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The Ultimate Itinerary for 3 Days in Big Bend National Park

The Ultimate Itinerary for 3 Days in Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is one of the most beautiful and underrated parks in the United States. After spending 3 days in Big Bend National Park, it quickly became one of our favorite National Parks.

From the fun hikes to soaking in hot springs, crossing the border into Mexico, and more – there are so many fun things to do in 3 days at Big Bend National Park.

My ultimate itinerary for 3 days in Big Bend National Park has all the information you need to plan the perfect trip. My guide includes the best time to visit, where to stay, best hikes, and a detailed 3-day itinerary.

Best Time to Visit Big Bend National Park

The best time to visit Big Bend National Park is in the fall and spring. More specifically, March – May, and September – October. The temperatures are perfect during these months, with warm days and cool nights.

With that said, these are the busiest months of the year, especially in the spring. Big Bend National Park is a great spring break destination for families with great weather and the beautiful bluebonnet and wildflower season.

If you plan to visit during the peak months, you should begin planning your trip and booking accommodation several months in advance. Ideally, you should book at least six months in advance.

We visited Big Bend National Park with our son (11-months old at the time) in early June. It was hot but still enjoyable. There are heat warnings if you visit in June, but you can still enjoy up to three hikes a day if you start hiking early.

Where to Stay in Big Bend National Park

The best way to spend 3 days in Big Bend National Park is by staying inside the park. Whether you go camping, stay in an RV, or the comfort of a lodge, there is no better way to maximize your time than waking up inside the park.

The Chisos Mountains Lodge with the Chisos Mountains in the background. This is the best place to stay in Big Bend National Park.

Chisos Mountains Lodge

Chisos Mountains Lodge is the perfect choice if you love the outdoors and enjoy sleeping with a roof over your head. The Chisos Mountains Lodge is the ideal location to stay with five different accommodations – Casa Grande Rooms, Rio Grande Motel Rooms, Emory Peak Lodge Rooms, Roosevelt Stone Cottages, and VIP Roosevelt Stone Cottages.

I cannot speak for all of the accommodations, but the booking website and the rooms (from what I can tell) are outdated. However, we found our stay at Casa Grande Rooms pleasant with excellent service. In fact, after our experience at Casa Grande Rooms, we will always stay at a lodge inside a National Park.

Camping in Big Bend National Park

There are three campgrounds within Big Bend National Park. One at each region – Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, and Cottonwood (near Santa Elena Canyon).

If you plan to go camping at Big Bend National Park, I recommend staying at the Chisos Basin campground. The Chisos Basin is in the heart of Big Bend. Therefore, it is the most centrally located region, making it easier to navigate the different areas of the park.

Each campground has drinking water and restroom facilities. Reservations are required to secure your campsite. Please check the NPS site here to book your campsite and for further information (including backcountry camping).

Full RV Hook-up in Big National Park

There is only one full RV hook-up inside the park, located at Rio Grande Village RV Park. All sites are back-in only and have full hook-ups with water, electrical, and 3-inch sewer connection.

Yes, this is the only place to stay with an RV in the park, but it is also a great option. The park is adjacent to the camp store, there are nearby hiking trails, views of Boquillas Canyon, and you are just feet away from the flowing Rio Grande River.

3 Days in Big Bend National Park Itinerary

Big Bend National Park is a vast and diverse park with three different regions. The Chisos Basin (mountains), the Rio Grande Village (river), and the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive region (desert). Each region has such a different terrain, so it is like visiting three beautiful parks within one large park.

It can take at least an hour to get from one region to another. Therefore, the best way to spend 3 days in Big Bend National Park, is to spend a day in each region.

Ideally, you want 3 FULL days in Big Bend National Park – 4 nights and 3 days. I recommend spending a day in Terlingua or hiking at Big Bend Ranch State Park before checking into your accommodations inside the park.

On the following day, bright and early, is when your 3 days in Big Bend National Park really begin. Moreover, that is how I have created this itinerary – by waking up inside the park and beginning your first day.

The view from Lost Mine Trail - a hike you cannot miss during your 3 days in Big Bend National Park.

Itinerary Overview

So without further ado, here is a quick overview of the perfect itinerary for 3 days in Big Bend National Park. Feel free to enjoy these days in any order that works best for your trip.

Day 1: Chisos Basin region – Lost Mine Trail, Window Trail, Fossil Discovery Exhibit, sunrise at Window View Trail

Day 2: Rio Grande Village region – Hot Springs Historic Trail, visit Boquillas Del Carmen, Boquillas Canyon Trail, Ernst Tinaja Trail, or Rio Grande Village Trail.

Day 3: Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive region – drive the Ross Maxwell Scenic Road, Santa Elena Canyon Trail, Balanced Rock Trail, and scenic overlooks.

Big Bend National Park Itinerary Day 1: Chisos Basin

The Chisos Basin Mountains are my favorite region of the park. The landscape is absolutely breathtaking and this region has some of the best hikes in Big Bend National Park.

Therefore, the first day in Big Bend National Park is all about hiking! Enjoy hiking three of the best trails in the park, learn when dinosaurs roamed the area, and finish with a stunning sunset.

Morning Hike on the Lost Mine Trail

Stunning view from the peak of the Lost Mine Trail at Big Bend National Park.

I highly recommend you begin your 3 days in Big Bend National Park with an early morning hike on the Lost Mine Trail. The Lost Mine Trail is considered the jewel of Big Bend. Whether you are an avid or beginner hiker, you should not miss this hike. It is one of the most popular hikes and things to do in Big Bend National Park.

Therefore, you should arrive at the parking lot before sunrise. This trail is not only popular, but the parking lot is also very small. Additionally, when you start the trail early in the morning you will beat the heat and crowd.

As I said, the Lost Mine Trail is for all levels of hikers. Yes, the trail is 4.8-miles long (a 3-hour hike). However, there is also a hike to marker 10 (about 1 mile up) where you can still enjoy stunning views of Juniper Canyon and Casa Grande.

If you continue the trail, it does become more challenging, but it is also fun with some rock scrambling. Once you reach the peak, you are rewarded with breathtaking 360-degree views of the Casa Grande, Juniper Canyon, Pine Canyon, and the greater Chisos Basin Mountains.

Afternoon Hike on the Window Trail

A view of the famous "window" in Big Bend National Park.

If you are ready to hit the trails again, the Window Trail is another great hike you cannot miss in the Chisos Basin region. This 4.8-mile trail has several different terrains and ends in a slot canyon with a beautiful view through a “window”.

There are two different starting points for the Window Trail. You can start at the Chisos Basin Trailhead by the visitor center, which makes the trail 5.6 miles long and 4 hours to complete. Or you can drive to the Basin Campground and begin the trail near campsite 51. This makes the trail 4.8 miles long and 3 hours to complete. I prefer the latter.

The way to the “window” is not too difficult because the trail is mostly downhill. However, the end of the trail has some rock scrambling and a more vigorous upwards hike return to the trailhead.

Check Out the Dinosaurs at Fossil Discovery Exhibit  

I like to describe the Chisos Basin as the Jurassic Park of Texas. As you drive into this region, it looks like the lush mountainous terrain where dinosaurs roamed in the movie franchise.

Ironically, over 90 dinosaur species have been discovered in Big Bend National Park – including the world’s largest flying creature, the pterosaur. Therefore, you should definitely visit the fascinating Fossil Discover Exhibit during your 3 days in Big Bend National Park.

The exhibit is very informative with geological history and a beautiful gallery of skeletal replicas. From ancient sea life dinosaurs to the largest flying creature and the famous Tyrannosaurus rex – the exhibit does an excellent job of educating and showcasing the residents of Big Bend over 130 million years ago.

Catch the Sunrise on the Window View Trail

The sun setting behind mountains within the "window view" at Big Bend National Park. You cannot miss this view during your 3 days in Big Bend National Park.

I cannot think of a better way to finish your first day in Big Bend National Park than with a stunning sunset at the Window View Trail. There is not an ugly sunset in the park, but this is definitely one of the best places to watch one.

The Window View Trail is a short 15-minute walk on a paved pathway that leads to a beautiful view of the Chisos mountains “window”. This “window” is where the sunsets and lights up at golden hour.

I recommend starting the trail early to secure a scenic spot. The pathway is edged by a stone wall and has several benches in place to watch the sunset. You can either sit on the stone wall, the benches or bring your own chair.

Big Bend National Park Itinerary Day 2: Rio Grande Village

On day 2, venture out to the Rio Grande Village region and experience a completely different terrain. This region features the vast desert, a magnificent slot canyon, and scenic views of the Rio Grande River.

Moreover, don’t forget your swimsuit and passport. You can take a dip in natural hot springs and visit a quaint town in Mexico.

Take a Dip in the Historic Hot Springs

The Historic Hot Springs after sunrise. A must visit during your 3 days in Big Bend National Park.

After a full day of hiking, you deserve to rejuvenate in the healing waters of a historic hot spring.

