Discovering Big Bend is the opportunity of a lifetime. If you aren’t familiar with Big Bend, then you are in for a big surprise. Not only is this one of the most remote National Parks in the country, which means you have to drive quite a way since there are no international airports there, but also a kick-ass road trip destination that is one for the books. Big Bend has an equally impressive state park, as well. Here is how to spend four days in Big Bend exploring Southwest Texas.
Day 1: Arrival
Plan your flight into Midland, a town of 450 people, or start your drive from this location. If you need transportation, Midland Shuttle Services can manage the details. Marathon is the gateway to the Big Bend region. At 4,100-feet elevation, Marathon’s wildlife scene consists of elk, pronghorn, roadrunners, and javelinas. You will reach Marathon after driving 2 1/2 hours from the Midland airport.
Stay the night at Eve’s Garden Bed & Breakfast, a colorful, artsy type bed and breakfast with a great vibe. Eve’s is truly a gem, surrounded by blooming plants and flowers and decked out with impressive artwork. Whether you wish to enjoy a glass of wine by the courtyard fire pit, swim in the lap pool, or admire the bountiful gardens, they are all included in your stay at one of Eve’s seven unique rooms.
Dinner is excellent at 12 Gage Restaurant on the Gage Hotel property. On the menu are honkin’ big and flavorful steaks and yummy appetizers. The chic animal decor, leather chairs, and cozy fireplaces have a fabulous ambiance in the attached White Buffalo Bar. A huge white buffalo head is mounted on the wall as the focal centerpiece. Consider a nightcap and get a good night’s sleep.
Eve’s Garden B&B serves a feast for breakfast in a gorgeous setting. The food quality and taste are equally as terrific. A few of my favorite things were the homemade quiche, sweet poached pears, and the vegetable-packed frittata. Check out of bed and breakfast and head downtown.
There are two must-see things to see in Marathon before heading out. First, the 1920 Gage Hotel is luxury at its finest. Built in a stately mission-style fashion, this 45-room hotel exudes class and elegance. I adored the Western-themed decor, complete with animal skins, mounted heads, and cool fabrics. However, the star of the Gage Hotel is the enormous heated swimming pool that looks more like Beverly Hills than West Texas.
Marathon’s darling downtown is another thing that should not be missed. The local shops are impressive, with beautiful home decors, accessories, and books, while the V6 Coffee bar is an excellent coffee break.
Marathon is a proud community of fewer than 500 friendly people located 45 minutes from Big Bend’s park border. After a bit of shopping, the friends I was traveling with and I piled back in the shuttle van and set out Big Bend National Park.
Day 2: Big Bend National Park
We eased into our Big Bend National Park experience by first stopping at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit. This wondrous 801,000-acre park opened in 1944 and is part of the Chihuahuan Desert, reaching northern Mexico. Big Bend is named for the broad curve of the Rio Grande River in this part of Texas.
Next came an easy hike at Lost Mine Trail. As we drove further into the vast National Park, the rugged terrain, barren landscape, and deep-set mountains were mesmerized. Many roads are unpaved, so keep in mind that you may run into primitive dirt roads or “improved” dirt roads. May is the perfect time for visiting this part of the state as the temperatures are not yet too extreme.
Santa Elena Canyon is a spectacular spot for exploring. If you would like to swim in the Rio Grande, this is your chance. With the Sierra de Ponce Mountains on the Mexican side and Mesa de Anguilla on the left, it is a perfect backdrop for stunning Big Bend photo-ops.
Big Bend’s landscape is one that few people see. While being in a remote part of the country and one of the least visited national parks, I found it superb, and it quickly became one of my favorites. The rolling hills and rough terrain added to Big Bend’s allure. Throw in the local plants, animals, and dry heat, and it was like being on a different planet. This is definitely a place for high adventurers to check out for the adrenaline rush alone.
You’ll find lunch options at the Chisos Mountains Lodge, with stunning vistas and incredible scenery to admire during your meal. Here you will find basic meals—salads, sandwiches, and such—that are convenient and reasonably priced. Be sure to wander around the basin area for pictures.
After a long day exploring the park and taking some hikes, my travel girls and I checked into our digs for the night at Big Bend Casitas. Adorable little houses with spacious accommodations waited for us with powerful air conditioning and cute porches with rocking chairs for watching the sunset. The fully-furnished casitas had kitchenettes, great for staying over an extended amount of time.
That evening, we drove to La Kiva Restaurant and Bar, a cave-like setting for cocktails, then to High Sierra Bar and Grill in Terlingua for dinner.
At High Sierra, we climbed up to the rooftop patio to capture the fantastic West Texas sunset. Then, we enjoyed a tasty meal of Tex-Mex favorites, including Chips and Queso Blanco, Chiles Rellenos, and Beef Tip Tacos.
Day Three: Big Bend Ranch State Park
On day three of our Big Bend itinerary, we were up and at ‘em again, stopping by Expresso y Poco Mas for coffee and breakfast burritos. On this day, we joined Big Bend River Tours to explore Big Bend Ranch State Park, a much different landscape than the National Park.
Our guide shuttled us in a company van through the steep hills and curvy roads of Big Bend Ranch State Park for what seemed like hours. The landscape starts the same as other Big Bend areas, then drastically changes with the higher elevation (4100 ft) and steep canyons— and I mean very steep roads.
Big Bend Ranch State Park is a remote park and also Texas’ biggest state park. It is an International Dark Sky Park, perfect for the wonderful stargazing opportunities in this part of the country. The park is also known for its mountain biking, horseback riding, paddling, and backpacking. Some roads require a four-wheel drive as the inclines are incredibly steep.
My favorite part of the entire trip was hiking to Closed Canyon for the extraordinary views and photographs. It is magical!
We had a roadside picnic at The HooDoos, with cheese, crackers, wine, and fruit. It overlooked the Closed Canyon Trailhead and spotted creosote (the oldest plant on the planet), cacti, and ocotillo (a spiky plant that blooms orange), all native plants.
Fun Fact: You may recognize the scenery from Kevin Costner’s Presidio, Spy Kids 2, Lonesome Dove, and Streets of Laredo.
A Fun Night in Terlingua: A Ghost Town
After hours of hiking and exploring the terrain, we departed for our hotel to freshen up. The Big Bend Holiday Hotel is in Terlingua, a town of 150 people and a ghost town. Its’ property is a host of different styles and types of rooms, in which my friend, Vanessa, and I shared a whole house to ourselves.
While the rest of the gals went on a sunset horseback ride, I passed and watched the sun go down from the comfort of my daybed on my screened patio. To say that I was a bit uneasy, staying alone amid this strange setting would be an understatement. I did and survived.
For dinner, we went down the street to the famous Starlight Theatre Restaurant & Saloon. Known as a hotspot for live entertainment and outstanding food, this restaurant is a lively place to have drinks, dinner, or all of the above. The food was exceptional.
Don’t miss the previous mayor of Lajitas “stuffed” in the corner—he was the first goat mayor of the town. Yes, you read that right. His son, Clay Henry III, is now the current mayor of Lajitas, but more on that to come.
One thing to keep in mind is that West Texas is an unforgiving desert. Be on the lookout for tarantulas, snakes, scorpions, and javelinas.
Day Four: Adios Terlingua, Hello Lajitas
Breakfast was spectacular at Chili Pepper Cafe, where we feasted on burritos, biscuits and gravy, and egg dishes. The girls and I explored Terlingua for a few hours.
The serene and beautiful Terlingua Cemetery is a place to see for heartfelt tombstone verbiage and gorgeous photo-ops. Many of the graves had mementos from loved ones placed on and around the graves. It didn’t take long to figure out that the 200 folks buried here were very loved.
I liked visiting Terlingua’s general store, the Terlingua Trading Company. Not only do they sell great snacks, souvenirs, local beer, and postcards, but I found cute handmade earrings and local handicrafts that I had to bring home with me.
We said our goodbyes to Terlingua and made way for Lajitas, the last stop of our trip and a must on any itinerary for Big Bend.
