend’s Balanced Rock formation. This area is great for seeing the invasive Aoudad (Barbary sheep)
  • Chisos Basin Loop Trail – A 1.8-mile loop with a moderate elevation gain that provides outstanding vistas in the Chisos Mountains.
  • Lost Mine Trail – A 4.8-mile trail that provides views of Juniper Canyon and Casa Grande.
  • Window Trail – A 5.6-mile trail that descends into the Windows pour-off.
  • Boquillas Canyon Trail – A 1.4-mile trail into Boquillas Canyon. A great hike along the Rio Grande and great views in Boquillas Canyon.
  • Santa Elena Canyon Trail – A 1.7- mile trail into Santa Elena Canyon. This trail crosses the Terlingua creek and into this famed canyon. This is the classic Big Bend hike.

Other FAQ about Stargazing in Big Bend National Park

Stargazing in Big Bend - Adam Baker via Flickr

Photo credit: Adam Baker via Flickr

Is Big Bend National Park open at night?

Yes, Big Bend is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The main roads are usually open year-round. There may be weather closure during the winter and during flooding events.

The entrance stations are closed at night but you are still required to have a valid Big Bend entrance receipt or National Park pass when in the park.

Can you see the Milky Way while stargazing in Big Bend? When?

The Big Bend is a great place to see the Milky Way. Summer is the best time of year to see the Milky Way in the northern hemisphere.

Stargazing in Big Bend - David Solce via Unsplash

Photo credit: David Solce via Unsplash

When is the best time to go stargazing in Big Bend?

The best time of year to stargaze in Big Bend National Park is October to April. This is the dry season in the park and you are less likely to encounter rain storms. March is the most popular time to visit this park.

Is there a dark sky festival in Big Bend?

Big Bend National Park doesn’t currently have any formal night sky festivals. Nearby International Day Sky Park Big Bend Ranch State Park hosted a Dark Sky week in 2018 but there is no information on a 2022 Dark Sky week.

Are there guided night tours in Big Bend?

There are no formal stargazing tours in the Big Bend National Park, and professional guiding is regulated by the National Park Service. However, you are welcome to enjoy the stars from any of the Big Bend Overlooks.

Do you have other questions about stargazing in Big Bend? Let me know in the comments!




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