The trail to historic hot springs is an easy 30-minute round trip walk on a sandy trail. Along the way are historic buildings and Native American pictographs, and petroglyphs. Once you arrive at the hot springs, enjoy the natural healing waters at 105 degrees Fahrenheit, and the stunning views along the Rio Grande River.

The hot springs are a popular place and can get crowded very quickly. It can also get very hot at Big Bend. This is why I recommend arriving at sunrise. The weather is perfect, you can get the hot springs almost entirely to yourself (if you are lucky), and the golden hour views are spectacular.

Hike a Slot Canyon at the Boquillas Canyon Trail

The Rio Grande River along a towering canyon - this is the Boquillas Canyon trail, one of the best hikes in Big Bend National Park.

There are three significant slot canyons in Big Bend National Park and the Boquillas Canyons are one of them. Although it is not as popular as Santa Elena Canyon, it is just as magnificent and you should not miss it during your 3 days in Big Bend National Park.

The Boquillas Canyon Trail is an easy 1.4-mile (1 hour) round trip hike. The only difficult part of the trail is the ascend over a towering cliff. Once you arrive at the top, you can enjoy scenic views of the Rio Grande River before descending to a soft and sandy trail.

Eventually, the trail leads you to another beautiful sight where the river flows between the impressive Boquillas Canyon walls. The trail continues into the slot canyon and along the river until the path comes to an end. At that point, you will turn around and enjoy the serene landscape once more.

Cross the Border to Boquillas Del Carmen

A trip to Mexico from Big Bend National Park is just a short rowboat ride away. It is a great opportunity to visit a small town, enjoy authentic Mexican food, and shop at small souvenir shops.

To cross the border, you must have your valid passport to go through U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the Boquillas Port of Entry. You will cross the river by a rowboat which costs $5 roundtrip. Then all visitors are required to check in with Mexican immigration officials and pay a $3 entrance fee upon arrival. Furthermore, the transfer, entrance fee, restaurants, souvenir shops, etc. are cash only (US dollars are accepted).

Ideally, a trip to Boquillas Del Carmen takes about 3-4 hours, so plan accordingly. Once you cross the border, the town is half a mile away. You can walk, or pay an additional fee to ride on a donkey, horse, or in a vehicle.

A great time to visit Boquillas Del Carmen is during lunch. So you can dine at one of the local restaurants with a view of the Rio Grande River.

For more important information about visiting Boquillas Del Carmen (including the Boquillas Port of Entry operating hours), visit Big Bend National Park Service website.

Go on a Backroad Adventure on the Ernst Tinaja Trail

If you have a truck or 4WD vehicle and looking for a fun backroad adventure, then you cannot miss this hike! The Ernst Tinaja Trail is one of the best hikes in Big Bend National Park but it gets easily missed due to the unpaved road.

The hardest part of Ernst Tinaja Trail is getting there. Some may actually find driving on the rough terrain not hard, but fun. And if so, once you make it to the trailhead, the fun continues along this easy 1.6-mile (1 hour) round-trip hike.

The Ernst Tinaja Trail has one of the most picturesque landscapes in Big Bend National Park. It features a beautiful slot canyon with a series of deep pools known as “tinajas.” These pools are between vibrant colored limestone beds creating a unique landscape that looks out of this world.

Or Take a Leisurely Hike on the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail

The Rio Grande River at golden hour.

If you are looking to enjoy one more easy hike, whether you hike the Ernst Tinaja Trail or not, then I recommend the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail.

As the name states, the .75-mile (1 hour) round trip hike is a peaceful nature trail. It has boardwalks going over ponds through the wetlands, wildlife sightings, and great bird watching. Moreover, along the trail are some of the most amazing panoramic views of the Rio Grande River and Sierra del Carmens in Mexico.

The Rio Grande Village Nature Trail is also the perfect hike to end another fantastic day in Big Bend. You can watch a stunning sunset at one of the many overlooks on the nature trail.

Big Bend National Park Itinerary Day 3: Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

The last day in Big Bend National Park will be spent exploring the grand Santa Elena Canyon, rock scrambling to Balanced Rock, driving the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, and soaking in beautiful views. I would also take this day to enjoy anything you might have missed on the previous days.

Enjoy the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive road leading towards the mountains at Big Bend National Park.

You cannot spend 3 days in Big Bend National Park without driving the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. This 30-mile road is one of the most beautiful drives in Texas and leads to the magnificent Santa Elena Canyon.

Along the scenic drive to Santa Elena Canyon are several stunning viewpoints and more great hiking trails to explore. So make sure you take the time to stop and enjoy the overlooks and other trails if you have the time. However, if you have a motorcycle or convertible, I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to just take a leisurely ride.

If you are starting the scenic drive from the Chisos Basin Visitor Center, it can take an hour and a half (one-way without stops) to arrive at Santa Elena Canyon. Therefore, I would plan your day accordingly if you want to hike the Santa Elena Canyon trail early.

Hike the Magnificent Santa Elena Canyon Trail

Santa Elena Canyon

One of the best things to do in West Texas is to hike the 1.6-mile (1 hour) Santa Elena Canyon Trail. It is easily one of the best and most popular hikes in Big Bend National Park.

Depending on the time of year, you might have to tread through the water to begin the hike. I recommend asking the park rangers for the most up-to-date water level conditions so you can be prepared with proper gear.

Once you cross the river, the trail ascends into the vast canyon. Then the trail descends and it is a flat and easy hike along the river bank. You continue hiking deeper through the slot canyon until it eventually ends, leaving you with a beautiful view before you need to turn around and head back.

Check Out the Beautiful Scenic Overlooks

One of my favorite things about road trips are the scenic overlooks. Of course, with a name like Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, there are several beautiful overlooks along the road. Here are a few of our favorites that I recommend stopping at.

Panoramic views from Sotol Vista Overlook along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.

Sotol Vista Overlook

The Sotol Vista Overlook has one of the best panoramic views of the park. It sits high above the desert floor. So you can easily see the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive winding through the desert mountain ranges.

Moreover, the Sotol Vista Overlook is also a great place to go stargazing and to watch the sunrise and sunset.

Mule Ears View Point

If you do not have time or interest in hiking the Mule Ears Trail, then a great alternative is to enjoy the unique rock formations and view from this overlook.

Tuff Canyon

This is an easy 30-minute trail if you have time and are looking for more things to do in the area. Or you can walk to the two overlooks that look down into the small slot canyon.

Santa Elena Canyon Overlook

I enjoy this overlook because you can see the beauty and grandeur landscape of this significant slot canyon from afar. Then when you hike the trail you will truly feel its magnitude as you go deeper into the canyon.

Have Fun Rock Scrambling to Balanced Rock

The iconic Balanced Rock at Big Bend National Park.

I love a little rock scrambling on a hike, so if you feel the same, I would make sure you hike this trail.

I like combining Balanced Rock with a day on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive because if you are staying in the Chisos Mountains, you can easily enjoy the hike on your way in or out to Santa Elena Canyon.

Perhaps the hardest part of this trail is getting to the trailhead. You have to drive on a tricky unpaved road. A standard compact car or SUV can get through the rough terrain, but a 4WD vehicle would be the best. Just take your time – it took us about 40 minutes in an SUV.

The 2.2-mile (1 hour) trail starts on a flat, sandy pathway in a valley of a boulder field. As you hike through this landscape, you feel like you are on another planet.

Once you reach the mountain of boulders, the real fun begins. A little rock scrambling is required to follow the trail to the famous Balanced Rock. When you arrive at the unique rock formation, you are rewarded with sweeping views of the boulder field and the desert beyond.

Extra Days in Big Bend National Park

If you have more than 3 days in Big Bend National Park, here are a few more things to add to your itinerary. You can also use the extra days to enjoy any activities you did not have time for on the previous days.

A view of the Chisos Basin Mountains from the top of the Lost Mine Trail.

Hike South Rim Trail or Emory Peak Trail

Although the itinerary is full of amazing hikes in Big Bend National Park, if you are looking for a more challenging hike, I recommend the South Rim Trail or Emory Peak Trail.

South Rim Trail is an invigorating 12-mile round trip hike that can take around 8 hours to complete. It is also the longest and most strenuous hike in Big Bend National Park.

The trail ascends towards a strenuous climb to the top of a cliff standing at 2,000 feet. At the top are incredible views of the park’s mountainous desert all the way to Mexico.

Emory Peak Trail has the highest peak in the park. It is an 11-mile round trip hike that can take 7 hours to complete.

The most difficult part of the trail comes at the last 50 feet of the hike. It is immensely challenging, with strenuous rock scrambling over boulders to reach the peak. It is all worth it though when you reach the top because you are rewarded with unbelievable panoramic views.

Explore Santa Elena Canyon on Water

Another great way to explore Santa Elena Canyon is by water. Spend a full day paddling downstream on the Rio Grande River between the towering 1500 ft. canyon walls. You can book your canoe/kayak full-day tour here.

I hope you have found my 3 days in Big Bend National Park itinerary helpful and inspiring to plan your trip. Big Bend National Park surprised us with its natural beauty and hiking trails – I hope you will feel and experience the same.