The Lajitas Golf Resort
The Lajitas Golf Resort is like a drink of cold water in a hot, steamy desert. This stunning 101-room property, known for its 18-hole golf course, excellent food, and many amenities, is authentic luxury accommodation. It is also minutes from the Rio Grande River, making it the perfect location for enjoying water sports. An outfitter is on the property, as well as an art gallery and several local boutique shops.
We gathered at Candelilla Cafe for Fried Green Tomatoes, Street Tacos, Queso Dip, and Caesar salads while overlooking the beautiful property for lunch. Huge glass windows, a lovely waterfall, and the Old-West facade of boardwalk buildings were some of the attractive man-made structures to admire, while the mountains were the natural counterpart.
We had a lengthy tour of the hotel property, and afterward, we had some free time to explore our town. I chose to visit the pool.
A large inviting swimming pool lies adjacent to the Lajitas Golf Resort. One of the hotel vans and drivers will take you there. Both the hotel and its neighboring RV park share the pool, which is fed by a local hot spring, so the water is warm and enjoyable all year.
After a long hot day, cocktails before dinner is a great idea, so don’t be a stranger to Thirsty Goat, a classy establishment on the grounds known for killer margaritas.
A Memorable Special Experience
A must-do in Lajitas is Dinner Under the Stars: Stargazer’s Mesa, which is a night of fun offered by the hotel. There is a ten-person minimum required for dinner to happen, so be sure to book your reservation as soon as possible.
A mini-van took the group of us girls, plus several other hotel guests, to a remote hill in town. The drive was maybe ten minutes away. We were treated to tamales and fried green tomato appetizers while we sipped on an unlimited cold beer, sodas, and wine. Alcoholic beverages were available for an additional charge.
A talented young musician played her guitar and sang to us as we bathed in the fading sunset and incredible views.
Terlingua is a designated international dark sky area, quite a task to get certified, and an honor to be a part of. You can learn more about this program here, but know that there is no light pollution in these areas. The stars are as bright as diamonds! There are only ten dark sky parks globally, and you can see 2,000 stars on average per night. Between the stars and the sunset, I was drunk from the beauty of it all.
We then enjoyed Dutch oven camp cooking with a buffet of Prime Rib, Ranch roasted potatoes, corn-on-the-cob, green beans, and jalapeño cornbread. For dessert, we had fireside s’mores and bread pudding. The food was tasty.
I felt the value of the night was worth the $150 per person splurge. A discounted price is available for children. It was undoubtedly a fantastic night in the Big Bend area, romantic and memorable.
Back in my hotel room, I crawled into the amazingly comfortable bed and had a great night’s sleep.
Big Bend: Leaving a Lasting Impression
The following day, we regrouped for the four-hour ride back to the Midland airport. Lajitas Mercado, another restaurant at the Lajitas Golf Resort, prepared breakfast and coffee to take on the road.
The route back to the airport was a different one than we took on the way to Big Bend. This one was full of oil fields and rigging drills set up all over. I was shocked at how much oil was being pumped from the grounds along the way. We were literally driving on millions and millions of dollars of petroleum.
My trip to Big Bend has left a distinctive mark on my heart. Not only for the beauty of the region but for the unique experiences along the way. From remote towns to stellar food, stories from locals to exotic flora and fauna all new to me, I highly recommend you add this little slice of heaven, right here in the United States, to your travel itinerary. Thanks for the memories, Big Bend.
Big Bend Parks “Extras”
- No pets are allowed. Don’t even try it.
- Cell service is non-existent or spotty throughout the entire park.
- Bring your driver’s license and passport with you. There are border checkpoints along the way and you will need to show them.
- Stay hydrated. Do not enter the parks without a full tank of gas and plenty of fluids to keep yourself safe from the heat and humidity.
- Don’t pet the wild animals. Photographs are okay but don’t jeopardize your safety to get close to them.
- Wear plenty of sunscreen and reapply often. Bug spray is a necessity, too.
- Fees to enter the park are $30 per vehicle/$25 motorcycle. You may also purchase an annual pass.
Thanks to Robert and Kara at Visit Big Bend for hosting my travel and accommodations. As always, opinions and reviews are 100% mine and unbiased.
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