Big Bend & Carlsbad Caverns National Park Road Trip

Please remember to practice the 7 principles of Leave No Trace. Pack it in and pack it out! 

The “National Park” status for any designation of land or water, is a big deal! It takes action by Congress and the President of the United States to make a new National Park. And that is often after the hard work of private citizens, conservation groups, biology and geology groups, state leaders, and so many more have been advocating for the coveted National Park designation. We know National Park status is hard to achieve, that’s why we only have 63 within all of the United States and territories. So the first thing we do when researching a park is try to understand why it’s worthy of National Park status. Ultimately, we learned it’s often just easier to learn from experience, and that is what makes visiting National Parks so fun for us. Much to our surprise, Big Bend National Park is actually quite diverse, geographically and biologically!

Big Bend National Park’s remote location along the Rio Grande River in the desert of west Texas make it unique and more challenging to get to. The lowest elevation in the park is 1,200 feet above sea level along the Rio Grande in the Chihuahuan desert and the highest elevation is 7,832 feet above sea level on Emory Peak in the Chisos Mountains. There is desert hiking, mountain hiking, and river hiking. The park has it all! And if hiking isn’t your thing, there are also scenic drives and off-roading 4×4 trails to drive.

In this blog post we will go over the road trip we did to Big Bend National Park from Phoenix, Arizona in April 2022. We picked April for a number of reasons, but the top reasons are because it was after March, when the park is busiest with Spring Break visitors; the weather is still nice in April; and it worked with our schedules. We’ll also cover how we got to the park and where we stayed. Because there are no major cities within a reasonable distance, (meaning it’s worth all the time it takes to fly, rent a car, and drive) we decided to drive from Phoenix to Terlingua, TX is the closest town to the north west entrance of Big Bend National Park. It is about an 11 hour drive from Phoenix. We took two days of PTO for this trip and broke the drive up by leaving Wednesday after work and staying the night in Willcox, Arizona. From Willcox the drive to Big Bend National Park is about 8 hours. This helped a lot! To help keep things cheap we stayed in a motel in Willcox

Where we stayed

By the time we started to plan this trip, all of the camping in the park was already booked, so we started looking outside the park and found a private campsite on AirBnb in Terlingua. Since we weren’t familiar with the area it gave us a little peace of mind that our camping stuff would be okay when we left for the park. The campsite had a shelter that provided shade and wind protection. There are two full bathrooms with flush toilets and hot showers that are shared with the other campsites.

Terlingua is about 12 minutes from the entrance of the park, but to get to any of the main attractions in the park, more driving is definitely required. Overall, we really enjoyed our stay. We brought Mountain House meals because they are quick, easy, and taste good, but we also went into town for dinner and drinks one night. Be sure to eat at the Starlight Theatre!

Important Park information: 

  • No dogs allowed on any trails 
  • Entrance Fee $30 per vehicle for 7 days 
  • The summers are HOT. We would not recommend visiting in the summer
  • The mountains and desert can have drastic weather differences. Check the weather before heading to the park!
  • Drinking water is not readily available throughout the park. Bring enough water for everyone in your party

Day 1 (Thursday)

Santa Elena Canyon

We went directly to our campsite to set up our tent and then immediately headed to the park. By then, our remaining daylight was somewhat limited so we went straight to Santa Elena Canyon Trail. The trail only 1.6 miles out and back with 80 ft in elevation change. Depending on the time of year, the Rio Grande’s water levels will fluctuate here. Since we got there relatively late, there weren’t a ton of people which was nice. Usually, this is a very popular trail! 

On our way back from Santa Elena Canyon we drove down Old Maverick Road. This 4×4 dirt road runs between Maverick Junction and Santa Elena Canyon. It is a 14-mile dirt road on the west side of the park. This road tends to be rough and wash boarded. We drove it in our Jeep and it took about an hour to complete. Most of our drive was after the sun had set and we were staying vigilant for wildlife and changing road conditions in poor lighting.

Day 2 (Friday)

 Boquillas Canyon Trail 

On our second day we hiked Boquillas Canyon Trail after a brief stop at the Park Visitor Center at Panther Junction. This hike is 1.6 miles out and back with 150 ft in elevation change. This trail climbs before descending down to the Rio Grande where the trail becomes flat and sandy. The water is a stunning green and you start to see walls of the canyon. It is a short hike with beautiful results! Here you may see folks from Mexico trying to sell little nick nacks; we just said no thank you and kept walking. A popular activity to do a little further down the road is cross over into Mexico at the Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry. We had a long day ahead of us and unfortunately skipped this, but we’d definitely do it next time we visit. The crossing is usually done by a very small ferry boat (dingy) and is cheap. You must have proper documentation to come back into the US!

Ernst Tinaja

After our hike to Boquillas Canyon we traveled Old Ore Road to hike Ernest Tinaja. It’s about 5 miles from the pavement on a rough dirt road. High clearance is needed, and 4WD is highly recommended, especially if the conditions are anything but dry. The National Park states “Do NOT attempt to reach this trail without a rugged high-clearance vehicle with sturdy tires.” The road is very rocky and can easily damage ill prepared vehicles with minimal sidewall and standard road tires. The hike itself is mostly flat and is only 1 mile out and back. Depending on the time of the year, definitely be cautious of the wasps! There were a lot of wasps near the natural watering hole due to the sitting water. We did not get stung, but some hikers we saw told us they did get stung.

Hot Springs

Continuing our day in the southeast section of the park, we went to the Hot Springs next. This was a really cool section of the park with some interesting history. At one point the land was homesteaded, then turned into a lodge and naturopathic healing location with the water. We highly recommend a stop here, plus the drive in is a little fun and scenic! From the parking lot it’s a short walk to the springs. The brick foundation of old bath houses still exists and warm spring water continues to fill them and overflow into the Rio Grande River. We hung out for a bit and enjoyed the water before returning back to the car and heading back to Terlingua. That night we treated ourselves to a steak dinner in town.

Day 3 (Saturday)

Chisos Mountains 

Bear country! The Chisos Mountains almost don’t make sense. This tall, yet relatively small mountain range looks out of character in the middle of the desert, but this sky island is beautiful! The drive in is awesome, climbing from the desert basin to the pine trees at the top, where it’s much cooler. There are so many hikes to do here with a variety of lengths and difficulties. We did an out and back hike, but this is also a popular place to backpack camp! We started early in the morning from Terlingua because we knew the parking at the top of the mountain was relatively limited and the weather was coolest in the first half of the day. Fun fact, there is lodging at the top of the mountain, the only lodging in the park!

We hiked out to “The Window” which is about 5.5 miles out and back with reverse elevation gain, meaning it’s downhill on the way out and uphill on the way back. The worst of the uphill is at the end too, up a series of switchbacks. This was a fun hike that was very scenic! There is a lot of wildlife in the Chisos too. We could see black bear scatt, and know mountain lions live in the area along with snakes, and the stunning Mexican Blue Jay!

After a quick Mountain House lunch (freeze dried meal) at the picnic tables we went back down the mountain and took the Ross Maxwell Scenic towards Santa Elena Canyon. However, this time we made many stops along the way. We stopped at The Sam Nail Ranch, Blue Creek Ranch Overlook, Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff, Mule Ears Viewpoint, Tuff Canyon, and lastly stopped at Castolon Historic District and checked out the visitor center. After all these stops we made our way up the Old Maverick Road to the main road through the park (118). Once on pavement we went east to the Grapevine Hills. The Grapevine Hills Road is considered an improved dirt road and is more suitable for standard cars, although we recommend vehicles with some ground clearance for a couple rough spots. Once at the hills we hiked out to Balanced Rock, this massive boulder wedged between two rocks; it kind of looks like the boulder rolling towards you on the Indiana Jones Ride at Disneyland. That was the last stop on our Big Bend Trip. We had a big Sunday ahead full of 2 more national parks and a lot of driving!

Overall, there is so much more we could have done with more time and maybe even more advanced planning. Our Jeep Wrangler was less than a month old and we weren’t ready for all the 4×4 trails yet (there is a Jeep Badge of Honor Trail within the park). Additionally, we had to pick and choose certain hikes so we can fit in so many things to see and experience. Maybe next time we’d plan for more hikes to do. We highly encourage you to research and come up with a plan, as well as some back up plans in case things are closed or weather isn’t great! No matter what, if you take the time to see the park’s variety, you’ll understand why it deserves it’s National Park title.

Day 4 (Sunday)

We knew Sunday would be a long day with a lot ahead of us and the goal to be back in Phoenix by the end of the day. We were up early, well before the sun, so early we could see the Milky Way with our eyes! Our first hour or so were in the dark as we made our way towards New Mexico. We had reservations to tour Carlsbad Caverns National Park. However, we did make a quick stop at the Prada art display outside of Marfa*. After 4 hours of driving, we made it to the park in time for our tour. Carlsbad Caverns was so worth it! This absolutely massive cavern was spectacular. If we didn’t have 8 more hours of driving ahead, we could have stayed for so much longer. This is a National Park that we hope is on everyone’s list. The geology, biology, and history of the park is quite fascinating!

On our way to Carlsbad Caverns we passed by Guadalupe Mountains National Park and kind of looked at each other like, “umm how did we not see this in our planning”, so of course we stopped at the park on our way home from Carlsbad Cavern. And if you were wondering, what is this park, so were we at first. The Guadalupe Mountains are part of a mostly buried 400-mile-long U-shaped fossil reef complex, Capitan Reef, which extends through a large area of west Texas and southeastern New Mexico. –

There is an exposed 12 mile stretch of the fossil reef complex that stretches from the park to the Carlsbad,NM. And yes, the caverns sit under and within this reef. It’s all connected! We didn’t have a lot of time, but we talked to the ranger at the visitor center and then walked out to some of the viewpoints. Unfortunately, that day was extremely windy, so much so that the National Weather Service was issuing warnings. We even saw a camper’s tent fly across the parking lot! After our brief stop we continued back to Arizona, with another park in mind that we have goals of getting back to!

Things To Consider:

Add White Sands National Park to your trip if you have the time! We visited White Sands before so we didn’t go there on this trip. Check out our blog post on White Sands to learn more!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: